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6 tips for scientists on effective teaching

I am a scientist with passion for science and education. This passion brought me to the world of science communication. I started to dive into this world four years ago when - I have to confess - I knew as much about education as a non-scientist knows about bacteria (my subject of study in the lab). After many hours dedicated to organising, delivering and improving 100+ science workshops to school children, and after attending a summer course delivered knowledgeably by Rosie Tanner and Elma Zijderveld at Utrecht University (Netherlands), I realise that I have learned some valuable lessons during this journey. Therefore, I would like to share with you my 6 top tips for scientists on effective teaching:

  1. Start by activating prior knowledge. Start with the basics, such as an easy-to-answer question or a recognizable picture or story. This strategy does not only put students at ease, but it also sets the scene for the topic you want to teach. In general, it is easier to learn if you build upon existing knowledge which you can relate to, than if you try to learn something totally from scratch.

  2. Pick diverse types of supporting material. There are eight types of intelligences (visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical-rhythmic and naturalistic) and even though everyone has all of them, there are usually one or two intelligences that are dominant in every person. When teaching, it is important to consider all the different ways that information can be presented (such as image, text, graphs, activity,…) in order to engage the highest possible number of students.

  3. Allow time for the information to sink in. Time is the world’s most precious commodity nowadays, but rushing through information and going through things quickly do not help with learning or remembering. The “aha!” moment needs time to happen, so, if you really want to teach effectively, remember that often, less is more.

  4. Stimulate discussion. Conventional school classes are based on listening, reading or writing. However, unless you are very motivated to learn something, it may be difficult to stay focused during the whole duration of the class. Most people will agree that it is easier to remember something when you create or experience it first hand, than if you only read or listen to it. A speaking activity, such as a debate or discussion, allows students to express their own opinions, engage in their own learning process and communicate their ideas to others. Speaking about a topic helps students to anchor what they are learning better. Thus, a debate or discussion constitutes a valuable tool for effective teaching.

  5. Guide understanding. Be clear about what you expect from the students and guide their understanding of the topic. For example, if you use a video with a new topic, define and share specific goals for this exercise before showing the video, so that the students know what to look for. If you don’t inform the students about what they are supposed to pay attention to, they may get distracted or pay attention to something that is irrelevant to what you want to explain. This also applies to articles or reading texts. If you want students to understand or extract relevant information from a text, guide their understanding from the start by asking questions, such as: What are the authors trying to understand? What methods did they use? What challenges did they face? etc.

  6. Count 10 elephants after asking a question. When you ask a question and want your students to give an answer, it may feel like an eternity until you have the first hand up. Allow your students some time to process the provided information and formulate their contribution. This is particularly important in bilingual teaching, as students may feel insecure or less comfortable in the native language. So, remember to always be patient.

About the author: Joana Moscoso

Co-founder and director of Native Scientist. Joana also works as a post-doc at i3s, the biggest research institute in Portugal. She is trying to understand how bacteria cause infections. Joana likes traveling the world and has previously lived in Sweden, Australia and the UK. She speaks 3 languages. Joana loves spending time with friends and food. She dreams of having her own restaurant one day.

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