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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Overview
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. References
  7. Biographies

A case study is described that examines the beliefs and practices of a university instructor who teaches regularly in an active learning classroom. His perspective provides insights into the pedagogical practices that drive his success in these learning spaces.

Introductory college biology courses are critical for attracting students to enroll in more biology courses and increase the quality of future Life Sciences researchers and educators (National Research Council 2003). Designing and teaching large introductory biology courses, however, is a challenging task. Many college faculty struggle with teaching introductory courses where students are expected to actively and intellectually engage in learning, develop attitudes toward science, improve writing and research skills, and become lifelong learners. Commonly voiced faculty concerns about implementing active learning strategies include lack of formal preparation for teaching, inadequate pedagogical skills, balancing diverse work responsibilities, and insufficient time and resources (Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund 2007). Even when faculty espouse beliefs that represent quality teaching, expressed conceptions are often incongruent with teaching practices (Norton et al. 2005).

The positive effects of using strategies such as interactive demonstrations, think-pair-share, inquiry-based labs, cooperative learning, case studies, and team projects on student learning and motivation have been documented (Cotner et al. 2013; Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund 2007). For example, Cotner et al. (2013) demonstrated “increases in student engagement and…average gains of nearly five percentage point in final grades” (86) of students who enrolled in an introductory biology course and met in an active learning classroom (ALC).

The purpose of this study is to examine the beliefs, experiences, and practices of one college faculty member who teaches an introductory biology course in an ALC. We analyze in depth his process of preparation and implementation of the course and reconstruct it below, describing his perspective on teaching and outlining a host of insights for solid pedagogical practices in ALCs.

Study Overview

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Overview
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. References
  7. Biographies

A qualitative case study was designed to uncover the practices of one experienced faculty member (pseudonym Daniel) at a large Midwestern research university. The university's Institutional Review Board approved the study, and the data were collected after informed consent was obtained. A case study approach was used since the study was an “empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context” (Yin 1994, 13).

A semi-structured interview protocol was used to conduct two-hour-long interviews that were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim. The first interview was conducted at the beginning of spring semester in 2012 to learn about Daniel's educational background, previous teaching experiences, and beliefs about teaching and student learning. The second interview was conducted in the middle of the semester to understand his pedagogical practices in ALCs and teaching plans for subsequent semesters in ALCs. In addition to the interviews, Daniel was observed four times during the semester. Detailed field notes were taken during the classroom observations. The case was developed based on analyzing the interviews and observations. Following a preliminary write-up of the Results section, Daniel read and approved the text for accuracy of our interpretation of his experiences as a teacher in ALCs.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Overview
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. References
  7. Biographies

Daniel is a teaching associate professor (nontenure track) with a terminal degree in conservation biology and nearly twenty years of teaching in higher education as a faculty member. With a 14 credit per semester teaching load—much of it in introductory biology—he has “the luxury of being narrowly focused on teaching. And so it allows [me] to be innovative and to focus on the best approach to teach.”

As the college began to construct a new foundations course for majors, the edict came down that all sections would be taught in ALCs. Tapped to teach with his associate dean, a nationally known educator and master teacher, “I went into it kicking and screaming. I was skeptical.” Years of lecture-based teaching had cemented down the idea that if students weren't learning, it was their problem. “I finally got to the point,” he said, “where I realized that's just a selfish perspective, it's an unwillingness to change and accept the evidence…that [teaching in an ALC] benefits students.”

Pedagogical Practices

For students to function well as members of a team, a concerted effort is needed early in the semester to establish and reinforce good group habits. Not all students initially see this task as worthwhile, and Daniel recalled an incident in which a student interrupted his team teacher with the quip “Wait a minute. I thought this was a class about biology.” The response from the team teacher was swift, cordial, but direct: “This isn't a class about biology. This is a class about being a biologist.” The room grew quiet as the thought lingered for a moment. As Daniel recounts the incident, “Being a biologist is not just knowing biology. It's how to collaborate, to work together, because nobody works independently anymore.”

