Talking Teaching

March 5, 2012

changing teaching techniques

This post’s title is another one drawn from the search terms that brought people here to Talking Teaching :-) I’ve written quite a lot about the benefits students may gain as a result of lecturers changing the techniques they use in the classroom. A while back I wrote about the idea of helping students to visualise a paper’s curriculum, & this semester I decided to try that out with my first-year biology class. Today was the first day of the new semester, & I thought I’d share what I did with them – it would be interesting to hear what others think of this approach, so please do add a comment :-)

I kicked off with this slide – I thought the images captured some of the confusion that many first-year students seem to share as they enter their first year of uni study. It’s a fair bet that all the new terms & concepts thrown at them in many ‘traditional’ paper outlines don’t help :-)

Then I listed the obvious: the various classroom ‘styles’ they’ll be experiencing (ie lectures, labs & tuts). And pointed out that there are definite bi-directional links between them – this is because (in my experience, anyway) some students tend to see them as isolated enitities. When I first tried my hand at a diagram like this my wonderful friend & colleague Brydget pointed out that it was way too complicated; the kids would just get lost in the detail. I took her advice & had another go :-)

And then I asked, OK, when you enrolled in this paper, what did you think you’d be doing & learning? This was the very first class so I wasn’t sure what responses I’d get, if any, but I wanted to send the message from the start that this is how I teach & that active participation is the norm in my lectures. But people put their hands up. ‘Content,’ they said; ‘stuff about plants & animals & how they function & how they interact with their environment.’ ‘Great!’ I said, ‘and I need to make sure that we do look at some of this, because my colleagues further down the line will expect you to be familiar with this material.’

‘But wait!’ I said, ‘there’s more!’ (Because beyond ‘dissections!!!’ no-one had mentioned any process skills.)

So now we could look at those other skills & why they are relevant. We’d talked a bit about plagiarism at orientation last week, so I could check back on their understandings around this – & emphasise that we’ll be working with them to develop their skills in academic writing, referencing, citations & so on. And critical thinking – to me, this is surely one of the most important skills that any student could acquire during their time at university.

Now, where are we going with all this?

 Well, there’s the obvious one – that first-year is expected to turn out students with the knowledge & skills that they’ll require if they’re going on to further study in the subject. But there’s a second, equally important point here, and it hinges on the fact that there are quite a few students in the class who aren’t going to major in biology, & who may not actually be science students at all – they’re taking the paper as an elective in another degree altogether. What do I hope they will gain from it?

Yes – apart from (I hope!) helping them gain an enthusiasm for & appreciation of the living world, I really really want to enhance the scientific literacy of all my students, so that they can apply this understanding in their own future lives, regardless of whether they’re going on to a career in the sciences.

Now, I don’t know what the class thought of this approach – yet. I’ve asked them to let me know (anonymously if they like) through our Moodle page. But it would be good to hear from readers as well :-)



  1. I like this format for introducing the class, and I really like how you emphasized the importance of scientific literacy. I’m going to modify and use that for my primary students.

    Comment by Darlena — March 6, 2012 @ 2:59 am

    • I’m so glad to hear that you found this idea useful :-)

      Comment by alison — March 6, 2012 @ 8:16 am

  2. And here’s what one class member had to say about what I did with the visual curriculum:

    “I think it was a great idea in class today! Personally, it allowed me to see this situation from a different angle. It was a good reminder that taking this paper was more than just ‘learning about biology’. The knowledge gained from the completion of this paper go beyond ‘just biology’ It allows an individual to develop critical thinking and taking a scienctific approach on ‘the big question’ which I strongly believe is crucial in today’s society.”

    Comment by alison — March 6, 2012 @ 9:36 am

  3. Great idea Alison. It’s surprising how students can see little connection in much of our work, unless we make it clear. I think they can sometimes thing the whole thing is a kind of unfocused mosaic with no pattern. We used to use something called a ‘zoned analysis chart’ to help them to see where a given session fitted in with the bigger picture, but I like the way you have drawn on THEIR expectations and ideas.

    Comment by fergpip — March 6, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  4. Reblogged this on 5ecular4umanist and commented:
    I’m always on the lookout for new thinking in the field of education. Somewhere out there, someone is having an idea that could make education more effective. This post is one such.

    Comment by 5ecular4umanist — March 8, 2012 @ 4:00 am

    • Thank you! I can’t claim the idea as original though – this is the book that got me thinking about it: Linda B. Nilson (2007) The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map. pub. Jossey-Bass. ISBN978-0-470-18085-3

      Comment by alison — March 8, 2012 @ 9:43 am

  5. Interesting idea. I will have to see how I can do it in mine. I’ve heard about that book and have designed some talks that way, but I had forgotten about it when it came time to design my course syllabus. I will be interested in hearing how it turns out.

