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Teaching Philosophy

"Tell me, and I'll listen.
Show me, and I'll understand.
Involve me, and I'll learn"

This quotation has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin and to a Teton Lakota Indian. It is a profound statement that succinctly captures the cognitive and social basis for learning.

How I Got Here

I feel a great debt to the teachers who inspired me throughout my education. When I began to teach, my objective was to emulate them. I concentrated on oratorial skills, organization, clarity, and a good rapport with students. However, I was always disappointed by the fact that it was easy to get students to memorize a lot of information but difficult to get them to understand and integrate it in any depth. Moreover, college students retain very little from their courses after just a few months. (For example, after a full year of calculus few students remember how to do simple inegrations, after a full year of organic chemistry, few students remember major reaction mechanisms.)

Most veteran professors have had the experience of delivering a clear and cogent lecture only to find on the exam that students really didn't grasp the major points. Conversely, sometimes one feels that a lecture was inarticulate and rough, yet students seem to have learned the material quite well. I didn't understand this phenomenon until a cognitive psychologist provided me with an explanation for this riddle (described below).

Cooperative Learning

Anyone who has done any teaching knows that you really learn a subject well when you teach it. This is because in order to explain it to somebody else, you must first translate the information into your own symbolic code. This concept is the premise for cooperative learning. Cooperative Learning involves creating a classroom environment that fosters dialogue between students in which key concepts are discussed and explained. This process enables students to go through the cognitive translation process that is usually reserved for instructors in traditional classrooms. Specifically, students are organized into groups of 4-5 and given a challenging problem to solve through intra-group interaction. Frequently, students are able to provide their peers with more effective explanations than those of instructors. Since they have just learned the material, students are able to provide a stepwise cognitive map that is often very accessible to their peers. Cooperative learning classrooms demand a high level of accountability; students must come prepared and must be active in class.

Cooperative Learning has been very successfully implemented in math and physics. Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at UC-Berkeley (now at UT-Austin), noted that African-American and Hispanic students in his freshman calculus course performed more poorly than the Asian students. When he investigated their study habits he found that the Asian students formed "study packs", groups of students who would work on problems and not disband until everyone in the pack could solve every problem. The African-American and Hispanic students studied alone. When they ran into a difficult problem, they were more likely to become discouraged and give up. Treisman then organized the African-American and Hispanic students into study groups. They then reached the same level of performance as the Asian students. Triesman's model has been implemented in Math Departments across the nation. He directs an education center at UT-Austin

Eric Mazur has been a pioneer of educational reform in physics. Mazur, a star professor at Harvard, was shown a physics test that was been given to physics students across the country. It tested major concepts without asking for any "plug-and-chug" calculations. Students performed dismally on this test. Mazur was convinced that his Harvard students would have no trouble with the test. When his students also performed poorly on the test, Mazur radically changed his teaching style. His format consists of short lectures (7-10 minutes), followed by a problem (a "ConcepTest"). Students first work on the problem by themselves and provide an answer (his classroom is wired so that he can instantaneously see a histogram of the class responses). Then, they work in groups and provide answers. If everyone answers the question correctly, he proceeds to the next topic. Thus, he "titrates" his lecturing to the class's grasp of the material. In addition, the class undergoes the important cognitive adjustments that occur with cooperative learning. Mazur has published an excellent guide on his Web site, Project Galileo.

An answer to the riddle posed above (why good lectures can lead to bad learning) was given to me by Psychology Professor Arthur Glenberg. Glenberg explained that the process of learning involves the translation of information into one's own symbolic language. When a student hears an exceptionally lucid, articulate lecture, he/she does not want to tamper with it. Instead, students have a tendency to capture as much of the lecture verbatim. This can result in answers to exam questions that are almost direct quotations from lectures. By creating a classroom environment that promotes dialogue between students, the cognitive translation process is greatly facilitated.

