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Active Learning in Large Biology Classes


Active learning happens when students engage with course content in ways that promote deep processing and higher level thinking. To Biology professor Valerie Oke, it means making deliberate choices about how to use class time, leveraging the use of peer activities, and emphasizing the value of practice. Professor Oke teaches two large classes – Genetics, which normally enrolls 120 to 130 students, and Microbiology, with about 80 students.

She has a toolbox of activities that she uses for active learning several times a semester. She finds that, by using the same methods at different times, students become more comfortable with the methods which, ultimately, will help them on the exams. For the in-class activities, she often chooses problems that focus on areas she knows students will have misconceptions about. After students are done working the problems, she asks for volunteers to share answers and then uses a document camera to write them down and show the class, using the student examples to analyze potential misconceptions.

Oke has learned some lessons along the way. For one thing, “Organization is key! Large classes are very unforgiving if something goes wrong.” To begin, she advises creating a syllabus that makes sense and sticking to it throughout the semester. Regarding in-class activities, it’s important to schedule adequate time. “If you’re doing active learning,” she says, “you must give everyone enough time to benefit from the activity.” She deliberately does not provide handouts for such activities ahead of time because she really wants to encourage students to come to class and work on them there. She makes sure, however, that students know they “are always welcome to come and talk to me or the TA if they missed class.” To foster a sense of interaction with students, she works at getting to know students’ names. Although she is not able to learn all of them, she believes that students take notice when she makes the effort and that makes it easier for them to come to her office to talk.

To experiment with new activities, Oke uses the summer semester when she has fewer students. For example, in a recent summer semester, she explored the use of group exams. To implement this strategy, she creates an exam that will take students about half the class time to complete and administers the test to each student during the first half of class. After students submit answers to the individual exams, she puts them in small groups and asks them to take the exam again in the group. Depending on how they do in the group, they can earn extra points.

As a result of the group collaboration, she found that all students, even the very good ones, were able to earn at least one extra point which, she believes, demonstrates that everyone is learning from this strategy. Of course, this results in a few more exams to grade. But she notes that, because the answers are better, the group exams are easier and faster to grade.

In order to create more opportunities for problem solving activities during class time, Oke has had to eliminate some content coverage over the years, always a challenging exercise for faculty. To guide her decision-making, she thinks critically about “what the students really need to know ten years from now.”

Oke regularly exchanges ideas with her colleagues in the Biology Department, which is oriented toward a continuing process of quality improvement for teaching and learning. Faculty who teach Foundations of Biology meet weekly; those who teach labs also get together regularly. Recently, a journal club about teaching was launched in the department. As Professor Oke says, “We are very active in thinking about teaching.”

An important external source of information she likes to follow is the work of Biology professor Scott Freeman. He and his colleagues at the University of Washington have experimented with a variety of active learning techniques and course structures. Based on their work, they have advanced what they call the Carnegie Hall hypothesis, summed up in the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!”



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