Dr. Lawrence C. Scharmann, an expert in evolution education, shares how to connect with students—and connect them with the material.
Professor of Science Teacher Education,University of Nebraska–Lincoln
PhD, MEd, and BS in Education
Lawrence C. Scharmann, PhD, knows firsthand how powerful a good (or bad) teacher can be. He shares this personal example: A lifelong battle with asthma had caused Scharmann to set his sights on becoming a physician. But when he entered his first pre-med course, he found himself in a lecture hall with about 350 other students. The professor was not even visible from where Scharmann sat—and his instructional approach was anything but personal and engaging.
“I’m thinking, ‘Well, this is a really poor example of teaching,’” he says, laughing. Scharmann was so troubled by the experience that he switched his major to education—and has spent his career investigating what makes teachers exceptional (or not).
Over the past three decades, Scharmann’s contributions (concerning evolution education, specifically) have been acknowledged by both the National Association for Research in Science Teaching and the Association of Science Teacher Educators. But it is the future science teachers who are enrolled in his courses at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (and previously at Kansas State University), who truly serve as his barometer for success. When he sees that his approach is sparking a positive reaction in them—and that they are excited to try them in their future classrooms—he knows he is on the right track.
Below, Scharmann offers his top tips for making instruction more personal and engaging—in classrooms of any size.
“Being a great teacher is about more than just the content. It’s, ‘How do students learn?’ and ‘How do I go about motivating them?’ Students don’t necessarily remember all of the content that you teach. But they remember how they felt when they were in your class.”
-Lawrence C. Scharmann, PhD
Course description: Theoretical issues in the area of teaching and learning as applied to the individual disciplines. Investigates issues in secondary science learning and teaching with emphasis on contextualized practice in each field as well as interdisciplinary approaches to planning, research, testing, laboratory safety, and the affective and cognitive needs of diverse learners.
Scharmann’s tips for evolving from good to great teaching
Below, Scharmann shares his advice to make instruction more personal—even in a stadium-size lecture hall.
1. Be ready to share the “why” of every concept you teach
It is the age-old question that every teacher will someday face from an impatient or curious student: “Why do I need to learn this?” A great teacher, says Scharmann, is always able to answer that question, placing the subject matter in context and clearly explaining why it matters. While good teachers likely know the answer, synthesizing it on the spot can be a challenge, so when developing a curriculum, it may be helpful to keep that question in mind—and jot down what to say if it pops up in class.
2. Show students that you care about them as people
A good teacher sees the student as a whole person, says Scharmann.
“Spend a little time at the beginning of a semester finding out some of your students’ interests, likes, and dislikes,” Scharmann says. “This allows them to see that you’re interested in a relationship and that you care about them.”
Scharmann says he uses a survey to collect students’ interests, then he reviews them at home and brings up their individual interests in class as often as he can. He calls this “situational interest” and says it can make students more passionate about the material.
“Use their parents’ jobs. Use their career aspirations,” he says. “It’s about building a relationship with the content.”
3. Think about how each topic affects students’ lives
Scharmann recommends looking for ways to connect every topic to an aspect of students’ everyday lives. “Think about the content [the way] your students are thinking about it,” he says. “Think about how it might help them make a personal decision now and in their future adult life.”
Also encourage students to consider how many careers might be impacted by the subject at hand. “If somebody is studying mitosis and they think, ‘Well, this only applies to biologists’—well, no, it actually applies to forensic scientists and police,” he says. “If you can point some of those careers out, they’re more likely to think about, study, and be more interested in the content.” (Those first-week surveys help with all of this, too.)
4. Ask students to share their real opinions (in a safe space)
Debates or even class discussion often put introverted students on the defensive (even to the point of complete withdrawal), and many test questions are presented in yes-or-no format, which can limit their need to employ critical thinking. To encourage students to engage more deeply and personally with the material, Scharmann recommends including reflective essays and solitary reading or assignments, especially with controversial topics such as evolution, religion, and politics.
“Take a topic like climate change,” he says. “Rather than having them feel threatened in group discussion that they don’t feel the way some of their peers do, this can provide a way for them to express what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling.”