Teaching heroes: Professor recalls her own college days to help students


Remembering what it was like to be an undergraduate is key to Andrea Berman’s teaching success, says the biological sciences faculty member.

“Most of them come in thinking ‘I can’t do this. I’m just going to survive,’ ” she says of the students in her molecular biology lecture class of about 60. “I like sharing science and I like helping students find the confidence to discover they can be and are scientists. Once that switch happens, they can actually enjoy it. I love watching that switch.

“I also remember what it was like to be a student in college,” adds Berman, who is an assistant professor. “I remember I felt really overwhelmed. I try to make that class … feel a lot more intimate by getting know them.”

Late last semester in Langley Hall, she guided students in her senior-level class through a review for the last test.

“You guys know how I write my exams,” she announced. “There are going to be challenging questions, but they are going to be punctuated by questions that are rests for your brain” — with answers that everyone should know, she said.

“There won’t be as complicated a question on CRISPR this year,” she said, mentioning the relatively new and much-talked-about gene editing tool. “I’d even have to study to answer that question.”

She let students formulate answers to some review questions in small groups, but hung around to listen in.

“I’m going to cut you off here, because this is a lot more straightforward than some of the talk I’m hearing,” she told the class before explaining the optimum answer to one question.

The students’ answers were a lot simpler after that — and almost entirely on point.

Berman came to Pitt in 2012 after postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado–Boulder, following a Ph.D. at Yale. She remembers Yale as being ultra-competitive.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she says. “A certain type of student will thrive in that environment, but not everyone will.

“It’s all about trying to make the learning environment less formal,” she says of her teaching methods. “The students can tell I really want to see them all succeed, because I know if they’ve gotten this far they can do it. I also go out of my way to contact the students who I think could use a little extra time” with her for review sessions.

“I try to have this open-door policy,” she says. “I don’t see myself as any different — I’ve just been in school a lot longer. There’s no hierarchy — I really don’t think there needs to be a hierarchical structure at this point. When seniors are ready to enter the workforce, they’re adults, and I want them to own it.

“Although I still have them call me ‘doctor,’ ” she is quick to add. “I learned early on, if you don’t, they start to treat you like a friend, and that doesn't work either.

“I show them respect,” she concludes, “and then I get it back in return. I think that allows them to gain a little confidence.”

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.