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Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: Allison Leich Hilbun and Student Mini-Lectures

Posted by on Monday, March 4, 2019 in News, Resource.

By Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern

Dr. Allison Leich Hilbun, Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences, teaches BSCI 3270: Statistical Methods in Biology, also called biostatistics. Dr. Leich Hilbun loves teaching biostatistics, as I witnessed firsthand when I took her class last semester. She pairs her genuine excitement for sharing the material with various activities and assignments designed to jumpstart student’s learning. One example is a well-known but underutilized pedagogy for active learning: student teaching.

Last fall after a CFT seminar on the topic inspired her, Leich Hilbun formed groups of about 4 students. Each group had 30 minutes in class to prepare a 4-5 minute mini-lecture on the topic of principal component analysis (PCA). Students had previously watched a video introducing PCA, and Leich Hilbun had also given a short lecture on this challenging topic at the beginning of class. Leich Hilbun knew, however, that students generally struggled with this topic and so wanted to give them a chance to explain it to themselves and each other. All the groups therefore presented their mini-lectures to their colleagues, pretending they were the class’s lecturers and that the students listening had never heard the topic before.

Leich Hilbun’s informal, unstructured assignment was a big hit. Students now understood a previously confusing topic. Feedback was extremely positive; students came up to Leich Hilbun to let her know how helpful they found it. There are several elements that contribute to the success of how Leich Hilbun used student teaching:

  • By leaving the exact content of their mini-lecture up to the groups, she allowed students to focus on different parts of the topic, from concepts to examples. She especially saw students hone in on the confusing parts of the material for their presentation, clearing it up for the rest of the class. After all, students themselves know best where they get lost in a topic.
  • The assignment was ungraded but students voted on the best presentation, competing for a candy prize. This kept students motivated and engaged while also reducing pressure.
  • The topic was just the right level of confusing so that students could benefit from teaching it but also weren’t so lost that they didn’t know where to start. In addition, the background info from the video and Leich Hilbun’s lecture gave them a starting point.

Leich Hilbun is teaching biostatistics for the 5th time this semester, and she plans on using student teaching for PCA again. She shows how just some careful thought, a basic structure, and a little time can allow for easy incorporation of student teaching. As a student myself, I think student teaching is amazing, especially in such a casual environment. Teaching a topic really is one of the best ways to learn it or check your knowledge, and you also benefit from others’ understanding.

For other active learning approaches, check out the CFT’s guide on active learning or Associate Director Cynthia Brame’s new book, Science Teaching Essentials.


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