Students in some large science classes may think they are in the wrong place this semester when they find teachers replacing long lectures with less talking and more doing.
Professors Indy C. Burke and Joe von Fischer are employing active-learning techniques in some of their classes, including large introductory ecology classes.
Burke and Fischer first used these techniques during the fall semester, after attending the 2004 National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The program was an effort by the National Academies, a group of scientists concerned with the quality of undergraduate education in various fields of science. The group decided this summer to host a biology-oriented program to improve the quality of education in large lecture classes. (this could be deleted? -LH)
"(National Academies President Bruce Alberts) felt that biology was lagging in this area," von Fischer explained.
Burke read about the opportunity in a magazine and decided to apply with fellow professor von Fischer. This summer, the two spent a week with fellow educators considering various methods of improving student comprehension in large lecture classes.
"Active learning – that's the key aspect of this," von Fischer said.
The two professors are now using shorter lectures followed by engaging activities for students. Class begins with a short lecture covering an important point. Then students, working alone or in small groups, tackle active-learning tasks applying concepts covered in lecture.
Shorter lectures have ended Burke's long-standing concerns about the efficiency of traditional-length lectures.
"I've felt, for a very long time, that lecture is not the way to get students to learn," she said.
For Burke, who has incorporated active-learning techniques into all of her classes this semester, it meant extra work, but work that she decided was worth the effort.
Some junior and senior students were initially uncomfortable with the change in pace, she said, but gradually came to appreciate the benefits of class activities and group work.
"I made them come to class, and I made them work hard in class," Burke said. "Even the students that (initially) resisted, they learned the stuff I cared about them learning – over their dead bodies."
When teaching students about the ecological cycle of carbon, von Fischer encouraged students to test their understanding of the cycle by diagramming the carbon cycle of a hamburger. On another occasion, he caught students' attention by describing the occurrence of an ecological process in sauerkraut.
"I tried to incorporate more off-the-wall sort of ideas," he said. "These off-the-wall ideas are meant to engage students in the material and make the lecture connected to other parts of the class and to their lives."
For Stephanie Kennedy, a junior zoology major who took von Fischer's class last semester, this technique worked.
"It was definitely motivating to have a teacher that is totally stoked on the subject, and will use any goofy analogy or improve dramatization to get the material across to his students," Kennedy wrote in an e-mail interview.
The purpose of this active learning, von Fischer said, is to make students truly think about relevant concepts in the classroom, a way of testing their comprehension before tests.
"The hope of active learning is that students will get better at teaching themselves," he said. "Students should learn to teach themselves in the course of an undergraduate education."
For senior forest biology major Mark Newell, who took one of Burke's classes in the fall, the activity periods seemed like a good way to keep students involved.
"By doing different styles it made it so the information wasn't so dry and people would stay awake a little bit more," Newell said.
One problem associated with the short lecture/class activity format is the reduced amount of material that can be covered in a semester, an issue Burke and von Fischer are trying to resolve.
"It's a real depth versus breadth issue," von Fischer said.
But students enjoyed the new methods Burke employed. She was nominated for a university Best Teacher award this fall, an honor she received twice before.
Initially, Newell did not enjoy the new class format, but eventually realized he was learning more from Burke's teaching methods.
"At first I didn't really like it. (But) as the semester was going on, I figured out that I was really learning more," he said.
Newell also noticed that despite a class of nearly 200, Burke tried to know her students on a personal basis.
"She actually tried to learn everyone's name," he said.
"It's changed my career," Burke said of the active learning techniques. "I'll never teach again the way I used to. I'll try never to lecture more than 15 minutes again."
And Burke hopes that it will change other professors' careers as well. Having attended the summer conference, she and von Fischer are expected to teach other professors what they have learned.
"We're charged with disseminating what we learn," she said. "They said 'we want you to start a revolution of science.'"
Burke is hoping to do just that, but feels the task is made more difficult by the cancellation of an annual CSU professors' forum where educators have shared information in past years.