Effective Teaching Skills: Science and Improvisation

thoughtA year or two after I began teaching, someone whom I had just met asked me the question that I’ll bet many of you have also heard: “doesn’t teaching the same subject over and over get boring?” My response was that teaching biology wasn’t boring because biology is a dynamic field, and there are always new discoveries to share with students. What I also wanted to say, but I wasn’t able to articulate, was that teaching is also dynamic. Like biology, my teaching is constantly being updated and refined. In my opinion, the dynamic process of refining one’s teaching requires both science and improvisation.

The science of teaching includes having an understanding of the evidence for best practices in teaching. Evidence from cognitive research on how students learn, and the applications that educators may have developed and tested are foundational for effective teaching (Handelsman et al., 2007). It is an exciting time for evidence-based teaching in biology because of the availability of so much evidence for effective teaching. A growing number of journals focus on biology education, there are websites devoted to sharing activities and cases, and there are local and regional and national communities of practice as highlighted in the December PECOP blog.

The science of teaching also involves objectively assessing the effectiveness of teaching strategies in one’s own classroom and lab and making appropriate adjustments. We have made a significant amount of progress in this area as well. Course assessments and peer and/or chair assessments of teaching were available long before I began teaching, but, increasingly, faculty are aware of the need to develop a plan for assessing the impact of changes in teaching practices as part of implementing those changes. This work is also supported by the types of resources highlighted in the paragraph above.

So, the evidence guides the development of competencies, and the design of learning activities and assessments that support student success. It is important to walk into a course or lab with a plan that is based on understanding who the students are and what they already know how to do. But, is a good plan sufficient? I believe that improvisation is also essential. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a student activity and realized that it wasn’t going as planned? I certainly have. An example of simple improvisation would be interrupting a group activity to review a concept that you find that students don’t understand. If the goal is student success, then adapting and improvising is also necessary to encourage students to participate in shaping learning activities through their own questions and experiences.

What is effective improvisation? Improvisation should support students in achieving the established competencies, and be responsive to how they are doing in the process. Learning is challenging, and so students will need to struggle a bit on their own, but not be allowed to struggle to the point where frustration overwhelms the learning process. Improvisation requires that we be actively engaged, and that we respond creatively to facilitate the process.

How do we learn to improvise effectively? Like other skills, improvisation improves with practice.  A couple of good strategies are observing faculty who improvise well, or having more experienced faculty observe us as we work with our students. Team teaching is also a great way to learn to improvise more effectively.

Teaching doesn’t get boring because of the continuous challenge to improve. Effective teaching involves both science and improvisation. Do you have suggestions on how to develop improvisational skills?


Lynelle Golden is Goldena broadly trained physiologist who currently serves as Professor and Dean of the School of Natural Health Arts and Sciences at Bastyr University near Seattle Washington. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching junior/senior level physiology for biology majors and anatomy and physiology for allied health, nutrition and exercise science students. Her experience at Bastyr also includes teaching integrated case studies and physiology courses for medical students. While at Bastyr, Lynelle has been actively involved in curriculum development and revision. She has been a member of the teaching section of the American Physiological Society since 1986, and she currently serves as Chair of the Programming Committee for the APS Teaching Section. Lynelle earned an M.S. and a PhD in Life Sciences/Physiology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and she completed postdoctoral research in Cardiovascular Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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