Principles for Teaching Public Health


Mark L. Wilson

Professor of Epidemiology, Global Public Health, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

After nearly three decades as a university professor—and a lifetime as a learner—I have come to understand some of the challenges that teachers and students face while exchanging and generating knowledge and ideas.

In my last semester teaching epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, I've been asked to reflect on the many classes and diverse students that I have taught over the years. In so doing, I am reminded that teaching is a delicate balance of engaging and encouraging our students, while challenging them and teaching them how to think. What follows are some principles that I believe have helped me become a more effective professor of epidemiology and of public health.

 Recognize Unevenness Among Students

Particularly in public health, we see considerable variation among students with regard to interests, background, training, emotional maturity, career goals, and a host of other factors. In epidemiology, we have students who majored in a range of subjects from chemistry and biology to sociology and history. Such disciplinary differences—combined with enormous variation in work experiences—means that students are approaching problems from very different places. It's important to get a feel for the extent of that variation at the beginning of a semester so that you can be responsive to the needs of as many individual students as possible.

Share Personal Stories

Everyone likes to hear stories. We're naturally drawn to information that is presented in a narrative structure. I try to incorporate personal examples from my own experiences and offer illustrative stories during class exchanges, because it engages students and gives them a better understanding of how the information they are learning may have come about or could be applied. For instance, I might share the diversity of animals that I captured and took samples from during studies of Lyme disease, or explain the challenges I faced in identifying risk factors for malaria during research in remote parts of Africa.

Our world is complex and the topics we cover are nuanced and complicated. As a teacher, it's important to accept and embrace that.

Use Foreign Examples and Illustrations

I try to employ examples that push my students outside the knowledge and cultural comfort zones with which they are most familiar. Incorporating examples and asking unexpected, unfamiliar questions can stimulate imagination and help students to see an idea in a much larger framework. I try to reassure everyone that life is full of contradictions, that nature and societies are dialectical, and illustrate this with examples that they are unfamiliar with or in which public health patterns seem counterintuitive.

Explore Multilevel Relationships

In epidemiology, we espouse the notion of multiple levels of causation. For example, one can analyze a problem in the context of individual cells or personal behaviors, of geographic and environmental impacts, and of political or economic influences. All are important for most public health problems, and it is best to move up and down those levels. Digging into such interrelationships gives students a richer understanding of the problems we study, and why some of them at times seem intractable.

Embrace Complexity

My role is not to provide students with facts to accept and memorize. That approach doesn't help them realize how the information they are learning fits into the bigger picture, with many components beyond what they are learning in any particular class. Our world is complex and the topics we cover are nuanced and complicated. As a teacher, it's important to accept and embrace that. Complexity provides a springboard for questioning and exchanging, especially when it produces uncertainty. That makes the learning process more difficult, but also more exciting.

Listen Carefully

I try to give all students the benefit of the doubt, believing that they are always trying to do their best. When someone asks a question that seems off-base or is not well formulated, I make an effort to help them better articulate their idea or confusion and to imagine for myself what they might find unclear. If I'm still not sure, I use my own wording or ask them to try and reformulate the question. Such "listening between the lines" often helps me to help them discover.

Acknowledge and Value Everyone's Opinion

I believe strongly in classroom discussion, even though some settings and topics are less suited for this. I am not there primarily to lecture at my students, but rather to engage them in thoughtful exchange of ideas and opinions that will challenge assumptions and bring everyone closer to understanding the nuance and complexity of the topic at hand. When a student shares an idea or opinion that seems unsupported, I am careful not to shut them down, which will just discourage future sharing by everyone. Opinions and ideas are encouraged. If they contradict evidence, then we can explore what is needed to consider alternative explanations. Thus, we are all students and forever learning.

About the Author

Mark WilsonMark Wilson is a professor of epidemiology and of global public health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health as well as professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the university's College of Literature Science and the Arts. He has been honored with the 2018 Michigan Public Health Excellence in Teaching Award. Wilson's research interests include the epidemiology and ecology infectious diseases, analysis of pathogen transmission dynamics, and environmental and social determinants of human disease risk.