Little victories

A few things made me feel good at work this week.

#1: We’re wrapping up the Evolution section of my Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development course. After a month of lectures and tree drawing exercises and discussions about good examples of evolution, I gave the students an overview of human evolution and a primary research paper, the Lee Berger stuff about Homo naledi. They were asked to critically evaluate the claims: did they really have fire? Did they bury their dead? Did they create crude art? As you probably know, Berger is emphatic about answering “YES!!”, but I urged them to think carefully…and they did. They stated some concerns and doubts, and talked about what they’d like to see to confirm the claims, like good little scientists. Then I gave them a paper by Martinon-Torres and others, “No scientific evidence that Homo naledi buried their dead and produced rock art,” and they saw what an active debate in science looks like. Warmed my heart, it did. This is what a good science class is about, tricking students into thinking for themselves.

#2: I’ve had nightmares about this one thing. Our university enrollment has been way down — I’m teaching a second year required course in cell biology, and I have TEN (10!) students enrolled. Most years I’ve had 50. Sure, a small class is nice in many ways, but not so great if you want to get active participation and discussion going. It took about 12 weeks to get the class warmed up and regularly asking questions! What was causing me some anxiety, though, is that I’m offering a 4000 level elective in ecological developmental biology next semester, the kind of course that lives or dies with student engagement, and really needs a critical mass of students if it was going to fly. I’d been dreading getting 3 or fewer students signed up (the administration would cancel it), or perhaps worse, 5 or 6 students, and I’d have to struggle all semester to get them active while not throwing too much of a burden on individuals. My ideal class size for this kind of course is 10-12 students, and I was dreading getting too few students for all the work involved.

Spring term registration started this week. I’ve already got 10 students enrolled! Maybe next semester will be fun, after all.

Sometimes there are little defeats, too. Our football team qualified for the NCAA DIII playoffs, and will be playing at the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse tomorrow. This is a very big deal! So I get to my cell bio class this afternoon…I’ve got two students. One has to leave early for an interview. So I get to lecture to a nearly empty room.

This sort of thing happened early in the semester and I just cancelled class, but I warned them that next time I’d go right ahead and lecture to empty seats, so that’s what I did. At least now I have a set of questions that will definitely go on the next exam.


  1. chrislawson says

    The ideal class size for me is 6-8 for small group learning. I don’t know how much of that is due to differences in what we teach or differences in teaching style. I agree that one of the most fulfilling things in teaching is throwing difficult or controversial ideas at students and seeing them work out approaches to handling them. (And by controversial, I don’ t mean modern reporting’s ‘I found an angry idiot on social media’.)

  2. David C Brayton says

    I took Cell Biology through the UC Extension program at the ripe age of 43. The diversity of students was pretty dramatic.
    About half the class were kids (20-25). The other half of the class were in their 40s and 50s.

    Asking questions was definitely correlated with age. The older folks were intentionally present to learn. They realized when they didn’t understand something. You could see them drawing parallels with their area of expertise.

    The kids on the other hand seemed, at times, overwhelmed. As if they didn’t have a solid foundation to stand on. They simply didn’t have the depth of understanding to help them form good questions. The older folks’ learning styles were more focused because they seem to have a grasp of the big picture.

    It wasn’t until my senior year of undergrad (engineering), when I started seeing the big picture. When I (finally) realized that V=IR and F=ma are exactly the same, just the type of energy involved was different…it was a revelation. I then started drawing all of these parallels between my mechanical engineering and electrical engineering classes.

    And when I realized just how “deep” basic thermodynamics was, a huge light bulb turned on. There aren’t many undergrads that realize what Carnot was doing with steam engines 150 years ago directly implies the eventual thermal death of the universe.

    All of those revelations certainly made me a better student later in life. After spending years “learning” I finally knew how to learn something entirely new.

  3. Shawn Smith says

    … next time I’d go right ahead and lecture to empty seats, so that’s what I did.

    I’m reminded of those scenes in Real Genius where one of the classes starts with a nearly full class, has a later scene with a whole bunch of tape recorders and only a few students, and a final scene where the professor has also been replaced with a tape player.