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Fall 2010

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On Teaching
Catherine Ueckert, PhD

Creating an Active Learning Environment

I have taught a plethora of classes while at NAU. All of them have involved biology, education, or a combination of both. One of my favorite classes to teach is BIO 181: Unity of Life, an introductory, large enrollment course for majors.

Over the years I have found ways to teach this course of 150-240 students that is more engaging and motivating for students. In addition, student learning has increased as evidenced by the increased number of As and Bs earned and the decreased number of Ds and Fs. The learner-centered strategies fall into a category referred to as active learning.

When I ask students in my classes how they plan to study, they tell me they will read the assignment in the text, make note cards, take detailed notes, review notes daily (some even say make self-quizzes), go to recitation, get organized, set a regular time to study, and not procrastinate. All of these strategies depend upon memorizing facts and do little to promote deep understanding of the material.

Success in college courses usually requires more than knowledge of facts and vocabulary. Students are expected to connect these isolated bits of knowledge in order to develop conceptual understanding. When students understand concepts they are able to transfer the knowledge to solve problems and address relevant issues. Connecting what we already know with new knowledge is an active process and requires students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Making a Case for Active Learning

Active learning recognizes that individuals have to engage with the content and with others, unveil prior ideas, make connections between ideas, and construct new knowledge from prior experiences. The learners must recognize what they know and what they still have questions about (metacognition). Understanding a concept is often manifested when students are asked a question in which they must transfer prior knowledge and understandings to a new context. The research on learning suggests that this transfer only occurs if the learner is aware of the principles underlying their thinking.

Research reveals that engaging students in their own learning—whether by interaction with the content, peers, or the course instructor—increases learning. Classrooms that utilize active learning strategies are noisy. Students are debating ideas, asking questions and comparing answers to what is known, using evidence to develop explanations, considering alternatives and communicating their ideas and, upon reflection, often changing their ideas. Sometimes students work in groups to collect data in real-life contexts, or apply knowledge gained in the classroom to societal problems. These increased interactions with content and peers make thinking explicit. These strategies simulate the processes involved in inquiry and appeal for many students because it accommodates different interest and learning preferences.

Characteristics of active learning include students engaging with the content and with each other, using prior knowledge and understandings to extend knowledge, and connecting ideas between concepts and across disciplines.

Three techniques that you can implement to change learning from a passive to an active learning process are: 1) small group work, 2) classroom response systems, and 3) relevant issues/problems.

Increasing Student Engagement Using Small Groups

I make a concerted effort to teach biology not as a set of facts but rather as a process of discovery that has evolved over time, especially in terms of increased sophistication of tools and technology. I want students to realize that the findings of others become the foundation for future research, that science has a cultural and societal component, and that science may be controversial. For instance, at the beginning of the semester students are given written descriptions of five major scientists and their experiments that played a role in the 200-year debate of spontaneous generation. The scientists are from different countries and professions, and held contradictory beliefs. Students form informal small groups to discuss their assigned scientists and experiment. A person from each group reports the main points to the class. The information is used to create a summary table of the contributions and lessons learned from each scientist.

The goal is for students to discover that scientists come from various cultures and backgrounds, scientific experimentation has evolved to its present state, science is tentative, and people are reluctant to accept ideas different from their own. These understandings provide the foundation for studying the development of other theories and hypotheses during the semester as well as establishing a positive interactive climate.

Another method for including small group work is to have the students create a conceptual flow map, which is similar to a concept map. Students are given different sections of a reading from the text or research article. Once they are finished reading, students who have read the same section of the article discuss it and come to consensus on the concept being discussed. Then they collaboratively write the concept as a complete sentence that describes and relates the ideas around a fundamental understanding. The “expert” groups (they were assigned the same section to read) move to another group consisting of members that have each read a different section of the reading. The newly formed group now assembles their concepts to form a conceptual flow graphic. Groups present their final product and note commonalities and insights they have gained.

Think about what you teach. Which topics have changed over time, been controversial, emerged by the contributions of numerous people with various perspectives and expertise? Once you have identified the topics, you are well on your way to designing a valuable small-group exercise that will bring meaning and understanding to your students.

Increasing Student Engagement Using Class Response Systems

I use classroom response systems or clickers to involve students in their own learning. Clickers are used in a number of ways: to see what students already know, to determine if they have read the assigned reading, to check for student understanding, and to challenge students to connect ideas. It is important to create clicker questions that include answer choices of common misconceptions and “trouble spots” observed in previous students. The student responses help to reveal gaps in their understanding. This information is used to alter lectures and teach what is needed to help them understand.

Some multifaceted questions that require students to use what they know to build new understandings are also included. In this situation, the students answer the question (the instructor does not reveal the correct answer).  Next, the students discuss their reasoning for choosing their answer in informal groups of two or three, and then re-answer the question. A discussion follows with students sharing their reasoning for their answer choices. These think-pair-share exercises result in beautiful teachable moments, and the students are eager to learn!

Clicker questions give students rapid feedback on their level of understanding and a preview of the types of questions that will be asked on quizzes and exams. Both of these are needed for students to not only learn but to feel good about their accomplishments and motivated to learn more. Classroom response systems were implemented to check student understanding and foster small-group conversations about key concepts in large lecture settings. Students are asked to predict an answer to various problems or situations and then try to convince their neighbor that their answer is correct. The ensuing discussions are not only high energy but involve the connection of various concepts and the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings.

An added benefit to using clickers is that it allows you to track student attendance and compare it to their performance in the course. The instructors of BIO181 have found a direct correlation between class attendance and academic success. Students who attended class earned higher course grades than those who did not.

Increasing Student Engagement Using Relevant Examples and Problems

It is important to make the curriculum relevant. Before you are able to select appropriate applications to real-world issues, you need to find out some information about the students in your class. This can be accomplished quite easily on the first day of class by using small note cards and asking students to answer the following questions:

  • Name
  • Year in school
  • Major
  • Where do you call home?
  • Why are you taking BIO 181?
  • How does BIO 181 fit into your career goals?
  • Name 3 strategies that you can use that will help you be successful in BIO 181.

I summarize these and share the results during the following class meeting time. It is usually quite interesting. In an effort to personalize the instructor a bit, I then share similar information about myself.

A concerted effort is made to include relevant examples and case studies in lectures to add interest and appeal to the various audiences, and designing in-class group tasks that required students to apply concepts to real life applications. For example, Nabhan and Tewksbury’s study on directed deterrence was included to appeal to environmentalists and forestry majors, and the molecular basis for genetic diseases stimulates the interests in several majors including students seeking a career in health-related areas. We strive to make connections to topics and current events that students might be interested in such as the relationship of an abnormal cell cycle and cancer; the application of the concept of enzyme failure to more familiar topics such as insulin and diabetes; DNA analysis and its use for forensics, paternity, etc.; and the use of stem cells in research.  I have found that placing concepts in meaningful contexts (that is, related to students in some way) increases students’ motivation to learn.

Catherine Ueckert

I hope you find these active learning strategies helpful. Active learning allows students to take responsibility for their own work and their own learning. Be prepared for increased student questioning, the need for real data, noisier classrooms as students negotiate ideas and collaborate with others, and of course, increased student learning.

Have a great year.


—Catherine Ueckert, Associate Professor of Biology Education and NAU President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow