Audre Lourde - Terry McGlynn

What is "Excellent" College Science Teaching

Ivory Zhu '21

Science teaching is undoubtedly an important component for college experience. Yet, the goals, approaches, and efficiency of college science teaching are all extremely complicated topics that inspire ongoing discussion among faculty and students. In the xTalk on March 25th, Professor Terry McGlynn, Director of Undergraduate Research and Professor of Biology at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and the author of the book The Chicago Guide to Science Teaching, offered his insights on excellence and fairness in college science teaching. Here is a summary of the talk.

1. What is “excellence” in college science teaching? Nowadays, excellence in college education is usually thought of as in preparing students to become “succesful” as defined by conventional templates. Therefore, when the goal of teaching is narrowed down to achieving such “excellence”, the teaching approaches also become limited, oftentimes emphasizing good grades as the evaluation criterion. However, a grade is not always an objective reflection of student knowledge. Sometimes, the assignments are not the best way to help students learn the material, and exams or quizzes are not the fairest way to evaluate student understanding.

Professor McGlynn proposes a framework not based on excellence, but based on “soundness” and “capacity building”. Soundness refers to a solid and substantial grasp of subject knowledge not just limited to textbook content. Capacity building means that college science teaching should empower students with the ability for further research and academic development. Our education should pay more attention to preparing students to become future scholars, instead of just straight-A college students.

2. What is the philosophy and guiding concepts for college science teaching? Teaching philosophy may not be so frequently mentioned and discussed, but is in fact an incredibly important foundation. Professor McGlynn emphasizes two keystone concepts:

  • Teaching efficiency: The student learning outcome is positively related to instructor effort, but with diminishing returns. Therefore, it is important to find a good balance between them. Some effort could significantly improve student experience and learning outcome, but some others may not. With so many possible teaching approaches including problem sets, flipped classrom, small group activity, etc, the task for the instructor is to identify the best on based on the teaching material, and nicely choreograph them into an efficient class.
  • The Respect Principle: Instructors should think of students as fellow learners, and treat them with “dignity”. Some specific applications of this principle includes being respectful of student in-class and homework time, recognizing the individual challenges they may be facing, and avoiding making unreasonable assumptions about their previous knowledge on the subject.

3. How should instructors learn how to teach? Some college teachers lack formal training on how to teach. The learning process for such instructors may be a bit fragmented and spontaneous, such as learning from mistakes, following institutional expectations, etc. It is helpful for instructors to explore other ways to improve teaching skills, including more communication with expert teachers, reading primary literature, and peer learning communities.

Today, given the COVID pandemic, “excellent” college science teaching is extremely hard, as teaching becomes mostly remote and posts a great number of new challenges both for students and for instructors. As an MIT student, I really appreciate how considerate and understanding my professors have been, and S3 is also a great resource when I undergo personal hardship or unexpected distraction. Yet for instructors, on the road to achieving “excellent” college science teaching, it is important to quickly adapt to the new situation, and ponder on the question: how can we develop an efficient, fair, and enjoyable student-centered learning experience?


Ivory Zhu

Ivory (Yiwei) Zhu '21 is an MIT undergraduate majoring in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science.


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