By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—As a boy growing up in rural Virginia, Daniel Hoffman wondered how stuff worked.
He dreamed of figuring out machines, before ultimately devoting his life to figuring out the organisms that create them.
“I thought I wanted to build mechanical things,” Hoffman said. “But my academic area is more aimed towards understanding how and why living things act the way that they do.”
Now, as a behavioral psychologist in the area of behavioral neuroscience, Hoffman teaches courses ranging from animal behavior and the psychology of learning to quantitative methods and drugs and the nervous system.
In a field enjoying a rapture of discovery, Hoffman employs innovative teaching strategies to build an agile scientific mindset that will serve students in the classroom and the world.
Curiosity is king
Hoffman’s courses reveal a voracious intellect married with a passion for sharing ideas that is mirrored in his interdisciplinary research, which includes publications on topics ranging from methylmercury toxicity to the effects of environmental enrichment, and conference presentations ranging from information acquisition to autism spectrum disorder, among many others.
What counts for Hoffman is student success, and a successful student, in Hoffman’s experience, is one who can establish a personal connection to the material. There are no silos in this field, and that helps students access this connection, no matter where they are coming from.
“I think the most important metrics are how much students understand the concepts and how well, and how often, they can link things from class to everyday life and to the things that they’re interested in,” Hoffman said.
It’s not surprising that many of his students accept his invitations to join him in research projects, or that their presentations are so successful. These collaborations have resulted in two awards for outstanding oral presentations at the IU Southeast Student Conference, as well as research and creativity grants. Students have also successfully applied for internships in a range of related organizations in the region, a direct community impact for their academic effort.
In the end, the success of his students reveals the success of his method, which is based not on a paradigm, but an attitude, one of openness and humility, a willingness to shed assumptions and engage the data on its own terms.
“To do good science you have to reserve judgement a lot of the time and go where the evidence takes you,” Hoffman said. “It doesn’t always take you where you expected or where you may have wanted, so it helps to be curious about a lot of different things.”
Teaching as innovation
Hoffman characterizes his teaching technique as a combination of interteaching and just-in-time teaching (JiTT), emerging organically from his experience of teaching, open to technological novelty and informed by data, and subjected to periodic assessment and revision.
“I’m a firm believer in evidence-based practices, and every semester in every class there’s a lot of evidence about what does and does not work to promote student learning and student interest,” Hoffman said. “Incorporating new ideas or technologies is necessary to continue improving the experience for students and also for me–trying new things or new approaches to old things helps keep a course fresh and interesting for me as a teacher.”
Lately these new things include pre-class surveys about common beliefs and misconceptions related to class content. Students take the survey early in the semester, then revisit the results later on, comparing them to the science they have learned.
“Sometimes the students are surprised to find out that common beliefs are contradicted by scientific evidence, and that often sparks student interest and sometimes good class discussion about why the wrong beliefs persist or about how exactly the real thing works,” Hoffman said.
Whether sourced from a model like interteaching or cooked up in the trenches of experience, Hoffman’s classroom methods share a common intent: to make the time spent in direct contact more productive, rewarding, relevant, useful.
A good example is his use of frequent low-stakes assessments. According to Hoffman, these provide many regular opportunities to evaluate the learning process and provide formative feedback. Students can earn credit by preparing for class via targeted reading questions.
“Quality preparation before class time pays off for students in the short-term when they better understand the lecture and it helps me target content a little more to their misunderstandings or interests,” Hoffman said. “And it pays off again in the long-term by improving their ability to retain information and by making exam preparation easier.”
Knowing that students are likely to cram and purge, Hoffman creates overarching themes that connect lectures and activities across the semester, encouraging a more holistic approach to study and shifting the focus from knowledge acquisition to developing skills of inquiry.
A modeling mindset
Hoffman finds ample opportunity to apply his research directly to teaching and learning, but not in a simplistic way. Students don’t become research subjects, and papers don’t become syllabi. Instead, he borrows from the scientific process to create tools that give students the chance to master a habit of mind that can lead to mastering the subject matter.
“In research, models help organize variables and constructs into cohesive frameworks, improving our understanding of behavior and sometimes generating new questions,” Hoffman said. “I try to incorporate a modeling mindset into teaching by building courses around an overarching model or theme to help students develop a holistic understanding of the content.”
The modeling mindset leads to a life of learning, whether it is in the halls of academia or in life more generally.
And that’s true of his own journey.
Hoffman didn’t set out to be an experimental psychologist. He happened into it by what he terms a combination of perseverance, curiosity and luck. It turns out that this is the secret formula for scientific success, and for success outside the lab as well.
“I know very few [students] will become scientists, but I do hope my students are lifelong science-thinkers, or at least that class helps them become more likely to think scientifically about behavior and to stay curious about scientific explanations for why humans and nonhuman animals do the things they do,” Hoffman said. “I want students to get interested and stay interested in evidence-based explanations.”
An ever-evolving process
With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering operations at IU Southeast, Hoffman tapped his innate knack for innovation in order to maintain academic momentum.
Drawing perhaps on his fascination for things mechanical, he began developing his own online learning apps using the Shiny framework based on the R Markdown document format. The apps are highly flexible and interactive, allowing students to learn at their own pace. According to Hoffman, many of these lessons promote efficient learning and studying through the use of equivalence-based instruction (EBI) techniques.
“I’m setting up EBI lessons for my research methods and statistics students to practice hypothesis significance test concepts, and for students in my neuroscience-related courses to study functional neuroanatomy,” Hoffman said.
Here, too, the subject matter serves the process of inquiry.
For Hoffman, as for many others, the pandemic has thrown into starker relief the structures and patterns that were already apparent—in his case, the vision of teaching as learning, instruction as growth, today as a window on tomorrow.
“The challenges of teaching this year have reminded me how enjoyable and worthwhile it is to expand my teaching repertoire,” Hoffman said. “And I look forward to continuing to integrate new technologies and methods into my teaching in the future so that, like research, it is an ever-evolving process.”