Putting active learning into practice: an interview with PALM fellow Christopher Baker and PALM mentor Michelle Smith
Are you a postdoc looking for hands-on education experience and mentoring? Or a faculty member interested in bringing evidence-based, effective active learning strategies into your classroom? The PALM (Promoting Active Learning and Mentoring) network helps faculty and postdoctoral fellows gain hands-on experience and long-term mentorship in putting active learning strategies into practice.
GSA is proud to partner with the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) and the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) in the development of the PALM network. In addition to resources and support, the program provides up to $2000 mentoring visit expenses per fellow, $500 mentor stipend, and $1000 meeting travel each for both fellow and mentor.
We spoke to one of the first PALM fellows, Christopher Baker, and his PALM mentor Michelle Smith to learn about what makes this experience so valuable for both the mentors and mentees.
Baker is an Assistant Professor at the Jackson Laboratories (JAX). He was a PALM fellow during his postdoctoral training (also at JAX), working with Smith to design and teach classes at the University of Maine. He investigates the genetic and molecular regulatory system that controls the location and rate of meiotic recombination.
Smith is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Maine. She is a science education researcher whose work focuses on how to help students learn biology and how to help faculty adopt promising educational practices in their classrooms.
Why were you interested in the PALM program?
CB: At JAX, we don’t have as many teaching opportunities as at a university, although we do have a few options, including graduate classes and a college-level genetics course for JAX employees. I had interacted with Michelle a little in courses at JAX, including one for grad students and postdocs called “The Whole Scientist” that filled out training on the non-research aspects of being a scientist. Michelle talked to us about teaching and introduced the concept of active learning methods. I realized that meeting Michelle was a great opportunity, and she was someone who could help me get into the classroom and get some more experience. I observed her in the classroom and had asked about the possibility of teaching a few classes at U Maine. When we heard about the PALM fellowship, we thought it was the perfect chance to do just that.
MS: I knew about the PALM program through my involvement with the GSA [Smith serves on the GSA Education Committee]. I think instructional coaching opportunities are really valuable, and I was interested in providing that mentorship. Chris and I were thinking about doing something like this anyway, but we realized the PALM program would provide us with extra support and opportunities. It would allow us to see the project all the way through, from having an idea, collecting student learning data, and analyzing the data, to revising the classroom materials.
Why do you think the PALM program is important?
MS: It’s the next step in getting people into active learning 2.0. It’s been shown that active learning methods are more effective for students, but how do we actually get instructors to use them effectively in the classroom? Many instructors first become interested in active learning through a workshop or seminar, but when they try using the methods in their classes, they can get really bogged down in the logistics—like, how do I ask a clicker question? How long do I give them for discussion? PALM gives postdocs a chance to practice in an environment with someone there who’s got your back and can help out.
Chris, what teaching experience did you have before applying?
CB: I had never taught a course or given a lecture in a large-enrollment undergraduate setting, although I had helped teach some study sections. I had enjoyed giving public lectures and talking about my research at local middle schools, so even though I didn’t have formal experience, I did like the idea of teaching.
What was your goal?
CB: I wanted to get some first-hand experience of some of the active learning concepts that Michelle has helped pioneer, particularly the use of in-class clicker content questions that are accompanied by peer discussion. Basically, that’s giving the students a question and getting them to answer it, then getting them to talk among themselves in small groups and then answer again. That peer instruction gives them a chance to think through the question and to have to explain their reasoning aloud. I thought that interaction, and what it takes to facilitate it, was really interesting. I also generally wanted experience with putting together class activities that encourage students to interact with one another.
How did you work together?
CB: Michelle had a large-enrollment course in genetics with several classes on meiosis and recombination, which is what I was studying. So, we came up with concepts that we could build the classes around and made an outline. I spent some time putting together potential genetics problems that could be incorporated into clicker questions and reviewing and editing Michelle’s current lectures on the topics. Then we met over two full days to review my material, which was super helpful. We also used the time to flesh out the mechanics of what was going to happen in the classroom, how to manage technology and, hopefully, the class. I taught my lessons over two class periods in the same week. Having two classes was very helpful, as it allowed us to review how things went during the first class. It also gave me more confidence to relax into the role.
MS: One of the nice things was that, because there were times when the students were discussing clicker questions with each other, we could communicate while Chris was teaching—in real time. For example, after he’d asked a question, I could come up and say: “OK, here’s what we can do next”, or “maybe you could try this”, or “remind them about that”. Often when you try active learning for the first time, it can be really daunting to let the students talk to each other and volunteer their answers because you don’t know what to expect. It helps to have someone else there to say, “It’s OK, I’ve seen this before,” or “you’re probably going to get this answer.”
CB: That was really useful. I almost wish we could have the same thing for presenting at a research conference! Someone to say, “OK, let’s all take a break now.”
MS: The other thing that was important was involving the students in the process. There’s a lot involved in turning over your class to somebody new. At this point, it was midway through the semester, and active learning involves building a lot of trust with the students. To help with this, I talked to them about why Chris was coming, and told them about his expertise, and then at the end I asked the students to give him feedback. That was nice—he did a recombination demonstration with pool noodles, and they wrote about how that really helped them visualize the process. But it also helped the students to see Chris’ involvement as part of a larger plan and see themselves as partners in helping Chris out.
CB: One of the goals of the PALM fellowship is also to disseminate our experiences to the wider community. In part through support of the PALM program, Michelle and I attended The Allied Genetic Conference in 2016, which had a significant education component. We presented a poster incorporating analysis of the students’ and instructors’ time spent engaged in active versus passive learning, as well as student assessment and feedback.
How was this experience useful for your careers?
CB: When I was on the job market and interviewing at universities, I was often asked about the program. I think people were interested, particularly at places where active learning techniques hadn’t been promoted much in the past. It certainly caught people’s eye, and it was helpful. I ended up at an institute that’s primarily focused on research, and I don’t have an undergrad classroom, but I try hard to incorporate peer discussion into my graduate teaching.
MS: A lot of times people focus on the benefits of these programs to the mentee, but there were a lot of benefits to me as well! For example, Chris taught about meiosis and recombination, which is his research area. I had been teaching meiosis and recombination for many years, but for me it had become a bit predictable, and I was using the same types of problems every time. It was great not only that he provided new content, but also that he helped me step back a bit and think about why we have students learn about this topic.
The experience also helped me think through what I actually do in the classroom. For example, there are things I do to get ready that are important to me—like making sure the slides are posted ahead of time or making sure I run through the clicker questions—but I hadn’t verbalized those aspects. I promote active learning, but what are the steps that are actually involved when you put it into practice? Having to reflect on that has really helped me with the education workshops I give.
For mentees, I’d also point out this program can open doors to publishing education research. For example, there are places like CourseSource where you can publish the activities you develop.
Do you have advice for people thinking of applying?
MS: My advice is if you’re at all interested, to go for it. If you’re concerned about finding a mentor, or don’t know where to start, I would encourage you to reach out to Sue Wick at the ASCB. She will help answer your questions, assist in finding a mentor, and help you solve problems. Don’t let anything on the application intimidate you.
CB: If you have any interest in teaching, it’s a really valuable experience to be involved in a program like this. Get involved and have fun; it will be worth it!
Learn more about the PALM network here!