5 Engaging Students as Colleagues in the Learning Process | Margaret Bloch-Qazi

Teaching is about engaging individuals in a process of discovery in order to understand the world. Excellent teaching encompasses more than appropriate content and effective technique: it is about engaging individuals as colleagues in the learning process. Simply put, I make an effort to teach the individuals composing the class rather than a class as a whole. I see my classes as learning communities that differ based on the individual participants. While I state high expectations for student learning and performance, how we achieve the objectives can be modified to accommodate the individuals involved. I get to know my students as individuals; I listen to them, trust them, and am willing to be open with them (to a certain degree). It begins with learning my students’ names and interests. I work to incorporate these interests into class material and to acknowledge student-sources of expertise. These include research experiences students have had and even their hobbies. For example, when exploring the topic of insect flight, one student, a pilot, shared information about plane flight and we compared and contrasted insect wings to those of airplanes. I admit when I make a mistake and take responsibility for correcting the problem. I encourage students to take intellectual risks. I care deeply about my students and I continually strive to engage them in a discovery of the biology in order to help them develop as curious and critically thinking citizens of the world.

Biological Explorations. To engage students in a discovery of the biological world, I express my fascination with the small, squishy, and sexy aspects of life: invertebrates and reproduction. I both share and solicit unusual stories about common animals and the practices of unfamiliar animals. Together, my students and I observe living organisms both in the laboratory and in the field. We watch, listen, touch and sometimes taste to learn about the living world. Students in my First Term Seminar (FTS) Bugs, Sex and Rock-n-Roll (FTS 100-009) and Entomology (BIO 376) have reported that creating insect collections heightened their awareness of insects in general. I also introduce my students to the biological questions underlying my interest in these topics. To re-purpose a Gustavus Adolphus phrase, I am asking and encouraging students to ‘ask the big questions’ in the biological world. For example, “If an asexually reproducing arthropod can produce twice as many offspring as a sexually reproducing arthropod, why would any arthropod bother to reproduce sexually?”, “How do small animals experience their environment differently than us?”, and “Why alternate between haploid and diploid phases of a lifecycle?” I think these efforts are generally successful as several students note in their evaluations that they were initially not excited about taking either Bugs, Sex and Rock-n-Roll or Invertebrate Zoology (BIO 241), but developed an appreciation for the subject over the course of the semester.

Information Literacy. For students to learn to become independent learners, they need skills in information literacy. I work to help students develop skills in locating information and ‘decision rules’ to evaluate what they find. In all of my classes, students are asked to identify, locate and evaluate sources of relevant information. In introductory level classes we discuss differences between scholarly and popular sources of information as well as primary and secondary sources. These conversations (hopefully) also emphasize the essential nature of academic honesty as much of our understanding of phenomena rests on the word of others. At the advanced levels, students are expected to incorporate primary literature into reviews, reports and research proposals. Through tutorials and repeated use, students learn to use the library to identify sources of information in text and web formats.

Critical Thinking. Biology offers one way to interpret the living world. Rather than teach all of the observations/facts about a topic, I am working to emphasize the important questions and to use information (both new and from memory) to develop unique responses to these questions. This process requires the type of critical thinking that Nord defines as “not just a matter of applying the rules of logic (much less scientific method). It is a matter of thinking and feeling empathetically with others, of engaging one’s imagination, of having access to a wealth of facts about the possible effects of alternative actions, of discerning patterns of meaning in experience, of looking at the world from different perspectives”[1]. This definition acknowledges the value of deductive and inductive reasoning, but challenges us to go further and think divergently – creatively – to synthesize an understanding of the world. My students and I approach this through case studies, hypotheses that are tested in the laboratory, classroom activities and discussions.

