Liz Ryder’s Use of Think-Pair-Share in Neurobiology

Filed in engaging students in class, first day of class by on January 17, 2016 0 Comments

Ryder_formal_161x160I use Think-Pair-Share (TPS) whenever I want students to think actively rather than simply receiving information passively.   When I’m presenting something in class, I’ll often ask the class a question rather than simply making a statement, but we all know that this usually only generates responses from a small group of students.  So instead of asking for an immediate response, I’ll ask the question, either writing it on the board or displaying it on a PowerPoint slide, so that it is there for students’ reference.  Then I’ll ask the students to take a moment to write down a response, and then discuss their response with a neighbor.  I then ask students to share their thoughts with the class.  This nearly always results in many more students contributing to the discussion.

Can you share some specific examples of how you incorporate TPS into a class period?

In Neurobiology (a 3000-level class of about 50 students), I start off the class the first day by discussing the sense of smell (olfaction). I like to use this as an example of how the nervous system works, because most students have not thought about smell before, whereas some may have previous knowledge of vision or hearing, for example.  I’ll start off with a TPS question like, ‘How do we recognize and distinguish odors?’  Typically at least some students will come up with an answer that includes the idea that we must have some kind of receptor system that recognizes different chemical cues in the air.  Then I’ll show the students a bit more about the structure of the olfactory system, and ask a TPS question like ‘How do you think the receptors might be distributed on these sensory neurons?’  Typically, different students will come up with different thoughts, which I can help them to turn into different hypotheses – maybe a) Each sensory neuron has a different type of receptor; or b) Each sensory neuron has some limited combination of receptors; or c) Every neuron has all possible receptors.  Then we can talk about how each of these hypotheses might work to allow the nervous system to distinguish odors, and I can ask them the TPS question ‘What kind of experimental evidence would you need to distinguish these hypotheses?’ The really cool thing is that oftentimes, there are things that aren’t yet known about how a system works, and the students will end up asking what could be real research questions.

The end result is that instead of just hearing me talk about what is known about olfaction, and memorizing it to spit back on a test, they have thought deeply about how a sensory system might work, in the process learning something about how scientists actually pose hypotheses and make discoveries.

What challenges did you face when you first tried this in class, and what have you learned along the way?

It is harder to do this than to stand and talk, because students may come up with unexpected ideas. Sometimes these can get far away from where you are trying to go.  What I’ll often do is just write down all the responses, without passing any judgment on any of them.  When I have a list of 5 or 6 responses, I can focus on the ones that are most relevant, and lead the discussion in that direction.  Many times, the ‘wrong’ responses are also useful, because they show me misconceptions students have about a topic.  Sometimes, I can get one student to explain to another why their thought doesn’t make sense.  Although this is harder than standing and lecturing, it is much more fun!  And the content that you prepare for the class is the same as for a lecture; you are just presenting it differently.

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