Rice educators offer practical advice for effective teaching

Members of the Rice community gathered Jan. 16 to celebrate pioneering teaching methods and learn from some of the university’s most celebrated educators at the second annual Symposium on Teaching and Learning, hosted by the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Once again, the event opened with a welcome by Provost George McLendon and remarks by the center’s director, Joshua Eyler, who spoke to a large crowd of Rice faculty, students and staff in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.

Eyler said that the event’s emphasis shifted slightly from last year’s celebration of teaching at Rice to focus on sessions that provide practical advice for implementing effective teaching strategies.

“Our goal for this year’s symposium was to demonstrate and discuss as wide a range of evidence-based teaching practices as possible,” he said.

Following Eyler’s remarks, a group of students and faculty members engaged in a roundtable discussion of the educational experience at Rice. The panel included graduate students Anthony Bosman, Jennifer Bulcock and Kimberly Reichel; undergraduate students Trent Navran, Sarah Schwettmann and Nick Thorpe; and faculty members Barbara Ostdiek, senior associate dean of degree programs at the Jones School of Business and associate professor of finance and statistics; Matthias Henze, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies and professor in religion; and Scott Solomon, professor in the practice of biosciences.

“Whenever we address the issue of teaching here at Rice, we do so in the context of a research university,” Henze said. “And so we go back again and again to the question, Is there a meaningful connection between research and teaching? And the answer is, Obviously there is.”

Henze said this examination leads to other questions: What does the connection between research and teaching look like? What should it look like?

Keynote speaker Ed Prather

Bulcock, a doctoral student studying and teaching philosophy, said that in the classroom, she strives to make the material relevant to her students’ daily lives. In her bioethics class, she gives students a theoretical framework to analyze examples from pop culture — such as scenarios presented in the popular medical drama “House” — and asks her students to construct ethical arguments and explain why their perspective is right or wrong.

“They’re really excited and really engaged when they do it,” Bulcock said.

Following lunch, Ed Prather, associate professor of astronomy and executive director of the Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona, gave the keynote address. In his remarks, he stressed the importance of teachers setting high expectations for their students.

“This is your class,” he said. “You’re the facilitator and you’re the one who makes the expectation that they will develop to or not. How you communicate every aspect of what it is you hope for them to do and why it would be valuable is part of your job. It’s part of the skill set that moves you from novice instructor to professional educator.”

Prather discussed the importance of active-engagement instructional strategies. Like video games, Prather said, these techniques have the benefit of producing different chemical reactions in students’ brains in lectures that make them want to “play” and go deeper and be challenged at another level.

Eyler said Prather is highly regarded as an expert on active learning in science education.

“We thought we would offer some important perspectives and a range of practical tips for our faculty to test out in their own classrooms,” he said.

The final panel of the day included teaching demonstrations from Eyler, who is also an adjunct associate professor of humanities; Justin Denney, an assistant professor of sociology; Lesa Tran, the Wiess Instructor of Chemistry; and John Hutchinson, dean of undergraduates and professor of chemistry.

Hutchinson and Tran discussed their use of Student-Centered Active Learning at Rice (or SCAL@R) in teaching chemistry at Rice. SCAL@R classes include students in small discussion groups instead of the traditional seating in a large lecture hall. The format is designed to make large survey courses feel more like seminars and to improve student interest and retention of material. Following their presentation, Denney demonstrated how student response systems — commonly known as “clickers” — can be used to survey students and promote engagement, foster discussion and make teaching more dynamic.

All in all, Eyler called the second annual Symposium on Teaching and Learning a tremendous success.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with the way the event turned out, and we’ve received a lot of comments from attendees who found the program to be truly valuable,” Eyler said. “The real key will be moving from the ideas we heard at the symposium to executing these research-validated practices in our classrooms.”

For more information on Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, visit http://cte.rice.edu/.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.