I help students further develop their critical thinking skills in Invertebrate Zoology using a model proposed by Broadbear[2]. The semester is organized into five units each of which focuses on what are described as “ill-structured problems”. These are not carelessly-posed, but are complex questions with multiple appropriate responses such as: “Identify three unique biological characteristics of the protostome-deuterostome ancestor.” Students develop a response to the prompt in the form of a short research paper that follows a specified format. While they work on their papers, we explore relevant animal phyla in class and lab and discuss primary and secondary literature related to the unit topic. Students are responsible for incorporating information from additional scholarly sources as they develop their response to the prompt. Their responses undergo formative peer and instructor review and are revised before a final paper is turned in. Finally, students reflect on their process by evaluating their own performance on several criteria. They identify strengths and areas in need of strengthening and identify actions to improve their critical thinking skills. This informed ‘experiment’ to help students strengthen critical thinking skills is the basis of an ongoing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning project.

I do similar types of activities on a smaller scale to encourage critical thinking in my other classes. For example, in Bugs, Sex and Rock-n-Roll, we discuss whether there are any circumstances under which the insecticide DDT should be used and what governing (or other) bodies should make decisions regarding its use. To arrive at independent answers, students learn about malaria, mosquitoes, pest control strategies and risk assessment. We role-play to explore different perspectives on the subject (as representatives from Partners in Health, the World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Health Organization). In organizing material this way, students engage in a creative process requiring the use of accurate factual information to generate a novel answer. This type of problem-based approach to learning has been recommended, as it more closely resembles how experts approach intellectual challenges.[3]

Modeling Engaged Learning. For students to develop mastery in a subject area, it is useful for them to see mastery modeled. I serve as a model for my students by showing that not knowing/understanding is where learning begins, having high expectations for accuracy, and thinking carefully, critically and creatively about biological phenomena. I share my sense of wonder (not befuddlement) in the natural world. In Organismal Biology (BIO 102), I encourage students to ask questions about the course material. While some questions can be answered immediately, other questions such as “What happens when the wind gets knocked out of you?” or “Why are some people ticklish?” I cannot answer. I am open about not knowing the answer and may hypothesize or ask the students to hypothesize a response based on what we already have covered on the topic. I do this to intentionally demonstrate that learning begins with a question and that their curiosity is a valued part of learning. In providing an answer, I explain how I found the information to illustrate sources of accurate information and that it is important to evaluate sources of information[4]. In all of my classes, we discuss selected readings. In my 300-level courses [Developmental Biology (BIO 382) and Entomology], these discussions focus on primary literature. Rather then direct what they need to learn from a paper, I attempt to engage students in a discussion as a colleague. This approach is intended to both model how scientific colleagues interact and encourage the accurate assessment of a series of experiments. I ask questions to clarify or re-focus the conversation and I correct inaccurate information. Finally, I make efforts to bring other professionals into my classes. I have had Gustavus Adolphus alumni talk about their entomological jobs in Bugs, Sex and Rock-n-Roll and biologists discuss their research in Organismal Biology and Developmental Biology. I think this helps students see diverse models of biological careers and what skills they will need to develop as a professional.

Independent Research. Independent laboratory research is one of the most effective ways of helping people learn about biology. It allows students to experience the joy inherent in the scholarship of discovery and is credited as the experience that inspired many research scientists to pursue their careers[5]. Independent research develops all of the skills identified above: knowledge of content and conventions in biology, evaluating sources of information, critical analysis as well as the value of collaboration. I incorporate these experiences into all of my classes. For example, several laboratory exercises in Organismal Biology are designed such that students develop hypotheses and design experiments to test their ideas about biological phenomena. In Entomology, students write a research proposal to address an entomologically-related question of their choosing from an integrative perspective. Students in Developmental Biology design and conduct their own experiments presenting their findings in research posters at the end of the semester. In Directed Research (BIO 396), students engage in original research screening part of the Drosophila genome for chromosome regions associated with female sperm storage.[6]

