by Riva Bruenn, Plant and Microbial Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
Plant morphology is a well-organized catalog of vegetative form. Every week students have dozens of plants to illustrate, interpret, and describe in lab, and even more material to cover and review in discussion. In order to finish the lab in the four hours given, students must come prepared, with a clear understanding of the material and objectives. As a graduate student instructor, I quickly noticed that students were struggling to complete the labs in time. The students delayed beginning, wasting time looking back through notes and re-reading the lab manual. Although my co-GSI and I began each lab with a short lecture and review of the material and objectives, students did not seem to pay attention and struggled to follow along. Throughout the lab students often asked us questions we’d already covered in the pre-lab lecture. The next day in discussion, students seemed to be starting from scratch, with little understanding of what they’d seen in lab or learned about in lecture. I’d learned by designing lessons with Bay Area Scientists in Schools that games keep students focused and excited, motivating them to try harder and stay engaged. I decided to apply this strategy to graduate student instruction. I used Charades, Pictionary, and Mad Libs to turn plant morphology into a game.
I started using my version of Mad Libs for every pre-lab lecture. I would, as before, draw out diagrams and write morphological concepts on the board before lab. The only difference was that I would leave the labels and descriptions blank. As I gave the lecture, I would pause at each blank, and a student who hadn’t yet spoken would have to give me a description of the concept, supply clues to use in identification, or come up and label the structure. Because they knew they would have to answer eventually, students began volunteering throughout the lesson, even those who had formerly been quiet and reserved. Students often made errors, but they helped each other by reminding each other of plants they’d seen in previous labs or examples from lectures and discussion. Each pre-lab lecture turned into a puzzle the class had to complete as a team. I noticed that more students began to work together during labs, and that they would try to work things out themselves by talking to other students and looking back at the board before asking the GSIs. Pre-lab lectures went faster as the weeks progressed, with students coming prepared to volunteer answers, or help others solve problems. Instead of delaying, students started diving right into the labs.
In discussion, Charades and Pictionary won the day. Every discussion would end with a round of Charades, in which teams of students would have to come up with a way to act out a morphological concept we’d covered. Teams competed for the shortest time for the rest of the class to understand what they were acting out. I adopted Chelsea Specht’s use of Pictionary for reviews. Students competed to draw morphological concepts for their teams to guess. In labs and discussion, students started referencing Charades acts and Pictionary drawings to help each other remember the concepts. By the time the semester ended, every student was an active participant in pre-lab lectures and discussions. Students who had usually been quiet spoke out, those who had worked alone chose to work in groups, and students who had come to class unprepared were asking questions far outside the scope of the class.
When plant morphology became a game, not only did students have more fun, they accepted more of the responsibility of learning. Anonymity evaporated when students started depending on each other. Showing up unprepared affected the rest of the class, either through their lab group, or their discussion team. Not only did participation get better, lab report grades improved, as did quizzes in discussion. The students of Plant Morphology learned to take pride in knowing the non-trivial trivia of plant morphology.