Alina Avanesyan
Among the redwoods -- Muir Woods

The board is your friend!

– December 17, 2012

I teach biology labs. Our typical lab usually includes a short lecture, a discussion about homework (so called pre-labs), a wet lab (i.e., an experiment), and exercises or answering questions. Having so many activities I found myself trapped in the situation where I have to explain the next lab phase to students while some of them are still working and are not listening to me. Even those who had finished the previous lab phase were not paying attention to me because of the noise from the others. I didn’t feel comfortable at all: I was rather helpless and quite unimportant. Besides, my teaching is also complicated by my accent: I am afraid that even if my students hear me, they won’t be able to figure out what I’m trying to explain.

Such situations were not very comfortable in my past either – even when I taught in my native language. One simple solution for professors in my native country was to speak louder – eventually all students would start looking at her and listening to the lecture. We were used to it as students, we did it later as professors. There were, of course, different versions of this approach: to speak very loud, to pause the lecture, or, as yet another option, I remember one professor used to start whispering when students continued to talk. I tried some of these approaches, but I didn’t like any of them. I thought all of them were artificial ways to attract students’ attention to what the professor had to say.

Over the years, I started thinking that such situations simply will not occur if the professor naturally attracts students’ attention by doing and/or telling something interesting, as well as by keeping students (and herself!) busy and organized during the class.

Keeping this in mind I looked for ways to prevent these uncomfortable situations from happening, as well as ways to reduce the possibility of students misunderstanding me due to my accent. One day I followed the suggestion of one of my professors about a particularly complicated lab: she suggested writing the lab flow on the board. Which I did.

I told my students that when they had finished one part of the lab they could look at the board for what to do next. If I needed to give an explanation before each task, I waited until everyone started doing the task, I would then ask them to pause and listen to my brief explanation, and then they would continue. I’ve noticed that it helped me and students to be more organized; as a result, I had less pauses in class.

Writing the lab flow on the board for that complicated lab was helpful. In fact, it proved helpful for any lab. Since then I have been writing flows for each lab, even the simple ones with few activities. I have also realized that it is important to make my writing as clear and legible as possible and to refer to the lab flow on the board often; otherwise, students simply wouldn’t pay attention to what I wrote. The last bullet in the lab flow is especially important: it means the end of the class – at which point students know what they should turn in before they go, what needs to be cleaned up, etc.

Based on feedback from students, this lab flow idea is helpful for them as well. Thinking back to my past teaching experiences, I wish I knew this at that time. I am sure this simple approach would’ve helped me keep students’ attention and make their learning experience more enjoyable.