Talking Teaching

December 1, 2011

challenges in teaching biology

I spent Monday & Tuesday of this week down in Wellington, attending the 2nd First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium. (Yes, that’s a mouthful! We usually just say FYBEC to those in the know.) It was really refreshing to spend time focusing on how we teach first-year biology at university, and on research into ways to enhance that teaching.

The first keynote was by Pauline Ross, who’s at the School of Natural Sciences, University of Western Sydney. Pauline’s won a large number of teaching excellence awards & it was a real privilege – & a pleasure! – to learn from her. She started her talk by identifying a number of things (aka the ‘7 deadly ways to see’) that can offer significant challenges to students beginning their uni-level studies in biology. But before I get onto those, I’m going to quote Pauline’s own words on receiving an Australian national teaching excellence award:

Although biology is supposedly the “easiest” of the science disciplines, research on student learning has shown that even high calibre, high achieving biology students at elite institutions taught by universally admired academics, fail to build a scientifically conceptual and contextual foundation in biology, perhaps because learning, teaching and assessment strategies in the discipline of biology have become ritualised. [However, a Kuhnian] paradigm shift allows me to communicate a deep conceptual and contextual understanding of biology to students. At the cornerstone of this paradigm shift is creativity; requiring students and staff to relearn their capacity for creativity and self-belief; inquiring, uncovering and overcoming barriers in their conceptual understanding, so that they think and practice as biologists.

Which pretty much sets the stage for the idea of the 7 deadly ideas (actually there were only 6, but the ‘7 deadly sins’ thing has a certain resonance!).

(1) First up was content, something that we have an awful lot of – and of course this is as much an issue for secondary school teachers as it is for those of us at university. The textbook I use with my classes, Campbell Biology, seems to get thicker with each new edition as the frontiers of our knowledge continue to expand. Ross asks, can we decrease our coverage of content? How do we decide just which are the key content areas for students to learn about? She suggests that we should pay more attention to the research on threshold concepts, something that my colleague Michael Edmonds has previously written about over on Sciblogs.

Mastery of a threshold concept is sort of an ‘aha!’ moment, says Ross, because it opens your eyes to new ways of exploring a topic. (As Michael says, they’re sometimes called ‘troublesome knowledge’, because they can clash with existing worldviews and (mis)conceptions. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as it can – should? – lead to a re-examination of those views & conceptions in the light of this new knowledge.) Placing more weight on threshold concepts may mean there’s a reduction of content overall, but it should also lead to a much deeper conceptual and contextual understanding. And that is definitely a Good Thing, as when students don’t understand they are stuck, unable to really move on in their learning. While they may be quite active in trying to gain understanding, they can also be quite confused and anxious – & they can stay that way, says Ross, for months.

So, considering threshold concepts rather than simply focusing on content knowledge can provide us with a new tool for revisiting and reviewing our teaching curricula.

(2) Next in the list was process. This is something I believe all tertiary science educators should ask themselves: do our students really graduate with all the science process skills that we fondly imagine they do? After all, our graduate profile probably says that they can do x, y, & z – but what opportunities do we give them to actually practise thinking like a scientist, for example? (Hint: they won’t learn it by osmosis.) We really do need to teach science as a fluid process, not as a fixed body of knowledge (all that content again!) – and to give students plenty of opportunity to experience that fluid process that is the essential nature of science. Similarly, the writing and literacy skills that we’d like them to have – are we providing sufficient opportunities to practice and learn those skills? Here Ross gave the example of meiosis & mitosis: we tend to teach about these forms of cell division as a series of steps (interphase, prophase etc) but we don’t teach their significance in context. She argues that if we want students to do more in (say) exams than simply parrot the names and chromosome states of those steps, then we need to give relevant, everyday examples to which they can anchor their knowledge. Her example was a question about a grazed knee that needed some pretty deep knowledge and writing about cell division to answer – & which couldn’t be answered but just listing those steps.

Of course, that would require some reasonably large changes in assessment (see # 5)…

This is getting a bit long :-)

(3) Inquiry ie inquiry-based learning, something that’s intimately linked to process. This is gaining in emphasis in schools & it’s worried me for some time that students who’ve gained by learning using this approach in school must find ‘traditional’ university teaching rather a rude shock. It’s why Brydget (our wonderful first-year tutor) & I are always looking for ways to include more possibilties for genuine inquiry-based learning in our lab classes, for example, & it’s possible to do the same in lectures using opportunities for group problem-solving sessions. As Carl Wieman & his team (among others) have shown, this sort of approach enhances engagement & improves learning outcomes, while also giving the opportunity to practice thinking like a scientist. What’s not to like?

