January 2012

Meet Vicky Minderhout

 

VickyMinderhout_classroom 
Vicky Minderhout assists student Halina Walker and her team. Photo courtesy of Chris Taylor.

Q. Have favorite teachers of yours informed how you teach? do you emulate their methods?
A.
Initially, I was taught by interactive lecture, and I had the good fortune to have several teachers who did this extremely well. It can be very motivating for students. However, my undergraduate quantum mechanics course was taught entirely without lecture. Students worked in pairs to answer the end-of-chapter problems. We could seek help from other students and the professor, but eventually we had to explain our answers to the professor. I worked very hard in that course and passed my qualifying exam in graduate school. So motivating students is important, but, in the end, they have to do the heavy lifting that learning requires. My courses have students explaining answers first to each other and then to the class. So my teachers helped me to shape my teaching and to be confident that I could get students to achieve understanding without lecturing while at the same time they could develop other skills.

Q. Do you have any concrete examples of how your teaching method has improved your students’ abilities to understand or better appreciate the topics you present?
A. First of all, this method is basically what is stated in the book “How People Learn” published by the National Research Council, which has 600 references. Also, the success of the method is consistent with data collected over many years in the cognitive sciences. As you might imagine, doing side-by-side controlled studies on learning is exceedingly difficult, since there are many variables and controlling those variables is difficult. Additionally, our students who have graduated have returned to report how well prepared they are compared to others. One student felt his biochemistry course at an Ivy League health-professions school was extremely easy following what he had done with us. Also, we have shared our exam questions with others, and they are impressed with how well our students perform on the complex questions we ask. Many of these questions transfer into other scientific  contexts. In our biochemistry courses, we have students write final growth reports that reflect on their maturation in learning as a result of the course. Now, because we know their names, the reporting is not blind, and students could be brown-nosing, but when you read comments like “I figured out how to learn in this course and wish I had known how to learn in my freshman year” or “I never really organized my problem solving very effectively until this course” or “I am using strategies I developed from this course in all my other courses,” it is persuasive. The students could have said “This course really helped me learn,” “The course helped me improve my problem solving” or “This course helped me improve my study strategies,” but, when students give you the additional context for their growth, it makes their statements much more believable.

Q. What do you want to occur as a result of receiving this award? For your students and your university?
A.
My students already have a great education — if they embrace this classroom strategy! I am hopeful that more faculty will embrace more active-learning strategies in their classrooms. Faculty members are doing this in classes of 700 and classes of 10, so there are ways that we can engage students and coach the learning process in any class size. As more foreign-born individuals earn (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees than do U.S. citizens, we should be concerned that we are no longer attracting young minds into these fields — and wonder why that is so. Is this because the drinking-from-the-fire-hose approach and the emphasis on coverage at all costs turns many students off to our fields? Science is data driven and interdisciplinary. We need to create environments in which students at all levels work with raw data so they will understand that everything in the textbook actually originates from raw data and offer students opportunities to make connections across disciplines. This will be exciting for us and them and will model how science really works.

Recommended Resources

• Lewis, S.E. and Lewis, J.E. (2005) Departing from lectures: An evaluation of a peer-led guided inquiry alternative. J. Chem. Educ. 82, 135–139.

• Haak, D.C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., and Freeman, S. (2011) Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science 332, 1213–1216.

• Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011) Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science 332, 862–864.

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