Using Phenomena-Based Inquiry to Increase Class Participation

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Rachael Olliff Yang, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

At the beginning of every class, instructors are faced with the challenge of encouraging participation. I was able to successfully increase class participation using phenomena-based inquiry.

In Fall 2018 I co-taught the field section and lab of General Biology (Bio1B). In the beginning of the class, we had relatively low participation in our labs: approximately the same 15-25% of students asked questions and engaged in discussion from week to week. By contrast, this same class exhibited almost 100% participation on the weekend class field trips. At first, I assumed that just being outside was the difference. However, I later realized that the difference might also be the way we taught in the field vs. in the lab. To see if I could increase student participation in the lab, I decided to try to present some of the material as if we were in the field.

One of the differences that seemed to be the most effective was to let the students make observations first. Bio1B lab instructors have a limited amount of time to present material in the lab introduction, and often default to a lecture-style presentation with instructions for how to complete the lab activities. We hope that engagement with the material will occur during the lab activities after the students are fully prepared to complete the lab. However, taking just a couple of minutes for students to make observations and discuss in pairs led to more student questions and class discussion of the material. This was as simple as presenting a photo or graph and giving students time to do a think-pair-share activity in which they discussed any patterns they could see and causes that might be driving these patterns. These activities successfully generated more student questions—and, in particular, questions about how to understand the material, rather than simply how to complete the lab.

It was not until March 2019, when participating in the CA Environmental Phenomena Summit, that I realized that this teaching technique was phenomena-based inquiry. To initiate organic scientific inquiry at the K-12 level, the Next Generation Science Standards have introduced the classroom study of phenomena, or observable events that occur in the universe and that we can use science knowledge to explain or predict. As a scientist, I aim to inspire curiosity, because I have seen time and again that nurturing curiosity leads to the generation of an authentic scientific process. When I used this technique with my undergraduate students—presenting a phenomenon and allowing them to observe and discuss it before any explanations were given—I found that the approach increased their overall interest in the material and generated greater engagement and participation from the entire class.

I consider using phenomena-based inquiry to be the most effective strategy that I have incorporated into my teaching as a Graduate Student Instructor. In addition to increasing engagement with the material, I think this technique works well because it encourages even incorrect observations that can be worked through together as a class. Discussing ambiguous and confusing phenomena as a class allowed for both “right” and “wrong” ideas to emerge, helping students to become comfortable asking questions and expressing their thoughts to the class without fear of being judged. Eventually, we would work toward the correct explanations together, which often generated more questions than we started with.

I saw evidence of the effectiveness of this technique in the increase in class participation. After working with phenomena-based observation activities, we had an average of 90% participation each lab—much closer to the participation rates of the field trips. After visiting our lab section during the last part of the semester, Dr. Alan Shabel (one of the Bio1B lecture professors) remarked that “almost every student in your section engaged in the discussion” and that this was a “testament to your teaching and ability to encourage a good classroom culture.” In the end of semester teaching evaluations, 100% of the students ranked me at a 5 or above (on a 7-point scale) for “overall effectiveness” and “encouraging student questions and participation.”