Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

How can we encourage independent learning and interaction in the learning of science using small class situations?

Anne Mathews
University Support Centre
Dianne Barrington
Faculty of Medicine
The University of Western Australia
There are several limitations in the traditional pedagogical methods wherein the lecturer delivers course material to students in the classroom. Students are largely passive in their learning approach and depend on the lecturer to provide the information in the course. In small group situations this method of teaching can be modified to facilitate the development of communication and team skills in addition to the acquisition of other important skills such as questioning, thinking critically, participation in discussions, researching a topic and presentation of research. The question posed in this paper is: How can we make learning enjoyable for students while assisting them in acquiring transferable skills?

This paper outlines a method of interactive and peer-assisted learning in two units: Molecular Genetics and Plant Breeding 303; and Molecular Genetics, Plant and Animal Improvement 403 developed for third and fourth year students at the University of Western Australia. In this study, students were required to select a topic in molecular genetics, research the topic seeking help from the lecturer if required, prepare a 3000 word written assignment and make a presentation to their peers. In this paper we address the questions posed above and examine the students' feedback in the light of their learning.

Introduction and context of this study

Lecturing is the common method of teaching in most universities even though it might not be the most appropriate way of teaching for all students. There are several disadvantages in the use of lectures as the sole means of imparting knowledge to students, as students tend to be passive and dependent on the lecturer for information. In addition, different students learn in different ways and more than one form of teaching might be necessary in order that students effectively assimilate the information presented to them. Documented evidence indicates the following interesting ideas on lectures: in lectures, students are not attending 40 percent of the time (Pollio, 1984); students retain 70 percent of the information during the first ten minutes of a lecture and 20 percent during the last twenty minutes of the lecture (McKeachie (1986); interest in the lecture is lost quickly and attention levels continue to drop as the lecture proceeds (Verner and Dickinson, 1967); and students when tested on an introductory psychology unit four months later knew only 8 percent more than the control group who had never taken the course (Rickard er al., 1988). In addition, Ramsden (1992), noted that "the conventional one-hour lecture represents a rigidly quantitative conception of teaching and learning."

Moreover, given the limited time and resources and a complex curriculum, the lecturer is faced with the question of how to teach effectively within such an educational environment. The easiest approach may appear to use the traditional method of lecturing. This does not, however, encourage active learning. Therefore, other methods of teaching need to be explored that will enable students to gain a deeper and more lasting knowledge of a subject, while at the same time increasing their involvement and participation in the process of learning. In addition, students should be taught to share in the work of teaching and learning and take on responsibility for their study and professional development. By "taking responsibility for their own learning, accessing information on their own and learning from each other they will need less supervision and can be taught more cheaply (Habeshaw, 1995). For learning to become meaningful, students have to be able to "take knowledge and make it their own" (Meyers and Jones, 1993) and " they have to make sense of information for themselves if they are to learn anything" (Ramsden, 1992).

Active learning is an integral part of learning science at the tertiary level. In order to promote active learning in the classroom, students must become involved in acquiring information and interpreting it (Seeler et al., 1994). The term active learning can be illustrated by the following explanation, "students must do more than just listen. They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Within this context, it is proposed that strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing" (Bornwell and Eison, 1991).

Graduate students need a number of skills when they enter the workforce, some of which can be acquired during their education at the university. Employers were asked what skills they sought from graduates and how far they felt these skills were in short supply, employers placed communication skills on top of the list followed by leadership, ability to work in a team and problem solving (Marshall and Huxley, 1995). While choosing a strategy for teaching which incorporates the above skills, one must take into consideration the learning objectives associated with the subject being taught, the size of the class, ability of students to function autonomously; ability of the lecturer to use the strategy; and the physical environment (Seeler et al., 1994). Teaching strategies wherein the lecturer acts as a facilitator of the process rather than one who is primarily responsible for transferring all the knowledge of a subject to the students could be employed as a useful strategy for teaching the course content as well as in the acquisition of such generic skills. The use of active learning in combination with peer assisted learning can also be useful in teaching students. However, this approach requires good planning and the provision of an active learning environment in which students can develop and practice these skills. The first step in the development of an appropriate teaching strategy is to determine what skills you would like the students to acquire during the course. Then in order to get students involved in their learning, it is essential "to take the student out of a passive role and create an environment where he or she can practice the skills that need to be developed" (Seeler et al.,1994).

Providing opportunities for students to learn by interaction with their peers is a challenge and often a good way of promoting active learning. Higher order thinking skills such as creative thinking, reasoning, critical thinking and problem-solving can be learnt (Phye, 1997) when situations can be provided for this to happen. Students should be encouraged to accept responsibility for self-directed, lifelong learning as well as achieving competence in skills that are essential to meaningful lives and careers. Therefore, teaching strategies which are conducive to promoting thinking in students should be developed and encouraged. It is important to make the activities enjoyable as "one of the reasons why students enjoy group activities is that they combine learning with relationship building activities" (Corno, 1992). Likewise, the use of active learning strategies can enliven the classroom and significantly improve the thinking and learning capabilities of students (Meyer and Jones, 1993).

