How Liz Ryder uses active learning on the first day of “Exploring Bioinformatics”

Filed in engaging students in class, first day of class by on October 14, 2016 0 Comments

Ryder_formal_161x160BCB 100X / BB 100X Exploring Bioinformatics and Computational Biology meets twice a week for 2 hours each session.  It has a mixed population of about 30 students.  Some are BCB freshmen, who are taking the class for their major, and tend to have recent high school biology background and little computer science background.  The rest are mainly junior and senior engineering and computer science students, who are taking the class for their science requirement, have little biology background, and much more computer science background.

On the first day, I plan to use Poll Everywhere to ask the students about their background – do they consider themselves to have strengths in biology, CS, both, or neither?  I’ll also ask them for some other information I am interested in, for future reference.  This information gathering could also be done with index cards – Poll Everywhere is just quicker and more fun, and the information will be stored.  I know from last year (and from looking at the class list) that those with biology knowledge will be in shorter supply than those with CS knowledge, so I will have those with biology strength count off, and form groups with them at the core.  I’ll ask the groups to sit together for the rest of the class.

I plan to give a ‘mini-lecture’ of about 15 minutes on each of two topics, and have groups follow up each mini-lecture with a 10 minute exercise / tutorial on that topic. One topic will require biology knowledge, the other computer science knowledge.  I will circulate among groups as they are working, in order to help and to see common problems that are arising.  After each exercise, we’ll follow up with a brief class discussion, to make sure everyone has a correct answer (there may be more than one), and to go over common misconceptions.  The problem set for this week will expand upon the activities we do in class.

Advantages of this approach, compared with lecturing for the whole class on the same topics:

1) Students see that they need each other to approach this interdisciplinary subject.

2) Students are introduced to some of their peers with opposite strengths on the first day of class.

3) Students get to make sure they understand the basics in class, so they will have a head start on their subsequent problem sets.

4) I get to see common problems, and help get students on the right track, so they won’t spin their wheels as much later when they are doing their problem set at home.

5) I find that students retain  information and concepts much better if they have struggled a bit in class, rather than just having me say, ‘Here are some common misconceptions, and here are the right answers’.


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