Engle, Associate Professor,
Department of Biology
is the story of the transformation of BIOL 230 Genetics, a required
course for Biology and Natural Science majors.
The typical enrollment is 60 – 80 students in two sections.
From the usual student perspective, the familiar lecture
format was serving them well. As juniors, most of them had already figured out how to
get decent grades in biology classes, and those planning to apply to
medical school needed only a superficial understanding of genetics
for the Medical College Admission Test.
As far as I was concerned, however, something was wrong.
is different from most other areas of biology, because it is both a
sub-discipline and a technology.
As a sub-discipline of biology, genetics focuses on
inheritance and the means by which genes, the units of inheritance,
cause organisms to display various characteristics.
In addition, genetics is also a tool kit comprised of
strategies that are applicable to almost every area within biology,
from biochemistry to physiology to ecology.
In this way it is similar to mathematics: once you understand
how to approach and solve a certain type of problem, you can apply
this knowledge to a wide variety of questions.
The power of genetics as an experimental approach, especially
at the molecular level, has made it vitally important to every area
of biology as well as to medicine and law enforcement.
three years, I taught Genetics the “normal” way: lots of
lecture, some modeling of problem-solving strategies, and a little
in-class group work. Students
did most of the chapter problems on their own or in optional
“homework clubs”. Although
they performed as expected, with the usual numbers of high and low
test scores, I
was continuously haunted by a vague sense of dissatisfaction.
Most students could re-cap classic experiments and discuss
their significance, but few could apply this knowledge to propose
experiments addressing a new situation. They became proficient at simple calculation problems using
small data sets, but could not string together and interpret results
from a series of experiments to get a complete story.
I wanted geneticists, but I was getting genetic historians.
I knew that it was not their fault, but mine.
Naturally, the students were blissfully unaware of my growing
shortcomings of the course exacerbated my uneasiness. One
issue was the limited variety of textbooks.
Until recently, the usual organization of genetics texts
prevented students from seeing the information as a sensible whole.
Another issue was typical student behavior.
I teach the introductory course, so I know the foundation
that they should already possess.
Although I gave frequent reminders to review old material
prior to lecture, diagnostic quizzes showed that the majority of the
class failed to do this, so I ended up re-covering the old material.
Why should they do the work when I was willing to do it for
addition, there was the age-old habit of cramming the night before
happy events provided the impetus and structure I needed to change.
One was the timely appearance of a new textbook, written and
organized to reflect how real geneticists think and work.
The other was an on-campus workshop on group learning by
Larry Michaelsen, University of Oklahoma.
The most profound lesson I learned was that by lecturing most
of the time, I was wasting precious class hours doing what students
do on their own.
At the same time, I was sending them home with work that
called for my help and guidance.
For example, in class I explained simple definitions that
could have been easily comprehended from reading the text.
Likewise, I was reviewing old material that students should
have managed independently. Although
I was modeling problem-solving techniques, they needed more help
applying them than time allowed.
Most of their practice time was out of class.
Furthermore, most students lead busy lives, so making them
work in groups outside of class was often unproductive and
frustrating. The only
time during which their schedules were guaranteed to mesh was the
class time. Fortunately,
the workshop included much “how-to” information that I could
easily adapt to my particular course.
Armed with a new text and a model to follow, I bravely
scrapped the entire course and started over.
first question I asked was “What do I really want the students to
be able to do at the end of this course?”
Previously, they had been successful at learning about
genetics. Now I am more
ambitious: I want them to be able to think like geneticists.
Accordingly, I put the following in the syllabus:
goal of this course is to help students learn about genetic
technology and learn to use genetics in a variety of biological
situations. Given a biological phenomenon or problem, students
should be able to:
Identify which aspects of the phenomenon are amenable to study using
Propose and outline appropriate experiments or procedures to
those aspects. This includes a basic
of the various “tools”
at the geneticists’ disposal.
Be able to interpret data/results from genetics experiments.
Be able to draw appropriate conclusions.
as a discipline consists of a limited number of concepts and tools
which can be applied to an almost unlimited number of scenarios.
Therefore the main focus of the course will be application of
knowledge, including lots of practice, practice, practice!
assess whether we are meeting these goals, we use individual tests,
individual and group analysis of research papers, and a group
research proposal, described below.
I thought about how to distribute the work-load, keeping in mind
what tasks would require my help vs. those that could be done
independently. I had
learned from the workshop that the key to efficient use of time is
making the students accountable for doing their part.
I laid it out explicitly in the syllabus:
in every other class, there will be some work you will do on your
own time and some work we will do in class. Because of our focus on
application, the distribution of the work may be different than in
your other biology classes.
you do on your own time:
old concepts and learn new concepts by reading textbook
applying concepts by doing assigned chapter problems, and
reading and analyzing one original research paper.
for group paper analysis by reading one original research paper.
reading = textbook & 2 papers.)
we do in class:
individual readiness for group work with Individual Readiness
Assessment Quizzes for each chapter.
group readiness for applications with group Readiness Assessment
Quizzes for each chapter.
individual application skills with four problem-based Tests.
concepts by solving a multitude of problems from the textbook,
doing other types of group exercises, a group paper analysis,
and one group research proposal (see goals).
usual pattern followed by students in the past was to hear a lecture
first, then use it as a guide for delving into the chapter.
