Content coverage vs. Active learning

With the emphasis these days on inquiry-based teaching and non-lecture classroom formats, most intro bio professors have had to reinvent the way they teach. Lectures are “OUT.” Class discussion, small group activities are “IN.”

How do you “cover” the huge amount of factual and conceptual information that is intro bio when the students are discussing things? When the students do not yet have the vocabulary needed to speak biology?
The answer: a little of both.

To do this, you may need more time for each class period, at least a 75 min class session a couple of times a week, rather than the traditional 50 min lecture period.

Here’s one class idea for the topic of gene regulation:

(from Wikipedia)

1. Get them interested in the topic. Let’s say the topic is regulation of gene expression. Try starting class with a funny You-tube video: (one of my favorites, a classic):

Or a more serious one, an interview of Sean Carroll:

2. Use the video or even a science “story” to work through a mini-lecture- about 20 minutes or so on the concept. You can use other videos to show the steps while you talk. There’s a lot available. I use PowerPoint so that I can post the slides to our class Moodle site (usually several days before the class) so they can use the file as a basis for note-taking.

4. What I do then is spend the next class period having the class discuss an experimental article that involves gene regulation (with an Evo-devo theme in the case of my course) and follow up the discussion with a re-cap of the concept and its applications. I usually provide the students with questions/issues to guide their reading (in the form of a handout or post on our class Moodle site) and then form small groups in class to discuss those and other issues. Then, we get together as a full class to discuss the discussions. It usually takes about 45 min to an hour for a good, deep discussiion of a paper.

3. For the last 15 min or so of the second class session, I devise a practice problem or class activity to get the class talking in pairs or small groups, to reinforce the concept.

I do cover less in terms of book-related content. BUT, we do get all the major concepts, AND we get practice with reading and talking the language of biology AND the students seem to have a better grasp of the concepts. What do you think? Any ideas to share from your experience?
An upcoming post will talk a bit about how to gauge student mastery of fundamental concepts. Exams? Papers? Other?


4 thoughts on “Content coverage vs. Active learning

  1. I like this format and approach! But I’m curious about the discussion of the research paper. Most of these are very challenging especially at the freshmen level. How do you get them to read and discuss a paper that is likely so challenging? The jargon and unfamiliarity with the techniques is often a barrier I find.

  2. Thanks for that great comment! The choice of primary article is really critical- an article that’s not too full of jargon, that is clear and well-written. Here’s an example of one I chose, one that we considered the third week of the semester, after we’d discussed things like mechanisms of evolution, species concept and speciation (check out the syllabus for this course in an earlier blog post).
    Kitano, J., Bolnick, D.I., Beauchamp, D.A., Mazur, M.M., Mori, S., Nakano, T. and Peichel, C.L. (2008) Reverse evolution of armor plates in the threespine stickleback. Current Biology 18: 769. This paper is clearly written and the figures are clearly presented. I gave the students guiding questions to help them with their readings, then, in class, had them work in small groups on several of these questions. I visited each group and answered questions, provided more information to guide them through it. We covered several papers during the semester, with a large focus on primary papers the last two weeks. By the end of the semester, their mastery was pretty substantial!
    Thanks for the comment!

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