Do you teach the way you learn?


  • Originally published as “Thank you Bill Deans, About Teaching, 53 Fall (1999), Publication of the University of Delaware Center for Teaching Excellence.

Address for correspondence to: Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716. E-mail:

I met Bill Deans only once more than 20 years ago, but I remember him well. He was a retired DuPont chemist who helped facilitate a campus faculty development workshop on learning about learning entitled, “Do I teach the way I learn?” Curiosity as much as anything prompted me to attend his workshop. What could an industrial research chemist tell faculty about teaching? As is typical for such teaching workshops, few other science faculty attended. The culture of academic science seems to select faculty who lack the time or interest in such events. I don't know how the workshop affected others, but for me it provided important insights about myself and significantly influenced the way I think about teaching and learning as I have described briefly before [1]. Apparently, the insights I gained are shared by others who attend such workshops (p. 6, ref. [2]).

Bill was an unassuming person and did not lecture us. Rather, he led us through an exercise in personal discovery. He asked us individually to think about the most important things that we had learned in life and write one learning event on each of six numbered index cards. Then, on the reverse sides, we wrote as much as we could remember about the circumstances surrounding the significant learning event. We then considered subsets of three in different combinations looking for commonalities that linked two of the three to see if there were patterns in the learning experiences. For me, there were surprising patterns.

None of the events I listed were associated with formal education and only a few involved people who were teachers. However, most occurred during my college and graduate school years and often involved other students. Most of the lessons involved situations I did not knowingly choose and they included circumstances beyond my control that I had to resolve. All involved a strong emotional component and most involved interpersonal relationships. In this reflection process, I also realized that much of my early motivation for becoming a scientist came from outside the classroom and laboratory. So, does this have anything to do with teaching? It did for me.

Substantive learning in or outside the classroom has an emotional component which I view as active engagement. Consequently, I feel comfortable and justified in moving from a teacher-centered lecture approach to a student-centered, problem-based learning approach where students work in cooperative groups during class time. To encourage involvement, I look for complex real-world problems with a “hook” that relates to the students and links to the concepts I want them to learn.

Learning is not easy. The struggle to understand is important. It is not my struggle but the students'. Therefore, I am much less inclined to answer student questions directly. Rather, their questions more often elicit other questions from me that can be viewed as handholds on the mountain they have to climb. With this perspective, I try to encourage independence but provide support when needed.

Instructors are more than content experts whose job is to “cover the material.” I believe it is important for me to evaluate student writing for composition and grammar although I am not an English professor. I feel it is important to introduce ethical issues that relate to the material although I don't have ready answers. And I am willing to deal with uncertainties in the dynamics of the groups I create without credentials in social psychology. These are all things I think will help students become more effective scientists and citizens. By dealing with these issues in the biochemistry classes I teach, I hope to convey their importance.

Students are learning important lessons outside the classroom. The lessons I learned with Bill Deans' help, make me more tolerant, if not understanding, of the lives my students lead beyond the classroom.


I wish I could have thanked Bill Deans personally for these personal insights but, unfortunately, he lost his battle with cancer a few years later. He gave his workshop while he was in remission. I suspect that he, without telling his personal learning experiences, helped others like me to reflect on what is most important to learn. Also, without telling us, he let us know that as teachers we had not thought enough about learning.