by Mathew Wedel, Integrative Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004
Last spring I served as a GSI for Biology 1B, the introductory biology course that covers plants, evolution, and ecology. The most serious problem I encountered was the tendency of students to skip the lectures. Many students assumed that that they could get all the information they needed in lab or discussion sections, or by reading the textbook on their own time. In most courses — and Biology 1B was no exception — there is no substitute for lecture attendance, but simply warning the students that they were setting themselves up for disappointing test scores had little effect. I needed a way to encourage students to attend lecture, something that did not rely on the nebulous threat of poor performance on future exams.
I solved the problem by using the weekly discussion sections to play Quiz Bowl with the students. It was essentially a Biology 1B trivia game, similar to the academic bowl games I had participated in during high school. The students were already organized into lab groups of four to six people. In Quiz Bowl, I would take turns asking each student in a group a question. If the student correctly answered the question without help, his or her team earned two points. The score was reduced to one point if the student had to ask other members of the lab group for help. If the student answered incorrectly or ran out of time (I allowed 20 seconds), the question passed to the next lab group — and doubled in point value. The question continued to double in point value each time it passed to the next group, until every group had had a chance to answer. The point-doubling rule kept the game interesting, because a group that was lagging on the scoreboard could catch up quickly by answering a tough question that other groups had missed. As an incentive to encourage participation, the group with the most wins at the end of the semester got to drop their lowest quiz grade. Although this was less than one percent of their total grade, almost all of the students played the game with interest and enthusiasm.
Playing Jeopardy! or similar trivia games in discussion sections is not exactly a new idea, so I modified the game to encourage lecture attendance. I divided the questions into two sets, Regular questions and Brain Burners. Regular questions were drawn from the material that the students were expected to learn, whether from lecture, assigned readings, or lab exercises. Brain Burners could come from any source related to the class, but I focused on anecdotal information given during the lectures. For example, if the professor was lecturing on fungi, the students might be expected to know that certain fungi could infect grain and cause hallucinations — that would be incorporated into a Regular question. The professor might also mention that fungal-induced hallucinations might have been responsible for the Salem witch scare, or that one of the related conditions, St. Anthony’s Fire, was named after the monks that cared for its victims. The students would not be expected to know this information for the exams, but I used little tidbits like this to make up the Brain Burners. Brain Burner questions were worth twice as much as Regular questions — twice the reward if a student answered it correctly, and twice the risk if the question passed to another group. Groups that always asked for Regular questions were at a disadvantage against groups that could successfully answer Brain Burners, so all of the students had an incentive to elevate their game by attending lecture and taking notes.
The results surprised me. Not only did the students start attending lecture more often and taking more notes, but also some lab groups devised strategies to organize and cross-reference material from the lectures and the textbook. I noticed a marked improvement in the students’ performance on their quizzes and tests, too. However, the most gratifying signs of success were the positive comments the students wrote on their evaluations. Quiz Bowl proved to be a fun and exciting way to encourage the students to participate more fully in both lecture and discussion.