Biochemistry Education

My experience teaching biochemistry is very similar to that of Eric Mazur in physics education. I'm constantly amazed by how little students retain from their undergraduate education. In addition, I see more factual storage than ability to apply and contextualize information. In addition, I noticed that good lectures (lectures where students give positive feedback and I feel like I have been especially "on") do not necessarily correlate with better or deeper learning. Finally, students can seldom answer very simple questions about overall biochemistry. (Why can't you make carbohydrate from fat?) Very few really grasp the concept of antiparallel strands of DNA.

An Experiment

Cooperative learning is very challenging to implement. Every classroom is unique. One cannot transplant another instructor's format without modification. I needed a safe place to experiment and learn new skills. I recruited 28 Biochemistry graduate students to join me in a seminar course devoted to the subject of receptor-ligand interactions. Each week, we experimented with modifications in the class format and then devoted a full hour to discussion of what had transpired from a pedagogical standpoint. We discussed issues like accountability schemes, length and placement of mini-lectures, balancing participation of shy and outgoing students, the role and format of quizzes and homework, and the design of meaningful classroom exercises. There was enough enthusiasm to continue for two more semesters. Then, a group of 6 graduate students asked for the opportunity to apply their new skills to an undergraduate class. I organized an undergraduate seminar and they took full responsibility for organizing a cooperative classroom. It was very successful even though the template from the graduate course had to be modified. This experience provided the graduate students with a high level of sophistication in education. One of the students, a graduate of my laboratory, Dan Gretch, won the Teacher of the Year Award in his first year as an Assistant Professor.

A Continuing Challenge

Since I implemented cooperative learning into a biochemistry course I teach to veterinary students, I have noticed dramatic changes. As Eric Mazur reported, the exam grades went up quite dramatically; exam means went from 70 to 84. On a subjective level, the students grasp the material at a much deeper level and ask much more integrative questions. They tell me that they have "internalized" the material and that it is more "intuitive". The negative side is that some students do not like having to be active and prepared in class. Some students do not like to work with or help other students. Some students feel that the instructor is abandoning them when they have to struggle with a problem rather than listening passively to a lecture. (One student wrote a negative comment on an evaluation: "I had to do all of the learning myself.") So, there are cultural and sociological challenges to changing the dynamic of the classroom.

The Next Generation of Teachers

Together with Professors Jo Handelsman and Robert Goodman, I have taught a course for graduate students on classroom pedagogical techniques. .

In the fall of 1997, a group of 6 graduate students and post-docs taught a course on the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of AIDS using a mixed class format. In consultation with me, they prepared for the course throughout the preceding summer. The course was very successful and gave the instructors skills and self-confidence that will prove very valuable in competing for their first academic jobs. Don Daniel, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, participated in my Veterinary Biochemistry course and taught an undergraduate seminar course.

I like to think of the classroom as a laboratory. As in basic research, we need to maintain a high level of skepticism and consider everything we do as provisional and subject to improvement. By cultivating fruitful collaborations with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and pursuing new educational experiments, I hope to improve undergraduate and graduate education and contribute to the development of the next generation of teachers.

Positive student comments on Collaborative Learning

Negative student comments on Collaborative Learning

A wonderful essay: "The Heart of a Teacher" by Parker Palmer [pdf]

A wonderful essay: "Teachers and Learning Groups: Dissolution of the Atlas Complex" by D.L. Finkel & G.S. Monk [pdf]

Further Reading

An excellent primer on Cooperative Learning:
"Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom" by David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Karl A. Smith.
Interaction Book Company 7208 Cornelia Dr., Edina, MN 55435; Telephone: (612)831-9500

Evergreen College is at the forefront of the movement towards Cooperative Learning. They publish a newsletter, "Washington Center News". To subscribe (free), contact them at:

Mailing List
Washington Center, L 2211
The Evergreen State College
Olympia, WA 98505
Telephone: (360)866-6000 ext. 6611