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Innovative Teaching in Biology Classes, Large and Small

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Strolling into Kane Hall for the first day of the large introductory course, many biology students assume they can remain anonymous and avoid participation. They soon discover they’re wrong.

The Department of Biology has introduced teaching methods that keep students engaged and accountable, even in its enormous 700-student classes. As a result, more students are passing the courses—with better grades—than in past years. 

Leading the teaching initiative are biology lecturers Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth, both UW Distinguished Teaching Award recipients. “We’re by no means trailblazers in this,” says Wenderoth modestly. “Our role model is Lillian McDermott in the Department of Physics, who’s done pioneering work in science education.”

As scientists, Freeman and Wenderoth approach teaching innovation like any other research project. They scour the available literature on teaching methods, adapt ideas to fit their department’s needs, and then test the efficacy of a particular method by setting up an experiment, gathering data, and analyzing it. “Sometimes I’ve split my class in two and done different treatments in each section to see if it impacts the students’ progress,” says Freeman. “It’s the way we do science. Identify the problem and try some stuff.” 

Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth talk with a student during a Biology 180 lab session.

Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth talk with a student during a Biology 180 lab session. Media credit: Dave Hurley

At the heart of their work is the belief that students need to learn more than facts. They need a conceptual framework to understand where the facts fit, and they need to learn how to think like scientists. Wenderoth, who teaches advanced courses, has seen the benefits of this early training. “As students move through the curriculum, I’m finding that a higher percentage of them are becoming more independent learners than in the past,” she says. “I can get them to work at a higher level.”

What changes have led to this improvement? Consider Biology 180, the department’s largest introductory course. Each night students are required to complete an online quiz about the assigned reading so they arrive to class prepared. Then, in class, they are directed to sit as a group by laboratory section. “It’s too easy for students to blend in or just get lost in a class that large,” says Wenderoth, “but by sitting with their lab group, there’s accountability.”

Rather than lecturing for 50 minutes, the instructor presents shorter segments punctuated by exercises to reinforce what students just learned. Sometimes students answer a quick multiple-choice question using a wireless clicker—a hand-held key pad that they keep for the quarter—with results recorded immediately. If the majority of students answer incorrectly, the professor knows the material needs to be explained further. “I might ask them to talk to their neighbors and then reanswer,” says Freeman. “The percentage who get it right the second time goes way up.” 

Other times, the professor will have students spend several minutes working through a problem in groups of two or three. Then a student, picked at random from the class list, will be asked to report on a group’s findings. Faculty often use this random call method multiple times in a 50-minute class period. 

“We want students to be active, mentally,” says Wenderoth. “We want them to be using the information and applying it all the time. They also need to be social, exchanging ideas, helping each other. Being passive and isolated is a recipe for trouble.”

Some students balk at this interactive approach at the start of the quarter, but most become quick converts. “We always start by explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says Freeman. “We show them the data. They see how this has helped other students succeed. We tell them, ‘We can’t do it for you, but we can help you make it through.’”

Although Freeman and Wenderoth focused their early efforts on the department’s largest enrollment classes, they are now working to integrate their teaching strategies across all biology courses. After years of doing this work “on a shoestring,” they just received a $200,000 National Science Foundation teaching research grant, with a much larger Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant pending. Both grants require the promise of broad faculty participation; fortunately this has not been a problem in the Department of Biology.

“When we started out, just a few of us were focusing on this,” says Wenderoth, “but now there is a critical mass of people in the department who are excited to see this happen.” The Biology Education Research Group, started by Wenderoth as a forum to discuss science pedagogy, now attracts up to 25 faculty and graduate students at its weekly meetings. 

“It’s taken more than ten years to develop this—to see what works and to try different things,” says Freeman. “We’re always asking, ‘Are students learning? Are they doing better?’ That remains the driving force behind all our efforts.”