No one enters the classroom as a blank slate. My approach to teaching uses the initial diversity of student knowledge and experiences to create a more comprehensive learning experience; as not to limit their experience to my personal interests, knowledge, and presentation style. I have successfully achieved this in both small (~40 students) and large (~200 students) biology classes by encouraging a collaborative learning environment, making expectations clear, and providing timely feedback.
Collaborative learning environment:
To create a collaborative learning environment I make it clear to students that (1) they can learn from each other, not just from me and (2) their effort and interests shape their learning experience. These points are introduced on the first day of class when groups work together to brainstorm how the course learning objectives can be achieved and what evidence would be needed to verify learning. The first day sets the tone for the rest of the semester because the majority of class time is spent on group discussion and activities designed to further their understanding of lecture content and assigned readings.
Getting to know the academic background of my students is a top priority as sustainable learning can be enhanced when new information is linked with existing knowledge. I use ungraded pre-tests to assess their current understanding of biological concepts, areas of interest, and previously used learning strategies. I regularly refer back to the pre-tests as I prepare lessons for the relevant topics and before introducing new learning strategies. I also structure a portion of each lecture around what they say interests them, but I have found that my students also appreciate the inclusion of instructor-selected content because my passion for the subject can facilitate new interests. This approach facilitates a collaborative learning environment that extends beyond student-student interactions by also encouraging student-instructor communication.
Clear expectations and timely feedback:
When I was a student, one of the most frustrating academic memories was when I left a lecture without a clear understanding of the take-home message or how my learning would be assessed, which is why I am so adamant about using learning objectives in my classes. My learning objectives are more than just an outline for each lecture; they also serve as a study guide to students ensuring they focus their efforts not on memorization, but on higher-level application and evaluation.
In my classes, exams do not serve exclusively as a means to assign grades; exams also serve as a learning tool. I delay posting student grades on their exams until after handing them back. This forces students to focus on the process of learning itself rather than the grade, an approach that has received little resistance from my students. I also provide class time for students to read the feedback and ask questions, even providing workstations with guiding questions that help bring students to the correct answers on their own.
Although none of my students enter the classroom as a blank slate, they all leave with a more comprehensive learning experience facilitated by a collaborative learning environment, clear expectations, and timely feedback.