I took the title for this post from the search terms someone used to come to Talking Teaching. It’s an interesting question, not least because I’ve just spent a couple of days with some absolutely inspirational teachers at the ‘First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium (#1)’, hosted by Otago University’s Phil Bishop at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.
(And what a wonderful venue that was. Left to myself I’d probably have spent at least one whole day just wandering through the Sanctuary’s paths. It’s enclosed by a predator-proof fence & there’s a wealth of birdlife around. Unfortunately the one walk I did fit in was fairly quick, before sessions started for the day – but even then I saw bellbirds & tuis, native wood pigeon and a tomtit , & heard riflemen & what I think was a brown creeper. Plus we found some green hooded orchids! But the wealth of great talks on offer drew me away – the Significant Other & I will just have to go back there some other time.)
Anyway, back to the topic. There certainly wasn’t a lot of ‘traditional’ biology teaching on show!
To me, traditional biology teaching at the tertiary level is probably pretty much the same as any other tertiary teaching that involves the ‘traditional’ model of a university education. That is, it’s teacher-centred, top-down, transmission teaching. The model for conveying information to students involves the usual uni lecture format: lecturer down the front, serried ranks of students in a tiered lecture theatre. The lecturer talks, illustrating their presentation with slides, OHPs, scribbled formulae on the blackboard, maybe a powerpoint show with a lot of information on each slide. (Yes, I know I’m describing a stereotype, but I suspect it’s one that’s still found in real life.) The students frantically scribble notes or, if they’re lucky, the course will have a study guide with lecture notes in it, so they might be able to listen & just make an occasional annotation. Questions during the lecture aren’t really encouraged, although they might be able to catch the lecturer after the event or maybe during office hours. All this is augmented by lab classes where students essentially follow a ‘cookbook’-style lab manual, practising techniques & usually performing experiments to ‘answer’ questions to which the teaching staff already know the answer. And maybe there’ll be some tutorials as well.
Now, that was the way I was taught biology, & I guess you could argue that this method works because I turned out to be an OK biologist :) But the problem is that today’s students have been exposed to a much wider range of teaching & learning methods at school. Plus they have a much greater variety of prior educational experiences. So the odds are good that the ‘traditional’ method won’t work particularly well for many of them. But the things I heard about at the colloquium certainly would: using clickers to answer multichoice questions (as used during ‘ask the audience’ in Who wants to be a millionaire!) as a way to keep students alert & involved in lectures (plus providing instant feedback to the lecturer on how well students understand that particular bit of material; taping lectures ahead of time & having students watch them before class, so that the actual ‘lecture’ can be a discussion of the material covered; using carefully-designed multichoice questions as part of a range of assessment items; looking at whether recorded or video-linked lectures offer a qualitatively different experience, from the students’ point of view…
Frankly I think this stuff leaves ‘traditional’ teaching methods in the cold :)