Learning transferable skills in large lecture halls: Implementing a POGIL approach in biochemistry


  • This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF-DUE-0717392).


As research-based, active learning approaches become more common in biochemistry classrooms, the large lecture course remains the most challenging to transform. Here, we provide a case study demonstrating how process oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) can be implemented in a large class taught in a traditional lecture hall. Course structure and multiple strategies to support student learning and encourage engagement are described in detail. Therefore, this case study could act as a model for others wishing to transform their own courses from lecture to a more student-centered format. Student feedback about the course format was overwhelmingly positive and preliminary assessment data demonstrated student learning gains in several important areas. BIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY EDUCATION, 2012

Common themes in the transformational documents Vision and Change: A Call to Action [1], Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America fora Brighter Economic Future [2], and Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World [3], are to 1) prepare students with transferable skills, 2) ensure students understand core concepts underlying scientific information, 3) guide students to connect knowledge with real-world applications, and 4) prepare students who are familiar with current scientific issues and technology. One challenge at a large university with large class sizes is how to meet these calls to action and change teaching practices in a way that can be sustained over time. In particular, the challenges of limited organization and management time, growing amounts of information to learn, and effective assessment of these goals give pause to a teacher of small classes and are daunting to those who teach large numbers of students. This article attempts to address some of these challenges by describing implementation strategies of one active learning approach, process oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL), in a large biochemistry class that is taught in a conventional auditorium. The goals of the described course include (a) preparing students with transferable skills, (b) increasing learner motivation for learning biochemistry, and (c) increasing students' understanding of the core concepts underlying particular biochemical information.

Modern research on how people learn shows that knowledge must be constructed within the mind of the learner [4–6].Construction of knowledge is best facilitated in the presence of faculty who provide structure and serve to monitor and promote learning while helping students confront misconceptions and knowledge gaps and improve thinking processes. One advantage of using cooperative teams in class for learning is that thought processes become apparent to teachers and to students. By bringing thought processes to light, the faculty member can respond in a way to promote learning. In addition, students can recognize the criteria for competence observed in others and use these criteria to improve their own performance. As a result, students are actively engaged in a meaningful social context while constructing, understanding, and solving problems [5].

Active learning can take many forms and its impact on learning has been well-established [7–14]. The framework for active learning that informs our work begins with an understanding of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives [15]. Bloom articulated six levels of thinking in the cognitive domain: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Students cannot apply newly acquired knowledge if that knowledge is incomplete, poorly understood or unconnected to prior knowledge [16, 17]. Well-conceived active learning materials build upon prior knowledge and extend that knowledge base with data to explore new concepts and ultimately provide new contexts for a rich learning environment that relies on higher Bloom's taxonomy levels.

POGIL is one active learning approach that is informed by research on how people learn. POGIL originated as an NSF-funded project started by chemical educators and has developed into a national project used by thosein a diversity of disciplines including chemistry, biology, biochemistry, the social sciences and humanities [8, 18–24]. POGIL helps students develop an understanding of new concepts, using a learning cycle paradigm [5, 25, 26]. The learning cycle includes the steps of exploration, concept invention, and application. With POGIL, students work in groups as they answer a series of carefully crafted questions, which guide them through the learning cycle. POGIL materials begin with a model. In biochemistry, models are often diagrams of chemical and cellular reactions. Students use the model to answer a series of questions to explore, invent concepts or relationships and then apply the concepts they have learned. An example of a POGIL activity used in the biochemistry course described herein can be found as Supporting Information.

POGIL develops transferrable skills. In a POGIL classroom, students are guided to learn new material using process skills that include teamwork, communication, and problem solving [8]. Therefore, students learn discipline-specific concepts while simultaneously developing transferrable skills. Learning in biochemistry often relies on steps of application, analysis, and the process of problem solving. However, experience with these higher order cognitive skills without feedback produces little learning; in fact, doing things incorrectly is counter-productive [5]. Thus, experience and timely feedback are critical to the development of cognitive skills. In an active learning classroom, teachers have the flexibility to leave the front of the room, listen to what students are saying, and interact to correct misconceptions or help students examine gaps in knowledge. As a result, active learning can provide timely and informative feedback to students during their practice of higher order processes. Faculty with this mindset view themselves as coaches and facilitators in the development of essential cognitive, social, and affective skills in their students.

