Students seem to respond to environments that are relaxed and open, where they can pitch out ideas without fear that their peers will think less of them, according to Alex Coverdill, doctoral student in biology and one of this year’s Excellence in Teaching Award recipients.
“I have found that students in introductory classes are often timid and unsure of their knowledge. To address this issue I’ve had students anonymously write down their biggest concerns on the first day of class,” Coverdill says of one of the ways that he’s found to help students. “Then I read them aloud to the entire group. They quickly see that their concerns are widespread and that they are not alone.”
Karen Petersen, a lecturer in biology, gives another example of Coverdill’s technique: “At the end of each lab, students take turns answering a series of discussion questions. Alex creates a safe, friendly atmosphere for students to stand up and give answers and then he expects discussion. Students quickly get comfortable and enjoy these brief opportunities for speaking to the entire class and they begin to develop a habit of critical thinking.
“Alex’s emphasis in the classroom goes beyond any single topic and extends broadly into the development of important lifelong skills for his students,” Petersen says.
Coverdill, whose research concerns the factors that influence migration of songbirds, particularly those that travel to the Arctic, came to the UW from the University of Portland, where he earned his bachelor’s with a major in biology and got a minor in drama.
Among other things, Coverdill says, the theater work he did in high school and college has taught him to be aware of his audience and how to bring them back if their minds are wandering.
“He is skilled at modifying explanations until his entire class shows that glint of enlightenment, regardless of each student’s particular method of learning,” says former student Rebecca Petersen. “Alex has a talent for identifying mental obstacles and providing the clarification to get around them.
During comparative anatomy, which was one of my most difficult classes, I regularly benefited from his rhymes, tunes, alliterations and other mnemonic devices, which I think were critical in my passing that course.”
Drama experience also helped him transition from smaller classes to the ones with 200 to 300 students without being nervous, Coverdill says. Lecturer Petersen has seen him grow in other ways as well, saying, “This fall, Alex gave a series of lectures in my biology 118 course. He pushed himself to take on some of the most challenging, but basic topics in an introductory physiology course. He ended up giving lectures on muscle physiology, basics of the respiratory system, two on renal physiology and then one on the male reproductive system.
“The first two lectures he had time to plan and organize, but the later ones came about as a result of a family emergency that called me out of town with less than 24 hours notice to my TAs. I was gone for a week while Alex gave several lectures in Biology 118, in addition to handling the weekly TA meeting and coordinating the peer teaching assistants and laboratories for the week. He did a wonderful job. . .”
Coverdill’s teaching doesn’t stop in the classroom, says Thomas Daniel, chair of the Department of Biology.
“Alex has been passionate about working with undergraduates in all aspects of science,” Daniel says. “He has mentored 16 undergraduates as peer TAs over seven quarters. This involves helping them not just learn the science but to gain a level of command that allows them to help other students.”