Simplifying Teaching

How to make your teaching more efficient, effective, and enjoyable without slighting your lab projects

Carrie O’neill © ImageZoo/Corbis

When he took his first job at Arizona State University, James Elser had spent nearly a decade in the lab and didn’t really know what to expect when it came to teaching. After instructing a few graduate classes, he was tossed in front of his first large class for nonscience majors, “to see if I could survive,” he says. It was challenging, he thought, and not all that enjoyable, but he didn’t worry too much about it—until he got back his teacher evaluations. “They said I was going too fast, that they weren’t clear what it was for, or why they were learning this stuff,” Elser says. That’s when it really hit him that he could do better—for himself and for the students.

For Elser, now a member of ASU’s Distinguished Teaching Academy for excellence in teaching and research, it came down to how he wanted to spend his time. “I developed this feeling that if I’m having fun during the lecture, delivering the material, then the students have fun,” he says. “If it’s frustrating for them, it’s frustrating to me, and that’s not fun.”

Having more fun while teaching—and becoming a better teacher in the process—is possible, without sacrificing too much research time. “It doesn’t take that much added effort to do a good job instead of a passable job,” says Elser. Plus, there are added benefits: “I became an effective communicator,” he says. “I’ve had people come up to me at a scientific meeting and say, ‘You teach a lot, don’t you?’ ”

The Scientist picked the brains of a number of notable college-level educator-researchers for tips on how to make teaching more enjoyable and effective, and still have plenty of time for your research.

Reduce the time you spend floundering

Throughout graduate and postdoctoral training, scientists surround themselves with mentors who show them the ropes on everything from how to give a good presentation to laboratory etiquette. Getting that first professor-level job may feel like a big relief: finally you have a chance to run your own shop. But don’t get overconfident yet. Receiving mentoring is the best way to learn how to be a scientist; why not do the same thing to improve your teaching?

Many universities have established co-teaching programs, but if your university hasn’t, Elser says, you should insist upon it. “It’s the best strategy to help faculty juggle their teaching and research,” Elser says. By teaching your first classes alongside experienced teachers, you share the load, reduce the time you might spend floundering through new lesson plans, and ease the psychological pressure of teaching a big class.

Clicker your students

Charlene D’Avanzo, an ecologist at Hampshire College and editor of the book Student-Active Science: Models of Innovation in College Science Teaching, recommends using “clicker questions” to collect data about your students and get an immediate sense of their struggles. Clicker questions are multiple-choice queries asked aloud during class to expose common misconceptions about the covered material, with the students’ answers tallied up publicly. Testing the state of students’ knowledge throughout the semester, even just a couple times, ensures that you’ll cover all the bases without wasting time on material the students already know, D’Avanzo says.

For example, she’s noticed that “many students think that air is nothing—that because you can’t see anything, there’s nothing there.” To get at the root of this misconception, she could ask her class where plants get most of their nutrients, and direct her lecture based on their answers.

Sharing the data from these clicker questions with the students gives them feedback that is critical for their learning. “It’s a way for the students to look around and see how they fit in and what they need to do,” D’Avanzo says. This awareness allows the students to direct their own learning, which benefits both them and the teacher.

The trick is to devise these questions around common misconceptions, which are “the basis for some extraordinary fundamental misunderstandings in biology,” she says. But you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many resources for constructing clicker questions are available on the Internet (see box on page 63). This method “allows you to see your classroom as a way to establish a hypothesis,” says D’Avanzo. “It’s very intellectually stimulating.”

Test your lab’s independence
Carrie O’neill © ImageZoo/Corbis

Planning a research schedule more than a few weeks in advance can be difficult: you never know when a student or collaborator will have a breakthrough that requires your immediate attention. But while your research can be unpredictable, teaching is less so.

“As far as the teaching goes, there’s an ebb and flow to the semester,” says Kevin Williams, a chemist at Western Kentucky University. Your students will demand more of your time around exams or when the material is more difficult, and those are periods you can predict based on your syllabus. When Williams approaches a teaching-heavy period, he makes sure the students in his lab can move forward on their projects with little input from him. “We try to interpret our recent data and come up with a series of experiments and tasks that they can complete in the upcoming days,” he says. During those teaching-intensive times, he’ll jot down notes on his research projects and “summarize the progress.” This helps him to “refresh [his] memory quickly”—both for the moment, and for the next time he meets with students to discuss new developments.

Get a shoebox

A suggestion box may not seem like the most glamorous teaching method, but it is incredibly useful—and easy. “All you need is a shoebox and some index cards,” says D’Avanzo.

At the end of a lecture, give the students a minute to respond to the question: “What do you understand least about today’s lecture?” The responses give you feedback specific to that lecture or topic, which you can then sample to hone your material accordingly. These responses are often quite useful because they monitor student reactions and learning in real time, unlike year-end teacher evaluations, which rely on students’ recall and might be biased due to grades or exhaustion.