Process skills are integral to how people learn and integral to POGIL. The same process skills described above are listed at the very top of what employers seek from our college graduates [2, 27]. The 2011 Job Outlook Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found the top five skills sought by employers are verbal communication, strong work ethic, teamwork, analytical approach, and taking initiative. When teachers focus on how students learn and guide students to use process skills to learn information, they are preparing students with transferable skills and meet a common theme in transformational documents supported by the American Academy of Science, National Institute of Science, and National Research Council.

In this article, we present a case study illustrating how POGIL can be successfully implemented in a large class setting. Although a prior publication describes implementation of POGIL in large general and organic chemistry courses [24], there are no published accounts of POGIL in large biochemistry class settings. Data showing gains in students' understanding of several concept areas as well as results from student perception surveys suggest that the described approach supports student learning in biochemistry. Therefore, strategies presented herein, could be adapted by others wishing to make changes in their own large biochemistry courses.


Biomolecules and Metabolism (BIOC 431/831) is a four semester hour upper level course that functions as an introduction to biochemistry offered at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It meets three times per week for 75 minute sessions, with ∼180 students in the large traditional lecture hall (Fig. 1). The lecture hall has fixed, forward-facing seating, side aisles, with a projector screen and whiteboards at the front. The text for the course is Principles of Biochemistry, an 1119-page conventional textbook [28]. Active learning materials were either written by the instructor (CB) or adapted from Foundations of Biochemistry [29], a POGIL biochemistry workbook. There are no recitation sessions, and the four teaching assistants primarily support grading and are typically not present during class time. The course covers basic biochemical molecules and molecular interactions that are fundamental to biochemistry, including proteins, enzymes, metabolism, and cell signaling. The course is offered both fall and spring semesters and is populated by undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of concentrations, including biochemistry, biology, chemistry, food science, plant science, and preveterinary majors. Approximately 75% are prehealth professionals and 25% agriculture and research fields. Prehealth professionals include students interested in applying to fields including medical school, veterinary school, physician's assistant programs, and dentistry. Because the prerequisites of the course are two semesters of organic chemistry, most of the students are juniors and seniors.

Figure 1.

Traditional lecture hall with students facing forward in rigid seating.


Active learning strategies in this large lecture class include POGIL, clickers (personal response systems) and think-pair-share. Class begins with a 10–15 minute mini-lecture which is followed by a POGIL activity. The rest of the class time is comprised of a combination of 15 minute mini-lectures, a possible second POGIL activity, clicker questions, and think-pair-share. To change a 100% lecture course to include POGIL activities, clicker questions, and think-pair-share, existing lecture PowerPoint served as a template. Some PowerPoint slides were retained for the mini-lectures, while material on slides of particularly difficult material was converted to POGIL activities. The POGIL activities are not application of material from the mini-lecture, but rather introduce new material that naturally follows the mini-lecture. Clicker questions typically guide students through tables and graphs that fall within the mini-lecture and involve group discussion. Think-pair-share is implemented during the mini-lecture when it appears that students are having difficulty with a particular concept. Online and in-class quizzes help prepare students for class, as well as provide an opportunity for students to practice material after class. This combination leads to the weekly schedule shown in Fig. 2.

Figure 2.

Flow of student workload over three class periods. Each in-class experience begins with a pre-assignment completed outside of class. In-class active learning POGIL activities and clicker questions are reinforced with post-class online quizzes and detailed study questions.

Creating Buy-in for the POGIL Approach

Students at large universities are accustomed to courses conducted in a lecture-based format. Therefore, when implementing a teaching approach that may be unfamiliar, it is important to actively cultivate learner buy-in. The first day of class students are verbally queried about their perceptions of the content and their attitudes about learning biochemistry. There are common content-based responses that include metabolism, reactions, and chemistry in living organisms. There are also common responses related to attitudes, which are predominantly fear and anxiety with a small amount of excitement. To connect process skills including teamwork, problem solving, and communication to learning in the classroom, students are asked if they played sports while growing up. This leads to a set of questions where they report out (verbally or through clicker questions). Questions and typical responses include: 1) how many hours did they meet with their coach each week (10–20 hours), 2) how many hours did they condition outside of meeting with the coach (5–10 hours), 3) did they practice with their teammates (90% “yes”), and 4) how much of the time their coach was playing the sport instead of them (less than 1%). An analogy to learning to play a musical instrument uses the same line of questioning. In-class active learning is introduced as an example of how students can practice with their teammates during class time and illustrates that the teacher will serve as a coach on helping provide guidance and strategies for improving. Online and in-class quizzes are introduced as ways for practice and conditioning. Finally, exams are games and meets where students have the opportunity to use what they have learned. Later in the semester, students are presented with a reference letter form for medical/professional school and are asked to consider how their behavior in class could affect the teacher's ability to complete a strong reference. This explicit link to their future goals is very motivating for many students.

