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Award Winning Teachers: Jennifer Osterhage, Biology
By Elizabeth Varnado
February 10, 2020
Every year, The Office for Faculty Advancement, with support from CELT, awards faculty and graduate teaching assistants for outstanding teaching. These individuals are recognized for their powerful impact within their classrooms and dedication to innovative pedagogy. As the nominations for the 2020 awards are submitted this month, I sat down with Dr. Jennifer Osterhage, professor of Biology, who was a 2019 recipient of the award.
Dr. Osterhage has taught at UK since 2011, and is currently the Director of Undergraduate Studies for her department. She primarily teaches Intro to Biology. Her research interests are in science education, specifically understanding students' self-regulatory and study behaviors. She is currently researching how retrieval practice activities can help students calibrate their understanding of their own knowledge. In our interview, we discussed some of the retrieval practice activities she uses in her large-lecture classroom, as well as shifts in her teaching philosophy over time. (For more on teaching first-year students, see Dr. Osterhage's essay "Ten First Years" in Greater Faculties: A Review of Teaching and Learning.)
What are some of the challenges of teaching in your discipline?
A lot of students coming in think that biology is just about memorizing facts, and that's all they’ll need to be able to do, when we really expect definite application, even at the intro level. I think students are surprised by that, because they've had success in the past just memorizing facts and doing well. But, that's just not going to cut it in this course.
I think a lot about how we can increase the motivation of the students in the course, particularly those students who aren't biology majors. There are other life science majors [in the course] and Intro to Biology is just a required course for their curriculum. We know that non-biology majors don't do as well. Really, there's just a huge range of students in the course…some students will have had AP Biology, and other students will literally have had one year of biology in high school, taught by the football coach. So the challenge is getting everybody on board, giving a good learning experience for everybody.
What are your favorite teaching strategies or lesson plans you use to reach that broad range of students coming into your biology classes?
I don't know if I have a favorite teaching strategy, but one of my favorite things to do is actually just use what's been shown in the literature to work! We know that active learning—group work, clickers, active engagement in the classroom— helps students learn and I've seen that borne out in my own class. I started out predominantly as a lecturer and I think I was good at it…I explain things really clearly. But, you know, I realized that there were a large chunk of students who that didn't work for. So, I just started incorporating more and more structure, and more student-centered activities in the course, and have seen a progressive decrease in the number of students who aren't doing well. Anything active, within reason, is my favorite. I have 250 students minimum in there, so I always try to keep the constraints of the class size in mind, and my own time constraints…but I really like thinking about ways to incorporate pedagogy strategies that have been shown to work in the classroom.
What's an example of active learning in a classroom with 250 students?
Every day we work on some sort of group activity. I am trying formal groups this semester, so they all have named their groups. I have groups share out their answers, but I don't want students to feel like they're getting called out; I’m sensitive to that. So before I call on them, I'll have their group name written on the board and say, "Hey, this group, you're going to answer this question today. If you want me to come up there, I can help you talk through the answer.” This works to create a space where they don't feel intimidated to answer the question. Some of my most favorite times in teaching are times where I'm actually doing nothing!
We have group quizzes and group "earn your curve" questions. So for quizzes, we have students work individually for eight or so minutes on the questions themselves, but then they can talk to whoever they want about the answers before they submit. And I've recently said, "Okay, if anyone wants the microphone to talk with everybody in the class, you can do that, too." There’s just so much energy, in the classroom...just this passionate, crazy six minutes of activity (with a timer projected so students know exactly how much time they have). Students will raise their hand, they want the mic like, "Okay, everybody, let's talk about this one thing!" And that's just a really fun classroom moment. We do the same thing for what we call “Earn your Curve.” We give them the five most missed questions from the exam, and they can talk about those questions in groups, and submit their answers to earn some points back on the test.
Of course, I have clicker questions, but I choose questions where I know that I'm going to see a split in students answers: 90% of the students aren’t going to get it right, there will be a split in what students think the right answer is. So I’ll project the results up so that students can see what percentage of students have chosen this answer or that. I do this while the polling is still open, so that they can change their answers if they want. So I say, “Okay, try to convince your neighbor of the correct answer!” And we watch the answers recalibrate and move up and down in the polls. And usually, I don't have to do anything because the correct answer, over time, just rises to the top! Sometimes it doesn't, and then I have to address that. But that's another fun teaching moment, too.
How do you feel your teaching philosophy has changed in your years of experience?
My first few years as a teacher, I was really passionate, I was animated, I was organized, but I really was not focusing on student-centered learning. And I have just realized that really does work. It’s maybe easier for me to just stand up there and talk, but that's not as effective, and the students don't always understand that they're not learning as much from that method. There was a recent study that came out that said students perceive that they're learning more from a lecture than they are in an active learning environment. Early on, my students perceived that they were learning just fine. I got good teaching evaluations. because the students think, “She explained things so clearly,” but that's all I was doing the whole time. I was just talking through material. It’s the students who have to demonstrate their knowledge at the end of the day, right? So, you really do have to get students to buy in. I show students those articles and say “hey, you might think that you're learning more from me talking up here, but really that isn't the case and these activities are going pay off…” You really have to get them to understand why it's happening. I think that's been my biggest shift. My teaching is not so much about how well I can organize and explain, it's more about guiding my students through scaffolded activities to get them where we're going to expect them to be.
One thing I’ve realized from my research is that students are really, really overconfident for that first biology exam. They think they know the material a lot better than they do. And I've really been trying to think about ways to help them better calibrate, to realize before the test, “Hey, I don't know it as well as I think…” If you think you know the material, then you think you're done studying, right? If you don't even realize you don't know it, that's a problem! So I want to help them get to a point where they have a better understanding of what they know and don't know yet.