This is how I teach
This month we spoke to Dr James Botten from the School of Biological Sciences about how he encourages and maintains student engagement. With over 20 years teaching experience at the University of Adelaide, James also discusses the ways he still finds daily inspiration in his teaching.
What do you like most about teaching in your discipline?
As a microbiologist by training I am fascinated by the incredible complexity of bacteria; these tiny organisms, which most people consider to be “simple”, have a massive impact on the world and life as we understand it. This mostly goes unnoticed, except when those bacteria are disease causing pathogens! The vast range of bacterial infections in humans, and the complications caused by increasing resistance to antibiotics, make understanding how bacteria grow, spread and cause disease incredibly important, both to prevent the spread of infection and to treat the many thousands of infections that occur each day around the world.
The challenge in learning about bacteria comes from their molecular complexity; for most people this is very hard to visualise, as the amount of detail can be quite overwhelming - it is not uncommon for students to “switch off” and disengage from their learning because they cannot easily picture what is happening. Simplifying these complex systems and making them accessible to students is a key challenge and enjoyment for me as an educator; being there when they actually grasp the concept and seeing their satisfaction (and relief!) when they understand a complex molecular system is the best part of teaching in my discipline.
How would you describe your approach to teaching/your teaching philosophy?
I have had the privilege of teaching at the University of Adelaide for 20 years, and asking questions has always been at the core of my approach to teaching. Asking questions acknowledges to another person there are gaps in your understanding, which in turn demonstrates two things. First, a willingness to learn - you ask because you want to know (whatever the underlying reason!). Less obviously, it shows vulnerability - no one likes being “wrong”, and most students are afraid of asking what in their minds is a “dumb” question for fear of ridicule. In every aspect of my teaching, I am constantly encouraging students to ask their questions, to never assume their question isn’t worth asking. Sometimes questions are not well articulated, which gives me the opportunity to help them reshape their thinking; it is not uncommon for this process to actually end up with the student answering their own question!
The best part of asking questions is that I get to show I don’t have all the answers, and that discovering answers together, through discussion and some reading/research, is an enjoyable exercise in itself!
What is your favourite way to use technology to enhance learning?
In a word: Low-tech. Using PowerPoint presentations with a bit of animation, or even better, simple pen and paper, can be used to show students they don’t necessarily need complex explanations to understand complex ideas. A lot of time can be spent learning new teaching methods or engaging with multiple teaching tools; while there can be benefits to this, I have always felt time invested directly engaging with my students gives the best outcomes.
Of course more advanced technology can help in some circumstances, and one of my favourite examples was developed as part of a Students-as-Partners project funded through a Learning Enhancement and Innovation Grant. A simulation (accessible here: https://lti-adx.adelaide.edu.au/learn-en-in/mol-bio/analysis/) was designed to help students grasp the theoretical background for an experiment with plasmids (small circular DNA molecules commonly used in molecular biology research) which they need to design and then carry out in the lab.
Supporting authentic learning experiences, with simple or more advanced technology, is my favourite way to enhance learning.
How does your teaching help prepare students for their future?
Students have asked me “How will knowing about this particular bacterial pathogen or molecular process be useful for my career? I haven’t caught the microbiology “bug” (pun definitely intended!) and I don’t want to do microbiology research”. I always reassure them that their time learning about microbiology has not been wasted. They have spent time developing skills in visualising complex relationships, analysing competing factors in the host-pathogen interaction and understanding detailed biological and technical processes. These all help students grow in their problem-solving ability, which of course is useful to every career.
It is always my hope that the greatest gain students experience in their time at university is in their desire to learn; not just about microbiology, but about anything that piques their interest. If a student decides they want to study or work in a completely different area, I still take satisfaction in knowing that in studying microbiology they have had the opportunity to grow in their ability to learn.