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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Elisabeth Schussler

Dr. Elisabeth Schussler’s love of teaching first began while she was a graduate student in Louisiana State University’s department of botany—and instructing non-science majors in open-ended inquiry-based Biology labs. She recalls how “those classes influenced [her] views about science teaching so much,” as well as how grateful she was for that assignment early on in her career toward professorship since they were so influential in her current teaching method and approach to education. Those biology labs were also what eventually led her to a near-decade’s worth of work in other various fields of education. After graduating from LSU, Schussler spent seven years leading field trip programs at the university’s Museum of Natural Science, instructing large introductory Biology classes at LSU, working as Education Director at a swamp nature park in Augusta, GA, and coordinating student programs at an informal education science center. Near the end of those seven years, Schussler’s partner encouraged her to apply for a faculty position as a Biology Education Researcher in the Botany Department at Miami University in Ohio. “I didn’t even know that job existed!” she recalls. Little did she know what a great fit it would be. After four years at Miami, Schussler found her way to the University of Tennessee as the Director of Biology Teaching and Learning position, where she’s been since 2009.  

When it comes to her philosophy on teaching, Schussler strives to “always try to teach in a way that actively engages students in the material, has them reflect on their understanding of topics, and then integrate those topics into a cohesive whole.” She does this by putting herself in their shoes, recalling the many years she was a student herself. “I know that when I was a student, I found great success memorizing bits of information, doing well on the exam, and then promptly forgetting everything. What a waste!” she exclaims. With this perspective in mind, Schussler approaches the concept of education as a way “to broaden [my students’] understanding of the world – to connect new pieces of information to ideas we already have and see things in new ways.” For this reason, Schussler’s teaching style places a higher emphasis on the big ideas of a subject. For her, it’s about getting students curious enough that they will not only remember class material but also explore more biological topics that interest them after they leave her class.   

Schussler’s emphasis on the big ideas around how science works first emerged from those early Biology labs she taught and getting students curious enough to foster lifelong learning is the gold standard in the field trip programs that she also led. “My research program focuses on the impact of student emotions in the classroom and how instructor practices may generate those emotions. It’s all connected, of course, and as an instructor, I am constantly thinking about how to generate hope, joy, and enthusiasm in my students and reduce anxiety, hopelessness, and despair.” Schussler muses, “I don’t think enough instructors think about their role in generating student emotions and the downstream impacts of those emotions on students.” Her hope is by approaching education with a philosophy grounded in joy and curiosity that she can then instill those positive emotions in her students and improve their classroom experience.   

Schussler puts this teaching philosophy into classroom practice through a few different avenues. She explains how she gives her students the tools to refocus their efforts and build back their confidence after their first exam, a practice she calls ‘keeping them in the game’:  

“One of the courses I teach is introductory Biology, so I get a lot of first-semester students who are at various levels of intellectual confidence. First-exam grades can reaffirm for some students that they are on target and for others, it is a devastating realization that they never learned how to study in high school. I want every student in my class to feel they can do well and still succeed, even if they had a rough start. I do multiple quizzes versus big exams and allow them to drop a quiz. We all need a break in life, and I love seeing the look on a student’s face when they get an A or a B on a quiz after a rough start. It is priceless. 

I also have the opportunity to help students get started in scientific research early by helping match them with a research lab – keeping in touch with those students and seeing how those experiences leveraged them to paths in graduate school or professional school is a great joy for me.”  

This compassion Schussler has for her students can be seen on full display as she reflects on a classroom experience that has significantly impacted her career. She tells us of a time “way back when I was teaching large intro classes at LSU”:  

“I had a great student who inexplicably missed an exam,” she recalls. “When he finally came to talk with me about the 0, he revealed that his mother had died. I was young and was told to enforce my course policies, so he ended up with a B in the course when he should have had an A. I have many regrets. That he didn’t feel he could tell me about the situation; that I didn’t relax the policy for him. He took my second-semester class too (and got an A) and gifted me a mouse pad. I still have that mouse pad 25 years later because I never want to forget to encourage students to talk with me and for me to extend grace where needed.”   

Schussler’s approach to education as a positive experience— one that can spark curiosity—comes from her desire to see her own students push themselves, and do so at their own pace. She gives them multiple opportunities to test their knowledge but doesn’t penalize them for not yet being at a certain level of proficiency. She doesn’t do this for a positive review, though, but because she sees her students as people who deserve grace and compassion as much as she does, and who deserve to be seen, heard, and helped when it is appropriate to offer. By meeting her students where they are on their own scholastic journeys, she can help them grow their own personal relationships with education.  

When asked about where she thinks the future of teaching, learning, and faculty life in higher education is heading based on her past experiences and the professional perspective that she shared, Schussler exclaimed “I have so many thoughts!” As the current Faculty Senate President, she has the unique opportunity to interact with administrators and “see the institution from a much broader perspective than I normally would.” Also, as an education researcher focused on findings that improve student experience and learning, “we know so much more than we did twenty years ago about how to improve student learning.” Schussler is enthusiastic about reducing differentials between most students and those traditionally excluded from science. “Active learning in the classroom is the key, but only when paired with strategies that create a positive classroom climate such that students – all students – believe their instructor has their back and wants them to succeed.”  

It is easy to say we can just provide training to everyone to do this, but our academic lives are increasingly busy, and teaching is not institutionally rewarded as much as research. It takes a lot of institutional courage to say that providing that kind of teaching training matters, and then it takes innovation to find ways to develop those skills, especially with leveraging new delivery modes and sessions that fit with modern faculty life. However, Schussler remains optimistic.   

“Many faculty already engage in these teaching methods, and TLI supports those practices, so I have faith we can make progress over time.”