Teaching Neuroscience in Nairobi (Part 2)

It has been 3 weeks that I’ve been lecturing at Kenyatta University. Next week’s Lecture should be awesome:

(Note the date)

And maybe I’m having fun! When’s the last time a professor created a promotional poster for an upcoming lecture? Well, when each one is 2 and a half hours, longer than a movie, it can feel like a production. Also – if you want your students to be excited and enthralled with science, we should treat it like entertainment.

Insight: Quizzes that model real world tasks

Unsurprisingly, my students have balked at having to take the first quiz. They complained because I only provided lecture materials on Facebook and by Email and over smart phones. Why can’t I just print it out and hand it to them?

My replies:

  • Whether you like it or not, the world runs on the Internet. Either get used to it now, or get used to it when you leave the university and enter the real world. Or get used to being unemployed.
  • Each of you has a smart phone. You share a graduate students lab with a desktop computer connected to free Internet. Even if – as you say – that Internet doesn’t always work, you only need it to work 5 minutes a week in order to copy the notes.
  • Your university doesn’t own any textbooks. And I found an online, interactive textbook that will actually teach you the material better than a paper book. Use it!
Them: “Can’t you postpone the quiz? We’re not ready!”
Me: “Sorry gang. In the real world you have to perform whether you’re ready or not.”
Them: “Seriously! You’re going to fail us all!”
Me: “No. One quiz that counts for less than 5% of your grade won’t ruin your life. Not being able to adapt to change will certainly ruin you for your whole career.”

So I gave them the quiz.

Each had 15 minutes to answer these four questions:

  1. Diagram a neuron. Show and label the machinery in how a neurotransmitter is synthesized, transported, packaged, secreted, and any downstream effects.
  2. What are the two broad classes of receptors?
  3. Choose one of the biogenic amines and show how it is synthesized.
  4. Pick one of these and explain what his big idea was that changed science: Thomas Kuhn, Richard Feynmann
I collected the papers. “At the end of class, you will all have another 5 minutes to add anything to your answers that comes to you during the next two hours. Because in the real world, you’re not expected to have perfect recall of everything – but a broad working knowledge. In the real world you can always add to your answer but time is against you.
We then had the lecture. And then I gave them their five minutes, expecting that some of them had looked through their notes for answers.

And after, of the 5 students taking this quiz (and the course) for credit, the one who had whined the most about being underprepared got 95 percent of the answers right in the first round. She added the remaining 5% of what she’d missed given those extra 5 minutes.

However, the other students only had about 50% of the answers right in round one. They added very little to their answers at the end of class, and much of what they wrote was wrong.

Insights from modeling quizzes on real world situations

In the real world, experts, consultants, and leaders typically have the ability to consult external information. Memory recall hasn’t been an essential for centuries, since the end of the age of scribes. But one’s ability to synthesize information, think, and form conclusions from a broad and accurate working knowledge on many subjects is what I believe to be the skill of thinking like a scientist.

I am teaching this course because I want to train students to think like scientists. Kenya needs more of these thinkers.

I test not what you can remember, but what you understand.

For the next quiz I will give them a figure from a Neuroscience journal article and ask them to explain it’s conclusion. Three out of my four questions intentionally had many possible answers, but all of them required the student to synthesize information into a model, or demonstrate an understanding of the connections between ideas.

Those who understand perform even better with time and access to relevant information.

For those who don’t understand to begin with, no amount of time or access to information will matter.

This is what my quiz design tells me. So I am going to keep using the format. It allows good students to further separate from the poor ones. And it rewards people who can construct a clear outline in their notes (I won’t allow textbooks or my printed lecture notes).

5 thoughts on “Teaching Neuroscience in Nairobi (Part 2)

  1. Wauh! what an exciting area of study! Iam sure you are enjoying!

    By the way, Kenyatta University is where i went for my undergraduate degree!

  2. Joan – the person who did best already knew the answers to begin with, but simply lacked the self-confidence to embrace the challenge. I suspect that person is more capable psychologically now.

    That’s learning something valuable!

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