Foray into the deep end of active learning

This semester, I’ve decided to take the plunge into the deep end of the active learning pool, and make my classes truly active and highly structured, with pre-quizzes and students working on problems during class time, in small groups. I’m doing this with Biol 1510 Intro Biological Principles, with two lecture sections of 210 and 140 students, and also with Biol 4150/6150 Genomics and Applied Bioinformatics, a combined senior/graduate course with a total enrollment of about 25 students.

I’ve been gradually and incrementally working towards active learning. The first major step was the use of clickers in the large intro bio classes. I used them to ask anywhere from 4 to 8 questions every class period, many addressing common misconceptions, and most questions requiring students to apply concepts or solve small analytical or numerical problems. Nearly every class period student answers would show no clear consensus, and I would have students discuss it with their neighbors and then revote. I enjoy the instant feedback, and the student reactions, either of satisfaction at getting it right, or the bemusement at seeing a split opinion.

But after a few iterations, I felt like I had taken clicker questions about as far as I could, and I was ready for more. I was still primarily in content-delivery mode, and I’ve been thinking about how to switch class time to student-inquiry mode, where students actively seek out knowledge and struggle to grasp content in order to solve a real-life problem. However, I was daunted by the prospect of doing this with a lecture hall with 200+ students. Like most university faculty, I had zero experience with active learning in large lecture classes, and had no example to learn from.

Then this year, Science published two papers on science education. The first, published in the 13 May issue, is by Deslauriers et al., Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class, where students taught by novice instructors trained in active learning techniques vastly outperformed students taught by an experienced instructor using traditional lectures. The difference in performance was so astonishingly large that it deserves a closer examination, and will be the subject of another blog post.

The second paper was published in the 3 June issue, by Haak et al. (Scott Freeman is the corresponding author), titled Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology. The data in this paper showed that what I have been doing with clicker questions in my class was clearly insufficient. Haak et al. classified this as “moderately” structured class, and this type of instruction had no statistically significant effect on the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students. However, a highly structured course, with virtually no lecture, resulted in greater than 50% reduction of the achievement gap, and increased learning among all students. Now this is the same subject and level that I teach, and their class sizes are even larger than my classes. I have run out of excuses. I came to feel that I would be derelict if I did not at least attempt to go fully into highly structured, active-learning in my own classes.

Of course, I have to figure out how to do this my own way. Fortunately, I am co-teaching Biol 1510 with the intrepid Chrissy Spencer, who is also thinking along the same lines, and is enthusiastic about trying new methods and new technologies. In fact, she teaches roughly the first half of the course, so I have time to flesh out my ideas for what I want to do. Meanwhile, she gets to lay the groundwork.

I will also be able to try out the basic approach with my small Genomics class. I have some concern because a high percentage are graduate students, and most of the graduate students are from India and China. My colleague, Jennifer Leavey, who taught Immunology last spring as a POGIL class, ran into strong resistance from a few graduate students, who didn’t like the idea of group work during class, and repeatedly asked her to lecture. I will explain the rationale for my approach, and ask for feedback from the students.

We will also experiment with, an on-line social discussion platform with some unique features. I had intended to use a Twitter stream to facilitate peer discussion both during and outside of class time, but has wiki features and doesn’t have the 140-character limit. I posed a question in the first day of class and asked students to respond on Piazza, to get a feel for how it might work. I will discuss Piazza more fully in later blog posts, but my initial impression is that students have really taken to it and are asking and answering lots of questions, just as intended. It’s not so great at capturing simultaneous input from a class of 200 students, and I’ll have to think about how to use it effectively in conjunction with small group exercises.

I’ve laid out my plans in this post, and I will post weekly to document my trials and tribulations, and I hope, some successes.  I promise to post video as well, later in the semester when I take my turn in teaching the large intro course.


About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
This entry was posted in Teaching and learning biology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Foray into the deep end of active learning

  1. Lydia Soleil says:

    You might enjoy the part in this article about the emotional response from students to changes in teaching methods:×63363


  2. Pingback: Flipped case studies workshop at Buffalo, 2014 | Jung's Biology Blog

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