Dr. John Redden (CLAS, Department of Physiology & Neurobiology)

John Redden: Facing the large lecture

Large lecture classes are not often beloved by faculty or students. So when John Redden learned a week before joining the faculty at UConn that he would be teaching 700+ students in an anatomy course, not the 40-student class he had expected, he had to rethink his approach.

Redden, an assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology, has worked to cut the big course down to size. Sometimes that means getting students out of their seats and even sending them to four or five smaller classrooms to work on case studies, models, and problem sets.

To his surprise, he has come to prefer large classes.

A large course “has energy,” he said. “I have to be on my toes.”

Working with CETL, and as a National Academy of Science Education Fellow, he has found ways to make the large lecture format feel personal. The biggest problem is not the number of students, he said, but the physical space. Seated in auditorium rows where they cannot move, students shut down. He has them form groups of four and go to the walls to create concept maps with sticky notes or draw their ideas on white paper.

Technology also helps – including student response systems and new participatory software that can project slides onto their laptops or phones. Instead of asking students to turn off their electronics, “We take over their devices,” he said.

Teaching as a science

For Redden, teaching, like his subject matter, is a science. He explores the research for evidence of what works, and he experiments.

While anatomy involves a lot of memorization, he also wants students to think critically. Students call his tests hard. Redden responds that’s because he asks conceptual questions -- like, “Tell me something about this disease that you can infer based on what you know.”

He is the lead author of a group who wrote a digital textbook for the anatomy course. It costs $90, less than the $160 traditional text that few students were buying, anyway, and the fee includes the cost of the class participation software. The goal was to reduce costs, customize the text, and engage students.

Redden also takes a different approach to his small class on scientific writing in physiology and neurobiology. Rather than write technical content for an academic audience, he has students interview people around campus, asking questions like, “What is gluten? What is a stem cell?” and create content that makes sense to a mass audience.

“It exposes students to the widening gap of what the public and scientists understand,” he said.

The students learn to pare scientific concepts for public consumption through teaching techniques such as “science speed dating,” where they have one minute to pitch a classmate about what they learned from a scientific article in Cell or Science. Their classmate has to be able to clearly explain to others what they were told.

Students sharpen their skills in community service

The writing class addresses two of his passions – science literacy and service learning (he is a 2015 Service Learning Faculty Fellow at UConn). His students have written entries for a database of diseases maintained by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, a Danbury-based nonprofit that strives to demystify research about rare diseases so that patients and their families have a jargon-free source of information.

The students have created digital content for the Guiding Light Orphans, based in Avon, which trains community health workers in rural Uganda about nutrition, birth control, and conditions such as epilepsy. The students’ work can be reproduced as posters in clinics to combat myths and educate people about good health practices or as training videos.

Redden, who earned his B.S. at SUNY Buffalo, once planned to be a pharmacist. But as a teaching assistant in evolutionary biology at Buffalo, he found teaching “transformative” and decided to pursue a PhD, which he earned in biomedical science at the University of Connecticut Health Center. His research is on scaffolding proteins, which enable cells to use enzymes to carry out their functions.

“Research is really exciting. It’s nice being the only person in the world who knows something,” he said. “But teaching can give you the same thrill.”

Because he missed the experience of teaching undergraduates, he became an adjunct for biology courses at the University of St. Joseph before joining the physiology and neurobiology department at Storrs in 2013. In 2018, he won an AAUP Early Career Teaching Excellence award.

Teachers who influenced him taught science and foreign languages, his two favorite subjects, at Frontier High School in Hamburg, N.Y. These teachers shared common threads – they were fun, engaging, and approachable, and they did not talk down to students.

Redden uses humor to make his own students comfortable, but he draws a line, telling them, “You can call me whatever you want, but not Dude or Bro.” And he works at keeping the audience engaged.

“I see my job as a teacher as a kind of entertainer. A lot of teaching is a performance,” he said.

For more about John Redden’s teaching, go to https://john-redden.uconn.edu/