Using drawing to engage students in large lecture cell biology

What is the strategy?

During the semester, in-class drawing activities were used to foster student engagement in several ways.  In general, three strategies were used: (1) Asking students to draw cellular representations to understand where biochemical processes happen and their mechanisms in cell function (e.g., drawing the mitochondria, labeling pH values of compartments, and drawing ATP synthase facing the appropriate direction); (2) table generation alongside artwork depicting critical cellular functions (CAM, C3 and C4 photosynthetic pathways is a major example); and (3) conceptually integrative artwork that typically compared cellular processes and integrated other core concepts (cell cycle and mitosis vs. meiosis is a major example).  A notecard process (see prior design memo by Schwebach) was used for students to share their artwork with the class.  Students were told to discuss lecture content or solve problems with their peers (these discussions would take about 5 min. from initiation to students reporting out), using the artwork as a conversation piece and some of the art was handed in for extra credit or for participation points to show the class how other students were thinking about critical concepts in cell biology. 

How do these tasks fit into my class?  How long will they take?

Core learning goals in cell biology were considered and the instructor reflected on areas where students had struggled in the past.   Please consider the 3 approaches above.

For the first strategy, cellular representations were typically shown in the textbooks, and slides depicting these illustrations were projected.  However many of the illustrations did not illustrate *where* in the cell the processes were happening.  Hence, this was an opportunity for students to ask themselves where these processes would be happening for the cellular representation to make “best sense.”  For example, students were asked to draw the mitochondria then label their art with the specific functions mentioned in the example in the section above.  This didn’t take more than 3 or 5 extra minutes in class, since students were asked to do the sketches during the lecture.  The instructor would ask the students to label their drawing or draw a component of the drawing during the lecture.  In some cases, the notecard strategy (see the other design memo) was used for the students to show their drawings for participation. 

For the second strategy, students were asked to create tables for them to compare cellular processes alongside other artwork.  For example, students drew the route that CO2 entered a leaf cell or cells, depending on the kind of photosynthetic process that was happening.  Since leafs have adaptations to not lose water, the art helped students depict the relationship between the anatomy and the biochemistry.  The table drawn to the right of this helped students compare the different drawings of the different routes that CO2 could take, to better understand the biochemistry, the benefits of the adaptations, and energetic consequences of the adaptations.  At least my perception is they are understanding and keeping these understandings for a longer duration.  My hypothesis is that they do indeed better understand the differences and reasons for the adaptations.  The tables are a mechanism for students to do the accounting of the differences, and to ensure they compare the relevant features.  

For the third strategy, I have to mention my thoughts about how I plan to continue merging a notecard teaching strategy with the artwork.  Pretty much I needed to be more consistent with using this strategy going forward, and while I implemented this a couple times, I want to be more consistent regarding how I plan to implement this strategy next year.  Here are my plans for next year:  Students should write a question down every day, for collection and sampling using notecards during the class.  Regarding Art, I will call on students randomly to share their art.  I will seek student opinions about how they feel about sharing their art.  I’m planning to give students an option to either share their art or their question when they are called on, for participation, since I’m using the notecard method to call on students.  This seemed successful the two or three times I implemented this strategy in Spring 2016.

How should I grade these problems?  Should I grade these problems?

[The following is from my notecards design memo; this is to show consistency with how I am grading students.]  Please see the language that I included in my syllabus:

This class has 8 participation points, that’s a lot of points!  Please note:

Earning your 4 notecard participation points:

Each student will create a notecard that includes a little bit about the student, their thoughts about signing up to take [the course], and what they might want to do after college.  This information will help the instructor place students in study groups during class and also to suggest recommended study groups outside of class.  These cards will also be marked, and randomly used, to document each student’s participation, asking of questions, and similar participation activities during lecture.  Students who are always attending will score very high and students who make a strong effort to participate will receive all four points.   Students who are frequently absent will receive fewer points. 

Which pitfalls do I need to avoid?

This is an ongoing area of research for me, and my biology professor colleague [name]; she is interested to pursue related strategies for her students.  We are discussing strategies to use drawing to help students understand biological concepts and we plan to survey students to understand their preferences of using the method. 

An equal number of spring 2016 comments were received in my class evaluations, with a split number of students exclaiming either: “no more drawings,” or, “more drawing activities, please!”  Hence, I feel that I’m clearly reaching a dimension of what students may be comfortable doing as a group activity.  I’m really wondering if this is a best-practices endeavor, and to what extent I should refine it.  Personally I think the students are learning very deeply because they are creating something in class that should persist both as an artifact that they use later in other biology courses, and because the act of drawing out the concepts leads to a more permanent encoding and organization of the knowledge we were synthesizing.  I’m thinking the people who didn’t like it actually benefited from it, although this same group might also be more likely to perform at a lower grade level than those who prefer the activity.  I’m thinking we need to consider this given the research Julie and I are planning to do this next year.  For now, I’m asking my students to trust me that I have sense that they are learning more deeply and we know that the concepts I’m trying to reinforce (e.g., cell cycle knowledge) and concepts the Biology faculty have evidence are not being encoded deeply enough so the students “remember” these understandings in following coursework.  I hope to show that we are helping students keep this knowledge in the longer term by having them engage in these activities and at some point I’m going to need to follow up with students who are in genetics, to assess if they do in fact have a more deep understanding of these concepts if they engaged in the drawing activities (ideally we would also have a record of their prior grades and item scores on related concepts, and survey data for those students that engaged in the drawing activities, to see if students who didn’t enjoy the activities are any different.  But this is a lot of assessment, so I’ll need to recruit an undergraduate scholar for this research to happen at this level.)

[My colleague] has recommended doing more than one approach, using different techniques to get “the point across,” since it isn’t desirable to rely on one component.  This way, students can have a role in groups, since certain students will be more likely to make a list.