An excellent review paper by Wood (2009) summarizes useful practices in teaching undergraduate biology courses. These include designing a course around specific learning outcomes rather than around a textbook or list of topics; group activities; formative assessment; flipped classrooms; instructors as facilitators of discussions; and open-ended or inquiry-based lab activities rather than prescriptive lab exercises with known protocols and outcomes. All of these methods point toward a larger trend of making biology classes more learner-centred. However, as I feel I have discussed most of these trends at length in my other written assignments for this course, for this reflection I would like to address another trend in biology education that Wood (2009) highlights: using the scientific method to choose teaching practices.
Most postsecondary science instructors are trained as scientists, so it makes sense that science education research should use the scientific method, and that we should use teaching methods that are supported by research rather than simply doing things a certain way because that’s how they have always been done. Wieman (2007) argues that traditional science education has been focused on training the next generation of scientists, even though only a very small proportion of students will become scientists. Instead, science education should be “effective and relevant for a large and necessarily more diverse fraction of the population” (Wieman, 2007, p. 9).
Wieman (2007) discusses the importance of affecting students’ beliefs about the subject matter, and how educators can help students move from novice-like beliefs to expert-like beliefs. Novices believe that science is made up of “isolated pieces of information [that are] handed down by an authority and disconnected from the world around them – that they can only learn by memorization” (Wieman, 2007, p. 11). Students with this point of view also feel that science is static and unchanging, and that they have nothing to contribute to it. Experts, on the other hand, see their discipline as a “coherent structure of concepts that describe nature and that have been established by experiment….problem-solving involves employing systematic, concept-based, and widely applicable strategies” (Wieman, 2007, p. 12). Traditional science courses do not move students toward expert-like beliefs – in fact, they may make them feel more like novices (Wieman, 2007). Weiman (2007) describes specific techniques that instructors can use to help students move toward expert-like thinking, even in large introductory courses.
I believe that these trends have the potential to make real improvements in the way we teach science, and both Wieman (2007) and Wood (2009) make manageable recommendations for implementing some of these changes in the classroom. While it may not be practical for me to conduct empirical studies on teaching methods in my own classes, I can learn from the research that others in my field have conducted – so keeping up with the latest articles on science education is another important way that I plan to address this trend.
My best-case scenario would involve a total re-design of my course, beginning with specific learning outcomes that students should master rather than the “follow the textbook” approach that has been used to teach the course for decades. However, given that I am not the only instructor (and that I am the newest instructor), smaller changes are more realistic at this time.
I have been working to shift the balance of my class time in favour of group activities and discussions, rather than lecture. My students have been a little resistant to the reduced lectures so far, which I find surprising – I thought they’d be happy to spend more time on hands-on activities – but some claim to find it harder to remember information that hasn’t been mentioned in lecture, even if they encounter it in the lab and have to write it down on a worksheet. I wonder if this might have happened because I made a drastic shift one day and didn’t lecture at all – so I decided to take a more gradual approach, starting by adding just one or two questions to the lab worksheet that weren’t specifically addressed in lecture. My hope is that they will start to feel more at ease with finding information on their own – making them stronger lifelong learners. I have also started to encourage students to self-assess in a number of ways: giving out the rubrics for larger assignments and asking students to estimate their own mark before I grade their assignment; asking students to reflect on their daily quiz scores and assess their own study habits that way; showing sample answers to practice questions and asking students to mark their own work.
Wieman, C. (2007). Why not try a scientific approach to science education? Change, 39, 9-15.
Wood, W.B. (2009). Innovations in teaching undergraduate biology and why we need them. Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology, 25, 93-112.