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Reinforcing Lectures with Discussion Groups in a Large Lecture Class: Introductory Biology

Module by: The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. E-mail the author

Is it possible to combat the passive learning commonly associated with 100+ students sitting in a huge auditorium in large lecture classes? It is possible, if you follow in the footsteps of Mike Gustin and Dan Wagner, who shake up the traditional lecture-and-exam format of a typical introductory biology course by breaking up the 200 students in their BIOS 201 class into 16 small discussion groups. Although discussion is known to increase student engagement in learning, it is rarely observed in large introductory biology classes, which are already overloaded with topics to cover. Gustin and Wagner developed a happy medium—a series of eight discussion days, 38 lecture days, and four exam days—that permit coverage of essential course topics while allowing students to actively analyze and discuss 16 fundamental biology processes or concepts (two per discussion day) in student-led groups.

Preparation for a professional identity

BIOS 201 discussion groups prepare students to take part in the daily conversations that will be part of their future lives, first as students in advanced courses and, later, as physicians, researchers, engineers, lawyers, managers, or citizens. After graduation, students will be expected to participate in meetings and discussions, contributing insights and conclusions based on personal experience and scientific knowledge. In advanced classes, students will engage in discussions of the material presented both in class and in peer study groups and project teams. When they propose solutions to problems, they will be expected to explain processes and technical concepts for non-specialists as well as other professionals. And in many interdisciplinary situations, they will need to reconcile different perspectives and definitions in order to reach a consensus about how to approach a complex problem.

In student-led discussions, students participate positively in group discussions, leading and managing discussions toward productive conclusions, and reaching consensus on topics. Although the discussions are student led, trained discussion group leaders observe and mentor each group. These group leaders refrain from participating in the discussion and instead observe the discussion to evaluate the accuracy and effectiveness of the presentation, the quality of the discussion, and the process of discussion. They also determine each student’s grade for the day by evaluating the number and quality of contributions made and the thoroughness with which a preparation form was completed before class.

Enhancing learning through the enrichment of students’ mental maps

We all learn by acquiring information from our environment (through visual and auditory systems). We map the information in the brain in a unique and personal way that reflects how we relate to it. We use these mental maps to structure and code knowledge, store it, decode it, and recall it. As students learn about a topic, their minds creatively construct unique maps that place the new information in the context of their existing maps. Students will have a myriad of unique experiences, learning styles, perceptions of their needs, and even perceptions of shared experiences. Although two students may read the same passage from a textbook, they will come to the discussion with different mental maps of the information. For example, a student who grew up near a beach may relate a biological process to the movement of water in the tides. Another student who worked in a laboratory may relate a process to a similar process in his/her research area. In the discussion session, students will bring their own mental maps to the group. By sharing understandings of the material and questions about it, the entire group will come to a consensus on the topic—a group mental map—that will be richer than the mental map of any individual. The multiple connections will enable participants to solve problems and apply the concepts in multiple ways, increasing their mastery of their knowledge. Students then apply their extended knowledge on exam questions based on the discussion topics.

The structure and process of discussion

Each discussion group consists of 12–13 students and one group leader. Discussion groups meet on eight pre-determined Wednesdays during the semester (see syllabus below). Meetings occur in locations that foster face-to-face communication, such as conference rooms and small college classrooms.

During each discussion session, students discuss two pre-assigned topics. Topics are assigned in class and by email or posting on the course website. Students have one week to research the topics and complete a Preparation Form for each topic. Completed Preparation Forms are brought to each session and handed in to the group leader at the end of the session.

At the beginning of the session, the group leader announces the roles for each student for each topic. To motivate students to prepare, group roles are kept secret until the session begins. The roles are as follows:

  • The presenter gives a short presentation (under six minutes) on one of the assigned topics, using his/her Preparation Form as notes.
  • The discussion leader moderates the discussion. He/she keeps the discussion going, turns to the group for questions or comments, notices who wishes to speak, and ensures that everyone has a chance to contribute to the discussion.
  • The summarizer/synthesizer pulls together the most important points made during the discussion and presents the group these points to conclude the discussion.
  • The writer takes notes during the presentation. After the presentation, the writer prepares a short (1/2- to 1-page) written summary of the topic. The writer also lists any questions that were unanswered during the discussion; these questions are answered by Gustin and Wagner on the course website. The best submitted summaries are posted on-line for students to use in preparing for exams.

In summary, each 50-minute discussion session is divided into two halves (one for each of two topics), each containing 5–6 minutes for presentation, 10 minutes for discussion, and 3 minutes for summary/synthesis. At the conclusion of each topic, the group leader comments on the group’s discussion for 1-2 minutes. This schedule accommodates an in-depth presentation on each topic and sufficient time for all members of the 12- to 13-member group to have a voice in the discussion. Students are motivated by the participation grade they receive for each session, but they are also rewarded for their engagement when they see discussion topics in exam questions. For Gustin and Wagner, the real reward comes when students have formed personal and group mental maps that allow them to recall the information in later applications—beyond BIOS 201.

Syllabus summary

The syllabus below illustrates how discussion sessions are integrated with lectures, readings, and exams in Introductory Biology: BIOS 201.

Table 1
Class Day Activity
1 M Lecture, readings
2 W Lecture, readings
3 F Lecture, readings
  M Holiday
4 W Discussion
5 F Lecture, readings
6 M Lecture, readings
7 W Discussion
8 F Lecture, readings
9 M Lecture, readings
10 W Lecture, readings
  F Exam, lectures 1-9
11 M Lecture, readings
12 W Discussion
13 F Lecture, readings
14 M Lecture, readings
15 W Discussion
16 F Lecture, readings
17 M Lecture, readings
18 W Lecture, readings
  F Exam II, lectures 10-18
  M Holiday
19 W Lecture, readings
20 F Lecture, readings
21 M Lecture, readings
22 W Discussion
23 F Lecture, readings
24 M Lecture, readings
25 W Discussion
26 F Lecture, readings
27 M Lecture, readings
28 W Lecture, readings
  F Exam III, lectures 19-27
29 M Lecture, readings
30 W Discussion
31 F Lecture, readings
32 M Lecture, readings
33 W Lecture, readings
34 F Lecture, readings
35 M Discussion
36 W Lecture, readings
37 M Lecture, readings
  W Exam IV, lectures 28-36
38 F Lecture, readings
    Comprehensive Final Exam

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