Daniel J. Klionsky

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
2003 DTS Award

Dr. Daniel J. Klionsky
Alexander G. Ruthven Professor of Life Sciences
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Dr. Klionsky's Homepage

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Daniel J. Klionsky.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

When I have had faculty colleagues visit my class, they usually express surprise at how the students are prepared to discuss the day’s topic. They realize that this is one of the goals of my approach, but it is something else to see this in reality. For example, part of the course deals with the regulation of metabolism as exemplified by the lac operon. At the start of the corresponding class session I draw a line on the board representing the operon and ask the class to name the different segments. I then ask them to tell me the rules for which regulatory components bind and under what conditions. Students taking a lecture course typically are not able to do this when they arrive for class because they have not done the reading or have not paid careful attention to the material; however, learning the parts of the operon and the rules for binding are a matter of memorization. There is no real need for me to read/relate that information to the students in the form of a lecture, and that is borne out by the fact that the students in my class are able to answer these straightforward questions about the lac operon when they walk in the door. The real point is to see if they can now work with that information to determine whether transcription occurs under different nutritional circumstances. That is, do they understand the concept of regulation? Memorizing the components and binding sites is not important per se, it simply serves to give us a common language and starting point. From there, the students can attempt to manipulate the information to answer practical questions. Because the students try to do this during class time, they can ask their classmates or me for assistance, something they cannot do as easily once they have left the classroom. I can also gauge the students’ comprehension during the problem solving and decide if they need additional problems on a particular topic or whether they are ready to move on.

So to get back to the question, visitors are surprised to see that students in introductory biology can come to class prepared and that they are then able to answer questions or work through problems that are fairly advanced.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I am a perfectionist. In general, I want to do the best job possible at every task. This is certainly as true for teaching as it is for my bench research. While I was getting high evaluations when I taught solely by lecturing, I knew that my students were not learning, at least not as well as I would like or at the level I thought would be possible. Accordingly, I felt that I was wasting my time and that of my students. This led me to consider ways to improve the course. Because I teach introductory biology, there is not a substantial change in the material that needs to be covered from year to year. This turned out to be a practical benefit because it let me focus on the method of presentation. I basically treated this as a big experiment. That is, I had control data, ran an experiment, assessed the results, and finally decided whether the experiment worked as hoped or was in need of further revision.

On the other hand, I do not have a specific connection (other than using the scientific method) between my bench research and teaching. Many people who are involved in innovations in teaching are working on ways to bring additional students into their labs or to design new lab courses that offer students an exceptional laboratory experience. I think these efforts are great. But I wanted to do something that affected large numbers of students (which is very difficult to do in a lab setting), and more fundamentally, I wanted to make a change in the lecture hall. Not all students take labs, but virtually all students sit in lectures. I thought I could have a greater impact upon learning by introducing revisions in the latter, and that has been my focus.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

The risks seemed minor. I should note that it took me several years to reach the stage that I am at now. That is, I did not introduce all of the changes at one time; I made small changes, learned from them, and used that information to make additional changes next time I taught. My approach requires that the students in my class actively discuss the material and solve problems in teams. One of the main risks or concerns was that the students would simply not participate. I clearly remember the first time I tried this approach for the entire term and I was wondering if the students would simply stare at me when I asked them to break up into groups and discuss the first problem. But it turned out not to be an issue; they immediately began to participate and I sensed that I had really stumbled onto something that might work.

I did mention, however, that it took me several years to reach that point. I tried several variations on my active-learning approach, initially using it in discussion sections. Those attempts met with much more limited success. I think what drove me on through all of these attempts was my absolute conviction that using lectures as the sole method of getting my students to learn did not make sense. If my attempts at active learning were not working, I believed the problem was in my approach, not in the rationale behind it.

I have documented my efforts in publications in pedagogical journals. In particular, I have published papers in The Journal of College Science Teaching and in American Biology Teacher.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

Unfortunately, there were few connections that had a direct impact upon my own efforts when I first began to change my course. This is largely due to my own lack of awareness of the pedagogical literature or of the people who were being innovative in their own teaching efforts. Nothing in my research experience or training introduced me to pedagogical literature or even the notion that I might consider making revisions in the way I teach. I decided I wanted to make those changes for personal reasons.

