Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Active learning for understanding in introductory Human Biology

Georgina Fyfe
School of Biomedical Sciences
Curtin University of Technology
    Of the large intake of Health Science students at Curtin University, most are required to take HB133 as a core unit in their first semester. The unit has recently been changed to facilitate deeper learning by replacing large lectures with small group teaching approaches which value collaboration and address FYE issues. Students participate in two 2 hour learning session per week, and stay with the same group of 40-45 students and tutor all semester. Within these class groups, small groups are generated to provide collaborative learning opportunities. Assessment for collaborative work comprises 22% of the semester mark. In each session, students receive information as 20 minute infobytes, and participate in activities which help discover and build understanding. Students undertake investigations in their own time, and use these to contribute to subsequent class sessions. The unit is built around five themes which interrelate to cover important concepts and requisite knowledge. Students are encouraged to apply knowledge and concepts from one theme to subsequent themes, rather than modularise their learning.

    Evaluations indicate students feel prepared for group work prior to the semester but cannot always deal with conflict when mark allocations are involved. Some evidence of deeper learning, and less reliance on memorisation, is evident through tutors reports and exam paper analysis. Information gained from SEEQ and other evaluation instruments gives interesting insights into how students respond to the style of this unit.

    The changes to this style of teaching had implications for many stakeholders, due to the unit's service teaching status. Room allocation and timetabling problems arose. Tutors had a more demanding task than previously, and some students were uncomfortable with self directed and student centred approaches, exhibiting lack confidence in their ability to learn independently. However, positive spin-offs outweigh negatives in this change in approach to tertiary human biology teaching.

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Introduction

In recent years, the focus on university teaching has highlighted the need to address equity and pedagogical issues in all our units. The Curtin University teaching and learning plan recognises the need to adapt existing units to allow a more student centred approach and to accommodate special needs of first year students.

Context

Of the 1000 students who enrol in Human Biology during the year, most are required to take HB133 as a core unit in their first semester. This gives the student group particular characteristics, including diversity of ability, expectation and prior learning, all of which have been challenges to the staff teaching and developing this unit.

Human Biology 133 has always been run on traditional lines: large didactic lectures, illustrative practical sessions and a focus on factual detail. Much of the face to face contact was not of high quality. In spite of efforts from lecturing staff, it is difficult to do interactive things in a lecture room of 600 people, especially when you may only meet those students for a series of 5 or 6 lectures in the whole semester. The assessment valued competitive rather than collaborative efforts from the students, and emphasised factual detail rather than problem solving ability.

The unit has recently been changed to facilitate deeper learning by replacing large lectures with small group teaching approaches which value collaboration and address FYE issues. Because of the mid year intake of Nursing students, the unit is run in both semesters for internal students and via distance mode, and facilitated by country contracts in Kalgoorlie, Geraldton and Albany.

Human Biology 133

Students enrolled in Human Biology 1333 participate in two 2 hour learning session per week, and stay with the same group of 40-45 students and tutor all semester. The learning sessions contain tutor led information segments called infobytes, designed to be no longer than 20-30 minutes in duration if delivered in transmission mode. These are accompanied by small group activities which include practical work, group discussions, problem solving sessions and science dramas. Small group results or opinions are then shared with the rest of the class. Self directed investigations complete the work for each learning session, and may range from textbook summaries to accessing web based information to practical things student can try for themselves in their groups or alone. These investigations emphasise information retrieval, evaluation and summary skills, time management, and group process facilitation.

The "answers" to these investigations are not always provided. Although most of the material is picked up in subsequent sessions, and students are provided with web based guidelines at the end of each session, we emphasise that there is not always a correct answer for problems and the process is often as important as the end result.

Web based resources provide support for those student who may have missed a learning session through illness or other commitment, but students report back that their working groups provide real help for those who may have missed something in class. We emphasise the values of peer teaching for all participants in this arrangement.

Evaluation results

Formative evaluation was carried out during the trial implementation and refinements were made. Since the unit has been fully integrated, summative evaluatjon using the SEEQ instrument and a separate survey have been administered at the end of each semester. In addition, students in the following on unit, Human Biology 134, have been asked to reflect upon their HB133 experience using a simple questionnaire.

At the end of semester one, 1999, 615 students responded to the survey. Of these, 91% were full time students studying 4 or more units concurrently. These students represented 28 different professional or discipline areas across Curtin University although Nursing and the therapies made up half the total students enrolled. Our particular interest in this survey was the student's perception of fairness in relation to group assessment. Assessment for collaborative work comprises 22% of the semester mark. The majority (79%) of students felt that the marks allocation and distribution for collaborative work was fair, although some of the comments recorded the difficulties students had with groups which did not work effectively. Of the students who felt that the assessment for collaborative work was not fair, most comments showed a competitive streak, and felt that they were "dragged down" by the rest of the group.

