Giving up the reins in advanced courses

The best way to learn something and truly understand it is to teach it.

The senior seminar for the Neuroscience and Behavior course here at Vassar College is the capstone to a curriculum that emphasizes critical evaluation of the current scientific literature, experimental design and research methodologies. While the previous coursework each student experienced as a sophomore and junior emphasized discussion and close reading of complex material, the true test of mastery is really to explain it clearly to others.

When I teach the senior seminar, I select a topic (this year’s topic is: CHANGE) and develop a “story line” to connect the class sessions together. I select research articles and review articles that explore each connected subtopic from behavioral, brain systems, physiological cellular, genetic and evolutionary levels. I plan how to work the way through the semester. I make the rock wall and provide the cables, but they make the climb.

After the first one or two class sessions where I lead the class discussion, explicitly modeling what I expect, I hand over the class to the students. The students take turns presenting background material and leading class discussion. Giving up control like this is very difficult. The urge is to jump into difficult pauses in conversation, to try to make sure the teacher’s voice is loudest. But, resist.

Something magical can develop if you give it time and if your expectations for your students are clear.

The students will take ownership of their experience together. They will bring in material that they’ve learned in other courses, will reflect on how what they learned the previous week connects to what’s going on in class now. A transformation occurs. We are all in this together, a team drawing connections, creating new insights. [A note for another blog post: the success of a course structured this way lives and dies by the students and the “class chemistry.”]

The best part: the realization that your students have indeed mastered not only the course material, but also their discipline. That is good teaching. That is good learning.