Forming Teams

There are different strategies for forming teams in classes. In this large lecture class, students self-select teams of three or four. The number of students in each team is dictated by the rigid, forward-faced seating ofthe traditional auditorium, as this is the number of students that can easily communicate with one another (Fig. 3). One of three roles is assumed by each of the team members: manager, recorder, and presenter. If the team has four members, then one member does not have a role that day. These roles have the following tasks:

  • Manager: keep group on task, be cognizant of the time, help the group evaluate the student responses that are written on the board at the end of the activity, help group decide what to ask about student responses that are written on the board.

  • Recorder: read the questions out loud, confer with presenter if group is writing responses on the board, records reflections of the group on teamwork.

  • Presenter: ask instructor questions, write responses from the group on the board if group is chosen by instructor.

Figure 3.

Student groups in large lecture work together on POGIL activity. Usually students in groups of three or perhaps four can comfortably work together in rigid seating.

The roles rotate each class period. To manage this, and to ensure that the roles rotate, a slide at the beginning of class instructs, “The manager is the person with last name that starts closest to the letter K,” or “The manager is the person born closest to the west coast,” and so forth. Students appear to respond to this with enthusiasm to see who is selected as manager for that class period. The manager will assign the roles of recorder and presenter (strategy shared by Suzanne Ruder, Virginia Commonwealth University).


Although the students are answering the questions of the POGIL activity (see Supporting Information for example), the teacher facilitates by walking around the class, listening to groups to see how students are progressing, guiding students when they ask questions, and assigning groups to report out their responses to the question on the white board. In answering students' questions, care is taken to guide students to figure out answers themselves. This is often achieved by asking them to explain their thinking to that point, or asking a group next to them if they can help answer their question. Answering questions directly is avoided, so that students construct knowledge in their own minds. This time of walking around also allows the teacher to learn students' names and faces, which is almost impossible in large classes where lecture is the sole method. Getting to know students better makes the class more interesting for the instructor as well as the student.

Reporting Out

Assigning groups to report out their responses is facilitated by randomly selecting groups to be responsible for responses to 2–3 questions. For example, if there are 18 questions in an activity, a group will be selected to report out responses to questions 1–3, another group writes responses to question 4–6, another group writes responses to questions 8–11, until all responses are written on the board (Fig. 4). Once all the responses are on the board, all groups are responsible for evaluating the answers on the board and letting the teacher know if there are questions and comments about those responses. Different teachers facilitate this part of the POGIL activity with different strategies. In this upper-level biochemistry course with high performing students, one focus is incorporating high order Bloom's taxonomy cognition [15]. Evaluation is a high order of cognition andby implementing POGIL activities with evaluation of responses by students, this high level of Bloom's taxonomy can be incorporated into each lecture. In addition to evaluation, the responsibility for learning is shared between the teacher and student. When questions are asked about responses on the board, the teacher takes care to fully answer the questions and change the response on the board if the teacher does not agree with that response or if additional information is needed for clarification.

Figure 4.

Students report out selected responses on the board for the class to evaluate. Not all groups are selected each class period, but usually a group will report out once and sometimes more than once each week.

Supporting Questions about POGIL Activities after Class

Implementation in this course does not include posting the answers to the activities. The reason that answers are not posted for this course is to stress the evaluation by students of responses on the board during lecture. However, it is understandable that upon reflection, or if a student misses lecture and completes the activity at home, there may be questions outside of lecture. A discussion board forum is initiated for each lecture and students are free to post questions there, which are answered by the teacher or the undergraduate teaching assistants. Typically, responses are more direct on discussion board since the student has gone to some effort to make sure they understand by posting a question.