At the end of semester two, 1999, 131 students responded to the survey. Of these, 85% were full time students studying 4 or more units concurrently. These students represented 18 different professional or discipline areas across Curtin University although Nursing made up 75% of the total students enrolled. Others were mainly repeating the unit after failing in first semester. The majority (84%) of students felt that the marks allocation and distribution for collaborative work was fair to all members of the group.

Other interesting results which came from the survey have been pooled and are shown in the table below. Responses for "strongly agree" have been added to "agree" and responses for "strongly disagree" have been added to "disagree". All questions had a no response rate of less than 1.5%.

Question /statement Agree %Neutral %Disagree %
After studying HB133 I feel confident about working without a tutor present 69.316.912.6
After studying HB133 I feel I have good study skills 56.227.415.2
I found working in groups difficult 14.318.466
I enjoyed the opportunity to be active in my learning 70.123.45.5
I feel I have had opportunities for self directed learning 80.116.62. 4
I found working in groups a valuable experience 75.216. 76.8
Most of my study technique was rote learning 45.733.518.7

Students were given the opportunity to make open ended comments on aspects of the unit they liked or found useful to their learning. Forty-eight percent of the responses mentioned aspects of the unit organisation which relate to group work, active or self directed learning. Less than 10% of the responses mentioned specific content detail of the syllabus.

Implications for implementation

Students

As the results show, not all student are prepared for the demands of the unit, and there may be various contributing factors. For some students, lack of maturity means they find it hard to deal with the distractions of less formal classroom situations, and a more self reliant regime. Man y of the students straight from school seem keen to defer their learning rather than deal with it immediately in class with their study group. Some of the mature age students are insecure and anxious about returning to study, and do not trust information from anyone other than an authority figure. They don't trust their learning ability and constantly want to check to see if they have the "lecturers version of the answer."

Tutors

The main issues for tutors include dealing with the demands of facilitating discussions and fielding questions for which they may not have an answer and with working with recalcitrant or passive students. However, the rewards are there for those tutors committed to facilitating deeper learning. Anecdotal evidence from tutors shows that students seem to be thinking and questioning things at a deeper level than was evident in the traditional approach to teaching this unit.

Support is provided to tutors by In Service Workshops held at the start of every year, where new tutors experience some of the activities they will be facilitating during the semester, and to hear some of the stories from experienced tutors. For some less experienced tutors, the in-service shows them they are not sufficiently professionally developed to cope with the demands and commitment required. During the semester, weekly team meetings of tutors, coordinators and technical support staff talk through the previous two sessions and review the next two. These weekly meetings also provide opportunities for diffusion of anxiety or frustration, and allows coordinators to keep track of borderline or disadvantaged students. "Old hands" do the earlier sessions in the week so that newer tutors can observe the class or talk through issues of concern prior to taking the learning session themselves.

Housekeeping

Housekeeping issues have provided their share of headaches during implementation. Finding suitable venues for informal classes of 45-50, for twenty-one different time slots each week has been difficult enough, but sometimes these venues must accommodate specialist material or equipment which restricts us further.

The arrangement of 2 two-hour matching timeslots on alternative days has been difficult to timetable for those professional areas which are locked into off campus days.

Because most of the students we deal with are new to university life, there are issues which they need to consider prior to commencement of the semester which are not relevant to more experienced students. It has been difficult, since changing the tuition pattern of the unit, to communicate with all students prior to their first learning session. We have tried introductory lectures bit, not only are they hard to timetable, but they emphasise a didactic style which we know is ineffective. Coordinators were inundated with questions from students who were unable to attend the lecture, or from those who were there but were unable to take all the information on board. For semester 1, 2000 we will be using a website to prepare students for the unit. The GetReady website will be accessed prior to their first learning session, and provides lots of information, advice form previous students and explanations of the way the unit will work for them.

Costs

Our first version of the unit was cost neutral, but only because the pay rate and time allocations for tutors were pared to the bone. Since then, pay scales and access time have been improved at an added cost to the servicing of this unit. However, this is balanced by increased retention rates and slight but very real increases in success of students enrolled in the unit.

Conclusions

Large intakes and multidisciplined groups do not preclude the use of alternative teaching and learning models being applied, and results of evaluations show that even first semester, first year students are receptive to opportunities for active learning. We hope that these students build sound learning and study skills which will carry them through to other units and on into their chosen careers.

Please cite as: Fyfe, G. (2000). Active learning for understanding in introductory Human Biology. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/fyfeg.html


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