30 September 2015

Classroom informatics: Managing students, information, and communication.

One of my biggest challenges as an educator is helping students manage information. I don't believe it's my job to impart information to students, but to help them learn to think about information and integrate it into their knowledge structures more effectively. Example: I'm not trying to teach my students how genome assembly algorithms work, I'm trying to teach them how to use the instruction manuals that come with assembly software to analyze their data. Layperson example: I'm trying to teach them how to use a recipe book, rather than memorize all the recipes.

This means that I rarely give my students a list of things they need to remember. More often I give students lists of resources that they might be able to use to help themselves find an answer or solution. The end result is that students are confronted with a huge amount of information, not that they're expected to memorize in minute detail, but rather learn to filter and search to find the facts and strategies necessary to complete a task. As someone who's memory is complete rubbish, but who is quite efficient at managing information, I find this a much easier task. For students who have been trained in most contemporary classrooms, they may consider this task monumental.

Essentially, I'm teaching students informatics strategies. This is certainly appropriate, given my research and teaching specialty is bioinformatics. The trouble is that it takes more explanation to describe how to use information, than to simply tell students what information they need to remember. Students then become overwhelmed at the amount of information to which they are given access, because they are trying to process the information in the same way they have managed facts given to them in previous classes. Instead of seeing information as a resource that may possibly be used, they see it as a mountain that needs to be climbed.

How do you help students think about information as a resource to reference, rather data to retain? This seems to be a logical extension of the commonly-touted plight of science educators: we need to focus less on memorization and more on critical (scientific) thinking. We need to teach processes and ways of thinking, rather than factoids and things to remember. To me, the amount of information I give my students seems like overkill, that I'm making the assignment too easy. In truth, it's actually the opposite: I'm requiring my students to use appropriate information filtering methods, and to help themselves.

In practice, I spend a lot of time trying to remind students of the bigger picture, and pointing them towards materials that are already available that may answer questions for them. This is actually an essential but overlooked skill, not just in bioinformatics. Professors often complain about students who don't read the syllabus, which suggests that we're not doing a very good job teaching students how to help themselves. I'm starting to believe this is the real key to contemporary education: helping students utilize the sheer amount of information available to explore and innovate.

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