Taking some lumps in the no-lecture model

I have now given 3 class sessions with no lecturing. I start off class with 3-4 clicker questions on concepts covered in a recorded video lecture that I posted and asked students to view before coming to class. The next 30 minutes or so are devoted to group activities. The first class used the arsenic life paper to explore elements and basic biomolecules. The second class had two tables, one comparing polysaccharides, proteins and nucleic acids in terms of elemental composition, subunits, type of bonds between subunits, a rough description of the types of structures each formed, and their general functions. The second table listed various denaturing agents such as salt, vinegar, and heat and asked what types of bonds or interactions each agent disrupted. The third class (today) I used an abstract and the key table from the 1999 Brocks et al. paper on analysis of hydrocarbons from 2.7 billion year old shales. The exercise was to reinforce what I consider a central concept ignored in the textbook, that archaea have isoprenoid lipids in their membranes, and that sterols are a eukaryotic innovation that requires molecular oxygen for synthesis.

From my point of view, I’m having a blast. I’m having a room of 180 students actively discussing biology, using their laptops to look up Wikipedia articles instead of checking email or facebook or shopping, for the entire class period. I’m showing them how biology is not just a collection of facts, but integrates with other disciplines, and how different areas of biology interconnect. They’re looking and pondering the meaning of real data.

The problem is, many of them hate it. Here are some comments students have posted on our class site in Piazza.com:

I believe that we are missing out on the detailed explanations that the teacher gives us during the lecture. Also I think a better way to approach if you didn’t want to get rid of the activity then change it to regular lecture Monday and Wednesday. Then on Friday we could do the group activity, but it should be related to what we learned on Monday and Wednesday. This will actually enhance our knowledge of the subject by applying what we have heard in the lecture. I feel like we are just googling answers to put on a sheet and not understanding anything about it.

I don’t like it. This unit in biology is already inundated with tons of vocabulary and new concepts. Our previous lecture style gave me multiple exposures to the new material (book, lecture, masteringbio). Now i feel like I’m learning everything on my own and going to class to do activities that are somewhat related to the material.

I wish he’d go back to the old lecture style so I could learn more. I feel like there’s a reason 99% of professors teach- because it works.

I feel as though I learned with Dr. [] and would attend class regardless of PRS/attendance points. I can not say the same for this new lecture style as I probably would not come to lectures if attendance was not recorded.

I agree on this subject. I don’t mind doing such activities sometime, but ONLY doing those during lecture time is really not helping me to get the material. Can we at least go through some important concepts in class?

My group members and I agree. I of course mean no disrespect, but at times, we simply can’t fathom Dr. Jung’s explanations. Comprehension is surely easier for the considerable amount of biology-related majors in the course, but I, for example, am a CS major. Chemistry and microbiology aren’t my bailiwicks.

As you stated, I feel as if I’m teaching myself in lieu of being taught. Even then, I find it difficult to teach myself considering I possess a paltry understanding in the first place.
The novel approach Dr. Jung utilizes is admirable, and over time, perhaps it will grow on me. Nevertheless, I don’t wish to be the experimental guinea pig.

I miss the old style of lecture I like the idea of doing activities in class to engage our learning in an active manner, but I feel like I learned more during traditional style lectures.

You get the general idea. There’s been a couple of positive comments, but the sentiment appears to be running heavily negative, although the evidence is anecdotal. Clearly, some students are feeling very uncomfortable. I need to make adjustments in simplifying the activities because one issue appears to be that students are floundering with some of the technical vocabulary – I will streamline the data and have better explanations.

I’m just unsure how to respond to the students. Do I show them data that students don’t really learn from lectures? That people are poor judges of their own learning? I want them to stick with it for at least a while longer. I’ll try to explain my rationale and ask them to give it a good try for the rest of this unit.

I welcome any suggestions or comments from readers.


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.
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10 Responses to Taking some lumps in the no-lecture model

  1. I’m a former student (I was in your 1510 class in fall 09), and your lectures are one of the reasons why I went into biology. I’m sure the videoed classes are a novel approach, but your lecture style was so clear and fun. I remember the “opera of operons”, “nabisco rhymes with rubisco”. In short, you are a great lecturer, and are depriving your students that gift.

  2. Susan Smith says:

    I have a hard time with the data that supposedly show that people don’t learn from lectures. I see that lectures on their own are not very effective for learning. On the other hand, all of my science classes were lecture based — I’m not going to win the Nobel prize, but I’ve been a working scientist for 25 years, so I did learn something from my classes. Furthermore, almost everyone who has won the Nobel prize learned science from lecture based classes! I think it’s true that I mostly learned from my own careful reading, studying, homework, etc. But I also learned from the connections that my professors pointed out in class, the illustrations they chose to show on overhead screen (!), the problems they worked out as examples, etc. I can still remember some of them! Maybe you could modify your approach to include a short introductory lecture, timed exercises, and then a concluding discussion where you elicit the students’ conclusions. This might help set the stage for the students,while preserving the cooperative and self-learning you are promoting. I used this model for sequence analysis classes, which I taught in a computer classroom, and it seemed to work pretty well: students were engaged with the material and each other, but did not seem overwhelmed with the self-learning. Now that every classroom is a computer classroom, maybe something like this will work for you.

