When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.
At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.
I probably don’t use Jessie’s strategy as much as I should, but it relates to some other things I do with new folks in the lab. I try to make it clear that there are lots of things to learn as one develops as a scientist – everyone needs to learn how to read a paper, how to design an experiment, the various techniques we use in the lab, how to analyze data, how to write, etc. We all make mistakes along the way. Asking questions and getting help from others is a totally normal and desirable part of this process of developing as a scientist. I think part of the similarity with Jessie’s strategy is this: we need to create lab environments where it’s okay for people to make mistakes and to learn from them.
Or, as Andrew MacDonald recently put it:
This framing also relates to something I was reminded of on twitter (I can’t find the original tweet now) that I have used in teaching in the past and plan on using again this semester. The idea is to reframe the way we ask our classes about questions – instead of “Does anyone have any questions?” (which all too often leads to crickets), ask “What questions do you have?” The last time I taught intro bio, I occasionally would pause to ask students to write down different things they were unsure of. We then covered some in class, and, for things that weren’t covered, they had a list prepared for office hours, study groups with friends, etc.
Creating a supportive, constructive environment in the lab and classroom definitely takes sustained effort rather than just quick strategies, but quick strategies are still helpful. So, I’m curious to hear about other strategies people use – similar to Jessie’s question or asking “What questions do you have?” – that can help. I’d love to get more ideas!