Thus the first behavior I wanted to reinforce was reading
ahead of time to prepare for class.
At first I just assigned the chapter and then started each
topic with a quiz. However,
it soon became clear that the students needed help determining how
deep to go with the reading. Without a prior lecture as a gauge,
some were just skimming and others were trying to memorize every
detail. To combat this
problem, I produced Reading Guides that helped them to focus on the
important material in each chapter.
The Reading Guides also pointed out what material was old
(and should have been very familiar) as well as what concepts I
planned to explain more fully in lecture.
the new genetics class, students are held accountable for the
reading by Readiness Assessment Quizzes (RAQ).
These are short quizzes
(5 - 10 multiple choice questions) on the assigned chapter.
They cover relevant old material and any new information that
is straightforward. (New
concepts requiring explanation and/or new ways of problem solving
are not fair game for RAQs). Each
person takes the RAQ individually in class, using a Scantron form.
Next, the group takes the same test for a group score; this
provides instant feedback as well as possible examples of good
the group may appeal any question, in writing only.
RAQs ensure that everyone comes to class ready to work.
For the final grade, we drop the lowest individual and group
second behavior I wanted to reinforce was keeping current with the
out-of-class work and not waiting until just before the test.
The only solution I could devise was to assign and collect
homework problems. Although
this seemed high-schoolish to me, it seemed to be critical for the
success of in-class group work as well as for overall student
success. For most
chapters I assign a few problems to be done ahead of time in
preparation for group work. At
the beginning of class, each group collects the individual problem
sets and places them in the group folder for handing in.
The actual purpose of collecting problems for a grade is to
reward students for doing them in a timely fashion, when the work
will be most useful to their learning, and while there is still
plenty of time to ask questions (i.e. not doing several chapter’s
worth of problems the night before the test!).
I model problem-solving approaches for the entire class, much of our
in-class work takes place within groups, or Learning Teams. A
portion of the final grade is a “helping score”, points given in
peer evaluations within the group. The general advantages of group
work have been amply described elsewhere.
Some of the specific advantages in this course relate to the
problem-solving nature of genetics material: students hear
explanations in different words, work through calculations together
for improved confidence, and reinforce their learning by helping
others. They can do
informal self-assessment. (“It
looks like I’m the only one who doesn’t understand this!
I guess I need help.”)
I circulate around the room, eavesdropping in order catch
misconceptions and answer questions.
In my experience, students were much more likely to ask
questions as a group than as individuals.
assess whether we are meeting the goals stated in the syllabus, we
use individual tests, individual and group analysis of research
papers, and a group research proposal. The tests are very challenging compared to my former
tests (more open-ended questions).
The questions present data sets with the purposefully vague
instructions “Draw appropriate conclusions”.
The students must be able to determine why the experiment was
done, then interpret the results accordingly.
Having had ample in-class practice, most students are
reasonably successful, although there is certainly a range of scores
on each test. The
students also do two paper analyses, one as a team and one
individually. These involve reading a research article and answering
a series of questions about the methods used and the interpretation
of data. (I assign the papers.) We do the group one earlier in the
semester, then the individual one later.
Finally, the final exam is in the form of a Research
Proposal. During the
final exam time, each group produces an outline of a research plan
on a specific biological scenario. The plans include: the question
being addressed, several specific aims, a list of experiments, some
possible results and possible interpretation.
The outlines are recorded on overhead transparencies and
presented to the class.
remain two issues that make this course arrangement a challenge.
One is book-keeping; the large number of graded assignments
means that I spend a lot of time grading and that I must maintain an
enormous spread sheet to manage all of the scores.
The second issue is grading itself: what proportion comes
from group work and what proportion comes from individual work?
I struggle with this every year, changing the relative
proportions in an effort to be fair but without contributing to
grade inflation. Currently,
75% is based on individual components, with 25% based on group work.
what are the results? Students
were suspicious in the beginning, but they ended up enjoying the
class and commenting positively on evaluations.
Even at 8:30, no one falls asleep.
Several students admitted that they finally learned how to
study, having been forced into it by the regular quizzes and graded
assignments. Based on the types of test questions that were dismal
failures in the past, I have seen a dramatic improvement in thinking
and application skills. Finally,
the final exam/research proposal confirms that most of the students
have met the goals. Although
this is a group assignment and is part of the group grade, last year
I experimented with having the students write individual responses
first. To my delight
more than half of the students made reasonable proposals on their
own. With the input of
team members, all of the group proposals passed muster.
Dottie Engle is an associate professor in the department of biology.
to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to
share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching
technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.
Top of Page