Ever since his undergraduate years at the University of Guelph, Tom Haffie, a well-known biology professor at Western, has always been aware that learning should be the focus of a lecture.

Haffie is now a 3M National Teaching Fellow and is well-respected by his students. In this interview, Haffie shares his story of how he has changed biology and science at Western since 1985 and what you can learn from how his courses are designed.

Humble Beginnings: It All Started with a Mac

In 1985, Haffie came to Western University with one thing in mind: teaching second-year genetics. It was just before the time when technology was starting to become part of the classroom through the use of presentation software. Meanwhile, Haffie was fooling around on his Mac SE, creating animations with built-in animation software for his genetics class. The only issue was that there was no way to project his animations. He ended up finding a sort of ‘plate’ that allowed him to project his animations through the overhead.

“I wanted to help people visualize what’s going on and make things move.”

At the time, Haffie could be seen hauling his computer to and from his classes so that he could help his students. He recalls his colleagues feeling sorry for him, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with a well-taught class.”

Except, Haffie wholeheartedly disagrees with this statement.

“[In the beginning of my career], the university’s emphasis in a lecture was all on teaching,” says Haffie. “The university was set up specifically to support teaching, not exactly learning.”

Haffie states that Room 101 in Western’s North Campus Building was the answer to how 800 people can be taught a single subject, emphasizing the difference between teaching and learning.

The last ten to fifteen years of Haffie’s career has been a mission to “switch the emphasis [of education] onto learning and away from teaching.” This effort led to the fundamental changes that we see in the courses he teaches, such as first-year biology and third-year education for the life sciences.

Changing Course

Some of these changes to Biology 1001 and 1002 include a tutorial that is no longer considered “traditional.” Tutorials have often been seen as an opportunity for remedial and review, but that’s because that ideology aligns with what we’ve been told.

Haffie remarks that tutorials used to be what we consider commonplace in first-year biology at Western, but “they were optional, and almost nobody came.” Haffie mentions that it was simply a waste of T.A. resources, which sparked a change in the tutorial structure.

He also talks about the importance of the feedback from his students through in-class clickers, as well as his model for what he calls “just-in-time teaching” which informs him the needs of a specific class.

Haffie remarks that “[feedback] in the student-teacher relationship is unseen and underappreciated.” However, at the end of the day, the information that student feedback gives is invaluable to the course. Course components, such as an anonymous forum, have come entirely from student feedback.

The tutorial and lab sections now have an independent curriculum and focus more on the application of scientific principles first-year students learn in class, as well as practical skills such as experimental design, creative problem-solving, and learning how we learn. This unique element of the course design has now spread to other universities as well, with tutorial-specific curriculum becoming part of the first-year biology course at Laurier University and other education institutions.

Often, students ask: “Why bother with two curriculums?” Haffie says it “all comes down to learning and creating lifelong learners.”

Haffie found it funny that it’s taken this long for people to integrate principles of cognitive science into education.

“A lot of these ideas have been known for years in cognitive science, but it’s taken [much effort from authors] to bring this into the light of education,” says Haffie, adding that the new course design all came down to a focus on learning.

In fact, biology is perfect for this redesign. Biology is a wonderful course for an integrated learning environment because it is essentially an integrative science. Biology takes concepts from other fields, such as chemistry and physics, and brings them into context. This course design attempts to reflect that and helps students in Haffie’s class make better connections to course concepts.

Yet, Haffie doesn’t think of himself as a teacher. Instead, he regards himself as more of a facilitator of learning. He is there to help people make connections and change the way we think about science as a whole.

If there’s anything to take from Haffie’s story, it is that we should try and look for ways to make connections in the world around us and to keep asking questions, as any biologist does on a daily basis.

In an outline of one of his courses, Biology 3224G Education for the Life Sciences, Haffie emphasizes that the course is about the change in participants, change in the science curriculum, and change in the world.

You don’t need to invent anything to be great. To change the world, you need to start by changing the way you think.

Dot Matrix: Studying for Success

In the 80’s, the output of computers was on dot matrix printers, which ran on long reams of paper. In the Faculty of Computer Science at the University of Guelph, Haffie recalls that they had massive stacks of this paper in excess. He mentions that he would take his notes from class, rewrite them on the dot matrix paper, and put his notes on the walls of his room.

“I was never one to learn from notes or pure text,” says Haffie. “I always had to make graphic connections, it’s all about connections.”

What students at Western should take from this is that they should try and find connections in a way that works for them.

To leave off with, here’s some advice for students from first-year to fourth-year, by Tom Haffie himself:

  • In first-year, especially in biology, it’s all about feedback. Find some way to get feedback about how you’re doing, whether it’s by doing problems or discussing with your peers. In some subjects, there aren’t pages full of problems for you to do to test your knowledge, so you should find creative ways to test how well you know the content.
  • In second-year, there’s not much more to it. It’s just more intense, so all Tom, or I for that matter, can say is to not burn yourself out. Expect a lot of work, and be ready for it when it comes.
  • Going into third-year, things are going to be different. Some classes may not have a textbook. A lot of classes are small, and participation is a big part of your grade in specific courses. You need to be flexible, so ask third-year students what it’s like. Be prepared for the shift.
  • Fourth-year is all about professional skills. Ask yourself: “What am I missing from my degree that could help me in the future?” Go take that course. You’re only in university for so long, and sometimes we forget it’s made to prepare us for the next step, our careers.

One thing Haffie really emphasizes is that students of all ages underestimate relationships with their peers and faculty. Faculty and staff generally want to help, but they can’t help you if they don’t know you. A thought to take for the rest of your degree is not just how to improve your grades, but how to foster new relationships that could build into something more on a professional level.

Photo courtesy of Tom Haffie

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