In the lecture course, student presentation and discussion of papers usually proceeds like this: I ask them what is important and what they have not understood, appoint students to write the lists on the board, then step out for ten minutes. When I return, I go through the lists, ask who mentioned each point, have them explain why they thought it was important or what it was that they did not understand, then pick another student at random to ask whether they agreed with the explanation of the topic’s importance or could explain what was not understood. We continue until the lists are exhausted or time runs out. In such a class, every student can expect to be called on to explain something. If it becomes clear that they need information, I step in with a brief lecture, but for no more than 5 minutes. To build their confidence, I often ask one of the class to join me at the board to discuss a projected figure or table from the paper while we stand together, at the same level. At the start, it is hard for students to do this: they feel exposed. But as they learn that I support them and deal gently with any mistakes, they usually relax and start to enjoy it. The key move is stepping out of the classroom to give the students time to organize their thoughts and take ownership of the discussion. Often I have returned to the classroom with the board covered with lists of interesting ideas and an excited discussion in progress that I felt no need to interrupt before class was over.
In the seminar course, we start by using the method described above for the lecture course: we ask students what is important and what they have not understood, appoint students to write the lists on the board, leave the room for ten minutes, then return to discuss the lists. After they get used to that kind of interaction, we try another structure, splitting them into two groups, putting each group in a different room, and giving them 20 minutes to come up with the outline of a lecture on the topic under discussion—no more than ten bullet points or headlines (they do far more than that). We then ask the two groups to project their outlines and compare them. The results are often professional—as good as we could do.
In a third structure, we tell them in advance, when we assign the readings for the week, that one group will read one paper, a second group another, and they will have the first 15 minutes of class to prepare to tell the other group what is important, interesting, or flawed, about their paper by discussing its figures and tables in detail. Each group then makes a presentation to the other group in which they go to the board, talk about the figures and tables, and field questions from the students and faculty.
After about ten weeks of such experiences, we let the students choose the readings for a specific week. They always come up with something interesting and more or less appropriate. After having taken the entire course, they could probably do that every week, at which point we could just hand their education over to them and go find some other line of work.
Students in such a class do not need a final examination, for they have been in an oral examination for the entire semester, regularly encountering a general principle of learning: you remember best things you have explained under constructive emotional stress. The stress, here generated by having to perform in front of others, has a role like a chemical fixative in developing a photo: it fixes in the brain the content of what is explained. This does not happen when a student reads a paper alone, even if taking extensive notes.
The seminar course consists of much more than discussions of current research. Right from the start, the students begin to plan their summer research projects. The undergraduates get support for research done at labs at Yale or outside the United States; the graduate students usually do a project under the supervision of their thesis or rotation mentor. They are asked to initiate the arrangement of those projects themselves; we only step in with supporting e-mails if necessary. The written work in spring semester is a research proposal in which we ask students to develop their own ideas. The written work in fall semester is an original scientific paper based on the data they collect over the summer.
There is always tension between their ideas and the ongoing work in the host labs that students join for the summer. We try to get them to stake out a strong starting position in the negotiation of that work with their host lab, a position that allows them to end up feeling that they own a significant portion of the work that actually gets done.
We want them to have the freedom to succeed or fail with their own ideas and thus to learn about the properties of a good question and a feasible project. From having the freedom and privilege to learn from their own mistakes, participants discover that it is not just all right to make mistakes—mistakes are essential, for science consists of making intelligent mistakes and learning from them as efficiently as possible.
Another feature of the course structure is designed specifically to accelerate the transformation of students into colleagues. A key element in that transformation is social contact with intellectual heroes in a supportive environment in which the heroes are by their presence and attention valuing the students’ ideas by contributing to their development and refinement. Each semester, we invite three or four distinguished visitors, people whose work the students have been reading, to come to Yale, teach a session of the course, and go to dinner with the students and faculty in a Yale residential college. The dinners are quite successful, with both students and faculty inclined to linger in discussion long after dessert has been finished. Two topics of conversation always come up at dinner: how the visitor made the transition from undergraduate student to successful professional and what the students planned or did for their summer research. The experts often reveal personal details of their lives that bring home to the students that careers are built by complex human beings whose trajectory is not one of unobstructed success but of resilience in negotiating obstacles and exploiting unexpected opportunities. For their part, over the course of the year, the ability of the students to explain their ideas concisely and convincingly steadily increases as their confidence grows. Knowing that they will be explaining their ideas to visitors three or four times each semester motivates them to think clearly and deeply about what they plan or have done.
One feature of the seminar course is not yet working well. Because evolutionary medicine consists of an eclectic mix of topics covering all places where evolutionary insights bring added value to medical issues, the students find that the course lacks a coherent overview. We plan to address that problem with two to three 50-minute lectures each semester that introduce the major sections of the course.
In the week-long course for professors and medical doctors, I learned of an innovative teaching technique used by Gillian Bentley at Durham University in England. When teaching a course on evolutionary medicine for the first time, she knew she did not have expertise in certain areas, and so she invited colleagues from medical school who had such expertise to a panel discussion in which she asked them questions in front of the students. It was successful in two ways: the students found it very stimulating, and the panelists realized that their agendas in research and in the clinic could be productively viewed from an evolutionary perspective. She has found that her colleagues in medical school always accept her invitation. It is a structure worth copying.