Active learning class achieves higher student engagement

In the class Introduction to Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity, it’s not uncommon for the professor to don colorful props as students vote electronically on which ones would make her the most attractive bird to potential mates.

The point?

“That got a lot of laughs, but I’m sure no one in the audience will forget about sexual selection anytime soon,” said Justin Zhu ’17, a biology major concentrating in molecular biology.

That’s the whole idea behind the new active learning classes in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), where 250 students, usually freshmen, sign up each fall for the introductory class, which is required for biology majors in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Another introductory class on ecology in the department is taught using similar active learning methods.

Zhu and other students in active learning classes read assigned passages and sometimes also listen to instructor-created vodcasts (video podcasts) before class, then take pre-lecture quizzes. The class periods are spent with activities and small-group work that reinforce and illustrate the material they just read.

“There is laughter and clapping in every class,” said Cissy Ballen, a postdoctoral researcher in EEB who helped develop learning activities for the class and evaluated their effectiveness. “But there’s also a change in the classroom climate, and students are really doing the readings.”

In another activity, students learned about alleles (gene variations) and the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium principle by receiving “allele” cards with a capital or lowercase A. They then “mated” randomly with a partner to illustrate how the principle says a population will remain constant absent any disturbances to the population. When a disturbance was introduced, such as a mutation or natural selection, students saw the effect on the population by watching some variations die off while others thrived.

On another day, students tried to solve a “mycology mystery” by using their knowledge of fungi to determine which taxonomic fungal group was left on the bottom of a boot at a “crime scene.”

These activities and the small groups, which stay the same all semester, lead to greater classroom confidence and learning outcomes, according to Ballen’s assessments, which compare students from new active learning classes with students who took the class the year before, when it was being taught in a traditional way.

All students reported a heightened sense of inclusion in the classroom and higher confidence in discussing the topics they learned, said Kelly Zamudio, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, one of the faculty members teaching the class.

“You could watch the in-class groups go from forming to storming to norming to performing,” Zamudio said of the traditional group dynamics model put forth by psychologist Bruce Tuckman. “You can tell that they are teaching and learning from each other, and many of them tell us they have become close friends.”

“It’s quite easy to get distracted in traditional lectures, especially if it’s a topic that’s been presented to you before,” said Tiffany Villacis ’17, a biology major. “But in evolution class I didn’t find myself getting distracted … you sit with a group and you don’t want to let your group down, especially if your number is called to answer a question.”

The new active learning classes are part of a progressive change in the curriculum in EEB that began in 2009 when some professors started organizing their classes by modules, adding more online resources and incorporating more team teaching. The new classes are also part of a larger five-year pilot project in the College of Arts and Sciences that helps science professors implement the “flipped classroom” model advocated by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman.

The new active learning effort is by far the most dramatic change for EEB, Zamudio said, and it’s one she would like to see expand to other classes, specifically the “ology” classes: mammology, herpetology, entomology, etc. She’s also interested in how active learning can be applied to online classes.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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