POGIL Activity in Lieu of Lecture

After students are accustomed to the POGIL activity implementation in the course, POGIL activities were implemented with an online reporting system when the teacher was attending a meeting. This usually occurs two to three times per semester. At the beginning of normal class time, the POGIL activity is available for students to complete and they choose 3 questions for which they post responses. The responses are not graded. Typically two-thirds of the class post responses and a class consensus quickly builds. The high rate of response, especially given that no points are assigned, is a strong indicator that the POGIL format encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. When the teacher returns the next class period and asks if there are questions about that activity, usually there are minimal to no questions because the large number of responses and varying words used in the responses generate a clear picture.


Assessment of POGIL Activity Effectiveness

Students' understanding of concepts from general chemistry and biology were assessed using a diagnostic assessment instrument administered at the beginning and end of the semester. The instrument, described in greater detail elsewhere [30], measured student understanding of seven different concept areas from prerequisite courses that are related to core concepts in biochemistry. These concepts related to bond energy, pH/pKa, hydrogen bonding, free energy changes, London dispersion forces, protein alpha helix structure, and the impact of mutation on protein function. Conceptual gains were measured in two different years and similar trends were observed in both years. A detailed analysis of data from one of these years has been published elsewhere [31] and is summarized below. Of 21 possible points, the mean score showed a statistically significant increase from 9.1 points to 12.5. Students made the largest gains in their understanding of bond energy, pH/pKa, and free energy changes, and showed smaller increases related to hydrogen bonding and London dispersion forces.

Student Affective Assessment

Student affective surveys consisted of statements to which the students responded with a Likert-type scale of strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, and strongly disagree. Survey results are from identical surveys from 3 years with close to 500 responses. Students assessed whether they thought different parts of the course were useful. The survey included the use of quizzes, clickers, POGIL activities, and detailed study questions (Table I). Students strongly agreed and agreed (more than 83.5%) that the online and in-class quizzes, clickers, POGIL activities and detailed study questions helped them in the course. Positive free response comments about POGIL activities included: “In-class group work kept me focused and broke up the time between lecture effectively,” “activities and reporting out made for an easy, unintimidating environment to ask questions—this is a rare attribute in college classes,” “activities let me get to know others within the class and I had an outside of class study group for the first time.” Negative free response comments about POGIL activities included: “Sometimes we finished our activity before other groups,” “she should teach us instead of expecting that we learn on our own,” “the whole group-based/team learning thing is highly unnecessary in a non-projects based large lecture setting.” When asked whether POGIL activities should be used in future classes, 86% of students agreed or strongly agreed.

Table I. Average percentage of students student survey responses for three years (n = 482)
QuestionStrongly agree and agreeNeutralDisagree and strongly disagree
  1. The difference between the years is less than 3% for each category. Survey was administered in the last two weeks of class. The teacher left the room during the survey and a student delivered the survey to an office staff member after grades were posted.

The online quizzes helped me in this course.90%5.5%4.5%
The in-class quizzes helped me in this course.87%9.5%3.5%
The clicker questions helped me in this course.83.5%8.5%8%
The POGIL activities helped me in this course.85%12%3%
I would recommend the use of POGIL activities in the future with this course.86%9%5%
The study questions helped me in this course.92%5%3%
This course significantly changed my perception about what scientists do.50%26%24%

The ability of students to correctly pronounce biochemistry vocabulary in a corresponding laboratory course oral presentation was also compared. Students were comingled in the laboratory course from two classroom courses. Some had biochemistry in the lecture course that utilized in-class POGIL activities, whereas others had a conventional lecture course. Latin names of organisms were not considered biochemistry vocabulary. It was found that students from the class that used in-class POGIL activities were 57% less likely to incorrectly pronounce biochemistry vocabulary (data not shown). This was compared for only one semester of each type of class due to a change in teaching both semesters of biochemistry with in-class POGIL activities. However, it is not surprising that when students verbalize biochemistry routinely, they are able to more easily pronounce biochemistry vocabulary.


