In this abridged extract from our new e-book, The Professor’s Guide to Agile Teaching, we look at a pair of professors who broke down and rebuilt the way they were teaching and changed their classes for the better.

Candice Damiani

Biology Lecturer, University of Pittsburgh

Candice Damiani could have kept teaching the same old way. Instead, she tore her course apart to make learning more effective.

She and her colleagues teach Foundations of Biology 1 and 2 in the Department of Biological Sciences, and they knew it was time for a teardown. “Our expectation is that once students have taken Foundations 1, they’ll arrive at Foundations 2 with the same basic knowledge and skill set,” Damiani explains. “The fact is, they’re not. So we had to find a way to change the series so that the learning takes hold early and stays with them through the series.”

“We took a one-day break in the fall and mapped out all the content we cover, but we categorized that content based upon the quantitative skills that students need to learn.” Those skills fell into five basic categories, including population genetics, DNA replication and species diversity.

The content didn’t change much as a result, but the focus on skills brought a fresh perspective on the connections within the material. It also helped establish a common vision among all the faculty involved in teaching both courses. That’s not to say there wasn’t any heavy lifting: Damiani had to analyze everything she was presenting and ask why she was teaching the material, and whether or not it truly benefited skills development.

“But once the upfront work is done, it’s done,” she says. “We don’t focus on content anymore. We create skills.” Damiani and her colleagues are already starting to see improvement from students in Foundations 2 as a result.

Greg Domski

Professor of Chemistry, Augustana College

While student success is always a driving motivation behind large-scale course transformations, the change can also be a tremendous boost for faculty. This particular realization hit Greg Domski, a professor of chemistry at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, shortly after he received the news that he’d been tenured—which, in his case, arrived at the tender age of 32—and it precipitated an existential crisis. “I started to wonder, ‘How am I going to stay fresh and excited and get out of bed every morning for the next 35 years?’”

The question was compounded by the fact that his course—general and organic chemistry for freshmen and sophomores—doesn’t lend itself well to redesign. “The information is largely canonical, set in stone,” he says.

Domski decided that, if he was going to teach in these classrooms for three decades or more, he’d design them based on what he liked most. “What I enjoy is when students come into my office and we talk, or the evening help sessions with small groups, when I can see the mistakes they’re making and push them a little bit.”

Domski ended up flipping his classroom, recording his lectures, supplementing them with his slide presentations, and assigning them as student homework. The change freed him and his students up to spend class time doing active problem-solving and group work. Today he wanders the room and helps students grapple with the day’s material; if
he notices that a particular misconception is common, he’ll pause proceedings to lecture about it.

It’s made him a happier professor, precisely because he feels he’s forging stronger relationships with students. “The benefit of having a PhD-level chemist in the room is not to talk at you,” he says. “It’s to help you solve the problems and help you learn the material in a deep way. That’s how I spend my class time now.”

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