Shana Kerr didn’t always want to be a teacher. In fact, after completing her undergrad in applied biology at Tech, she chose to attend grad school at Emory University partially because it required the least amount of hours as a teaching assistant. “I wanted to be a lab rat,” Kerr says.
But midway through her PhD program, Kerr found her days spent buried in her own research unfulfilling. A fellow grad student urged her to try being a teaching assistant (TA) in a lab. Kerr did—and was instantly hooked. “It was the light bulb going off in students’ minds when you help them grasp an idea they didn’t see before,” she says. “Sharing that joy is one of the things I love most about teaching.
Kerr got her doctorate in biochemistry at Emory and, in 2012, promptly returned to Tech, where she teaches introductory and upper level biology classes and, ironically, the TA development and pedagogy course. Still, at first, Kerr found those “light bulb” moments with students relatively few and far between.
“I had so much fun putting together these PowerPoints with all the details and I thought my students would get it and it’d be magical,” she says. “But then I’d grade their quizzes and see they hadn’t gotten it.”
This sent Kerr, ever the researcher, in search of alternative teaching methods. The result is what is called a “flipped” class, in which the focus is on the student and not the instructor. The traditional method was to assign long readings in advance of class—“which no one does,” Kerr says. As a result, students would be introduced to the material for the first time during her lectures.
“Under the traditional lecture approach, some students will take good notes,” she says. “But most won’t. The next time they see the material in their homework, it’s when they’re alone and can’t ask for help. And then they’re tested.”
To make her classes more effective for students, Kerr has thrown out the text book (and in doing so eliminated a cost for students). Instead she assigns short readings, online videos and practice quizzes before the class, and then uses class time for students to work through activities—essentially testing themselves on the subject. Then she poses an after-class assessment to give the pupils one more chance to think about what they’ve learned. All of this before they are given a midterm exam.
The approach has proven so successful and well-received by her pupils that Kerr was recently given the 2018 Class of 1940 W. Roane Beard Outstanding Teacher Award.
“She put in the work to design each class and lab to tell a coherent story,” says Alicia Lane, one of Kerr’s former students and now a research specialist at the Emory School of Medicine. “It was so much easier to learn and retain that material. We did have a lot of work to do outside of class, but it was all related to the course. Whereas sometimes other classes’ assignments just feel like busy work.”
“The first year is challenging for students not used to it,” Kerr says. “But Tech students care about learning and being better at learning. Yes, they want the grade. But by and large, when we tell them why we’re teaching class this way, they appreciate it.”
READ ABOUT GEORGIA TECH'S OTHER TRANSCENDENT TEACHERS HERE.