    BTW: what are tuts? I infer that when you say “paper,” you are referring to the course, but I’m a bit lost about tuts. Are they homework assignments? Writing assignments? Class projects?

    Comment by jdmimic — March 8, 2012 @ 5:32 am

    • Sorry, that was my fault; I should have remembered that we’ve likely got different terms for the same things :-) ‘Tuts’ = tutorials. For our first-year science students, in a given paper (your ‘course’) they’ll have 3 one-hour lectures/week, plus one 3-hour lab class & a one-hour tutorial. How the tuts are run depends quite a lot on the paper coordinator & their colleagues. In Chemistry & Engineering, for example, there are set homework problems to work through each week. In Biology, we run them a bit more loosely, expecting students to come along with questions & discussion points – but we have some in-class exercises prepared as well :-)

      Actually, I’m quite excited about tuts this year (I always enjoy them, mind you!) – went to a seminar yesterday & heard about an iPad app called ShowMe, which is essentially a virtual whiteboard. Plug into the room projector & there you are, ‘writing’ on the screen. But there’s more – you can drag in images from the internet to illustrate what you’re talking about, AND you can save it all & then share it with the class. I think this is absolutely brilliant & I’ll be trialling it this semester.

      Comment by alison — March 8, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    • PS I did another one for my lecture yesterday (“Basic Biology Bits” – covers some of the key ideas that many of my colleagues assume the students know, when in fact they don’t… I might blog that here too as it was quite different to look at: more of a concept map.

      Comment by alison — March 8, 2012 @ 9:50 am

      • Thanks for the clarification on the terminology. We just call them review sessions and they are handled very differently depending on the course and the person running the session. Some just give another lecture, others have it a question and answer session, give them problems to work, guided discussions, etc. I’ve only run one thus far at my school, but I started it with answering any questions they had, then I started quizzing them on topics and having them discuss why certain things were right or wrong. Thanks for the tip about the iPad app. We don’t have whiteboards in the class, much less smart boards, so having one we can plug into the projector is a great idea. That we can do.

        Comment by jdmimic — March 16, 2012 @ 1:53 am

      • I forgot to bring my little connecting dongle to work today or I’d have used ShowMe & would have been able to tell you how it went :-) Will have to wait until next week now.

        Comment by alison — March 16, 2012 @ 8:48 am

  6. I started doing this very thing (without the progressive line drawings though – those are a nice touch) a few years ago in both Introductory Psychology and in Cognitive Psychology and it works wonders! I didn’t even know about that 2007 book you cite, my inspiration came instead from a motivational theory in Psychology called “Self Determination Theory;”I discuss the theory in a post titled “Seriously, what’s it gonna take?”, in a nutshell though, the perspective is that students are set up for success when they feel like they belong, when they have some choice, and when they understand their competencies. To get at the first point, I start the first day off like you do, by asking them what they want to learn, what they don’t want to learn (and why), and a few other things to get them engaged and talking. I inevitably get to say things like “You’re in luck — we’ll cover that very thing!” and, importantly I get to hear about their interests and concerns and start immediately trying to dispel concerns. Regarding the second point, throughout the term there are times when there is way more material than we can reasonably cover so I throw two topics on the board and let them choose which one to cover that day, and I give them choice in some assignments as well. You should see their faces the first time I give them a say in lecture topics – amazement and delight begin to capture it. These little things make for a much more pleasant experience and I assume that translates into motivation and achievement boosts too, though that is hard to measure since we never get to teach the same group twice.

    Comment by cognitioneducation — March 8, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    • Hey, I really like the idea of offering choice in lectures like you do! That’s something I think I might try this semester. Thank you :-)

      Comment by alison — March 8, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

  7. […] little map to show them where we’re heading, & I thought I’d share that here (since my last post seems to have attracted so much interest, […]

    Pingback by a map for ‘basic biology bits’ « Talking Teaching — March 10, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

  8. The teaching process has changed nowadays the teachers send the notes or tutorials online and later they have a discussion on the topic.Several teachers prefer handling queries and doubts online. So if anyone wants to teach online?

    Comment by Aisha Aberea — March 22, 2012 @ 12:16 am

    • You do have a point, & in fact my own courses include an on-line learning component. But please note – I don’t normally approve posts that appear to be sales pitches, & as a result I’ve removed the hyperlink from your comment.

      Comment by alison — March 22, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  9. Looks good. For the last point (Scientific Literacy), it would have been interesting (remembering to be a student) to see the crossover examples. I am thinking about Biology+Engineering (TED lecture on biomimicry), Biology+Architecture (something about building self-sustained houses in desert), Biology+Computer Science (Genetic Algorithms), Biology+Economics (“Nature and Economic History” book).

    Comment by arafalov (@arafalov) — March 22, 2012 @ 12:59 am

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