Photo courtesy of Bryan Dewsbury

A biology professor at the University of Rhode Island is working to lower rates of failure and increase student involvement in his classes.

Dr. Bryan Dewsbury uses a student-centered approach to teaching which focuses on taking steps to master skills. He allows every student their own amount of time to move through the lessons and stop when they need help. By making sure that students understand each lesson, it allows everyone to improve and grasp the topics being learned.

“Everything I’m doing in class, or if it’s an experience in office hours, or if it’s with the kind of homework that I give, I’m thinking of what would make the student better,” Dewsbury said. “I think the thing I have had to work hard at is teaching students a sense of belief.”

Dewsbury creates numerous opportunities to check in on and follow up with students about how they are doing in class. He does this by giving assessments regularly and on a smaller amount of material to keep students from failing due to not testing well on large assessments. By using smaller assessments and testing skills individually, it allows students to focus on just one step and master it so it can be used in other assessments and projects.

“You have to have a system in place to know who may or may not do well,” Dewsbury said. “For me to be able to help students develop skills, I need to know really quickly if they are getting what we are talking about. So, that is why we have a lot of quizzes, that is why they do homework questions every night.”

Dewsbury explained that by giving only larger assessments even if he can work with students on what they don’t understand, failing or not doing well will still be an issue if the assessment is worth a lot for their grade. This is why his assessments are not worth a substantial amount but are split up into smaller parts giving students more opportunities to succeed.

“If I just gave three or four exams, those are only, really three opportunities I have before the final to know to who is struggling. And if somebody fails a 25 percent exam, even if I were to get them to do better they have already lost almost 25 percent of their grade,” Dewsbury said.

Dewsbury is confident in this method, which he started before he came to the URI, while he taught as a graduate student at Florida International University.

“I don’t just define success as A’s, B’s and C’s,” Dewsbury said. “I define it as ‘Do you feel a sense of purpose having spent some time in this classroom?’”

Dewsbury published these thoughts in a blog in Scientific American. He used his childhood and relationships that he experienced in Trinidad, where he grew up, to impact the way that he teaches.

“I grew up with a really strong sense of community,” Dewsbury said. “That really impacted me… So when I started teaching in graduate school, the thing that really compelled me and got me excited about it was getting to know the students.”

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Theresa Brown
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