What to do and not to do in advanced modelling courses

I previously introduced our in silico systems biology course. After 5 years of this course, I collected a few lessons that are probably applicable to any advanced course. Nothing very new or surprising, but worth keeping in mind when organising these teaching events.

Select the students well

Beware of the wrong expectations, and of the students who do not find what they thought they would. Disappointed students can wreak the atmosphere of a course. Beware that terminologies are different in different domains. One of the most overloaded terms is “model”. 3D structure model, Hidden markov model, general linear model, chemical kinetics model, all those are models. But they address different population. Systems Biology itself is problematic. Choose also the level of the course and stick to it when selecting the students. Even if there is not the expected number of applicant (fortunately not a problem for our in silico systems biology course anymore), do not be tempted to select inadequate candidate. Better take on less students than having a few students bored or unable to follow. Our course is advanced, and covers quite a lot of ground. We cannot expect all students to be expert in every aspect of the course. However, by selecting students who are skilled in at least one aspect of the course (and balancing the expertises), we liven up the lessons (more interesting questions and discussions) and students become themselves “associated trainers”.

More hands-on, practicals, tutorials

Students learn with their fingers. A demo will never replace an actual hands-on, where the students make the mistakes and fix them (with the help of trainers). And of course, keep the lecturers from diving in their own research and give scientific presentations. This is a course, not a conference. If needed, organise special scientific presentations a few times during the course, but not in the lessons.

Focus on concrete applications of tools

Avoid lengthy descriptions of the theoretical basis of algorithms. It is good that students learn what is under the bonnet, and can choose solutions. But (in general) they are here to learn how to use those tools for their research, not to develop the next generation of them. Two complementary approaches are 1) building toy examples, that illustrate specific uses, and 2) using famous simple examples from the literature.

Do not try to cram too much in the course

It is better to explain well a typical set of techniques, than cover inadequately the whole field. It is generally not possibly to present all the approaches used in a field of computational biology. Even a seasonned researcher in the field does not master all of them. Introduce very carefully the common basis. And then move on to a few examples of more advanced approaches. If the basics are well understood, and the students are really using the content of the course for their research, they will be able to continue training on their own.

Engage the students

It is very important that the students feel part of the course. Those events last only one week or two. The students needs to bind with the organisers, the trainers and between themselves immediatedly. Make them present their work the first day, maybe with one slide each. Organise poster sessions. Real poster sessions, where students are kept around the posters. Drinks and snacks are a good methods if they are located at the same place and keeps the students there. If you selected the students wisely (see first point), they should be interested in each other research.

Try to keep trainers around

So they can interact with students outside of their presentation/tutorials. It is very difficult. You choose the best trainers, so they are obviously very busy people. But sometimes it is better to choose better trainers than better scientists. Also select your trainers even more carefully than your students. You want good presenters, but also good interactors. Bad trainers will arrive just before their course, spend the coffee breaks reading their mails, and leave just after. Those people do not like teaching, and frankly they don’t deserve your students. Do-not hesitate to replace them, even if they are famous. Observe them also outside the classroom. This is very sad to say, but some trainers cannot behave when interacting with young adults.

These are only a few advices. I am sure there are plenty others. What are your experiences?

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