Talking Teaching

December 1, 2010

what is the traditional way of teaching intro biology

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 :)


  1. […] post by alison var addthis_language = 'en'; Filed under 287521 ← Online Magazines in the […]

    Pingback by what is the traditional way of teaching intro biology | Γονείς σε Δράση — December 1, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

  2. That was the way I was taught chemistry too, although I haven’t turned out to be a chemist ;-) I agree clickers are a useful way of involving students in what might otherwise be fairly passive lectures. Of course clickers are only as good as the questions you ask. I’d recommend you take a look at VotApedia, it’s a free audience response system that re-purposes students’ cellphones into clickers. There’s no need to require students to buy an additional device or alternatively worry about the logistics of handing them out and collecting them again. In fact you can actively encourage txting in class :-)

    Comment by srharlow — December 2, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    • Thanks, Steve. Presumably one’s institution would also have to invest in some software if the results are to show up during class, or is that all part of the package too?

      Comment by alison — December 16, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

      • VotApedia allows you to use their server gratis, so there’s no cost to either the individual or the institution. I can organise a demo for you at some stage if you want.

        Comment by srharlow — December 16, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

      • Yes please – I think Marcus would probably be keen too :)

        Comment by alison — December 16, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

  3. That is the way I was taught as well and is the standard method I still see. I have been using clickers in my class, but I am only getting about 25% participation in my med students. Any suggestions on how to improve this? Last class I asked them if they knew the average retention rate of a standard lecture was and then told them of a study I read recently that indicated even minimal participation in quizzes greatly improved retention rates. We’ll see what affect that has next class, unfortunately, I won’t give another lecture to them for a couple of months.

    I have a question I’d like to ask you all. The labs in a paleobiology course I am preparing consist mostly of identification of various fossils. The standard method involves giving them a handout with all the pertinent information and having them draw the fossils, afterwhich they are tested on ther abilty to identify them.

    I was thinking instead of not giving them a handout. I thought I would have the class cooperatively (the class is small, 10-15 students) work on identifying what features they thought distinguished the fossils (using whatever resources andreferences they chose) and each contributing to a wiki, which I could then add to or highlight important characteristics. They would turn in to me a copy of their drawings and notes for a grade.

    Part of me says that they will simply think I am trying to cop out of doing any work for the lab. Part of me says that maybe so, but they will likely learn more if they have to make the decisions and look up the stuff as a team than if I just give them what I think is important.

    I would really like to hear your opinions on this. Thanks.

    Comment by jdmimic — December 16, 2010 @ 2:54 am

    • One way to get increased participation from your students might be to make the questions you ask count for something in terms of assessment – if they don’t click, they don’t get anything. OK, there would have to be some way of preventing them from just clicking randomly!
      Your suggestion for the labs sounds an interesting one to me. I’m guessing you’d still be with them in the lab & available to bounce ideas off, so they’d be pretty harsh to view this change in teaching methods as a cop-out. I definitely agree that such active involvement in learning will most likely improve the students’ understanding & overall outcomes – maybe you could talk a bit about the rationale of what you’re doing, at the start of the course? I know when we changed our evolution paper to a more enquiry-learning lab system, I talked it through with the first class that we tried it on & they were almost all very positive about it. (You always get some who are not keen on trying anything remotely ‘experimental’.)
      A while back now (another university & a different course) we had a lab to introduce the concepts related to cladistics. There was some introductory stuff to work through & then we basically provided each group of students with 4-5 animal specimens (we used various insect orders as they were easy to get hold of in large-ish numbers) & asked them to work together to identify the characters that they should use in developing a cladogram for that particular group. The students worked pretty well on this one & I think probably got a better understanding of cladistics as a result – unfortunately, way-back-then no-one was doing any research into areas like this.

      Comment by alison — December 16, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

  4. Unfortunately, for the one class in which I can use clickers, I have no control over the grading system and no authority to do anything in lecture that counts towards the student grades. All that is set up by the course director. For that class, I am given my lecture topic and date assignments and I attend the labs to answer questions, but I am out of the loop on any grading other than contributing a couple of questions on the lab practicals. All the classes at the med school in which I work are “team taught”, meaning the course director makes all the decisions and the other teachers are given assigned days to lecture. The style of test is out of the hands of even the course director and is handed down from the dean.

    On the flip side, the school where I am teaching paleobiology says I can do whatever I want:) So I appreciate your comments. Sadly, they have no clickers, smart boards, or anything higher tech than a digital projector. Yes, I will be in the lab with them for them to ask any questions along the way. Marcus also suggested discussing the rationale at the beginning of the course. I will make sure to do that so they understand why the labs are set up the way they are. I am also doing a cladistics lab for this course and I was thinking about doing something similar to what you did. I am still trying to work out the details of it though.

    Comment by jdmimic — December 18, 2010 @ 8:04 am

  5. Finally found my old lab notes for the cladistics lab – hope this will be a) helpful & b) not too late for you!

    There were 3 parts to the exercise; we were using insects but it would be reasonably easy to do with fossils too, I think, provided the students were encouraged to discuss which features would be useful in building up a cladogram before they actually began.
    1) the students selected a specimen & after writing down its common & scientific names, produced a drawing of it, carefully labelling everything.
    2) we then instructed them to “compare the other 4 specimens with your drawing. You should notice a number of characters which they have in common, and others for which differences exist. List as many characters as possible in your workbook. For each one, indicate whether they other 4 specimens are similar to, or different from, the animal you have drawn. [Then] in your workbook, tabulate the character ‘states’ of the 5 animals.” (We gave an example of how to do this.) “With this information, try to group the animals on the basis of similarities & differences. In the example above, the first two characters are of no help. Colour is different in each specimen, and number of legs is constant among specimens. These two characters do not suggest any groups. However, ‘antennae’ does suggest 2 groups, and so does the character ‘size’. The two characters suggest different groupings, but are these in conflict or are they compatible in some way.”
    You can probably see where this is heading :-)
    The example went on to first enclose groups in ovals (a bit like venn diagrams) & then to develop a phylogenetic tree on the basis of those nested ovals.
    Part 3) was a simulation of the taxon’s possible evolutionary history, using 20-sided dice (shades of Dungeons & Dragons!)

    If you’re interested in seeing the whole thing, I could look at scanning it & e-mailing the result to you?

    Comment by alison — February 11, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    • Yes, I would like to see it. I would very much appreciate that. Thank you very much.

      Do you have access to my email address from the blog subscription or do I need to give it to you?

      Comment by jdmimic — February 12, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

      • Yes, I do -I’ll scan the section of the manual on Monday & e-mail it through to you.

        Comment by alison — February 12, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

  6. While we were all taught content in the traditional method, I think being human, respecting our students’ funds of knowledge and making clear connections between what we are teaching and its connection and relevance to student lives is crucial in fostering real learning.

    Comment by Jyothi — November 10, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

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