In Conversation with Dr. Amir Faisal, Recipient of Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence 2022-23
If we were to describe Associate Professor of Biology, Dr. Amir Faisal’s teaching in three words, they would be: engaging, inclusive, and accessible. In his student’s words, “He goes above and beyond to make sure the class progresses together as a pack, and no one is left struggling behind.” Dr. Faisal makes an extra effort to help students build a strong foundation before introducing complex ideas in biology. In the words of another student, “He believes if you can visualise it, you understand it. He reiterates concepts until they become crystal clear.” Dr. Faisal has supervised several student projects, and PhD theses; his students’ placements in top-notch graduate programmes speak volumes of his effectiveness as an educator.
Dr. Faisal is guided by the idea that student learning ‘is often closely tied to their interest and excitement’ so he seeks to inspire, champion, and mentor them in each and every class he teaches. His commitment to excellence makes him one of LUMS' most cherished teachers.
We sat down with Dr. Faisal to learn more about his teaching practices and what inspires him.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I am fascinated by the complexities and intricacies of a living cell and how thousands of sophisticated machines enable the smooth functioning of such a complex structure. My inspiration to teach stems from my passion and enthusiasm to share the scientific knowledge that I continue to acquire through research and teaching. I feel a great sense of achievement when my students understand a difficult concept, ask an intriguing question, find a eureka moment in the lab, or are so excited by science that they commit themselves to a research career.
Have any of your own teachers inspired your teaching style?
Absolutely. I owe my transformation into a researcher and a teacher to some exceptional teachers at the university, who were always kind and supportive, provided an inclusive learning environment and helped students inside and outside the classroom. Their passion for the subject and engaging instructional methods, including hands-on learning experiences, inspired me to be a lifelong learner and a critical thinker who went from barely crossing the line at school and college to a top achiever at university. They were always fair, inclusive, and patient when we interrupted them during the lectures to ask questions. A teacher’s encouragement and motivation go a long way in reinforcing the self-confidence of students.
What innovative strategies and techniques do you practice to keep students excited about learning?
Student learning is often closely tied to their interest and excitement about a subject. As a biology teacher, I often inspire students by discussing key scientific discoveries, the impact of advances in relevant fields on human life and how one can connect the concepts learned in the class to real-world applications. The fascinating scientific discourse in cell biology, cancer biology and cell signalling encourages students’ curiosity, engages them in discussions and enables them to explore these subjects in depth. However, the wealth of new information and the complexity at the cellular and molecular levels can be pretty intimidating for students new to these subjects. I, therefore, always start from a lower level of complexity, building on simple things, linking concepts with everyday examples and, most importantly, involving students in reaching a conclusion.
As an instructor, I try to ensure that students of all abilities follow what I teach in class. Student feedback through interactive discussions is critical, and I provide an atmosphere conducive to such interactions in my class. For interactive feedback, I encourage students to ask questions or comment on the topics under discussion. Similarly, I frequently put forward questions of relative ease to encourage all students to answer. I adjust my instruction based on such feedback; sometimes, I will reduce my speed, explain a concept using alternative methods, use visual aids, or draw a complex figure from scratch.
How have interactions with your students informed your teaching throughout your career?
As mentioned earlier, my classroom instruction depends on interactive student feedback. One of the most important lessons these interactions have taught me is that learning aptitudes and preferences differ for different students, and education should be inclusive and accessible to all, regardless of their abilities or background. The traditional methods of instruction, such as passive learning without student engagement or feedback, can sometimes reinforce the gaps between high-achieving and struggling students, making it difficult for everyone to learn. It is therefore, important to find ways to close those gaps and support all students in reaching their full potential. Teaching has been an enormous source of learning for me. It has not only enhanced my understanding of the subject areas but also helped me grow as a scientist; classroom instruction exposes you to differing perspectives, unexpected questions or surprising challenges that all help identify new avenues of research.
What are some of the challenges teachers face today?
A few challenges come to my mind; most faculty in scientific disciplines come from a research background and have little or no pedagogical training. While LUMS now supports professional development through the LUMS Learning Institute (LLI) and the School of Education, science faculty at many universities in Pakistan lack such support. Such training is critical not only for in-class instruction but also in devising strategies for effective student evaluations. Catering to students with different learning needs is another challenge that requires interactive feedback, patience, empathy, and an inclusive learning environment. It is also quite challenging to teach large enrolment classes like the freshmen core courses in SBASSE, where students of diverse backgrounds are taught subjects they have never studied.
If there is one thing that you want your students to remember, what would that be?
I believe learning is a continuous process, and one never stops learning. I want my students to be lifelong learners. For a science student, books are not the only source of knowledge; you learn from the success and failure of your experiments, from critical analysis of scientific literature and from people you interact with at scientific meetings. I want them to be positive towards their personal and professional development and approach every learning opportunity with an open mind and a curious attitude.
What do you find most rewarding as a teacher?
The most important outcome of teaching for me is student learning; I find it extremely rewarding when students finally understand a difficult concept and nod their heads with a sparkle in their eyes. I try to empower and inspire students to learn beyond the curriculum, so they develop scientific skills, a lifelong passion for science and pursue scientific careers. I believe good teachers produce students that are better than them; it is, therefore, gratifying to see my students grow and succeed at personal and professional levels. Many BS, MS and PhD students I supervised have found fully-funded PhD positions or postdoctoral fellowships in top US and European universities. That is most fulfilling.