Actively Learning to Teach

Today I had an interesting experience while teaching my biochemistry class. I had students write the Krebs cycle on their digital whiteboards while keeping track of the specific carbons in the cycle intermediates. The point of this exercise was to have students understand how biochemists study metabolic pathways and to practice writing the chemistry of the cycle. To initiate the exercise, I explained the biochemical logic of the first reaction. After that, I let them go because we had already spent a lecture discussing the reactions. This produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn't feel like I was teaching.

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Today I had an interesting experience while teaching my biochemistry class. I had students write the Krebs cycle on their digital whiteboards while keeping track of the specific carbons in the cycle intermediates. The point of this exercise was to have students understand how biochemists study metabolic pathways and to practice writing the chemistry of the cycle. To initiate the exercise, I explained the biochemical logic of the first reaction. After that, I let them go because we had already spent a lecture discussing the reactions. This produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn't feel like I was teaching. With active learning, we often discuss the culture shock that students feel. No longer is it sufficient for students to sit listening as passive consumers of information doled out by their instructor. An active learning class compels students to become actively engaged in applying the material and uncovering the consequences of their newly learned knowledge. But for those of us instructors who never had active learning modeled for us as students, the experience can be just as alien. It can be invigorating, as it was today when my students were working hard to understand the biochemical logic of the reactions. But for me, it also felt like was I wasn't doing my job. I was reminded of those comments on my end-of-term course evaluations: “Haave didn't teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!” Most of us have heard it said that the one doing all of the talking in the classroom is the one doing all of the learning. I've also heard it said that we never truly learn a subject until we have to teach it. I wonder if this was what energized me when I first started teaching a couple of decades ago. I was learning the material I was teaching to a depth greater than I had ever achieved as a student, and that was invigorating. It was incredibly stressful to be constantly just ahead of the students, but so much fun to delve into my discipline and really grasp the details that I had just barely understood as an undergraduate. Now, with active learning, I am no longer doing much of the talking—my students are doing most of that. That's as it should be. They're the ones who need to be doing the learning. But I'm still experiencing a sense of loss. I'm no longer learning the same way I did when I lectured. But what is happening for me as an active learning instructor is that I am now learning which concepts trip up my students and how I can guide them through those bottlenecks. I'm also learning how to help them reflect on the misconceptions that prevent them from grasping the material at a deep level. I see how good this is for my teaching and students' learning. But I became a biochemist because I fell in love with the biochemical logic of the reactions that sustain our lives. I did not enter biochemistry to guide someone else's learning, but rather to guide my own learning. This is why graduate school was so incredibly fun for me. I was becoming the ultimate independent learner: a researcher. To some extent, I wonder if the disorientation and disappointment I sometimes feel results from a sense of loss that I am no longer the center of my learning world. Now I have to make students the center of my learning world. I think this is similar to the transition from childhood to adulthood. With maturity comes the understanding that the universe does not revolve around us. For those of us who have children, our world includes them, and they have become the center of our universe. With active learning, we need to include our students in our learning center. This means stepping aside and letting students do the talking, thinking, doing, and learning—and then joining them in celebration of what they're accomplishing.