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Liz Freedman, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Liz Freedman.jpgThis spring I enrolled in BIOL-N100, a general education course typically taken by first-year students at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.  Only minutes into the first lecture, I realized I would learn more than how the cellular, tissue, and neurological systems in my body function; I would learn what it is like to be a college student in a way I had not experienced in over ten years.  I decided the front of my notebook would be dedicated to biology notes and the back would be reserved for my anthropological-style observations about my fellow students, the classroom environment, and my personal challenges in this large, lecture setting. 

For those who are not a nerd like me and do not want to take BIOL-N100, allow me to share three things I learned from my biology class.

  1. If the classroom were a cell, the professor would be the mitochondria.  

Mitochondria are the "powerhouse of the cell," meaning this is where the cell's energy comes from.  I believe meaningful learning thrives when facilitated by a passionate instructor.  My professor connected biology to our everyday lives, shared his passions (such as his love of Japanese culture), and joked during his lecture when possible.  He did everything he could to engage, but this traditional, lecture-style course was most beneficial for auditory learners (which I happen to be).  Like so many courses students take, there were times when class was a little boring, and I even dosed off once—but more on that later.  

I gained appreciation for the challenges faculty face after having coffee with my instructor at the end of the semester.  He wants to engage and has tried a variety of group work and other hands-on activities. Unfortunately, he has seen little positive reaction from his students, and implementing these methods requires him to remove other valuable content from his syllabus. 

This conversation with the instructor was empowering.  I feel more confident explaining lecture courses to my students, how beneficial it is to build a relationship with the instructor, and the challenges that their professor may face in and out of the classroom.  I often tell my students, "It's a marathon, not a sprint," when it comes to succeeding academically; I discovered this is also true for professors. 

  1. We maintain homeostasis, but when knocked off balance, it is hard to get back on track. 

As humans, every cell within our bodies is constantly adjusting due to a system of feedback controls that maintain homeostasis, an internal regulation despite conditions which may be changing outside.  In a perfect semester, students’ lives will do this as well, yet we know internal and external factors can steer them off course.  Each year I tell students the same things about academic success: go to class, read the chapter beforehand, communicate with your professor, attend tutoring sessions, etc.  Unbeknownst to me, my empathy has slowly decreased for students who did not study or attend class enough; I sometimes find that I begin addressing these behaviors without fully listening first.

Mid-way through the semester, I got a reality check when two of my friends experienced tragedy: one’s husband suddenly passed away and the other’s father died after battling dementia.  I stopped doing the reading, let alone studying for my upcoming exam.  Moreover, the night before I fell asleep in class, my husband, infant twins, and I arrived home from Chicago at midnight after my grandma's 90th birthday party.  Both of my babies were sick, and I was close behind.  Most importantly, my mind was consumed by my friends’ struggles.

These are explanations, not excuses, and I felt terrible for disrespecting the professor by nodding off for a few minutes.  I realized that if this could happen despite my sincere engagement in the course, then it is no wonder so many students do this while taking several classes, working, or managing their own families.  The next time a student is willing to share their challenges with me, I will try to not see it as "complaining," and instead will listen intently.   

  1. We should be like DNA and RNA and replicate the student experience. 

When cells divide, DNA duplicates many times.  The double helix unwinds, creating two templates for new strands of DNA.  The enzyme RNA polymerase attaches to DNA and makes a copy in the form of messenger RNA, which carries information to the cytoplasm to direct the production of proteins.  More often than not, every strand of DNA is perfectly replicated thanks to RNA polymerase, and I believe we will be better advisors if we do the same.

I replicated the student experience by taking a class, but for those who do not have the time, energy, or money for this, here are other ways we can put ourselves in our students' shoes: 

  • go for walks over lunch and tour as many of the academic buildings on campus as possible; 
  • walk to the campus mental health center so the next time you refer a student, you can describe what their experience may be like; 
  • take the math, chemistry, foreign language, and/or English placement exams; 
  • attend a tutoring or academic mentoring session;  
  • ask a professor for permission to sit in on a common class; and, of course,  
  • listen to students’ stories and replicate their unique experiences.

I will not tell my final grade, but I will admit that the grade I would have given myself as an advisor prior to taking this course would have been artificially high.  I now see the continued effort I need to put in so that I can be truly helpful to my students, and I have a newfound respect for the challenges they and their professors face. 

Liz Freedman
Assistant Director of Academic Enrichment
Bepko Learning Center
Division of Undergraduate Education
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
elmafree@iupui.edu   

Cite this article using APA style as: Freedman, L. (2017, December). The three things I learned in biology class. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

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