The Teaching Center is excited to welcome Shawn Nordell, Senior Associate Director for Faculty Programs. Shawn joins us from a recent appointment at the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University. Prior to Brown, Shawn spent 16 years as a faculty member in the Department of Biology at Saint Louis University, where she also served as a Faculty Fellow at Saint Louis University’s Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.
So, what will you be doing at WashU?
I will be working on the Mentoring in STEM (MiST) program, which provides junior faculty in STEM with a mentoring teaching program within their departments, as well as developing and delivering faculty teaching workshops and consulting with faculty as they refine their teaching.
What do you love about this work?
I love getting to talk with faculty and help them find their passion in teaching and comfort zones in teaching. My job is to help faculty find what works best for them in their courses and classrooms and to help them bring out the best in their students.
What is most exciting to you about the faculty programs, workshops, and learning communities?
I find that when given a chance to talk about teaching, faculty share amazing experiences—and what they might think is just a minor insight can be a major moment for someone else in terms of teaching ideas. It’s exciting to watch pedagogical ideas transfer across disciplines and boundaries and get re-envisioned and reworked in new ways. And people form friendships with people that they may not ordinarily have gotten to meet. A diversity of perspectives is what really can help your teaching.
The Teaching Center is part of helping STEM departments integrate active learning in their courses. I understand that you have a long history with this work in your own biology classrooms, shifting from rote learning to active learning. Can you share a few key insights/principles?
I try to remind myself and faculty that the big contribution they can make is teaching students skills such as problem solving, understanding and creating an argument, and communication skills to elucidate their passion about their discipline. Students can gain knowledge from so many sources but it’s from the faculty where they gain those vital life long learning skills. The key to doing this in the classroom is through active-learning activities. There is such a rich diversity of teaching strategies for this that it makes teaching really exciting!
It’s important to not forget to model what you want students to do. For instance, how to read a scientific paper, how to read a graph, how to draw a graph. Don’t assume they know how to do it. We sometimes skip this step, which is vital for novice learners. If you model these skills for your students, then everything that follows becomes so much more efficient in your course.
Another essential aspect for creating strong active-learning environments is to establish a “no-judgment classroom.” We want our classrooms to be somewhere that students are comfortable being wrong. Where they are not spending their time trying to get the right answer, but trying to learn. They are not just answer-making; they are problem-solving. So you have to remind them over and over and over again that it’s ok to be wrong. A wrong answer does not make a wrong person; it’s just makes someone who is trying.
I understand that you have authored a biology textbook that foregrounds the process of learning to do science.
Yes, a passion of mine is bringing the science of animal behavior to students, and this was the impetus for a new textbook [Animal Behavior, Concepts, Methods, and Application]. My co-author, Tom Valone, and myself strived to unpack our process of research as a means to demonstrate the process of scientific inquiry and to place it in a big picture conceptual framework that allows students to connect how it all comes together. We had several goals—to write a book that students wanted to read, to allow students to understand exactly how science is done from hypothesis creation to conclusions, and to create opportunities for students to apply the concepts and make predictions. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for instructors to incorporate active learning into their classroom.
Process and practice makes me think of reflection. I understand you’re also interested in reflective teaching and learning.
As a longtime faculty member at a Jesuit institution, I learned to value the practice of reflection as it allows to me assess my own teaching and reflect on what I learned from my teaching, how I learned it, why it mattered, and how it will affect my teaching in the future. This practice of reflection extends to students too—giving them a chance to reflect on what they learned, how they learned it, and why that learning is going to matter.
Any closing thoughts that you’d like to share?
Summer can be a great time for faculty to retool a course or refine key lectures or activities. Feel free to stop by and see me. Of course, I’m here year-round, and would love to talk with you about your teaching anytime. Feel free to contact me to set up a time to meet.