If you followed Daniel around in the hour before class, you would not witness any preparation going on “because it's already happened. I typically have very structured activities that the students are going to be doing”—all of which has been prepared in the days prior to class. Student learning objectives, objects to be manipulated to nail down a point on DNA replication, and all handouts are ready to go from his previous class meeting. “I just kind of refresh…what we are doing today, what's the progression, what do I want,” says Daniel. Even so, “there's constant tinkering with this stuff.”

Students spend much of their time working in collaborative teams, discussing, debating, problem solving, using three-dimensional artifacts, or running simulations on the Internet depending on the problem. For Daniel, “the most important technology in the ALCs is the round tables. Everybody can interact with everybody else.” While he has a set of guiding questions and key activities that comprise each class period, “you don't know where the students are going to take them…you have to be much more flexible in what you want to accomplish.” The whiteboards are also keys to advancing and making student learning visible. As students work together to agree on answers to questions, the whiteboards “are an easy way for me to look around the room and see where everybody is at. It's pretty low tech, but it works really well.”

Observation of one of his favorite lessons involved students working in cooperative learning groups to build an evolutionary tree for thirteen mammals. Students were given specific morphological, anatomical, behavioral, and habitat information and mined it to determine which information was useful for building the tree. Pictures of the mammals were placed on magnets, and with fourteen teams in the room, the whiteboards were filled with highly visible trees. Daniel reminded the students ahead of time that “every single [tree] is going to be wrong. And the students say, ‘Why do you bother having us do this?’” The purpose of the exercise, however, was to have students at each table reconstruct their thinking process and explain that process to the larger class. He particularly enjoys this unit because “it forces them to come up with the thinking itself. And knowing they are going to get it wrong is actually liberating to the students.”

Conventional resources such as workshops or on-site mentoring by his team teacher have been valued sources of his effectiveness as a teacher in the ALCs. But his fifteen colleagues who teach in ALCs are particularly influential, and they participate in an informal seminar every other week. “We have a very close working relationship. We share war stories…resources we've created…it's nice being embedded within a group of people that are all like-minded.”

One of his teachers in behavioral ecology so heavily influenced him as an undergraduate student that she has remained a model to this day. What he gleaned from that experience was two key insights: “You need to be enthusiastic about the material; you need to show that you care about the learner. I think that perspective is probably the most important.”

Team teaching is a regular fixture for instructors in the foundations course. Teaching with his associate dean has been mutually beneficial. “When I first started teaching with her,” said Daniel, “I was frightened because her teaching style seemed so different from mine…[but] there have been convergences. I've become less structured…she's become more structured.” Each week, one is the lead teacher, constructing activities, writing quizzes, and receiving feedback on content before and after class. They view their role as “coaches” but “one of the best things we do is challenge each other while the other one is teaching. We say to the students ‘We're not agreeing. Welcome to science'…We're trying to give these students an authentic introduction to science.”

Teaching regularly in the ALCs has convinced him that “if you give students the reason for doing something, they will do it…Most of your teaching…is having students do something…a lot [of what I do] is determined by what you see not working in the classroom.” Although he gains much from his regular informal interactions with colleagues, students are the strongest influence on his adjustments as a teacher. As he states, “I take my cues from the students.”

With a daily focus on expanding students' capacities as biologists, assessing those capabilities is an ongoing responsibility. First, “there's a lot of informal assessment of students. To me as an instructor, that's the most important part.” Approximately 40 percent of the grade is based on work or projects accomplished as a team, but quizzes and formal exams also occur at regular checkpoints. The exams are important learning tools. “We have them do…a postexam analysis. They have to look at [their errors] and think about what happened. ‘Why didn't you get the right answer?' We have them do that after every exam, so there is some learning that goes on in these big, high-stakes assessments that we have.”

One signal task for the course is a major project that runs the final seven weeks. Students work in teams and write a research proposal in which genes are selected and used to solve a problem of social worth. Creating a unicorn is not an acceptable proposal; instead, students might focus on identifying a human or animal disease and propose a genetic modification to the organism to eradicate the disease. The proposal is delivered at a poster session on the last class period, and the teams seem to overachieve every year. As Daniel indicated, “We are generally amazed with every single project…we leave the posters up…[and] it is not uncommon for faculty to walk by and say ‘What graduate course is talking about these things?' [The undergraduate students] don't get everything right. They're missing a lot of stuff, but they're getting a lot.”