(4) Language ie jargon. There’s an awful lot of it. Yes, of course there are technical terms that students must master, but we need to ensure that mastery is properly scaffolded. I had an ‘aha!’ moment at this point, because Ross commented even saying a word correctly can help with learning it, but we seldom give them the chance to practice. (Phil Bishop picked up on this in his own presentation, noting that very few of his students could say ‘coelom’ correctly.)

(5) Assessment. Ah, I could write a whole post, in fact several of them, about assessment. Probably will, at some point. (At which point the audience may step away from the computer & walk, not run, from the room, lol.) Suffice it for now to say that how we assess has a very significant impact on how, and what, students learn – and that we may use too much of the type of assessment that encourages shallow, not deep, thinking and learning and which works against deep conceptual and contextual understanding.

(6) And innovation – how much do we really value and encourage it, Ross asks. Not innovation for innovation’s sake, but innovation for good pedagogical, research-based reasons, that changes how we teach (including assessment) in ways that should have a positive impact on how students learn. Things like the ‘flip teaching’ described by Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman (2011), for example, and which Kevin Gould has trialled with his first-year botany students at Victoria University: they’re given a handout of information on all sorts of things (shade/sun leaves, controlling gas exchange/water loss, etc), tasked with designing a plant for a particular environment – & then asked to present their design to the rest of the class.

I am so going to steal that one, Kevin!


  1. Thanks for this post. Our school is currently in a panic trying to vastly change the curriculum in advance of a visit by the national medical school accreditation team. The reason for the panic is that the accreditation people have been tasked to ensure that all the medical schools are using active teaching methods, which in their definition using clicker questions in a large class is not sufficient. Several schools, which thought they had made significant progress, have been put on probation. I think our school is taking the wrong tack by trying to come up with something in less than a year rather than trying to plan it out well. The reason I bring this up is because of a very astute comment made in the blog you linked to about the Deslauriers paper and a recent experience at my school. They stated the need to gain acceptance from the students by telling them why these particular methods are being used IN ADVANCE. Our histology labs have typically been taught by someone giving a 20-40 minute lecture over the material at the beginning of the lab followed by the students studying labeled slides on the computer. Invariably, most of the class gets up and walks out after the lecture. A couple of the professors decided to do the last lab differently. They had the students go to a website to view a small number of unlabeled slides. One of the professors gave a quick (5 minute) introduction to how to get to the material. After that, the students were to work in groups to answer a series of questions about each slide. The students hated it. They were familiar with the old way, but this lab threw them into a completely different style of lab with no warning, they did not know how to answer the questions, had no experience working their way around a slide to gain information,and because of the heavy unexpected load on the servers and the increase in local bandwidth beyond the lab’s capabilities, the website did not work correctly. Not to mention the problem that the other instructors were never trained in the new lab. This is a serious concern for us because the school listens very carefully to the opinions of the students, I think too carefully. If the students did not like something, if they complain that it is too hard, the school administration demands it be changed to make it easier.

    I happen to think the direction the professors were trying to go was laudable and much better than the previous labs. But with no attempt to prepare anyone involved in advance, it turned into a disaster. Because of this, the administration will be less likely to go along with further changes like this. Add in the panic at the school that we must change things to reduce the number of lectures (we are also told we have to reduce contact hours between the instructors and students, they seem to equate contact time with lecture rather than teaching, so we seem to be throwing the baby out with the bath water) and it all becomes a horrendous nightmare that will be doomed to failure, a really bad experience for the students resulting in poorly trained doctors, and ultimately making the future of the school even harder as we gain a reputation of not knowing what we are doing.

    Let me sum up: These are great methods and can succeed much better than traditional methods, but if people don’t properly plan things out in advance, provide adequate training for the instructors, and make sure the students are both aware of what’s going on and given the tools in which to handle the educational method, it will fail.

    Comment by jdmimic — December 2, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    • Oh dear – yes, I think your innovative profs were very definitely on the right track, but what a pity they didn’t think to engage with the students from the start! My colleague Marcus has made quite a few changes in his second-year physics teaching, but each time he’s told the students in advance what he’s doing & why he’s doing it. When they understand what’s going on, students can be very receptive & supportive, I think partly because they can see that the instructors are not making changes just for change’s sake, but to benefit their students’ learning.

      Good luck! It sounds as if you are going through a very difficult and challenging time. Has the school involved any teaching-&-learning expert practitioners in what they’re doing, or is it all top-down?

