Guest Blogger: David Royer
Last week, Dr. Kwame posed the question “Have you flipped your classroom?” which is a great lead-in to my blog because I am in the process of doing that for my General Biology II course, and while I have not completely flipped it, I have certainly rearranged it. It began when I attended a workshop last summer at NYU titled "Evidence-Based Teaching: Just the Facts or Thinking Like Scientists?" Diane Ebert-May, the workshop leader, is from Michigan State where she uses active learning, inquiry-based instructional strategies to teach introductory biology to classes of 200 students. She does very little traditional lecture in her classes, instead relying on having the students work in groups to solve problems during class time after which the groups present their results, often using poster paper taped to the classroom walls, which is followed by whole class discussion. She describes what she does as teaching biology using the same methods that biologists use to conduct research so that students can develop higher-level cognitive skills and build conceptual connections within biology and across the curriculum. Another aspect of her work is to use a backward design to construct courses in which objectives, assessments and instruction are aligned. Diane conducted the workshop in the same way she does her classes – we worked in groups discussing educational issues followed by presentation of results and general discussion.
I came away from the workshop enthused and ready to plunge into my sabbatical semester, the purpose of which was to redesign my General Biology II course in a way that promoted active learning on the part of the students and less lecture from me. My reason for applying for sabbatical was to explore alternative methods and design of instruction; over the past several years, I realized that, while I enjoyed delivering lectures, it was not producing enough positive results in student learning and problem-solving skills. From what I read during my sabbatical, it appears that many faculty are experiencing the same misgivings about the way that we teach. So I spent most of my sabbatical redesigning the way I would teach my course, and now that we are approaching the halfway point of the semester, I have some results to share:
- The students are more engaged working in groups. While I still need to occasionally remind a student to put the cell phone away, the students are working well in groups and staying on task.
- The students are helping each other. As I circulate through the classroom, I can hear students explaining concepts and methods to each other, and sometimes explaining it in better terms that I would use, a humbling but exciting realization.
- There have been positive results in student performance. Compared to last spring when I taught the course with traditional lecture methods, the average on the first quiz was nine points higher this semester as was the average on the first exam by six points.
- It is easy to fall back into old habits. One student group had a question recently that required more explanation than a short answer, and as I thought the entire class would benefit from the answer, I threw up a PowerPoint to illustrate the explanation – the result was that I lectured for 15 minutes and it felt completely comfortable like a pair of old slippers that fit perfectly after years of wear.
- Some material is challenging in terms of developing meaningful group assignments. The first part of the course covers genetics at the level of organisms, and it was easy to come up with genetics problems for the student groups. Now that we are moving into molecular genetics, the material is more challenging as is coming up with group assignments. I am beginning to feel the need to lecture, but resisting it so far.
- It is okay to occasionally throw in a mini-lecture (10-15 minutes) when needed. Sometimes there is a topic that requires explanation that is best delivered in lecture mode, but even then it can be interactive, forcing the students to be involved.
- It takes much preparation to design good group assignments and the overall flow of the class. My biggest error so far is planning too much for each class which then requires the redesign of subsequent classes.
- Most importantly, the students seem to enjoy the new design. I overheard one student say that she felt that she was learning more with this format, and the early assessment results support her statement.
- I am getting to know the students better. There is more interaction with the students using the new format, and I feel that I am more aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses compared to when I taught this course with just lectures.