Insights

After nearly seven years of teaching each semester in an ALC, Daniel believes he has become “much more comfortable with not being the authority figure in the classroom. I would never have gotten to that point…if I hadn't started interacting with students on an individual basis.” His shift to instruction in an ALC coincided with a shift in his assumptions about student motivation and learning. “When I teach in the active learning classrooms,” he says, “I realize how much I don't want to teach in the standard classroom. Teaching in a lecture auditorium …allowed me as an instructor to blame the students for not understanding the material, because [I assumed] they're just not doing the work.” The configuration and affordances of the ALC has provided the opportunity to reset his beliefs about students as learners:

Ten years ago, I was saying, 85% of the students here at the university probably shouldn't be here because they don't want to be here. I don't believe that anymore, just because I've gotten to know these students as people, and they want to learn, they're willing to work hard, but you got to make it worth they're time… I think every student here at the University is capable of amazing levels of learning.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Overview
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. References
  7. Biographies

This study explored teaching experiences, beliefs, and pedagogical practices of an experienced university faculty member who has been teaching regularly in an ALC. While Daniel held predominantly teacher-centered beliefs early in his teaching career, his beliefs and practices shifted to a more learner-centered approach as he continued to teach in ALCs. Despite the caricature of faculty trotting out yellowed notes from one year to the next, research has demonstrated that pervasive change in faculty beliefs and practices is common across a wide career span (Beyer, Taylor, and Gillmore 2013), and Daniel is no exception. Co-teaching an introductory biology course in an ALC using active learning strategies was a critical opportunity for reshaping those practices.

ALCs enabled Daniel to use a variety of learning strategies. For example, round tables allowed him to implement team-based activities, and student laptop connections and microphones increased meaningful student interactions. Involvement in regular interactions helped Daniel's students feel that they are a part of a learning community, in particular, a community of budding scientists. In fact, Daniel and his colleagues have developed an undergraduate scientific community through the ALCs that rivals the considerable success of the Gateway Science Workshop Program outlined by Light and Micari (2013) at Northwestern University.

Our intention in this paper is not to portray an ideal approach to teaching effectively in ALCs. In particular, we note that the teaching “innovations” used by Daniel are pedagogically sound for standard classrooms as well. Good classroom teaching, regardless of the learning space, often rests on clear and organized instruction (Pascarella and Blaich 2013), empathy toward student needs, and directly and regularly addressing the rationale behind assignments and assessments (Fink 2003). Daniel's teaching perspective represents an informed and mature approach that leverages the affordances of ALCs. Rather than ascribe his capabilities to innate or “natural” processes, we assert that these teaching skills are learnable and can be used productively by college faculty for all learning spaces.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Overview
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. References
  7. Biographies
  • Beyer, C. H., E. Taylor, and G. M. Gillmore. 2013. Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience: The University of Washington's Growth in Faculty Teaching Study. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  • Cotner, S., J. Loper, J. D. Walker, and D. C. Brooks. 2013. “It's Not You, It's the Room'—Are the High-Tech, Active Learning Classrooms Worth It?” Journal of College Science Teaching 42 (6): 8288.
  • Fink, L. D. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Handelsman, J., S. Miller, and C. Pfund. 2007. Scientific Teaching. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.
  • Light, G., and M. Micari. 2013. Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • National Research Council. 2003. “Committee on Undergraduate Biology Education to Prepare Research Scientists for the 21st Century.” Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • Norton, L., J. T. E. Richardson, J. Hartley, S. Newstead, and J. Mayes. 2005. “Teachers' Beliefs and Intentions Concerning Teaching in Higher Education.” Higher Education 50 (4): 537571.
  • Pascarella, E. T., and C. Blaich. 2013. “Lessons from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education.” Change 45 (2): 615.
  • Yin, R. K. 1994Case Study Research: Design and Methods, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.

Biographies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Overview
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. References
  7. Biographies
  • David Langley is the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota.

  • S. Selcen Guzey is a research associate at the STEM Education Center at the University of Minnesota.