Faculty Experiences - Christopher Evans

Christopher Evans - photoCHRISTOPHER EVANS

Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences

Interview Topics:

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the university better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?


Critical thinking
Immediate feedback
Think like a researcher
Student creativity


Online problem sets (IMMEX)



Students as Thinking Machines

What's most important to me is that the students learn how to think as opposed to regurgitate. It's not a computer that I'm trying to program. It's a thinking machine rather than a duplicating machine. So I'm very interested in concepts and giving students building blocks so that they can create a new scenario or create things from the bottom up rather than just remember facts about the science. That's what I think is very important. I think it's important in life--you need to think about things rather than just replicate what everybody else is doing. That's what makes the individual important.

This quarter I started using the i-clickers, which I find very interesting because they basically give everybody in the class a chance to answer a question. Usually you ask a question, and someone puts their hand up and gives you an answer. With i-clickers the whole class can respond to the question, and then immediately you get the feedback on a PowerPoint presentation, so you can get an immediate response curve on how everybody answered the question. It takes a little effort to put it into your PowerPoint, you've got to think about the questions and whether they can understand them, so there's some work involved with that.

The class that I recently taught was about drug abuse. I used the i-clickers for essentially three things. The first thing I used it for was to see what people's preconceived ideas about drug abuse were. For example, I would ask, "What percentage of the population do you think smokes marijuana?" or "Which drug is most dangerous?" or something like that. So I can get at the preconceived ideas of the students. Often it is interesting, especially in the area of substance abuse, to trace back the source of preconceived ideas when they differ from scientifically based evidence. The second thing I used i-clickers for was to get an appreciation of how much they knew before teaching a concept. For example, I asked a question about molecules involved in the trafficking of receptors, to see what the students had gleaned from prior classes. I could ask a question at any point during class to find out how many people truly knew about an area, and then start at the appropriate place for teaching, which helped me teach at the appropriate level. And the third way I used the clickers was to see how much was retained. So I could ask a question at one point, and then ask it again later in a slightly different way, to see how effective I was as a teacher in communicating information. I could basically check my own ability to teach. I found the i-clickers a very, very useful tool, and I think they helped a lot.

The students liked the use of clickers. I think they're a great idea. You can also use them for testing, once you've got them down. Then the students don't necessarily have to remember everything. If they understand it you can figure that out in a certain way, but they don't have to put it into long term memory. So you're testing for different things, you're testing for ability to understand rather than to remember. It's also nice because you can test people almost immediately after you give them the information, you don't have to have written tests eight weeks down the road.

The other piece of technology we use is a series of a problem sets that we've created on the internet. The students go on and solve these problem sets or scenarios of drug abuse. The drug scenarios consist of a virtual life you can explore. Basically the students have to figure out what happened during the scenario and answer a provocative question designed to make them think. It's a very cool and interesting website. It provides a longitudinal look at drug abuse rather than just an end-point, so you're looking at a life of somebody over a period, and the students have a way of exploring different aspects. They see cell phone messages, doctor appointments, crashes in cars, and so on, so they have to work though it to answer the question. And then once they've done one on the internet, we ask the students to create one. We give them the Excel files and they have to create their own scenarios, which they love doing. It's usually a lot of fun and they go crazy with it. It's a very effective way of learning because they have to think about the whole process and they have to think about it longitudinally. They also have to do the research. They go the internet and gather all sorts of information about blood pressure changes, and whether the person is going to be constipated or have diarrhea or be up all night, and what's going to happen after the drug action has worn off - withdrawal. So it's a really good way to educate about drug abuse. It's an interesting course, they learn everything from the molecular way that drugs work to the policy issues.

I'm going to carry on using i-clickers, and I'm happy to allow other faculty to use them in their classes (just contact the Brain Research Institute). There's a free training session you can get online, and I know a few other people in the university have started using them. I just think they're incredibly effective teaching tools and I would recommend them. I think using the internet for the problem sets and the i-clickers will be where we stand for now. I can't see using technology in any other way, unless we can get a virtual drug abuse setup, which would be interesting, but I don't foresee that happening.

I think having a centralized website where all technological tools are available, so that people know what they could use in teaching, and who are the experts that can help them, would be great. And tools like i-clickers should be available in the bookstore so that people can buy them--they're pretty cheap. I think next time I may ask the students to buy them, but there's also no reason why they can't be made available by the university as a resource for anybody to use.

Oral interview, April 2008