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SoTL – Biology


What Faculty Say

Jeff Carmichael, Biology

My interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning began several years ago when I decided to change the way in which I teach my large-enrollment general biology courses (General Biology I and II).

I knew at the time that a strict lecture-based format was not likely the most effective way to promote student learning. However, this was the primary approach I was using due to the large size of my classes (routinely over 200 students) and the auditorium-style classroom I was teaching in.

I decided to incorporate a team-based learning (TBL) approach in order to change class dynamics and to get students interacting with, and learning from, each other. The TBL approach complements the traditional lecture format by asking students to learn fundamental concepts and work on solving problems and interpreting data with the help of their peers. TBL promotes a more student-centered approach to learning than does a strict lecture format.

I also began using “clickers” (personal response systems) in the classroom as an integral part of the TBL format. Beyond simply changing the way I teach my courses, I wanted to know whether or not the TBL approach really worked; that is, was it a more effective way for students to learn than the traditional lecture approach? To that end, I conducted studies over the course of several years using student surveys and direct performance data.

It was clear early on that TBL created an energized learning environment where students actively engaged with each other while learning fundamental concepts. Students participated more and were more likely to ask questions.

But what impact did it have on their learning? I found that students taught via the TBL format outperformed their peers in my traditional lecture-based sections of general biology by a significant margin throughout the semester. However, students taught via TBL indicated that, in their opinion, lecture was a more effective way to learn than was TBL. This was an important insight into how students think they learn best.

Survey results revealed other useful insights as well.

For example, all students within each team receive the same score on team assignments throughout the semester (even though some team members might work harder than others). Interestingly, the vast majority of students indicate that they are content with this arrangement. This is valuable information that supports the notion of

collaboration among students (which can be especially important when students are making the transition to college).

Students also value the use of clickers in class (over 90 percent of all students indicate that clickers make class more interactive). Most students also

indicate that clickers enhance their learning and they don’t even mind spending the extra money to purchase their clickers. These results are reassuring, given the increasing costs of higher education.

What are some of the implications of studies such as these? For one thing, students learn better when their individual study time is complemented by group debates and discussions. First-year students have also demonstrated that they can learn a fair amount on their own and they are able to perform well on complex tasks when given a supportive learning environment. The amount of knowledge has increased tremendously in the sciences over the past few decades. The challenge for teaching biology in the near future will not likely be on deciding what students learn, but instead how they are able to apply their knowledge to different situations to solve problems and better understand the process of scienc