When University of Georgia ecology Ph.D. student Athena Rayne Anderson asked to be the head teaching assistant for an introductory undergraduate ecology course, she did so with a goal in mind. Anderson, who recently completed her Interdisciplinary Certificate in University Teaching, wanted to apply some of the teaching methodologies she had learned to the course’s laboratory component. The result was a redesigned method for teaching field laboratories, which Anderson described in a paper published recently in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.
During Anderson’s first year as a TA, the labs consisted of field lectures and “cookbook-type” experiments.
“I thought there was room for improvement,” she said. “For instance, the students could be more engaged and motivated by a different approach.”
In her teaching courses she had learned about team- and inquiry-based methods. “All the research shows that team-based learning is effective, even in very large classes,” she said. “But it hadn’t been tried in a field laboratory setting.”
Anderson set out to change that.
Team- and inquiry-based methodologies require students to be more active learners than they would in a traditional classroom. Instead of working individually, they collaborate in small groups to complete their assignments. Rather than being provided with a hypothesis and following instructions on how to conduct an experiment, the students come up with their own hypotheses and experimental designs, with guidance from an instructor. To learn about the entire research process, they then write their results in professional journal format and present their findings to the class in a mock symposium.
“Team- and inquiry-based methods offer students a learning experience that’s more like the real world,” Anderson said. “They not only learn the science, they learn how to work together—scheduling, compromise, interpersonal skills, and so on. It’s good practice for real life.”
To gauge the effects of the redesign, Anderson surveyed students and TAs before and after the semester. Students reported satisfaction with their lab experience, and their perception of how often scientists collaborate in real life increased significantly.
The redesign was considered successful by TAs as well. One reason was that it reduced their workload. Before the redesign, TAs were responsible for grading over 400 assignments each semester; with the new curriculum, that number dropped to 27. At the same time, the TAs felt that their students were more involved in the class than those in the traditional labs had been.
Anderson said that while her study’s findings about student motivation and engagement were useful, it will be important to examine the effects of the changes on student learning, an analysis that was beyond the scope of her project.
“From what I’ve learned, students get more out of team- and inquiry-based methods than traditional teaching styles, and it’s more fun for instructors because students are engaged and ask interesting questions,” she said. “I really enjoy teaching undergraduates, and I’ll always be looking for ways to innovate in my classroom.”