Lessons Behind Teaching

Pinak Joshi
Published on Aug 12, 2015. Updated on Invalid date.

I remember sitting in a cold, crowded genetics class at the University of Wisconsin when one of our professors marched on stage and started the lecture with something that caught all of our attention — a warning. He said that traditionally, this lecture in particular was hard for students to understand, and we “should really spend some time with it” before the exam. Immediately afterwards, he began the lecture, and all of us dropped our fearful gaze back onto our computers as if nothing had happened. The message was clear: Spend more time on this at home, because he won’t be doing anything about it. Just like clockwork, that lecture ended up being difficult to comprehend and costly for many students on the final exam.

Two years later, after I finished a masters degree and completed a minor in college teaching at the University of South Florida, I started to realize that phenomenal educators don’t do what my professor did. Instead, good educators actively share part of the burden of learning. Once they see that a concept or a group of concepts will be hard for students to understand, they mold the entire lesson around breaking it down and integrating it with the overall lesson plan. For example, some difficult lectures could include:

  1. Scaffolding — making students talk to one another online or outside of class about a topic, allowing them to reinforce ideas and build upon their own understanding

  2. Interactivity — taking a break during a traditional lecture to watch a YouTube video or a demo about the concept

  3. Clickers — regularly polling the class about the concept in order to see where deficiencies in understanding lie

  4. Lesson Goals — publishing a list of topics which students should cover on their own to have mastery of an overlying concept

These methods, and many more like them, served to unite both educators and students. Instead of having educators set expectations and have students stumble around to chase them, these techniques find a happy intermediate where both parties strive to meet a common goal. At USF, online education and classroom instruction were taught as if they were to parts to a whole. This is usually the case in big universities; there is an in-person classroom where instruction is given, as well as an online classroom, where resources are distributed and discussions can occur. These discussions are usually moderated to some degree by a TA, allowing students to gain depth of understanding in a moderated space.

“…I quickly realized that everything I knew about teaching had changed.”

After I finished my masters, I used what I learned from my teaching minor to create an online course in anatomy. I hosted the course on Udemy.com, an online marketplace for people to learn, and after 4 months and over 100 students internationally, I quickly realized that everything I knew about teaching had changed. There are massive differences between teaching online and teaching in-person. For example, in every lecture I published, I saw their engagement wax and wane. In a marketplace like Udemy, instructors are encouraged to understand where deficiencies in the course may lie, so that it can generate more revenue by drawing in more students. To my surprise, I saw that lectures which were in-depth and clinical were less popular than lectures which were broader and covered the same ground faster.

As paradoxical as it may seem, being an online instructor taught me that when curating a curriculum for independent learners, doing less is more.

Example of engagement analytics from my Udemy course

Students today live in an age of informational abundance and scarcity of continuity. With resources like the Khan Academy, Wikipedia, countless textbooks, free journals, review books, mobile apps, software programs and more, a key part of being a perceptive instructor is encouraging students to dive deeply into topics of interest while adhering to a unified comprehensive curriculum.

This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that instructors face in 21st century medical education. Benchmark standards for written board exams, clinical examinations and performance evaluations challenge instructors to set the pace of the class to meet standards in a shorter amounts of time. In addition, increasing diversity of medical students widens the pace at which a class can collectively absorb and master material. With an abundance of medical students in the US and a growing scarcity of residency training positions, demonstrating academic competency through independent learning is becoming a fundamental right of passage for America’s doctors. For these reasons, delivering a flexible, broad curriculum which actively adapts to the needs of students is key for tomorrow’s medical educators.