Teaching an Uncommon Sense

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Sarah Cunningham, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

Unlike many of my colleagues, I enjoy teaching the introductory biology class here at Berkeley. However, it presents several daunting challenges to a novice GSI. For many students, Bio 1B is their first introduction to science outside of high school, and some will base their choice of major on their experiences with the class. The majority of the course deals with the principles of ecology and evolution, both of which are fundamental to a comprehensive understanding of any biological subfield.

It is here that I have found my greatest challenge in developing a teaching strategy. The basic evolutionary and ecological concepts and principles are not difficult to understand. When presented plainly, they sound very much like simple common sense. However, in order to tie them together and apply them in the solution of novel problems, students must learn to think scientifically and within an evolutionary framework. It is another kind of common sense that the students must develop, and it often runs contrary to the assumptions they are used to making. While a few students adopt a scientific mode of thinking almost naturally, for many it is a difficult switch. In addition, I think that a large degree of the difficulty I find in teaching this perspective stems from the fact that at this point in my own studies it is the only way I know how to think. Paradoxically, it can be the subjects that one knows best that can be the hardest to teach, as it becomes more and more difficult to recapture the mindset of someone learning the material for the first time.

During the semesters that I have taught Bio 1B, I have tried many different approaches to this problem, and I do not think that I have found the ultimate solution. However, I have developed an enjoyable exercise that turns evolution on its head and allows the students to look at the principles they are learning from a different perspective. At the same time, I found it an excellent tool to help me evaluate how well they understand the material. During one class each semester, I ask students to apply the concepts they have learned, not by explaining some natural phenomenon, but by creating one.

The students are asked to invent an organism, based on a few bizarre environmental conditions that I give them. They discuss in groups how their organism gains energy, protects itself, procreates, etc. They draw their organism, name it, and then present it to the rest of the class and answer any questions about its biology. I originally designed this exercise because I wanted the students to have fun with evolution. Every semester, I have been amazed by the creativity they have displayed and the enthusiasm they have had for their creations. But more importantly, the exercise gives the students the opportunity to approach evolution as a creative process. Science itself is a creative process, refined by experimentation, but it is rare that students early in their careers get the opportunity to take biology beyond the memorization of facts.

Though the exercise does not lend itself to quantitative evaluation through scoring, I find it easier to assess the level of understanding of my students through the question-and-answer session than I do through more traditional exams. When creating a novel organism, there are no facts to forget, and therefore nothing to impede the creative use of concepts learned in class. I am consistently pleased with the answers the students invent about their organisms, and it is my impression that they have an easier time thinking evolutionarily and ecologically during this free-form exercise than they do on multiple-choice exams. The ongoing challenge for me will be to cement the bridge between the connections made during this fun activity and overall performance in the class.