Professional Development : Education meets Research in the Teaching as Research Fellowship

by Sanae Ferreira

As a graduate or postdoctoral trainee, there are a number of types of opportunities for professional development. One which some of you may have experienced is assisting in some way with teaching a course or a discussion or laboratory section. We are scientists, learners, and teachers. We are passionate, inquisitive, and diverse. There are countless questions to study, and much to learn from them.

Having been through many years of school primarily as a student, I developed a curiosity about education and all the back work that goes into preparing a successful and inspiring curriculum that effectively presents new material to students. Some techniques seemed to cause frustration to students, and others really hit the target and made a class stand out for good reasons.

With this interest in education, I sought an opportunity to assist with a new course. Within the newness of that experience dwelled the potential for a fresh and dynamic approach to work with students and solidify material for myself as I spent more time with it.

Teaching as Research (TAR) is the use of scientific research methods to develop and implement practices that effectively advance the learning experiences and outcomes of the students. This national program is growing very quickly, and the list of participating institutions has grown from 22 to 48 in the last year. I found out about the one-year Teaching as Research Fellowship in Fall 2014 and I applied to begin in January 2015.

I wanted to participate because it enabled me to bridge my interest in education and apply it in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with the goal of optimizing educational outcomes of students. Heading up an independent education research project is an excellent skill to develop to learn valuable techniques to evaluate progress and success.

The first semester of the TAR fellowship consists of weekly seminars where the TAR community gathers to design, develop, and discuss an education project related to the teaching of a STEM course. These discussions were supplemented with findings in the education literature about methods for teaching. The second semester, most fellows carried out their projects and were able to elicit feedback from the group when needed.

Here is what I loved about the experience:

  1. For a researcher, applying the scientific method and the cycle of inquiry in different ways to make the experience of learning better is exciting and valuable. Within my discussion group alone, there were like-minded trainees who hailed from different disciplines and perspectives: neuroscience, pathology, physiology, geography, physics, and myself from nutrition. The intellectual community and discussions where I learned from my peers were a highlight.
  1. As I continued as a teaching assistant while in the fellowship, I felt that I could put on “a different hat” in the classroom and take the chance to discover potential ways to turn observation of challenges into concrete changes in practice. This could allow me to be a more effective instructor and foster student success. I felt more engaged in teaching and invested in being observant and responsive to how well our methods were working.

There are many goals of TAR, and I am very glad to have participated. My peers who either completed their projects or are midway address a broad range of very important issues:

  • inquiry based learning
  • group learning and composition and size of groups
  • use of and timing of use of models
  • building scientific literacy
  • use of visual narratives to teach experiments
  • peer-led active learning
  • effectiveness of types of interim assessments
  • differences between M.A. and Ph.D. learners
  • facilitated learning
  • student identity in roles of learning assistants or teaching assistants or facilitators
  • discussion formats
  • peer instruction
  • design of exam review sessions

Within the umbrella of each topic, developed by the fellows, are great detail and a targeted design for the subject matter and the students in that course.

Are you curious? Do you think you might like to apply? You’re in luck – there will be a showcase in L109A/B this Wednesday January 13, 2016 at 10:00-11:30 am where you can talk to some of the fellows, hear about projects, and ask questions.

Contact information and application information are in the flyer below!