Today I went to a seminar on using blogs in the classroom. Upon reflection during the course, I decided to start this blog to discuss some of my concepts and worries about teaching in the digital age. So, for this reflection, I wanted to talk about a topic that came up during the seminar: critical course content in foundational classes.
To put this in perspective, I teach courses in general biology, microbiology and genetics. These subjects have been information rich for decades, but in the last fifteen years, our understanding of these subjects has grown so deep that there is now information overload. The textbooks for an introductory majors class are now huge, and the amount of detail staggering. In a standard lecture format, there is just too much information to cover. I started using online quizzes around seven years ago to engage students in working outside of class on their knowledge base before they came to class to talk about a topic. It worked, but not consistently. I broadened the question databases (up to about 200 questions per quiz) and put in some really detailed and hard questions. The goal was to have the students take the quiz multiple time and have to reference the textbook to answer some of the questions (as a note, the students got 30 questions each time and they received a random set of questions each time). I even told them that they could work together to answer questions. Since these quizzes were part of their grade, they complied, and it became clear that more students were coming to class prepared to talk about a given topic.
The goal is not to memorize the textbook, but to actually read it in a meaningful way. I am under no illusion that students will retain all of the information that they are exposed to, but they will remember something. The three exposure rule is something I strongly accept; basically that it takes at minimum three exposures to new material before you begin to build long-term neural links. Reading is one exposure, the quiz is the second, and discussion in class becomes the third. A student recently told me that they wished I would give the quiz after the in class session, because they understood the material so much more after the class. My question back to him was “would you have understood so much after our discussion if you had not first struggled with the information?” As I knew it would, my response stumped him. I don’t think he realized that all the time he was sitting with the information, and working on the quiz, he was learning.
Now I am wondering how to push further, to really encourage students to become active participants in the learning experience, to own their learning opportunities. So, my next transition is to see if I can get them involved in network, or social, learning systems. Ultimately though, my question is how do I ultimately assess their learning? The restraint is that I am responsible for teaching the principles of cell and molecular biology to the students. I say teach, but I strongly feel that my actual role is as a mentor, helping them to learn how to filter information, build a knowledge base, and use that knowledge base. But these students have to have a common knowledge base by the time they leave my class (the core curriculum of the course). How do I encourage them to learn these concepts without figuratively standing over them with a bat beating the information into their heads?
My gut response is that I have to step back and realize that I can not force them to learn. Yes, I can set an exam over a set of material to assess their knowledge, and the student can cramp facts into the head the night before in an attempt to pass the test, but I can not force them to learn the material. We come back to the mentor concept here. I’ve actually lowered the class percentage of my labs, and instead concentrate on smaller assignments, especially small written assignments. But all of these are assessed. They get grades for these assignments. Can they be encouraged to write, or blog, about topics if there is no grade? Again, I can’t force them to learn. So, now I am working on how to encourage them to learn.