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Q&A: Why One Professor Focuses on *Respect* Instead of Active Learning

By treating students as peers, biology professor Dr. Nathan Tublitz creates a safe space for strengthening critical thinking and communication skills.

Educator

Nathan Tublitz, PhD

Professor of Biology, University of Oregon in Eugene

PhD in Zoology and Neuroscience, BA in Biology and Psychology

As a neuroscientist, Dr. Nathan Tublitz focuses on how neurons control behavior at the cellular and molecular levels. His research for the past 20 years has studied cephalopods, such as the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish, whose nervous systems can alter their body patterning—for purposes of camouflage or communication—in as little as 0.5 seconds. As a biology professor at the University of Oregon, he also focuses on brainpower and communication, but this time regarding the Homo sapiens in his classroom.

Interestingly, though active learning is a hot topic these days, Tublitz asserts that it is not necessarily the key to helping students comprehend complex topics such as how neurotransmitters function in the central nervous system. Active learning strategies also may not be enough to help students become free thinkers or strong communicators.

“With topics like anatomy—where you have to memorize bones, tissue, and muscles—there’s a lot of factual memorization,” he explains. “With neurobiology, it’s the opposite. It’s conceptual and much less factual, even though you must know the facts to understand the concepts. This requires a higher level of thinking.” Oral and written skills, too, are essential components for any career, says Tublitz. “If you’re a researcher, you have to write grants. If you’re a doctor, you must write notes that make sense. There is no field in science where you don’t have to both speak and write clearly and concisely. I want students to leave my class understanding that.”

What does Tublitz see as the key to getting students to respond positively to these goals? “You have to treat them with respect,” he says.

Below, in an interview with Course Hero, Tublitz explains where he first learned about this approach and how he uses it to help a diverse group of students build the skills they need to become successful modern-day scientists (or anything else, for that matter).

Context

“Our job [as educators] is to not only to teach students the material but to get them excited about the materials and give them the tools to learn on their own. I have always viewed my teaching to be similar to driver ed instruction: I am on the passenger side, but the students are driving the car.”

— Nathan Tublitz, PhD

Course: Biology 360 Neurobiology

Description: Neuroscience is a vast, rapidly evolving and exciting area ranging from elucidating neuronal function at the molecular and cellular levels to providing mechanistic explanations of higher-level cognitive function. This course is divided into two parts: the first part focuses on the cellular and molecular mechanisms and principles responsible for proper neuronal function at the level of a single nerve cell. The second half of the course surveys a variety of topics at the systems, developmental, cognitive and medical neuroscience levels.

See resources shared by Nathan Tublitz, PhD

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Tublitz’s techniques for respect-based teaching

In a recent interview, Tublitz elaborated on his distinctive style of teaching, what it means to treat students as colleagues, and how he encourages them to become more adept at critical thinking and communication.

Course Hero: What factors helped shape your respect-driven approach?

When I was an undergraduate student at Reed College in Portland, the professors really cared about the students. I was good at math and terrible at writing, but they insisted that I kept writing until I got it right. There, I learned to treat students as colleagues rather than as pupils.

At Cambridge University [where I did my postdoctoral work], there’s a long history of rigorous one-on-one student-and-tutor teaching, as well as a focus on the Socratic method [which involves asking students questions]. The combination of the two taught me about effective learning. Today, I work with students individually whenever I can. I stay available to students basically 24/7.

When and how do you explain your teaching philosophy to students?

I don’t share anything about my teaching style on the syllabus. I purposely leave all that off, so they don’t form impressions before they meet me.

Instead, I start every class by saying to students that I want all of them to succeed in this class. I tell them, “I want you to get As, but you have to take responsibility for your college career. You have to come to class. If you don’t want to, that’s fine. It’s your money, it’s your time, and it’s your life. But it’s the only time in your life you’ll be able to learn skills without a penalty.” Meaning that in most cases down the road, if you don’t have the skills you need, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

I get some wide eyes for sure. They may not be used to a teacher talking to them like that, or treating them like adults. But they quickly realize I’m in it with them and for them.

