Effective Teaching - Balancing Large Classes with Evidence Based Teaching Practices

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Teaching at the university level is undergoing a national revolution. Even as our class sizes are growing larger and the sea of faces staring back at us is growing ever more diverse, the evidence that the large lecture style of teaching does not serve our students as well as it should grows by the day. Indeed the overwhelming evidence from science education research is that not only do active learning strategies result in better exam scores and improved retention and persistence in STEM fields, but these effects are larger in underrepresented groups.

As a lecturer at U.C. Santa Cruz I have been responsible for teaching the development and physiology of plants and animals course for biology majors, a course with enrollment in the 250-400 range each quarter since 2012. I also have taught upper division animal physiology as well as female physiology. Over the past few years my teaching has undergone an evolution from a lecture style course to an active learning focused course. As part of an HHMI funded initiative at UCSC, I have been part of a team developing smaller, active learning versions of the introductory STEM courses for majors including a version of my own development and physiology course. This experience has been truly transformative for me as an instructor, influencing not only the smaller, active learning versions of the course, but the large lecture as well. For example, when I first began teaching, the emphasis in most courses that I had taken or taught was always on the content. Content is of course critical, however, in our information-rich culture students can easily Google how a neuron works or see a video tutorial of gastrulation or water transport in plants. What they can’t easily Google are the skills necessary to assess their own understanding of a concept, the critical thinking skills to make predictions, interpret data, critically read scientific literature, draw a model of a physiological process, construct argument from evidence, design an experiment, or communicate their science to others. It is the skills of science which are enduring and which will benefit students well beyond their upper division coursework. Thus, my approach to teaching uses evidence based methods to engage students and has a particular focus on giving students opportunities to practice scientific skills while learning content.

I am looking forward to sharing my experiences and teaching materials with other instructors. Our team is extremely fortunate to have excellent support during the development of these activities and courses. I would like to be able to share widely the activities that we have developed with the hope that it will make such a transformation easier for others. The major lesson I have learned – start small! Introducing even one activity or one type of activity several times across a course can make a big difference for students without being overly taxing for the instructors. These resources will be coming online in the coming months.