by Alejandra Figueroa-Clarevega, Molecular and Cell Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2011
One of the challenges of an introductory class such as Biology 1A is the overwhelming amount of information that one is required to learn. This task becomes even more daunting because the course is a general survey, encompassing organisms from plants to humans and information ranging from the details of DNA’s double helix to the general concepts of the physiology and anatomy of the heart. Memorization of all these facts was the main concern of my students, as it was mine when I was a freshman, taking a similar course; but I soon realized that this was not the best approach to effectively learn the course material. I discovered that the reason it was easier to learn the material this second time around was not necessarily because I had learned it before, but rather because I now had a “big picture” perspective and could place each piece of information within the context of the entire course. During discussion sections I became aware that my students were indeed studying the material as individual, independent, non-related facts. It was like trying to assemble a 3,000-piece puzzle without having a picture to refer to. As a freshman, if I could have learned these facts within the context of each other, I would have been better equipped not only to learn the material, but to fully comprehend it. It would be equivalent to knowing that the blue pieces in the puzzle will make the sky and the green will become the mountains, and that both will be near the top. Thus my goal became to help my students understand the context that would allow them to collect the facts more easily, group similar ideas together, and be able to place them in relationship to each other.
To set up this framework, I did three things. First, I emphasized how one thing is used to build another, which then can build something more complex. For instance, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which then form part of the membrane that surrounds and protects the cell. Second, I centered our sections on the connections between what we were currently discussing and what we had learned before. Discussions were based on comparing processes, contrasting mechanisms and connecting pathways. Third, I literally drew the “big picture” on the board and we would work together in filling in all the pieces: the details, building blocks, complexes, functions, and then all the connecting arrows. For example I drew the entire digestive system and we then filled in its organs and the enzymes they secrete, and described how secretions from one organ can influence the function of another. Moreover we recalled that enzymes are proteins, which, we further recalled, are built by amino acids. Finally, we compared these enzymes to those of the endocrine system. Needing to constantly recall what we had learned before enhanced their memory of those facts and sped up the learning of new information. Building a “big picture” allowed them to have a map of the facts they knew, establish the relevant relationships, and really understand the material, while at the same time providing them a concise yet complete study guide.
This systematic approach proved to be highly effective. Comments from my mid-semester evaluations and conversations with my students revealed their appreciation for this new method of learning. I changed the format of my quizzes and discussion questions to test their understanding of the material and their ability to incorporate, compare, and contrast new and previous material. By the end of the course their extremely well thought answers, their ability to clearly explain the material to each other, and a significant increase in the frequency of questions and contributions during section reflected their deeper level of understanding. I was assured that not only did they have the pieces, but they had built the “big picture” together.