  3. kolitsky says:

    Wow, I’m blown away by your approach to invert the lecture with what ought to go on outside the classroom and bring the fun of exploration of data and ideas inside the “lecture hall”. I think your teaching pedagogy would fit well within what I read of how STEM education ought to be taught if we want students to not simply memorize and be able to analyze data and understand the scientific method. But, and I seem to be in a minority opinion on this, I think there is another way to approach the lecture, preserve what students are feeding back to you about the value of your lecturing and introduce them to a pedagogy for learning at this initial stage of their learning about biology. For the past four or so years, I have been employing a formative assessment pedagogy which utilizes “Quizlets” – large data sets of questions for each chapter able to be answered and corrected automatically by Blackboard outside of the lecture hall. The Quizlets do not count toward their final grade (formative assessment – using testing as a way to learn) and they can take the Quizlets (10 questions a time chosen randomly from the larger pool of questions) as many times as they like. I find for both online as well as face-to-face classes that students who do the Quizlets more get higher grades on the exams that count than students who do the Quizlets less or not at all. Some have criticized this approach as simply memorization but I like to think that it fits more within what Karpicke and Blunt published in Science last February (see http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6018/772) and that Quizlets are a form or retrieval practice, not simply memorization. I presented my own data supporting this at the 2011 Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech from analysis of courses taught as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Washington College when I taught General Bioloy II, Cell Biology and Developmental Biology (you can see presentation graphics at http://www.nextgenemedia.com/VTpres.html). I also have been slowly swimming upstream against the current of criticizing multiple choice questions as a testing tool and in short, I do think that good multiple choice questions can be written to test student learning at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and that there are some courses where learning the vocabulary is essential for being able to discuss the concepts under study. I teach Histology online and also see Quizlets working well to demonstrate a way for students to learn the new terms in Histology and the concepts they introduce. I also find that knowing how long students study outside the lecture (equivalent to number of Quizlets done) provides me with a solid foundation of an answer to students as to how they can improve their performance in exams. I think your students are telling you that you are a great lecturer and they miss your lectures. I think they also are reflecting their insecurity with your new approach because it is new to them and likely most or all of their previous biology courses have been more traditional with the lecture period being used for primarily lecture. I might encourage as I think some of the students have suggested to do a hybrid lecture approach with some lecturing in the style you have been successful with in the past and then introduce your new pedagogy gradually. Also, thanks for being so open with your efforts to improve the teaching and learning process in Biology.

  4. Matt Metzgar says:

    Well, well, I’m not the only one thinking about this subject. I think it’s hilarious about them missing lecture. If you lecture, you get the “this is boring” treatment; if you don’t, then you get these “we’re teaching ourselves” comments. Nevermind that 70% of the people in lecture aren’t paying attention anyways.

    To kolisky, I am planning to use Bloom’s and multiple-choice next semester as well.

  5. Matt Metzgar says:

    Also, I would say take a look at the timing in the Wieman 2011 paper:

    “A typical schedule for a classwas the following:
    CQ1, 2min; IF, 4min; CQ2, 2 min; IF, 4 min; CQ2
    (continued), 3 min; IF, 5 min; Revote CQ2, 1 min;
    CQ3, 3 min; IF, 6 min; GT1, 6 min; IF with a
    demonstration, 6 min; GT1 (continued), 4 min;
    and IF, 3 min.”

    The group part (GTI) combined for only 10 minutes. If you have a 30-minute block for group time that may be too much.

  6. jchoigt says:

    Thanks for the comments. Susan and Andrew, lectures surely do work for some people (or so we think) – but I can’t refute the argument that those who are successful academically are survivors of a very strict selection for people who can and do learn from lectures. But if you sit at the back of a large lecture hall, you will see that few people are taking notes, many are doing other things on their laptops or smart phones (texting), or suffer from wandering attention. I’ve had too many experiences where I explain that X means C, and then two minutes later, on a very straightforward (Bloom’s 1 or 2) clicker question, less than 70% choose C over A, B, or D. Higher Bloom’s questions typically result in less than 50% correct answers.
    The impetus for my recorded lectures are the reports that students learn just as much from on-line courses as they do from live-class courses (although hybrid courses with both on-line and live classes appear to be the best). So I figured that having the lectures on-line would allay concerns (from students) about missing content. I wonder if complaints from students about on-line lectures being ineffective stems from them a) not watching the lectures before they come to class, even though I start off with clicker questions that they should be able to answer easily if they watched the lecture); b) not taking notes, if they do watch the lectures; c) the activities asking them to apply the concepts exposes their lack of real understanding.
    I do find it somewhat amusing that I have apparently found the magic formula to making students love lecture.
    Matt, thanks for the suggestion. I am modifying the format to have shorter group discussion time blocks.

  7. Sara Thomas says:

    In my experience, students (and everyone else) respond very quickly and adamantly against change. Also in my experience, students learn very little from, but feel very insecure without lecture. Finally, my students are very unlikely to do things outside of class besides complete required and graded homework assignments and cram the night before a test. I find that making them do projects yields a lot of understanding but hitting the sweet spot in terms of difficulty is tricky (too easy and they get a grade that doesn’t reflect understanding; too hard, and they give up…which is less likely). If we had a million years, we would do the old 5-class model wherein we do all things on all topics… All I can say is that I like spending my 90 minutes on short lectures followed by group work followed by graded assessments, with a LOT of walking around making sure they’re doing the work…which is maybe not appropriate at the college level.

  8. Matt Metzgar says:

    I hate the walking around part to encourage discussion. It’s like a boss walking the halls to make sure everyone is working. It’s just not the way top managers do things.

    I would think there that needs to be some type of graded group work assessed immediately to motivate students.

  9. William Said says:

    Thank you, You’re the best facilitator ever.

  10. Pingback: Assessing the flipped classroom | Jung's Biology Blog

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