Integrating active worksheets into a lecture-based Biology course

What is your strategy?

The factual information that is required for understanding the topics being discussed in each lecture are presented in a short Powerpoint presentation, which is posted on Blackboard directly after class.  At the start of each lecture, students are provided a list of the learning goals and objectives that clearly state what facts, concepts, and skills they are expected to acquire from the lecture. The short presentations are supplemented with worksheets that are designed to be completed at different points during class time, usually intermittent with the Powerpoint presentation.  Activities written within the worksheets are varied and include learning games, designing experiments, and analyzing figures from primary literature to reinforce the facts and concepts addressed during the Powerpoint presentation.  Importantly, students are allowed to choose whether they work on the worksheets on their own or in small group (no more than 3 students per group).  After giving students 3-10 minutes per question on the worksheet, students share their answers and have the opportunity to analyze and provide feedback for each other’s responses.  Ultimately, the bulk of the time spent in the classroom is spent addressing any misconceptions or confusion about the material introduced in the Powerpoint presentation.  With the students consistently engaged in the material, they learn from their instructor, each other, and on their own throughout the 90 minutes of class time. 

Why did you choose the strategy?

Philosophically, my goal in the classroom is to emphasize the overarching themes most important for understanding developmental biology and to appreciate that subtle differences in developmental programs are ultimately responsible for the diversity of life.  As a result, my worksheets and stated learning goals and objectives serve to focus my students’ attention on understanding the conceptual frameworks that drive organismal development rather than the molecular details that vary among the model organisms covered during the semester.  More practically, it is widely accepted that students learn best when interacting with the material and each other.  However, those who attempt active learning techniques know that these techniques are often met with resistance on the part of students who perceive active learning methodologies as “teaching themselves” rather than being taught by the instructor.  By providing students with a short Powerpoint presentation the factual information is delivered by their instructor.  The worksheets are then used to show students how that information, which was delivered during the Powerpoint presentation, can be applied to understanding a new development within a novel organism or deepen their understanding of the current mechanism being explored in the lecture.

What do you plan to do next?

Originally, the worksheets provided a way for students to challenge themselves to think about what is important in developing organisms without the possibility of being penalized for coming up with an incorrect response.  My goal was to provide students a forum for exploring how to think about developmental biology freely.  As a result, the worksheets were graded only on the basis of being completed and submitted rather than the students’ performance on the questions in the worksheet.  However, there was no assessment for whether the worksheets were beneficial to the students.  In future, I’d like to design an assessment for determining how effective the worksheets are in helping students gain a better conceptual grasp of the material.  To assess whether the worksheets are helping students understand and retain the important concepts in developmental biology, I will be including periodic short pop quizzes.  These short multiple choice quizzes will include an equal number of questions that simply ask students to recall specific facts from the short presentations and questions that test their understanding of basic biological concepts that were explored using the worksheets.  I will compare the students’ performance on both types of questions for each pop quiz given.  My hypothesis is that students will perform better on questions that test their understanding of the biological concepts compared to questions simply testing their ability to recall facts presented in the lecture.  Their quiz grades will only be used for course assessment, which means they will not be counted towards their grade. 

Conclusion 

By integrating worksheets into a lecture-based course, students are able to gain the factual information they are expected to acquire during the semester while also gaining a deeper understanding of the overlying principles that drive organismal development.

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