      Comment by alison — December 2, 2011 @ 9:30 am

      • A bit of both. the department had filed a report a few years ago with the administration suggesting some changes along this line, but it was rejected due to concerns of increased cost at a time they were trying to increase enrollment. Now that the administration is worried about the accreditation, they are insisting on a flurry of changes RIGHT NOW! The administration has begun looking at other schools to see what changes they have made and have begun a series of seminars to introduce professors to the idea of active learning, but thus far have not yet followed through with any money to realistically do much (for instance, we do not have the faculty to run the expected 8 person groups for 175, nor do we have anywhere near the rooms available for that sort of thing, we have auditoriums, not classrooms). We have told them for years that we will not get substantive change by the professors until the university makes teaching a viable part of promotion and tenure. When the amount of grant money being brought in is the only thing truly affecting P&T to the point that our salaries are tied to our grants, few professors are willing to put in the time. We are hoping that the impending accreditation crisis will spur the administration to accept our proposal of an educational tract for basic scientists, which will allow professors to work on education without fear of having their salaries cut. The more people like you put out material showing the benefits of this style of teaching and of allowing the faculty to spend quality time on educational innovation, the better chance we have, so please keep up the good work. You give us valuable ammunition in the fight for change.

        One thing that I have recently become aware of is the apparent confusion they have about lectures and teaching. i mentioned this briefly last time. Perhaps someone can offer suggestions or at least an explanation. We have been instructed to reduce our lectures to no more than 30% of our contact hours. But we are supposed to at the same time reduce our contact hours to a similar degree. What has resulted has been a number of “Self-Directed Learning Modules,” in which the material is given in a document the students are expected to read on their own in lieu of anyone actually going over the material with them. They call this “putting the onus on the student to learn the material,” as opposed to someone just lecturing to them about what they need to know. To me, this is not active learning. This is an abdication of teaching responsibilities and trying to say it’s for the student’s benefit. If we were replacing the lectures with a different style of teaching I could see it, but we’re not. We are just telling them to learn it on their own with no instruction or opportunity to question the faculty in any meaningful manner before they are tested on the material.

        I have a paper which I hope will get published soon advocating the benefits of full interaction over channeled “click to see the next image” sort of mentality in anatomy software. Wish me luck. I am hoping we can use some of that type of thought into our curriculum changes.The problem is that they are harder to make and we need to get funding somewhere to team a professor with an experienced educator to write quality programs, as opposed to what I consider useless passive SDLs.

        I know i spend a lot of my time here ranting about my school. They aren’t all evil, I promise:) But when I read the posts here, I think, “Yes, these people have some idea what they are doing.How refreshing to hear from people saying we can and should do these things. I can learn from these people. I could work with these people. Why am I finding it so hard to get people in my school to understand this?” Fortunately (or unfortunately as one views the situation), the accreditation committee is forcing the school to pay more attention to these things. I just hope that we can get the financial and logistical issues worked out so we can make real progress. I find the posts here often enlightening, always encouraging, and inspires me to keep trying in an often frustrating situation. so thank you. I have tried to bring many of the suggestions I have found here and elsewhere into my teaching, whether the school administration appreciates it or not, which I would not have done without periodic reminders of why it is important.

        Comment by jdmimic — December 2, 2011 @ 10:28 am

      • You’re sooo right when you say that teaching has to receive equal recognition with research, in order for it to be properly valued by many faculty members. Without that, we’re unlikely to see a significant amount of genuine institutional cultural change, alas! I will certainly continue to write this sort of thing – & I need to thank you for the very kind things you’ve said here. I write as much for myself as anything, & truth be told, it’s rather humbling to find that some of the things I say are making such a difference to other teachers.

        That ‘give them stuff to read & call it self-directed learning’ is a crock. (Orac – who blogs at Respectful Insolence & is one of my favourite bloggers – would call it worse. Do you know his work? He’s a cancer surgeon & also a trained scientist, & his stuff is well worth reading.) Unless students know why you want them to read something, how it links to the other work they’re doing, & the expected learning outcomes, then most of them will gain little benefit from the process. I would hesitate to describe it as better than lectures, in terms of active learning, for the simple reason that there’s not much there to encourage active engagement. Maybe if it was combined with the opportunity to discuss what they were learning – even if that was via an on-line forum where students are required to post & gain credit for doing so in a meaningful way – maybe that would be a step in the right direction. But I get the feeling from your comments that this isn’t all that likely to happen :-(

        Actually, while I’m on the subject – I’m reading a book on the ‘visual curriculum’ at the moment (blogged about it earlier). The author makes the point – & I personally think it’s a good one – that the reason many first-year students don’t do their reading assignments has quite a bit to do with how the information’s set out. It’s linear, & there’s no real indication (to a novice, anyway) how it might fit with what they already know until they’ve got through it. There’s no scaffolding…

        Good luck with your paper – I’d love to see it, when it’s published.

        And hang in there! Your school sounds like a really frustrating place to work, but your students can only benefit from having someone like you – who cares about improving their learning experiences – in front of their classes.

        Comment by alison — December 2, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

  2. […] are a lot of challenges to teaching subjects such as biology. Often the inundation of rote learning turns creative minds away from the sciences. There is a […]

    Pingback by Do you want to be a citizen scientist? | Women in Science AUSTRALIA — September 14, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

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