Paul Vincelli, extension professor of plant pathology at the University of Kentucky, is a native of Eatontown, NJ. He received a bachelor’s degree (botany, 1981) and master’s degree (plant pathology, 1983) from Rutgers University and a Ph.D. degree (plant pathology, 1988) from Cornell University.
Vincelli has taught courses at three universities, beginning his teaching career following the lecture model common to college-level science classrooms. However, as he has studied and reflected on topics relating to teaching and learning, his teaching approach has evolved over the past decade toward an inquiry-based model.
Vincelli’s thinking about teaching and learning was heavily influenced and greatly enriched by a sabbatical experience in 1998 with Jo Handelsman, a nationally recognized leader in college-level science instruction at the University of Wisconsin. While there, he took her course, Teaching Biology (Plant Pathology 875), undertook an in-depth study of academic literature on teaching and learning, and engaged in classroom and laboratory observation with a number of colleagues. These efforts culminated in an entirely new written Teaching Philosophy, as well as major modifications to the courses he teaches.
Vincelli’s teaching approach is anchored in constructivism. He summarizes one of the most fundamental insights about teaching and learning achieved through his sabbatical as follows: “When I teach, I do not build students’ knowledge structure; I simply share my own. No matter how hard I may try, I cannot construct my students’ knowledge for them; only they can do so. As a teacher, I cannot really ‘convey knowledge’; all I can do is to create the conditions that facilitate students’ own knowledge construction.”
His instruction rests upon this foundation and, therefore, centers on stimulating thinking in students. Over time, he has modified and refined his graduate-level teaching substantially, with the majority of class time now devoted to active-learning exercises, case studies, problem-solving, and discussion. The course in which he has the greatest pride, Principles of Plant Pathology (PPA 400G), has gone through several permutations as he has conceptualized and experimented with several teaching approaches, including cooperative learning. PPA 400G has evolved into a very heavily inquiry-based course, with classroom activities all semester long that not only teach important subject matter but also systematically develop cognitive skills. Vincelli’s teaching approach in PPA 400G, described in a recent paper in The Plant Health Instructor, successfully motivates students to come to class having read in advance and prepared preliminary disease cycles based on the reading. These preclass assignments, coupled with in-class group work as well as both guided and open-ended inquiry, stimulate students to think at the highest cognitive levels: analysis (by analyzing written literature), synthesis (by constructing disease cycles), and evaluation (by evaluating how disease management practices affect disease cycles). His laboratories in PPA 400G also have many inquiry-based elements, culminating with students designing their own unique disease control experiments. With such pedagogical innovations, PPA 400G has proven to be a very effective and popular course. Yet, Vincelli never waivers or tires in his efforts to improve the students’ learning experiences and continues to experiment with and evaluate teaching techniques in the classroom.
Vincelli has been active in sharing his insights with colleagues through scholarly communications on teaching and learning, including four refereed papers in The Plant Health Instructor and presentation of several college-wide seminars. Among his recent contributions is the paper “An inquiry-based approach to teaching disease cycles” (PHI-T-2005-0222-01), a unique contribution to our discipline, which outlines how introductory students can be taught both content and cognitive skills pertinent to plant pathology in the context of an introductory course. Vincelli also has supported scholarly communication on teaching and learning through service on the APS Teaching Committee, as senior editor for The Plant Health Instructor, and as a reviewer for the recent introductory text from APS PRESS by Gail Schumann and Cleora D’Arcy. He also led his department in the development of a graduate-level course, Teaching in Plant Pathology (PPA 799), in which students earn credit through the study of literature on teaching and learning and through mentored teaching in the classroom.
Vincelli has been an advocate for innovative teaching efforts, with one overarching goal: that students learn to the maximum of their individual abilities. His stated goals for students are that they learn a core of plant pathology knowledge as well as cognitive skills, that they develop a conceptual framework in plant pathology appropriate to their chosen professional goals, and that they leave his classroom equipped for a lifetime of learning on plant diseases and their management. Without question, his students learn much under his tutelage, and they leave the university better equipped to make well-founded decisions with respect to plant diseases and their management. However, for Vincelli, teaching is ultimately about much more than our discipline. This is evidenced in the way he treats each of his students and in the concluding words of his Teaching Philosophy: “I remind myself that it is a sacred honor to be entrusted with helping these young scholars discover themselves and their own potential.”