Alternate approaches in graduate seminars
The following text developed from the solicitation by my professor for ideas about teaching approaches in an graduate neuroscience seminar in which I was enrolled.  These are not recipes for lessons, but rather are illustrations of an alternate framework on which to hang your own ideas.



Idea #1: Quotes as prompts for discussion

A major problem in some classes (depending on the make-up) is encouraging participation in discussion.  The hesitancy to contribute sometimes stems from the fact that science is largely content.  Any opinions offered must be backed by knowledge.  Students, by definition, are in the process of acquiring content and are thus lacking in a solid knowledge base to offer comments on material as specific as this course usually covers.

On the other hand, very general areas such the nature of science would, I suspect, encourage discussion from a broader knowledge base.  As a warm-up exercise (and forgive me if this is reminiscent of middle school) a quote such as one of the following might be presented and debated.  Although there are many pithy statements adorning the frontpieces of theses and dissertations, each of the following are open to debate as some might be controversial or at least outdated.
 
 
[Science is] the desire to know causes.
     -William Hazlitt (1778-1830) English essayist.

Shall I refuse my dinner because I do not fully understand the process of digestion?
     -Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925) English physicist.

In Science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurred.
     -Sir William Osler (1849-1919) Canadian physician.

We see only what we know.
     -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet, dramatist.

Truth in science can be defined as the working hypothesis best suited to open the way to the next better one.
     -Konrad (Zacharias) Lorenz (1903-89) Austrian ethologist. [Nobel prize for medicine, 1973]

There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.
     -Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) English philosopher and mathematician.

In these days, a man who says a thing cannot be done is quite apt to be interrupted by some idiot doing it.
     -Elbert Green Hubbard (1865-1915) U. S. author, editor, printer.

Basic research is what I am doing when I don't know what I am doing.
     -Werner Von Braun (1912-1977) German rocket engineer, in U. S. after 1945.

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
     -Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) U. S. inventor.

Chance favors the prepared mind.
     -Louis Pasteur (1822-95) French chemist and bacteriologist.

I would hope that discussion of these quotes would lead to thinking about individual approaches toward research, experimental design, etc.  Research articles might also be discussed in the context of the quote-of-the-day or which we might return to as closure as a way of end-capping a concept.


Idea #2: Recursiveness and the spiral curriculum

A problem endemic to education past the 6th grade is the absence of recursiveness with regard to areas of content (as opposed to skill-based subjects like mathematics and other foreign languages).  Recursiveness should not be confused with repetition, simply repeating the same material perhaps in a slightly modified form.  By contrast, many middle schools are structuring their science courses within a “spiral curriculum,” one which makes multiple passes through the standard topics rather than covering them thoroughly in a single block.  The goal is to look at the same ideas from multiple perspectives.  For example, the definition of “life” looks a lot different before and after understanding the scientific method (e.g., recall Pasteur's experiments disproving spontaneous generation).

In a class organized by topics, most content does not automatically reflect back on itself.  Granted, it shouldn't be forced to if it doesn't relate in some intelligible way, but wherever the opportunity presents itself, it might be reasonable to make a second pass through an earlier topic.

On that note, such outside-of-class creations as written work might serve as a vehicle for revisiting discussions by requiring presentations and/or written peer reviews.  I tend to do well with the latter (I even offer to do this for my fellow grad students) because I am able to think about the material on my own terms, rather than trying to only offer thoughts relevant to the discussion at that moment.  (Its amazing how short the shelf-life is on insightful comments; by the time I've made a relevant connection, the discussion has moved on.)

I suspect the average student's investment in the “moment” would be much greater if the curriculum was structured in such a way that a thorough understanding was going to pay off again in the near future in the form of another exercise which would require a demonstration of previously acquired knowledge.


Idea #3: More on written assignments

Aside from the basic issue of avoiding extra work, a major part of the difficulty students have with writing is due to an absence of opportunities for practice.  The sciences do not present as many openings for writing as do many other disciplines (blessing or curse?, you decide... see also the joke below).  Published research is often so conservative that speculation --even explicitly stated as such-- is all but absent.

One possible remedy would be to use quotes about science (as covered previously) or other prompts and ask students to comment whether they agreed or disagreed with each and, based on their experience in the lab, why?  They would require roughly a page or so and could be discussed in the remainder following presentations or discussion of an assigned article.

Further, even though I practice writing in a free-form or journal style, formal writing is still difficult for me.  A section (session?) of the seminar might be devoted explicitly to the subject of writing for publication.  Not the technical aspects, but the nuances of presenting findings persuasively.  We have mainly focused on pointing out the “goofs,” the editorial mistakes in the material we have discussed in class.  Coming from experienced individuals, practical advice --the kind you don't get in a manual-- would be very helpful.  There must be some articles on this out there.  More on that below…

A quick joke:
When a scientist asking for more funding, the university chancellor complained to that he never had to fund other departments the way he did the sciences.  He asked, “Why can't you be more like the math department?  All they ever ask for is pencils, paper, and erasers!  Or better yet, the philosophy department, all they ask for are pencils and paper!”


Idea #4: Some new topics

The emphasis of the seminar course has cycled from research articles to methodology to reviews.  However, we haven't discussed many “opinion” articles, those that put forward ideas about the profession itself.  These show up in Trends in Neuroscience and a few other places, but are missed by most students.

Some topics might include:

Articles of this type also have the advantage over pure research articles and reviews in that they are far more generalizable, easier to digest, and will likely invite more discussion (debate, even) since they more closely relate to students’ individual experiences.  Thus, the title for next semester's course might allude to the fact that it is directed toward “future neuroscientists.”

In areas of pure content, it would be nice to find papers that focus more on principles and less on description.  For example, Kandel’s Principles of Neuroscience text is full of facts, history, diagrams, etc., but very few actual principles.  By contrast, when one of my professors taught his section on motor systems from this same text, he disregarded it and somehow managed to reduce all the relevant circuitry to a handful of schematics and graphs.  Every example I could come up with for his sections of the course were described by the principles he outlined.  I didn't have to re-model each system in my head.

Experimental design is a common element to any comparative study worth publishing, so perhaps we should look at the ways the question was addressed (not strictly the methodology) as much as the results.  I know there are cognitive tools available to aid in tackling problems and interpreting results ("truth tables" come to mind), but I have never found a good source for such aids.


Conclusions

A deviation from an established format will not immediately yield different results on the part of the students.  In effect, a period of extinction must occur.  Extinction is not so much the elimination of a previously reinforced concept as the establishment of a new one (i.e., “You will no longer be reinforced as you once were”).  Change requires a bit of effort, but these ideas will hopefully set whomever reads them in a new direction.


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