The university’s Robbie Bear, instructor, and Eva Horne, assistant professor, both in the Division of Biology, teach Principles of Biology, an introductory biology course designed to encourage students to be more proactive about their education while instructors guide them through the learning process.
“Active learning means that we are actively engaging students in the learning process,” Bear said. “Instead of teaching them, we are coaching them in learning.”
Both Bear and Horne believe that students retain and understand the information better if they are participating in hands-on activities and classroom discussions. They also believe that active learning prepares students for a changing job market by training them to think about concepts in different ways.
“One of the biggest problems with the traditional ‘I say something, you write it down and memorize it’ method is that is the only way that the student can relate to that piece of information,” Horne said. “If you ask them a question about that information in some other way, they have no idea what you are talking about, even though it is the same idea.”
Both Bear and Horne spent part of this summer at the National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology to learn more about integrating active learning into biology classrooms. The workshop provided the opportunity for college-level instructors to converse with each other and develop lesson plans that encourage students to understand the material from multiple approaches instead of memorizing facts.
“We don’t want students to memorize a bunch of biological facts, and then be able to recite them back to us,” Horne said. “We want students to think about it, understand the processes behind it, and be able to analyze things themselves. If you incorporate little assessments that get students to look at things from other viewpoints, when you ask them a question in a different way, they may be able to make those connections.”
Principles of Biology is set up to provide students with a short 15-minute lecture, followed by hands-on activities, computer simulations and group lab exercises. Information is often presented in multiple ways to appeal to all four learning styles: visual, auditory, reading and kinesthetic.
“The current trend in higher education is stressing a ‘minds-on’ as well as a ‘hands-on’ approach,” said Dave Rintoul, Principles of Biology coordinator and associate director of the Division of Biology. “Such active learning is crucially important for building fundamental conceptual understanding of material, the primary objective of introductory science courses.”
A study published in Cell Biology Education–Life Sciences Education in 2008 assessed the effectiveness of Kansas State University’s Principles of Biology course compared with other introductory biology courses. It found that student performance in subsequent university biology courses was higher among students who took the Principles of Biology class than for those who took another introductory biology course elsewhere.
“Presenting information in different ways allows them to have success in the future,” Bear said. “They develop the ability to think in different ways. We are not just training students in biology; we are training them how to think critically using different modes.”
Bear and Horne believe that if they can encourage students to think critically about biological concepts, then they will be able to adjust to the many changes that arise as the job market changes.
“The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. Therefore, universities are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet, to use technologies that don’t exist yet, and solve problems that we don’t know about yet,” Horne said. “That is why we teach students the way we do.”
Both Bear and Horne have been named National Academies Education fellows for their work at the Summer Institute. Bear is also part of a peer review of teaching program, a university initiative to increase active learning across campus.