Although active learning may seem plausible only in small classes, this case study describes strategies for facilitating active learning, which promotes higher order thinking skills, in a large traditional lecture hall. Since lecture remains the most common course format in biochemistry, especially at large institutions [32], students and faculty experience a paradigm shift when asked to participate in a POGIL classroom setting. Most students at large institutions will not have previously experienced an active learning classroom. This paradigm shift, reviewed in Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer [33], can be frightening and disorienting for students, and therefore must be explicitly addressed by the instructor. Frequent, explicit communication, which encourages students and solicits feedback, is essential in promoting buy-in and minimizing student resistance [33]. Since learning is hard work, periodic reminders of the purpose of the paradigm shift and the relevance of skill development for their future are also useful to maintain student motivation and foster learning.

The biochemistry course described here used communication with students in a directed way that attempted to resonate with the specific experiences of students at the described institution. For example, at a large state institution with an active sports program, buy-in strategies included taking advantage of students' knowledge about how they learn physical sports. The unfamiliarity of the POGIL classroom setting was mitigated by recurrent mention of the “home team,” a strategy that engaged many students. The alternative example of learning a musical instrument could also be used. Another common connection for students at a large institution is the desire to be known individually by their teachers. Reminding students that a POGIL format enables the teacher to learn more about each of them can be very powerful. Demonstrating this fact by learning student names and providing examples of how student behavior in class could be used as the foundation for strong reference letters for medical/professional school provided additional motivation for engaged student participation. In fact students who had initially elected not to join a group during the first weeks of class became much more engaged in class when it became apparent that in-class behaviors mattered. Because the student behavior norms for a large lecture classroom and an active learning classroom differ, regular guidance, and reminders on instructor's expectations contributed to a positive experience for most participants.

In addition to clear and encouraging communication, implementation of active learning strategies in any size class requires structures to support learning and a learning environment in which students are engaged and can take risks. The structures to support learning in a large class need to be designed such that large numbers of students can obtain timely feedback on their learning and have questions addressed when necessary. A number of approaches including posting student responses on the board during class, online quizzes and out of class discussion boards, were used. Once these structures were in place, students quickly learned how to use these resources effectively. Students clearly found these structures valuable since a full two-thirds of the class “attended class” virtually when the instructor was away by participating in the online discussion about the day's activity.

One of the challenges and opportunities of the POGIL classroom is that students' gaps in knowledge as well as incorrect ideas are often made visible to the teacher and to peers. Students are reluctant to make mistakes in class, so it is important for the teacher to set an appropriate tone early on in which mistakes are viewed as a normal part of the learning process. In the course described here, whole class reporting out (writing student responses on the board) was an important element of the course. Therefore, great care was taken to create a “safe” environment for students to be wrong. Wrong answers provide an opportunity for other students to evaluate and ask questions and for misconceptions to be addressed. Through interacting directly with students, teachers learn about common gaps, misconceptions or incorrect ideas and can adjust their instruction in real time. Although a teacher in a large lecture course will not hear every group in a class, the large number of discussions can provide an overview of different problems students may have with the material. As teachers get to know students more personally, a positive sense of community can be built and students often become more willing to take the risk of learning in a new way.

Although the effort associated with the paradigm shift described above may seem daunting to both students and teachers, the benefits of teaching and learning using POGIL or another student-centered approach are many. Students have the opportunity to practice skills, which are important to their future employers. These skills include problem solving, team work, critical thinking, communication, and time management. Furthermore, students are likely to improve these skills over time through receiving feedback from their teacher and peers. Because POGIL activities incorporate application questions, the questions often generate more than one reasonable response. Therefore, having student groups evaluate other groups' responses (written on the board) requires higher order thinking, (higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy) and can easily be incorporated into every class period. Finally, a recent report comparing learning in active and traditional large physics classes showed a significant increase in learning in the active classroom [7] and another report showed that active learning in a large enrolment biology class helped close the achievement gap for students from diverse backgrounds [34].

In conclusion, this case study describing use of POGIL in a large enrollment biochemistry class, demonstrates that a student-centered, active learning approach is possible in a large class setting and has a number of advantages with regard to student learning. Although use of research-based, active learning approaches will likely look different and present a number of unique challenges in large classes as compared to small, effective use of these strategies is feasible. Teachers can maximize the likelihood of a positive learning experience by considering how to leverage important course elements, including communication and course structure, to support learning and encourage student engagement.


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.