Incorporating Active Learning Techniques into a Genetics Class

By Lee, W. Theodore; Jabot, Michael E. | Journal of College Science Teaching, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Incorporating Active Learning Techniques into a Genetics Class


Lee, W. Theodore, Jabot, Michael E., Journal of College Science Teaching


We redesigned a traditional lecture-based genetics course to include active-learning projects for students. Genetics is a central component for the biological sciences, and a strong foundation will help students to better understand other key areas of biology including evolution, biochemistry, and cell biology. Currently there is little information available on using active learning in genetics at the college level. Physics and chemistry have been taught using active-learning approaches that are well documented. In particular, Peer Instruction at Harvard (Mazur 1997) and Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) from MIT (Belcher 2001) have been used to reform physics instruction. Similarly, in chemistry the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) approach has been widely adopted (Farrell, Moog, and Spencer 1999; Moog and Spencer 2008). There are fewer advances of active learning in the biological sciences (Eisen 1998; Tanner and Allen 2004; Smith et al. 2005). The teaching of genetics concepts to high school students has been addressed in several papers (see Lewis and Wood-Robinson 2000; Lewis and Kattman 2004; Pashley 1994); however, there is not much information on the teaching of genetics at the college level. This paper describes active-learning approaches used in a sophomore-level genetics class at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia and their impact on student learning. The activities were incorporated into the course and supplemented the traditional Socratic class format.

SUNY at Fredonia is a comprehensive institution with about 5,000 undergraduates and a small number of masters-level graduate students. Genetics is a 3-credit lecture course that is required for all biology, molecular genetics, biochemistry, and medical technology majors with a separate one-credit lab course taken by most students. Our paper focuses on active-learning projects incorporated into the lecture course. The course has been traditionally taught as a standard lecture course with the instructor asking questions and few students actively participating. In preparation for the genetics course, freshmen-year students take a two-semester principles of biology sequence, with the second semester course providing an introduction into basic cell biology, metabolism, and the central dogma of molecular biology on the flow of information in cells (Crick 1970). In their junior year, all biology majors are required to take biochemistry in which there is an emphasis on protein structure and function and metabolism, and the genetics course prepares the students for this course. Genetics is a broad field that forms a cornerstone of biology. Biology majors must have a strong foundation in both classical and molecular genetics to understand key issues and concepts of biological systems. Genetics has a rich history of elegant experiments, from Mendel's work on heritability in peas to solving the genetic code to the analysis of the human genome, and if students can understand the fundamentals of these studies, then they will have a much greater knowledge of genetics.

Studies on student learning have shown that deeper learning occurs when the material is presented in an appropriate context and through inquiry-based activities (Blumenfeld et al. 1994, Kesidou and Roseman 2002, Eisen 1998; Tanner and Allen 2004; Smith et al. 2005). To measure student learning, we administered pre-and posttests, examined student work in class, and collected student evaluations on the course and instructor. We initiated the activities described in this paper to try and improve student participation and student learning. A secondary goal was to vary the format of the class meetings so that the teaching and learning methods did not remain constant. These activities were undertaken after attending a teaching workshop by Dr. Fink and reading his books on learning (Fink 2003; Michaelson, Bauman Knight, and Fink 2004).

Learning goals and course design

The syllabus handed out to students at the start of the semester lists the following learning goals: (a) the principles that guide the inheritance of genes, (b) the history of the field of genetics, (c) how genetic information is expressed, (d) how genetics is used to study different problems in biology, and (e) how to obtain information on genetics. …

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