Teaching the teachers
This is the second article in a series covering science communication and communicators at UW. Check out the first article here, and stay tuned for more!
Lucky for us, after finishing his masters and traveling for a while, Wiggins came back to UW. Many of us MCBers have worked with him, and if you’re planning to TA for Biology (Biol) 200 this coming year, you will too. Wiggins is the course coordinator for Biol 200, a required course for the undergraduate Biology major at UW. He teaches the teachers: he trains the all of the TAs, helping them prepare for course labs, workshops, and working with undergrads in general. (He is also the course instructor for the summer quarter.)
Five years’ worth of Biol 200 quarters has gotten Wiggins thinking about what makes a good teacher, especially what makes a good science teacher. Alongside his work as the Biol 200 coordinator, this fall he’ll start a PhD in education with a focus on science education.
Wiggins is not so interested in the mountain of literature that dabbles in the philosophy of education; he wants to know what works, and how well it works. He wants to take an evidence-based approach, using appropriate systems and measures to test whether learning improves.
For his graduate work, Wiggins will formalize research he’s already begun with Biol 200, which he calls “a great model system” (giving away his background in science). Classes are large (about 400 students per quarter), and it’s possible to control for lots of things, such as instructor (certain instructors often teach the same quarter year after year) and motivation (in a class full of premeds, you don’t need to guess whether students are trying hard). He wants to find out what teaching techniques improve science learning. One idea he has is emphasizing a few major concepts throughout a course, threading them into new material week after week, “building a latticework” that helps students put it all together. He already has lots of video, quizzes and exams to help him evaluate what makes for better learning.
His research feeds back into what he’s already been doing with the TAs of Biol 200: teaching the teachers. “One major idea out there is that some people were born to be in a classroom, born to be teachers,” he says. “But if we can determine what works, what makes teaching effective, we can teach that to teachers.” He believes everyone is a natural teacher, and that sharing specific skills and techniques can improve how science is taught overall.
His experience has made Wiggins aware of many of the challenges both students and teachers face. And, watching undergrads and grad students interact has given him some insight into the differences between the two.
The biggest hurdle, he says, is getting graduate student TAs to understand where undergrads are coming from. “They have more hours of studying than they have hours awake in the day, and they are told in their classes that if they fail, they’re out [of their major],” he explains. “If TAs get this, if they can empathize, they are much more likely to succeed in getting through.”
“Another thing to understand,” he adds, “is that when a student asks a question, he or she is also asking, ‘Is this a stupid question? Should I even be asking at all?’ A teacher needs to address those questions too.”
And because he was once a graduate TA himself, Wiggins knows this can be a tough thing to do. In grad school, he says, you are taught how to talk to people who are judging you—your PI, your committee, other faculty. “If you’re asked a question, you want to respond quickly, and it seems like the worst thing in the world is getting it wrong,” Wiggins says. But he points out that in the real world, most of our interactions are not in this type of situation: mostly, we chat with peers or with people outside of science. He thinks of the latter situation as a form of informal teaching, an area in which lots of scientists can improve.
Whether you’re teaching undergrads or talking to a friend outside of science, pause and take a little time to think about their questions, Wiggins suggests. It shows respect, for one thing, and it also engages the other person in a conversation about science. And if you don’t know the answer, say so. “It’s actually great to admit when you don’t know something,” he says.
It’s an opportunity to show others what science is all about.
“In your lab, you think about the line between what is known and what is not, all the time. That’s research. If someone were to step in to your lab, they wouldn’t know that—they’d assume you knew it all, that everything was on one side of that line,” he explains. “People won’t see that unless you express what you don’t know.”
We asked Wiggins for a little advice to pass along to rising TAs, and he thinks some of what makes a good teacher also makes a scientist good at sharing science. The best thing you can do, he says, is to stay humble. “You spend a lot of your professional time trying to be on a pedestal. But the second a student [or friend or acquaintance] comes to you with a question, you need to go back to a humble position. Carry on a conversation. Ask questions of your own.”
It could have a big impact. “I don’t pretend to think that I can solve climate change,” Wiggins says, “but people do talk about how we need a more informed public for good science policy. That all comes from good teaching, getting students to ask questions, to understand the scientific process.”