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Thoughts on Teaching Science: Know Thy Audience

Teaching expectations in academic science

Whether you enjoy or dread the thought of teaching, it’s an unavoidable reality that early career researchers (ECRs) pursuing academic positions will be expected to teach during their career. For some, teaching could mean overseeing multiple courses and spending dozens of hours lecturing; for others, it may only require giving a few lectures per year. It might involve teaching undergraduates, nursing and health professionals, or perhaps doctorate level students (graduate, medical). But regardless of the form it takes, teaching clearly lies in the future of many ECRs. Never mind the future—for many graduate students serving as teaching assistants (TAs), teaching is already a reality. The widespread expectations for TAs and faculty alike to engage in classroom instruction can be unsettling, especially for those with little teaching experience to draw on.  However, despite near-universal teaching requirements for faculty, there is comparatively little guidance or formal training in educational strategy offered by academic institutions to help young faculty teach effectively.

This disparity seems especially prevalent in later stages of education—stages that PhD scientists tend to be tasked with teaching. Thus, unless ECRs happen to have a background in educating, many will find themselves ill-equipped to oversee classroom instruction. By example, I have heard accounts from several professors who recall arriving at their first faculty teaching position only to be given last year’s lecture PowerPoints and a cursory “good luck!” from the outgoing instructor. With such instances in mind, I decided to write briefly on the subject of education in hopes of helping the ECR community better confront their future teaching obligations.

Prioritizing your teaching objectives: it all depends on who you’re teaching

In a past, pre-graduate school life, I taught biology to high schoolers. From the outset it was clear that merely possessing subject knowledge alone was not enough to achieve teaching success in this age group. Rather, I found the single most important part of that job was to motivate and inspire. No level of content mastery can compensate for that. It is a clear appreciation for this feature of younger learners that often makes the most inspiring teachers also the most successful. Bill Nye, in his beloved children’s television program “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” is a great example if this. (Notwithstanding his newly rediscovered celebrity, I maintain that his greatest contribution to science will always be his 1990’s PBS show. I can hear the theme song now: Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill Nye the science guy!). Although not classically trained in a basic science field—he holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering—his target audience didn’t need a teacher with vast subject knowledge, they needed someone who could encourage and inspire them to pursue science.

Notably, the priorities of teaching aren’t static along the education level spectrum. There is a trade-off that occurs in advancing stages, where the need to motivate becomes less paramount. Advanced degree seekers tend to be self-motivated; after all, a person isn’t typically required to attended college, much less graduate school. Instead, the priority of teachers lies more in communicating material in a dynamic and enlightening manner (see the upper half of my illustration below). But while motivation isn’t needed to ensure that these students will study, it doesn’t mean that it’s not still important. Medical students will study because they have to. But superior teachers educate in such a way that students will learn the material because they want to.

The kaleidoscope of shifting priorities and requirements for teachers at differing education levels (source: author)

The future of education at all levels is trending towards becoming increasingly electronic, mobile, convenient, and thus isolated. Consequently, a key task for future educators will be finding classroom techniques that actually make it worth the student’s time to be physically present instead of just studying alone. To achieve this, it is valuable to be familiar with practical classroom teaching strategies, ideally grounded in education theory. But once again, as described above, there is a mismatch here: the teachers in greatest need of support and training in educational techniques (i.e., those teaching advanced students) generally receive it the least. By comparison, consider elementary education, where it is commonplace for teachers to hold degrees in the education field (see the lower half of the diagram).

Empirical evidence for teaching paradigms in science education   

Given that most ECRs will end up teaching students found on the right side of the diagram, the ability to deliver dynamic lectures that facilitate knowledge acquisition effectively will be a priority. Thankfully, there is whole field of inquiry dedicated to how educators can achieve this end. Researching this subject for a graduate seminar course of late, I at once found myself wanting to see empirical evidence that a given teaching technique could produce demonstrably better learning outcomes than another. Teaching high school, so much of my “evidence” about what worked was anecdotal; but now, having been immersed in academic research, everything revolved around whether it could be proven—that is to say—whether it actually worked.

After considerable digging through the literature of the field, I sensed that this subject is underexplored. I suspect this is partly because it’s difficult to study how learners learn in a controlled setting.  Eventually I came across a few reports which addressed the issue with the empirical perspective I was searching for. For example, Richard Mayer, a UCSB psychologist specializing in the science of learning (how people learn) and the science of instruction (how to help people learn), has published several studies on this topic, mostly regarding medical education. A focus of his work is how to improve multimedia design (e.g. PowerPoint) to better facilitate learning. To me, this is an area in dire need of investigation given the pervasiveness of “death by PowerPoint” in virtually all institutes of higher learning. Helpfully, his group has reported evidence outlining specific strategies for slide design that result in improved learner responses. Chief among their findings were the advantages of replacing text with visual representations wherever possible. They also revealed quantifiable benefits of eliminating extraneous material. Even marginal slide details like the text size, font, and color were found to have appreciable impacts on learning outcomes.

Embracing and enjoying the privilege

For those not enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching, it may seem like a bothersome distraction from the “more important” work of lab research. Yes, the investment in preparing and delivering quality lectures is time consuming. But keep in mind that it might yield some unanticipated benefits, and confer a sense of gratification from knowing that great teaching leaves an enduring mark on students, even when you might not expect. “We never know,” Stephen King once wrote, “which lives we may influence, or when, or why.” That it is a privilege to teach young minds is a truth worth remembering should the future present the opportunity.


Featured image: photo by Ed Schipul. Licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Obtained via flickr



Emma Whittington (July 22, 2016). The Impact of Teaching Assistantships

Bill Nye the Science guy (Wikipedia)

Bill Nye: The Science Guy [Original Intro] (YouTube media)

Rachel Becker and Alessandra Potenza  (May 19, 2017). “Twitter’s scientists introduce themselves to Bill Nye”. The Verge

Kusurkar, RA et al. (April 25, 2011). Motivation as an independent and a dependent variable in medical education: a review of the literature. Med Teach, Vol. 33 , Iss. 5

Ally, M. & Prieto-Blázquez, (January, 2014). What is the future of mobile learning in education? J. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 11:142.

Mary Gearing (September 2, 2016). Choose-Your-Own Experiment: Active Learning in Introductory Biology Courses

Richard Mayer faculty homepage. UC Santa Barbara Psychology and Brain Sciences website

Mayer, RE (November, 2008) Applying the science of learning: evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instruction. Am Psychol. Vol 63(8)

Mayer, RE (May 20, 2010) Applying the science of learning to medical education. Med Educ. Volume 44, Issue 6

Don McMillan (2012) Life After Death by PowerPoint (YouTube media).

Issa N. et al. (March 12, 2013) Teaching for understanding in medical classrooms using multimedia design principles. Med Educ. Volume 47, Issue 4

Naureen Ghani (January 27, 2017) Why Teaching Makes You Smarter

Stephen King (July 24, 2012). Quotation from 11/22/63: A Novel. Gallery Books.


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