Teaching: the perfect two minute lesson

December 7, 2011

1Veritasium pulls it off in this little video,  asking “how far apart are the moon and the earth?”. Along the way he sends a message about some pretty complicated subjects–the concept of scale, the size of the universe, and why it is difficult to use images alone to capture the reality of distance.

The recipe starts with “man on the street” interviews. These set up the misconception and in the process send the viewer the empathic message, “hey, you’re not the only one.”  This is followed by a simple demonstration, using the long focus of the camera as an ally. Then simple graphics expand the idea and its implications. Finally, a 10 s summary: “The universe is truly bigger than we can imagine, and certainly bigger than we can draw to scale”.

Imagine a similar suite of videos on any difficult subject: enzymes, global warming, evolution. Imagine producing a suite of five or so on a science topic that interests you, posting them on your own Youtube channel. With your smiling face introducing each one. That’s one way to get noticed and to do a real service.  As a debunker of myths. As teacher of science.

Any great, short, science videos out there you want to bring to a wider audience?



Will Youtube replace lectures?

November 16, 2011

Imagine a course where your read articles and watch videos at home, then come to class to work on problem sets. We’ll have more to say about this in the future, but I suspect if you want to work on your teaching chops, focus on how you interact with small groups, say, leading an exam review.

I mean, can you imagine a more succinct introduction to the alkali metals (love me some Na and K)?

Understanding your advisor

November 14, 2011




Alan Rickman is a writing coach in a new play, The Seminar.  He is also the senior actor, with four young actors playing his students. Says the The Seminar‘s author (via the New York Times):

“Somebody said to me once, ‘Talent is a double-edged sword,’ and you really see that with Alan. He holds himself to extremely high standards. Because of that he holds us to those standards as well. It’s a serious business being in a working relationship with him.”

Through flashes of insight into Leonard’s own history and his unorthodox teaching methods, Mr. Rickman invites a deeper understanding of the man and of the complicated process of guiding young writers. Merciless though his approach might be, he’s there to steer the students in the right direction.

Sound like someone you know?

Know your brain: the just world bias

November 12, 2011

Academics spend much of their lives inside their head, mulling cause and affect, conjuring experiments, weighing options. This quiet time is absolutely essential. But what if are we aren’t seeing clearly?  What if our logic is weighted toward one conclusion? What if our mental mirror has defects, or, worse, is of the funhouse variety?

As scientists we design experiments to minimize bias. Indeed science as a way of knowing acknowledges bias and attempts to circumvent it. We have one, often unacknowledged ally in this cause, experimental psychologists.

Now, I know, many associate psychology with the treatment–effective or not–of mental illness. But one of the most useful products of psychological research is the uncovering of inborn biases–the defects in the lenses through which our brains perceive the world. Our wiring, evolved on the plains of Africa, rejiggered in clans, tribes, and societies, is that which allowed our ancestors to survive, not necessarily to see the world clearly.

We are semi-rational beings. How do we avoid being run over by the Semi?

We need to know our biases so we can work to circumvent them. We need to know our student’s biases so we can work, as teachers, to circumvent them.

And so I introduce an occasional series called: “Know your brain”.  Read the rest of this entry »

Na Na Na Na…Na Na Na Na…hey hey hey…goodbye

July 14, 2008

What a perfect use of You-tube: a different short video for each chemical element. Kudos to the science geeks at Nottingham University and their Periodic Table of Videos channel.

Now imagine all the ways that  you and your colleagues, with a $100 Flip video camera, can begin to change the world.

Sodium rocks!

ht Boing Boing.

Three brain rules to improve your presentations.

June 2, 2008

Garr Reynolds, of the ever-insightful Presentation Zen, has put together a great slideshow on John Medina’s Brain Links: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

Every presentation by Garr Reynolds is a great example on how to communicate. See how he takes three of Medina’s rules to introduce three valuable lessons from neurobiology toward making you a better teacher and lecturer:

1) Exercise-Making your body a lean, clean, aerobic machine, besides giving you time to think, ensures that your brain gets the oxygen it needs. It also gives you some empathy for the poor schlubs that must sit through your lecture, inert brains encased in a desk. Make their time worth it.

2) The 10 minute rule–Your audience fades after 10 minutes. If you have to lecture for 50 minutes, conscientiously change-up every 10 minutes or so. Turn on the lights, show a blank screen and tell a story, have your audience stand up and stretch, anything to reset the 10-minute boredom clock.

3) Pictures beat text–We remember a good image far longer than a string of text. During your talks, show images, speak words. If you need blocks of text for your talk, use handouts.

Rules of Thumb: the 50% rule

May 31, 2008

We are often the worst judges of our own work. For manuscripts, we have a remarkably effective, if somewhat brutal, corrective called peer review.

But academics also perform live in classrooms and seminar halls where it is difficult to get a read on just “how we did”. This is partly due to the mind-clouding adrenalin that takes some time to be flushed from our blood stream. By the time we are thinking clearly, the audience has drifted away. Sure, you can somewhat plaintively corner a friend in the hallway to get the scoop, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an inquiry, you know that the critique will be, let us say, somewhat filtered.

Luckily, the problem of getting good feedback is widespread, and we can turn to the Bay Area bluegrass community for one valuable rule of thumb. This is Larry Cohea’s 50% rule. Larry is the banjo player for the long-running band High Country, and, as such, is keen judge of the human condition. Once, when a good friend of mine was complaining about her live performance, he gently lifted her spirits with an evocation of the rule:


if you think your performance was really, really, bad,

chances are it was 50% better than you think it was;

and if you think it was really, really, good,

chances are it was 50% worse.

This rule, like a nice dose of lithium, does wonders for post-performance anxiety. More to the point, it often seems to be true.

Any other RoT’s out there that guide you through the academic life?

What’s the one book on teaching you really need?

February 23, 2008

Teaching is complex. It is a craft–a series of tricks and habits. It is a social skill–requiring empathy and listening. It is an art–rewarding intuition and the ability to conjur a metaphor.

Not surprisingly, most people suck at teaching at the outset. Good teaching has a steep learning curve.

When I sat down to put together a reading list on becoming a good teacher, it struck me that almost everything on the Reading List page thus far, and everything that will follow, qualifies. Teaching is that multivariate.

So I simplified the problem. What is the one book that every beginning graduate student should read, nay, inhale, to make the most progress toward good teaching in a short period of time? Read the rest of this entry »

5 creativity tips from Steve Martin

February 3, 2008

stevemartin.jpegI just finished Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up in one sitting this morning. It’s a short autobiography of his 10 years learning, 4 years refining, and 4 years of wild success in stand up comedy. Martin is also a stand up writer.

The memoir describes Martin’s analytical approach to becoming very very funny. Any book by such a talent about the struggle to be creative is worth a look. Here are a five take home’s relevant to any young academic. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Power of a Slide Show

December 5, 2007

Quality = great content * great design.