However, there were probably some advantages to this approach. First, I learned by trial and error. I think I probably have a better feel for active learning because of this experience. That is, I learned what does not work and why, as well as having learned what does work. That personal experience gives me a certain level of confidence in the approach and in knowing that I can deal with any difficulties that arise. Second, I have to admit that I find the pedagogical literature overwhelming. The same is true for discussions with colleagues who have used other approaches in their own teaching. I enjoy reading/hearing about new ideas because I am always open to changes in my own course. But the fact remains that I am a researcher and my top priority is bench research. I only have time to do or try a certain number of methods. I think it can be intimidating to read or hear about the full range of possibilities for improving student learning; in fact, I think it can even be discouraging—“I am not sure which of these many approaches is best and there are so many choices that I do not even know where to start, so I will just keep doing what I have been doing and stick with the lecture.” By not getting bogged down in the literature, I was free to try whatever I wanted rather than being overwhelmed by all of the possibilities.

But I must say that when I moved to my current institution, I found the faculty members to be more interested in teaching. For example, introductory biology is generally taught by researchers and not by lecturers, as was the case at my former university. The previous chairs of my department, the dean of my college, the provost and even the president of the University of Michigan have all been supportive of the changes that I am trying to make.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

Balance is one of the hardest things to achieve. I would say that innovations could be made slowly. With regard to teaching, I started by lecturing for my first six years. This is partly because I did not know that better methods were possible and because this is what I was taught to do. Lecturing is probably easier for a new faculty member if only because it takes less preparation and is the method most of us are familiar with. Another advantage of using a lecture method first is that it allowed me to collect data on the efficacy of this approach for later comparison to the active-learning format. There is little value in making changes if you do not have a method of assessing the effect of those changes. I could document that my students were learning more effectively when I switched to an active-learning format.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

As I suggest above, I am not sure that the key point is to necessarily integrate research and education. Rather, we need to stop treating the two as though they are totally separate activities. That is, we need to apply the scientific method to our teaching in the same way that we do to our bench research. If a particular method is not working (which can only be determined through the use of controls and assessment), a new method must be attempted. Most people cannot even say if their use of lectures is or is not working because they do not have defined learning goals for their classes or they do not assess whether those goals are being met. How many people would carry out an experiment in this manner?

We need a major change in the academic culture to achieve a change in our approach to teaching. In my experience few faculty members discuss teaching. In fact, such discussions are viewed skeptically as though someone who is interested in being an effective teacher must obviously not be interested in being a good researcher. On the positive side, when starting out with my teaching experiment I was able to modify my course without undue interference from my departmental colleagues or the university administration. At my former institution, my colleagues did not have a clue as to what I was doing in my class!

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

The Director’s award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars from the NSF is certainly one great way to recognize this type of effort. In my point of view, the award needs to maintain a high level of rigor and only recognize top researchers who are also involved in pedagogical innovation or excellence. That is, it is not sufficient to be a leading name in teaching. Otherwise, it is all too easy for researchers to dismiss those efforts because the person does not have an active research program—“Of course I cannot do what they are doing, I have a lab to run.” If the DTS recipient is also running an active lab and publishing paper in good journals, it is not possible to dismiss their teaching efforts as out-of-hand. Rather, others now have to wonder how they are able to manage both, and might consider that they too can achieve this type of balance.

Since receiving the DTS award I have started to get invited to give talks about my teaching efforts. Still, these are the minority of the invitations. Administrators at universities might place a greater emphasis on inviting recognized teaching scholars to present talks, perhaps by providing additional seminar funds to be used expressly for this purpose.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

In brief, my goal is to change our introductory biology curriculum by moving away from a lecture format, and instead, use active learning. In my approach, the students are required to come to class prepared to solve problems on the current day’s material. I start each class session with a reading quiz based on my notes that are available at the start of the class. This reading quiz accounts for almost 50% of the course grade. After a brief lecture I then break the class into groups and have them solve problems so they learn to work with the information. This is followed by a second quiz that is administered in the next class session, based on the problems. This quiz accounts for the other half of the grade. The focus in this course is for the students to gain a conceptual understanding of the material and is not on the memorization of facts. The goal is to show the students how to think and learn so that they can attempt to solve problems after they have left the course, rather than have them memorize a large number of facts that may not be relevant to them throughout their lives.

I plan to continue to publish my findings, especially as I try to introduce additional faculty members to the active-learning approach. In addition, I am glad to give talks on the method I have developed and discuss what led me to this approach.