The aim of this paper is to investigate methods of teaching and learning in small classes in science with the objective of encouraging independent , lifelong learning. A method of teaching was employed wherein opportunities for autonomy were offered to third and fourth year students from the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Western Australia, while at the same time an educational objective was to make the learning enjoyable. The paper also examines aspects of this method of learning that students liked, aspects that were not so appealing and personal developmental benefits derived from the use of this strategy.

The research

A method of teaching was explored wherein opportunities for autonomy were offered to third and fourth year students from the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Western Australia. while at the same time an educational objective was to make the learning enjoyable. Third and fourth year units each with small class sizes (8 and 5 enrolled students, respectively) were used to trial this method of teaching and learning. There are a number of advantages of using small classes for innovative studies: it is easy for lecturers to get to know the students and respond to their individual needs; it is easier to incorporate the key elements of active learning talking and listening, reading, writing and reflection; and it is also easier to help students to learn important interpersonal skills (Meyer and Jones, 1993).

A method of interactive and peer-assisted learning was developed for the third and fourth year students. The 8 enrolled students in the third year Molecular Genetics and Plant Breeding 303 class were allowed to select a topic in molecular genetics from a suggested menu. The 5 enrolled students in the fourth year Molecular Genetics, Plant and Animal Improvement 403 class were encouraged to choose a topic of their own interest. All students were given time to research the topic and seek help from the lecturer if required. In each group, students were required to prepare a 3000 word written assignment and make a presentation to their peers. For the third year students this exercise formed 20% of their assessment for the unit, while for the fourth year students it was 50% of the assessment for the unit. Thus the onus was thus placed on the students to explore the topic, plan both the writing and the presentation of the topic. A questionnaire was formulated to obtain feedback from students on the use of this method of learning.

In both cases, feedback from the students was generally positive. They claimed to have:

Independent learning

The method employed in this study involved independent learning which "involves giving students greater autonomy and control over choice of subject matter, learning methods and pace of study (Gibbs, 1992). Likewise, the situation where students teach each other also has several advantages. According to Meyers and Jones (1993) "Peers often have a legitimacy that superiors lack. Students will listen to things from each other they will not accept from teachers." In the present research, feedback from students on aspects of the learning exercise that appealed to them, aspects that did not appeal and skills acquired from this method are enumerated below.

Aspects of the learning exercise that appealed to students:

Aspects of the learning exercise that students did not enjoy:

Development of skills

Small class activities are useful in the development of social and interpersonal skills which students achieve through interacting with each other. Meyers and Jones (1993) stressed the "importance to teach students to ask intelligent questions, communicate effectively, critically analyse sources of information, research issues and draw on resources". Likewise, using small-group activities that combine reading and writing with talking and listening will help in the acquisition of two additional skills that help clarify thinking abilities (Meyers and Jones, 1993). With guidance from a lecturer, students can learn these valuable skills to serve them outside the classroom. In the research reported here, students had to plan their work, priorities their work, motivate themselves and meet deadlines. Such tasks enabled students to learn the following skills along with the content of the units:


Finding different ways to encourage independent learning and interaction among students in science classes is a challenge and a worthwhile goal. It is important to provide opportunities for students to learn by interaction with each other and on their own. One of the goals of educating students at the university should be to train them to become self-directed lifelong learners who have acquired skills that are essential to them in their lives and careers. This research explains the use of a strategy which has proved useful in the teaching of science to small classes of students.


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Corno, L. (1992). Encouraging students to take responsibility for learning and performance. Elementary School Journal, 93, 69-83.

Gibbs, G. (1992). Improving the quality of student learning. Technical and Education Services, Ltd. Bristol.

Habeshaw, T. (1995). The Art of Lecturing 2. New Academic, 1, 3-6.

McKeachie, W. J. (1986). Teaching tips: Guidebook for the beginning college teacher. Lexington, Mass: Heath.

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Meyers, C. and Jones, T. B. (1993). Promoting active learning. Strategies for the college classroom. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco.

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Seeler, D. C., Turnwald, G. H. and Bull, K. S. (1994). From teaching to learning: Part III. Lectures and approaches to active learning. JVME, 21, 7-12.

Verner, C. and Dickinson, G. (1967). The lecture: An analysis and review of research. Adult Education, 17, 85-90.

Please cite as: Mathews, A. and Barrington, D. (1998). How can we encourage independent learning and interaction in the learning of science using small class situations? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 189-193. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/mathews-a.html

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