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Fernald: Turn teaching ideas upside down to design a new course

Russell Fernald was demonstrating what he calls the "Knowledge Transfer Mode" of teaching. His long face pulled into a mocking, half-lidded deadpan, he raised one hand to intone: "I have the knowledge. I'm going to give it to you in bits. If you're lucky, you'll get it all."

"What you have to do is change that," he said as the laughter subsided at a standing-room-only session of the popular "Teachers on Teaching" seminar series. Speaking Thursday, May 1, on the topic of designing a new college course, Fernald delivered a soup-to-nuts primer on course design, from developing the concept to writing the syllabus to designing a final exam that tests students' knowledge. In the process, he revealed some of the results of a personal search for new ways to connect with students and draw them into the excitement of learning.

Fernald, a professor of psychology, came to Stanford in 1990 from the University of Oregon, where he was director of the Institute of Neurosciences. He developed a new psychology class, "Brain and Behavior," first offered in the fall of 1992 to 45 students; since, it has grown to more than 300.

This past year, Fernald has been a member of a team developing a new science course for non-scientists, the "Light" track of the three-quarter undergraduate Science Core. He said that both experiences have forced him to re-think how he conceptualizes and organizes a course. "You would think [these] would be easy ­ that you could just transform more complex courses into simpler ones," he said. "But in fact it's infinitely harder, and harder in a way that's useful to learn about . . . [my colleagues and I] basically have had to turn our ideas about how to teach science upside down."

Classic science courses, the kind that Fernald and his colleagues learned from, require students to learn by the accretion of endless small details in the hope of coming to a big payoff at the end, he said. "These students will not put up with that. If you want these students to be motivated, you want to get to the issues right away and you want them to understand the concepts involved."

Thus for the Science Core, students are introduced to light first via the lasers that make CDs work, then to the quantum mechanics that make lasers work. "We've developed what we call a 'just-in-time' method for teaching basic concepts," Fernald said. "It's not just a depth versus breadth question. It's really in trying to conceptualize how to go into depth and present complex material."

Setting objectives

To reach that point took the Science Core team ­ including Fernald, Pat Burchat of physics, Sharon Long of biological sciences and Brad Osgood of mathematics ­ a year of planning and setting objectives for the course. In his lecture Fernald focused on two key aspects of the planning process: pedagogy and content. "Probably the most important thing is to set yourself pedagogical principles for the course. It's rare that this happens, but over 50 percent of our discussions were about pedagogical issues."

What kinds of choices can be made about pedagogy? One prime example was a decision about how much time to devote to in-class discussion. With no way to predict how much scientific preparation Science Core students ­ most of them freshmen ­ would bring to the course, the team recognized that they must get all of the students in class to enter into the process of learning.

"We talked about our experience in the various science classes we had as undergraduates and, without exception, none of the faculty could remember being excited by a science class," Fernald said. Most remembered classes in which the concepts they were learning did not become clear until the last moment. "That jogged us to try to get students to stay on top of what was going on so it wasn't an after-the-fact learning experience."

One method that has worked well has been to embed break-out sessions into each lecture, where students, faculty and teaching assistants divide into small groups to work out some problem.

Choosing content was a major hurdle for both courses, Fernald said. The problem was what not to include. With Brain and Behavior, because he was teaching about his own research specialty, "I had to avoid what I call the 'tyranny of coverage,' of forcing the students to learn everything that I knew in some modified form," he said.

He credits electrical engineering graduate student Jim Schneider with introducing a skeptical Science Core faculty to a technique well-known in some educational circles: the concept map. During a planning retreat, Schneider had the team writing down the essential concepts that must be taught in the course on yellow sticky notes and placing them all over the walls. By rearranging the stickies, the team could see new ways of organizing the material.

"This really helps you frame things differently. And one of the most difficult things in teaching is knowing how to frame things so students understand them," Fernald said.

Fernald highlighted some of the essential specifics of designing the course, beginning with the syllabus, a tool he uses to lay out both the expectations students must meet during the quarter and the organizational philosophy of the course. Details about required readings, sections, reviews, a no-makeup-exams policy should all be very explicit, he says, "so [students] are fully aware of the rules they are playing by."

At the same time, the syllabus for Brain and Behavior describes the goals of the course, including the hope that students "will learn to think critically about scientific evidence about the brain and behavior, and will become able to evaluate its validity and relevance to important issues in your own life."

"I want to put that up there as something they should be thinking about during this class," Fernald said.

Throughout the course, he said, "I have found it extremely useful to just explain your organizational philosophy to the students. You can't explain it often enough. I put it in the syllabus, and I explain it [in lectures] when we come to a new segment. It may be as simple as saying, 'We are going to learn about the nervous system,' or saying, 'We're going to leave this level of organization and go to the next level of organization.' "

He chooses textbooks as a supplement to his lectures and is ambivalent about handouts in class: "The good news is that students who read the handouts can think about the lecture. The bad news is that some of them will read instead of thinking about it." When his Brain and Behavior class burgeoned past 300 students, he devised an interactive computer program as an added study tool, to give students some of the one-on-one feedback that they received when the class was smaller. He credits undergraduate Steve Balt ­ recently graduated in human biology ­ for making the program come alive.

"I wrote the material and he put it on diskette, and the students found it dreadfully boring," Fernald said. "So Steve went back and turned it into an undergraduate diskette, with little men with spears jumping out at unexpected times. When you touch the auditory portion of the brain, it says things to you. He added a level of playfulness I wouldn't have thought of myself."

Another tool for making the material explicit to the students is a study guide to help them prepare for each exam. It consists of a series of broad questions, covering the major areas they will be tested on. Students who study this material have a very good chance of doing well on the exam, Fernald says. "This is wildly inclusive. You couldn't put all of it on the exam. But they ultimately feel that this is a very fair method because you have told them in advance that some of this material will be on the exam."

Fernald has used a range of methods to help him get students engaged with the material they are learning. He opened the Teachers on Teaching seminar with a list of acknowledgments to colleagues he has learned from, including his wife, psychologist Anne Fernald, and biologist Donald Kennedy, with whom he co-teaches a course in human biology.

The Science Core and co-teaching with Kennedy have made him a strong advocate of team teaching. "I don't mean tag-team teaching, where one person develops their lecture and never goes back to class," he said. "This team is really participating in the class and its development."

He also calls on his teaching assistants to critique his lectures ­ both for what he can learn from them and as a way of demonstrating that teaching is an important and rewarding part of a professional career. "I find it useful to say: 'Today I'm going to try these three new things, please look for them and see how they work,' " he says.

Fernald has campaigned for improvements in the end-of-quarter course evaluations, and he urged his listeners to take those evaluations seriously and to let students know that they do so. "You will be delighted with the insights they have for you," he said.

He especially urged fellow teachers to find ways to get to know their students individually ­ even in large classes. He holds lunches for students ­ with free pizza ­ and he makes it a point to write letters to the best 12 or 15 students each quarter. "I say I was thrilled to see how well you did in class, I appreciate your creative input," he said. "It's such an exciting thing to meet the students who really are interested in the material, who changed their majors, changed their lives. Those are the ones who make you want to continue teaching."

Videotaped copies of the "Teachers on Teaching" sessions may be borrowed from the Center for Teaching and Learning, 723-1326. For more information about CTL on the World Wide Web, see Stanford's Science Core is on the Web at


By Janet Basu