Teach your research

Paul Williams, a plant pathologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, developed a Brassica plant with a rapid life cycle for his research on disease-resistant vegetables, and it didn’t take him long to realize that his creation “might be useful for teaching principles of plant biology.” Today, through the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program, which he developed, his Brassica plants have been shipped to thousands of classrooms around the world.

The key element that his plant project provides is ownership, says Williams. Student engagement with research materials—whether plants or microbes—“is associated with a measure of responsibility and uncertainty that heightens awareness” about the scientific process. The act of participating in research forces students to “investigate the questions themselves,” he explained, and this frees the teacher to be more of a curator of learning, reduces lecture time, and provides more opportunities to have fun with students. “It’s such a great model,” says Mike Wolyniak of Hampden-Sydney College, whose students help with his genetics research during lab. “Plus, we actually generate data.”

Ask for 4 years’ notice

Learning to teach can be trying enough without having to relearn new material every year to prepare for a wide variety of classes. The best thing administrators can do for their faculty and for the quality of teaching is to give them a consistent, predictable teaching schedule, “teaching the same or similar classes year after year,” says Elser. “It’s the most efficient strategy for all involved.”

Elser suggests bringing this up during your contract negotiation. Insist on receiving your schedule 4 years in advance, and “hopefully you’ll only need to do three or four course preparations” during that time. That way you’ll just need to give your syllabi a little fact check and update, leaving more time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and how each class could be better.

Make small groups work in big lecture halls

You hear over and over that small groups create a better classroom experience, but organizing them may seem like too much work. Wolyniak disagrees: “Anything I can do that doesn’t involve me standing and yakking for fifty minutes at a time makes my job easier.” Lecturing invites students to “mentally drift off,” he argues, but having them engage with one another and the material through problem solving or short discussions “keeps the students more excited.”

Anything I can do that doesn’t involve me standing and yakking for fifty minutes at a time makes my job easier.
— Mike Wolyniak

Bill McKeachie, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and author of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, now in its 13th edition, used to do a lap around the lecture hall, assigning rows to face forward or backward in order to organize his students into six-person groups for a six-minute discussion. “Students learn more talking to each other than they do listening to a lecture,” he says. “One of the best ways of clarifying one’s understanding and remembering a concept is to explain it to someone else.”

Remember: you’re not Superman

“I’m a perfectionist by nature,” says Wolyniak—and he knew going into teaching that he was going to have to wrestle with that. Since you might need to relearn material just a few days before you teach it, expecting yourself to have all the answers is just setting yourself up for failure. Admitting that you don’t know something is not the end of the world. “If you don’t allow yourself a little bit of breathing room to make a mistake, you’re not going to succeed,” Wolyniak advises. “Try not to be Superman.”

Because, of course, you’re not Superman. Teaching is a learning experience for the professor as well. “I began to learn hugely from my students,” says Williams. Just watching them react to his teaching methods—especially when they were successful—not only improved his technique, but increased his desire to be a better teacher. “If you approach your teaching as a student, learning as you go, the reward is self-evident.”

Education resources
Recommended by our teacher-scientists


McKeachie’s Teaching Tips:
Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers

by Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie, 13th edition, Wadsworth, 2010

Student-Active Science: Models of Innovation in College Science Teaching
eds. Ann P. McNeal and Charlene D’Avanzo. Saunders College Publishing, 1997

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
eds. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, Expanded Edition, National Academies Press, 2000

Applying Cognitive Science to Education:
Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains

by Frederick Reif, MIT Press, 2008

Tools for Teaching
by Barbara Gross Davis, 2nd Edition, Jossey-Bass, 2009

Evaluating and Improving Undergraduate Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
eds. Marye Anne Fox and Norman Hackerman, National Academies Press, 2003

The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach
by Lee S. Shulman, Jossey-Bass, 2004


J. Handelsman et al., “Scientific teaching,” Science, 304:521-22, 2004.
Great introduction to the idea of scientific teaching, with supplementary material chock-full of resources

J.E. Caldwell, “Clickers in the large classroom: Current research and best-practice tips,” CBE—Life Sciences Education, 6:9-20, 2007.
Overview article on clicker questions, including great detail on question development (Open access)

M.K. Smith et al., “Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions,” Science, 323:122-24, 2009.
Details on how to use clicker questions to encourage group work

D. Ebert-May et al., “Innovation in large lectures—teaching for active learning,” Bioscience, 47:601-7, 1997.
Classroom tips and evaluation methods

Online resources

BioEDUCATE: Learning & Teaching Life Sciences (
Presentations, animations, and other resources from the American Society of Cell Biology

National Science Digital Laboratory (
Searchable database of teaching tools (try “clicker questions”) for all levels

Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center (

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