Developing biology: My journey from lecture to now

In his 2012 book, Bok (Higher Education in America p 194) describes scientific disciplines as those that have “definite answers:” and therefore easily scale up to large lectures with on-line exams. That someone of his stature can misunderstand science as a way of knowing continues to bother me years after reading that passage. It places “science” outside of any cultural context, as a mass of facts that, if properly reconstituted, will enable students to miraculously arrive at the correct answers to any problem. There is an increasing population of faculty who recognize that this is not a fair representation and are changing how they teach to allow more personalized learning through activities aligned with documents like the Next Generation Science Standards. They are joining national and international organizations that range from focused on single disciplines to broadly cross-disciplinary.

But the majority of science faculty teach they way they were taught, although they may not be aware of it. In the FSSE survey of 2012, faculty self-report as spending about half of their teaching time lecturing. Such self-reporting likely under-estimates the actual time spent lecturing: Diane Ebert-May and her colleagues found that although 89% of faculty reported that they were using active learning strategies, videos revealed that 75% were mostly lecturing. Delivering content is what we are accustomed to, what we are comfortable with, and what is often expected of us by our students. If we would rather see students using content logically and insightfully to interpret media reports, web sites, and pundits – to think critically – then we need to reward them not for arriving at the “right” answer but for exhibiting careful and logical reasoning supported by facts (which they may or may not have memorized) and consensus models. Accomplishing this requires that we move ourselves beyond teaching facts to enabling thinking.

Aquinas College lecture
“Aquinas College students listening to a lecture during a human biology class”

I, too, started by teaching as I had been taught. I no longer do. What I hope to do with this series of blogs is not commune with like-minded faculty, but offer a model of how my transition happened for those who are curious but intimidated by the prospect of changing how they teach. I know I’m not the only person on this path, but at the time I chose to move in this direction I knew no one else exploring these ideas in science education, so these were, for me, solitary decisions. I write to share my map with others who are stymied in how to move forward, who know that active learning is a better teaching mode than lecturing but do not know where to begin.

A great journey requires knowing where you are starting, and having maps for guidance. Below, I describe my original location. The maps I found to guide my journey were two older books describing young adult cognitive development: William Perry’s Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme (1968/1970) and Blenky et al. Women’s Ways of Knowing (hereafter WWK, 1986 / 1997). These two can be summarized in a very simple diagram – a four step map for my journey.


Perry and WWK present stages in the development of young adults’ understanding of what “knowledge” is and where it comes from, their “epistemology.” Dependent on where you are teaching, students may enter your room as received knowers or multiplistic knowers. With luck or skill, they leave knowing the procedures of creating knowledge in your discipline. This, then, is the map I found.

My journey starts at the University of Vermont, where I was hired to join a team-taught non-majors class in a large-lecture format with graduate teaching assistants running labs. The long-term adjunct teaching with me was a funny, cheerful man hugely popular with the students who taught conservatively: factual content, amusingly delivered, easily memorized. I felt I had little choice but to fall in line: anyone teaching differently received horrible student evaluations. Finally, in 2011, I got what I had been waiting for: the opportunity to teach the class independently. Fall 2011 was before I met Perry or Belenky and colleagues, and this course will be the base camp from which we depart. The map of my journey is retrospective, built from evidence from my syllabi – in particular course organization, goal statements, and classroom strategies – that chart the changes I made as I grew from a stand-and-deliver lecturer to a facilitator of learning. Next time, I’ll describe this class, because we need to identify our location in the landscape before we can choose a route.

I close with my guiding principles for teaching, the parameters against which I will be measuring the classes I discuss: I must teach students basic content, I must teach them what science “is,” and I must convince them that they can, indeed, “do” science. That last point is the most challenging and, arguably, the most important.

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