I love trying new ways to teach biology in my classroom. Sometimes my ideas and active learning techniques work and sometimes they completely tank. My students always know when I am trying something new and are usually open to my crazy ideas because it means they don’t have listen to “Hollander blah blah blah” at the board.
Over the last 8 semesters I have been teaching the second half of general education biology. What does that mean? It means folks who are business, education, petroleum science, psychology, English and every other major take my biology course to fulfill a general education requirement to graduate. You can imagine the enthusiasm and excitement my students have when they walk in the classroom.
The old way….small to BIG
The first two semesters I taught this course the exact same way my colleagues taught it where we start with teeny tiny things like bacteria, fungi and protist, work our way through the parade of organisms and eventually get to animal behavior, ecology and organ systems. What I found was teaching the teeny tiny stuff first was very abstract and turned my students off to the material. It was also not very relatable even though I would try to relate these topics to their majors, current events and health. I observed poor exam scores and a high drop rate.
The new way….BIG to small
After those first two semesters, I decided to change it up and teach BIG to small. My thought process was my students always enjoyed learning about their bodies and health and seemed to be more successful on those exams compared to other material in my previous semesters. If I start with organ systems first then my students can figure out how to study using material they are more familiar with (their bodies) and I may observe less dropped students. The only change I made was the order in which I presented the information. I started with skin and organ systems. I lumped related systems on the same exams and discussed relevant diseases like skin cancer, heart disease and acid reflux to help students understand the relevance of this information. We then moved onto animal behavior, ecology, and finally the parade of organisms. I continued to present to my students the relevancy of all topics presented and we did the same or similar active learning activities for each unit I had done in previous semesters. By the the time students were learning more abstract concepts like how bacteria replicate and what are different types of protist I was observing a higher success rate on their exams.
Results….My students are 2x likely to pass compared to other instructors!
When looking at final grades of students enrolled in my course compared to other instructors we didn’t see any statistical difference in student passing rate or drop rate for those first two semesters.
However when using linear regression we observe that all instructors over time saw an improvement in student success but my new way of teaching lead to a 2X greater pass rate! Our statistical analysis included the following control variables: class size, student sex (M/F) student classification (Sr, Jr, Soph, Fr) and the semester.
So what does this all mean?!
Pedagogy masters, science educators, educators in general I know I didn’t just come up with new fangled way to teach…this all makes sense. So what pedagogical or psychological concept, theory or method does this support? I was looking over the zone of proximal development but it just doesn’t seem right and I am a Microbiologist so this area is all new to me. Any suggestions or recommendations are appreciated!