The Optimism Series: My Students Make Me Happy
Elena Pravosudova, Teaching Professor in the Department of Biology, writes about why peer mentorship makes her feel optimistic about the world
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, the College of Science has asked researchers across a range of disciplines to share how they remain optimistic in the face of the many challenges of today, particularly within the field of science.
I consider myself to be an optimist. I wake up with a smile on my face – most days. I am a happy person who loves her family, her job, and I have always been certain that even better days lie ahead. This sunny outlook has been challenged over the last three years, not just for the devoted optimist in me, but for many people around me. It does not help that getting older already brings unfamiliar twists and turns in one’s health and life in general, but a global pandemic - really?? As a biologist who has accepted the notion that pandemics are not a matter of “if” but of “when,” even I was hardly prepared for what went down in early 2020. Considering the rate of human population growth, the extent of natural habitat destruction, and dramatic global climate change, I should not have been surprised that a pathogenic zoonotic virus has jumped into a human host and managed to spread like a wildfire, but I was. The response to the pandemic, both from governments and from the general population, was depressing as well. Now that we are slowly getting out of that funk, how do we remain optimistic in the face of all this recent doom and gloom? Well, we just do. I ran across my own post on social media from 12 years ago that simply stated “My students make me happy,” and realized that this sentiment is what has kept me going and has colored my optimism for as long as I have been in academia. And yes, it has been a while.
True, I may sometimes complain about a few unmotivated students in my high-enrollment introductory courses. We all need to rant every now and then – after all, bottling your frustrations inside is never healthy. The truth is, most of my students are amazing and they make my day, every day. Their enthusiasm, curiosity, sense of humor – that is what keeps me excited to come back to the classroom, year after year. Among the most special and important of my students to me are our peer instructors - undergraduates who help myself and my colleagues teach high-enrollment, introductory biology courses. Not only do they represent the best and the brightest of my former students, but they also help motivate my current students and recruit many of them into the peer instruction program.
Last month, my colleague Pamela Sandstrom and I traveled to the Biology Leadership Community (BLC) teaching conference in Raleigh, NC. There, we had the chance to highlight the Biology Peer Instruction program at the University of Nevada, Reno, especially the teaching tools that undergraduate peer instructors helped us develop during the pandemic, and explain how those tools became transformative and essential in our current face-to-face courses. Over the last fifteen years, Biology Peer Instruction Program at our University has enriched learning for many students and has offered opportunities for academic, personal, and professional growth for our peer instructors. In high-enrollment biology courses, we promote active learning through a flipped classroom design, supplemented with peer-led weekly discussions and active learning questions in lectures. The pandemic posed challenges to both the delivery of courses and maintaining the strong sense of community among our learners. Many of the pandemic adaptations that transformed learning in our courses involved the work of the peer instructors. They helped us create: (1) critical thinking question walk-throughs embedded into revised online pre-lecture videos, (2) guided chapter note outlines, and (3) original discussion videos. Our current students, who are well versed in digital tools and are equipped with iPads provided through Digital Wolf Pack Initiative, can attest to the usefulness of these learning tools.
During that conference we learned a lot about what introductory biology professors from across the country are doing to help their students learn biology, and about the recent challenges all STEM students and educators have been facing. The main themes of this year’s BLC that inspired us and resonated with us the most were: (1) developing “mentor mindset:” how to be a mentor rather than an “enforcer” or a “protector” for your students; (2) rethinking grading: the alternative grading approaches and multiple grading schemes; and (3) incorporating metacognition approach in the classroom. A lot of these topics strengthened our conviction that having peer instructors in the classroom helps students to feel a sense of community and belonging and to develop a growth mindset. For novice learners, introductory science courses can be overwhelming, and figuring out how to navigate student attitudes and perceptions to help them succeed is an important task for both professors and peer instructors. As educators, we often forget that we are here to teach humans, not courses. We and our peer instructors need to remember that providing feedback to learners is crucial, but it can be tricky. Wise feedback improves engagement, while unintentionally harsh feedback can do damage by making students think they are not “good enough.” We need to find and use every opportunity to assure our students that we are here to support them. And yes, that handful of unmotivated students that I rant about every so often... Not only many of them are overwhelmed with multiple, intense courses they are taking, but they often have additional personal and financial challenges. They may have to work full-time, to be able to go to college. I must keep reminding myself that I need to find ways to reach them and assure them that even though I may have high standards, I know that they all can meet them – and I am here to help.
Spring makes everything better. Warmer weather, blooming flowers, and lots of sunshine help us focus on what is well with the world. I want to hold onto this feeling. Walking around our beautiful, blooming campus, listening to the bird songs, and feeling the excitement in the air brings me back to my optimistic core. We are going to be all right.
About the author
Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, Elena Pravosudova has lived in the U.S. since 1991. She has a doctorate degree in Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology from Ohio State University. Elena has been a Teaching Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno Department of Biology since 2007.