Biology lecturer Dr. Shereen Sabet shares her views on the pitfalls of modern teaching trends and when traditional methods can be more beneficial.
Lecturer,California State University, Long Beach
PhD in Microbiology and Immunology, BS in Biological Sciences
Dr. Shereen Sabet sees nothing wrong with embracing the miraculous digital teaching tools of the twenty-first century—as long as they are not used as lazy shortcuts by students or professors. PowerPoint presentations top Sabet’s list of the kinds of digital teaching strategies that have spun out of control and shortchanged students in the process.
“Sure, our professors had overhead projectors when I was in college, but they drew things out. They wrote things out. They didn’t have a choice because there was no digital, no PowerPoint slides,” she says. “To say those lectures were bad? Well, all the Nobel Prize winners came from that system, and they taught in that system, so how can anybody criticize what worked for so long?”
Now a biology lecturer at California State University in Long Beach, Sabet does embrace today’s tech tools, including electronic whiteboards, computer-driven projection systems, and online learning management systems. Yet she feels that digital is not always the best way to deliver comprehensive and engaging learning experiences.
“A lot of professors just create PowerPoint slides with text and read them off. That’s not teaching,” she says. “Teaching is explaining a concept or principle that’s difficult or new to students, and to do that, you’re giving analogies and demonstrating and explaining.”
Below, Sabet offers five situations in which she recommends replacing digital tools with a tried-and-true teaching method that has stood the test of time.
“Just because we have newer technologies does not mean that old styles or strategies aren’t just as effective, helpful, and useful to student learning today as they were in yesteryear. We should not abandon highly effective teaching methods or outright substitute them with today’s technologies.”
-Shereen Sabet, PhD
Course: BIOL 430 Immunology
Course description: Study of cellular and molecular components of immune system, including how immune system recognizes pathogens, how it functions in various types of immune responses, mechanisms of vaccines, immunodeficiencies, transplantation, allergy, and autoimmunity.
Sabet’s suggestions for revisiting traditional teaching tools
Long before digital innovations transformed the classroom, talented educators relied on various low-tech approaches to foster learning. Shereen Sabet has seized on the value of such proven methods, which she uses along with more contemporary tools to inspire her students.
1. Instead of posting the syllabus online … have students read it out loud
Online learning management systems have made it easier than ever for educators to put lectures, study materials, and other class content in the hands of their students—but that does not mean that students will read it.
In the past, Sabet routinely read her course syllabus aloud to make sure students knew what it contained—but students seemed bored. “So how do I shake it up?” Sabet asked herself. The solution was simple: Make them do the reading!
To make the experience more collegial, she allows the students to employ a “popcorn” method of choosing who reads next: The current reader gets to decide which student will follow—which means the task “pops” around the classroom. (No one goes twice until everyone has gone once.)
“I’ve got student engagement at the syllabus level,” Sabet says. “It’s a minor thing, but it’s the first time I’ll have students read something out loud to each other, and it ensures that they are active and paying attention.”
2. Instead of flipping the classroom … slow it down and invite questions
Asking students to watch lectures on video as “homework” may work in some situations, but not all, says Sabet. “We scientists have been doing flipped classrooms forever—they’re called labs!” she says. “But when it comes to foundational information, you can’t do a flipped classroom. Students don’t know the material, and you’re basically saying, ‘Go learn it on your own.’”
Sabet says that today’s students hunger for the narrative exchange she experienced as a student. “I slow things down to their pace to make sure they really understand,” she says. “I try to impress upon them that this is a safe place. There is no dumb question.”
When she sees a blank face, she knows it is time to take a break. “It’s usually when I stop and ask if there are any questions that people will raise their hands,” she says. Then she tries a different way of explaining the information until everyone understands it.
3. Instead of delivering dry lectures … spice things up with stories
We all remember teachers who shared personal stories, case studies, or news items that captured our attention. Today, we realize that this was often a strategic maneuver to share information, boost engagement, and create a friendlier bond with students. And this practice has experienced a resurgence, says Sabet.
“Storytelling is just everywhere around us now in society, and I think that triggers something in our heritage as human beings, that ancient part of our brains,” she says.
Drawing upon the same elements of storytelling that writers do is key, she says. “I like to use a lot of analogies when I’m explaining concepts, because they help students visualize things better,” says Sabet. “Storytelling is another way to introduce information and help strengthen information that might be dry if delivered textbook-style.”
For example, when Sabet wants to impress upon her students the gravity of past disease outbreaks before vaccines, she will share the devastating history of indigenous peoples after the Europeans inadvertently brought diseases with them to the western hemisphere. In another example, she juxtaposes the great horrors and death toll of World War I alongside the much greater death toll of the 1918 influenza epidemic. She shares historical and social information, alongside biological, to connect students to and give them a much deeper sense of the day-to-day realities people faced living with infectious diseases that we do not worry about today.
“When you crank down into story mode instead of academic mode, I think they just pay more attention,” she adds. “They feel that it’s a little break—‘I don’t have to do any writing now, I can just listen to her’—and the information becomes less abstract, more real.”
4. Instead of showing premade PowerPoint slides … create digital “slides” in real time
In Sabet’s view, canned PowerPoint presentations—often supplied online as a supplement to textbooks—do not contain enough detail to fill out students’ knowledge properly. As a result, she has eschewed PowerPoint entirely and creates her own digital lecture notes during class using a tablet, Microsoft OneNote, and a laser pointer. (The software allows her to save the work from each class session.)
Using these tech tools, she projects varied long-form content and graphics onto a digital whiteboard and handwrites notes on the fly. Students watch her work, taking their own handwritten notes as she explains the projected content. As Sabet points out, this is basically a glorified, high-tech version of the transparencies and overhead projector used in the past.
5. Instead of testing with Scantrons … let students explain what they know
As an undergraduate, Sabet took mostly multiple-choice exams. So, as a T.A. in graduate school, she was floored to discover that students were tested with exams that simply presented a question followed by nothing but white space. Once she had her own classes, Sabet could see the convenience of multiple choice in big lecture classes: The testing was efficient, the questions were uniform, and the grading was easier. But Sabet also felt that her students were being shortchanged. The kinds of careers that spring from the sciences require critical thinking and judgment, which multiple-choice–style tests do not measure.
“Biology doesn’t have problem-solving like math, physics, or chem, but it’s very principle-based, and you need to understand those concepts in order to apply them and think about the next thing,” Sabet says. “Even though it is a lot to grade, I like the essay-style format because it forces the student to master the material well enough to have to explain it back in their own words.”
At the end of the day, she adds, “I want my students to remember my course material long after they have left my class.”