How does showing respect help promote better communication?

Students must buy into why they have to undertake the work for my classes. If you don’t explain to students why you are pushing them, I’ve found they will resent it. For example, two papers in my neurobiology course involve writing about an unexplored question in neuroscience and critiquing a primary scientific article. These are real challenges for students. Explaining why the course is meaningful to them is a way of showing respect.

We also have a weekly discussion where 80 to 90 students are broken into teams of four or five to work on neurobiological problems. This encourages them to collaborate and to think critically—which is sometimes easier to do aloud with your peers—and then present publicly. In smaller classes, I have students give individual presentations if they prefer. Offering them choices, along with opportunities to engage in these skills, enables them to make decisions and shows that you respect them.

How do you use respect to promote engagement?

At Reed College, for each course I was given a list of 30–50 books and told to go out and find the right book or books from that list for my subject. There, you are taught to be independent and find the information you need before you even learn that information.

In my courses, students can choose which books work best for their learning, too. And I put extra problems online for students who want to engage more in the topic. I tell students to take as much or as little advantage of my guidance as they want.

I also tell them I am willing to forgo aspects of my lecture plan for that day if students are engaged. It is more important to ensure that students understand the concepts already taught before moving on to a new concept. In other words, if students have questions, I will answer them all before moving on to the next item on the syllabus. This is a form of respect for them and for our being in this class together. It’s not one-sided.

How does the Socratic method come into play in your teaching?

I give lectures but insist students ask questions. I’ll tell them that no question is bad. I say, “If you have a question, I can guarantee you that 10 other people have that question but are too embarrassed to ask. So if you ask it, you’ll be helping them, too.” That puts them at ease and makes them feel they are part of an embracing community.

I also tell them right away that neurobiology is a complicated topic. It’s very conceptual. I tell them that their goal is to make as many mistakes here during the class time, so that when you get to the assessment part of the class, you’ll do well.

How does your teaching approach impact student assessments?

Everyone can get an A if they earn it. I don’t grade on a fixed, predetermined curve. I don’t make students read anything they don’t want to read, so I don’t test on textbook information. My exams aren’t easy. The second of two exams can be weighted more if they want—they vote on this as a class. That shows the students I respect that they have been learning more as the course has gone on. They can write a paper instead of taking a final exam, so it’s giving them an option that might engage them more.

Why do you think 24/7 availability is important?

I encourage students not only to contact me about assignments but to contact me immediately. If they bite off more than they can chew, they’ll miss out and get a poor grade.

I don’t have office hours. In my experience, in a class of 90 students, there’d be 60 students who couldn’t make the two hours a week I would post. [Instead,] I tell them I am available pretty much all the time.

I ask them to email me any questions they want, and I respond within hours. I am very aware of “word of mouth” power. If one student has a terrific experience getting quick feedback, then they’ll share that with others. Responding quickly is another level of respect.

I also go out of my way to communicate with non–native-English-speaking students. International students make up 10% of the University of Oregon. I always tell them they are welcome to tape my lectures, and I offer to pair them with a volunteer English-speaking student who can help them. This is another way of demonstrating respect.

You mentioned earlier that you don’t like the term active learning. Why is that?

Teaching is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Active learning stops class discussions to do problems. For some subjects, the stop-and-start approach might work very well. But in a class like neurobiology, where we are dealing with conceptually complicated topics, it doesn’t.

I am also against the term pedagogy, because it implies that there’s just one way of doing things. If you go to a class with 90 students, you have so many types of learners: visual, language, etc. You have to come up with ways to reach all of them.

I prefer to focus on being as contagiously enthusiastic as I can, while helping my students sharpen their critical-thinking and communication skills. This means using whatever learning strategies work best for the subject material, being accessible at all times, and treating students with respect.

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Have you tried this in any classes you teach? Would you like to try it? Share your questions, critiques, comments, and insights below.

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