I also invest heavily in out-of-class (extracurricular) research experiences. I have had 17 undergraduate collaborators during my five years at Gustavus Adolphus (their names are listed in my curriculum vitae). These students have made unique contributions to my research program in a variety of ways. We meet every week as a group to read books, discuss primary literature or present experimental results. As they learn about my experimental system, they develop ideas and engage in the scientific process by conducting experiments, applying for funding from the local Sigma Xi chapter (4 students to date), presenting their results in the local Sigma Xi research symposium as well as at a regional meeting (1 student, Isaac Weeks ‘09). Some students develop research questions that overlap with my research interests. These become senior honors theses. I have advised one student through a thesis and two more students have had their proposals approved by the department and will conduct the research this fall. Of note, a recently-accepted manuscript “Sick of Mating”[7] is from a student’s senior honor’s thesis (T. Miest ’07). I think this paper reflects a true collaboration between Tanner and me. Students participating in research in my lab have moved into productive scientific careers. Elizabeth Murray (’04) is a PhD candidate in the Entomology program at UC Riverside, one of the top entomology programs in the country. Tanner Miest is in the MD/PhD program at the Mayo Clinic. Their research experiences helped clarify their interests in scientific careers and provided them with skills and knowledge contributing to their being successful candidates to their respective programs.

Habits of Practice

In all of my classes, I work to provide an organized approach to learning stating clear learning goals that are addressed using a variety of approaches. I provide ‘road maps’ for learning by providing either lecture outlines with figures or the PowerPoint presentation itself for lectures, and questions for consideration on discussion topics. I watch the class and pace activities to keep them moving but not leave individuals behind. I am deliberate about using a variety of approaches (e.g. lecture, group work, case studies, discussion) to explore content and concepts. For example, students in Bugs, Sex and Rock-n-Roll learned about honeybee orientation to food sources in class. This was followed by a trip to the Arboretum where they were given a description of a specific queen bee waggle dance a compass, calculator and meter tape. They were responsible for working in groups to locate their nectar/pollen reward. In Organismal Biology before lecturing on phenology (developmental changes associated with the seasons), I ask students to spend three minutes writing how they know it is spring. We then explore what cues other organisms use to resume development, reproduce and migrate. During classes I regularly ask students questions to informally assess their understanding of material. I provide focused and prompt feedback. I generally make two or three major recommendations for improvement and I return work (whether formative or evaluative) within a week of having received it.

I continue to learn about my teaching and student learning by reading books, attending workshops[8], talking to colleagues and listening carefully to my students. I solicit feedback from students in the form of anonymous evaluations and informal conversations. I ask them what works and what challenges them. I make attempts to modify classes to meet student needs. I realize that there are many things I can do to become more effective and I am working to address these at a reasonable pace. For example, for several years, my evaluations in Organismal Biology contained comments that I was being too picky when grading. While I am still not clear to what extent this reflects introductory-level students adjusting to increased expectations, I still had a nagging feeling that somehow I was not effectively communicating my expectations for learning. This past year, I provided students with review sheets summarizing important vocabulary, concepts and practice questions. When I wrote my tests, I checked that the questions I posed related directly to content from the review sheet. At the end of the semester the average grade in the lecture portion of the class was approximately one percentage point (0.9%) higher than in the previous year, but students seemed less anxious and frustrated with the tests. I still think that my tests ask students to apply and evaluate concepts (i.e. I was not giving them the questions before the test) but the guides appear to help the students understand what my expectations are. In general, I try to identify three things to revise for a class each semester. I also hear that there are some experiences that students value such as the Entomology journal club and I work to keep these engaging and challenging.

Advising. My attention to students as individuals is also apparent out of the classroom in my commitment to student advising. I have a large number of advisees – 57 at the end of the 2007-2008 school year (I am responsible for this situation and am practicing saying ‘no’). My advisees fall into three subpopulations: current/former FTS students, biology majors with broad interests, and students with interests in veterinary medicine. I have individual meetings with most of these students twice a year. I advise them about academic and professional requirements, am available to serve as a sounding board as they explore vocational options, write letters of recommendation, and follow-up on students receiving academic awards and warnings. As the pre-vet advisor, I advise students about course requirements for admission to veterinary school and strategies to improve their probability of acceptance. I have organized visits from Scott Dee, D.V.M., PhD., a faculty member at the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine and Gustavus alum, taken students to visit Northern Plains Dairy, the largest commercial dairy in the area, and attended the American Veterinary Medical Association meeting in Minneapolis to meet admissions personnel and learn how to more effectively advise students. At the University of Minnesota’s veterinary medicine program, the median age of the entering class is close to 25 years (S. Dee, personal communication) and fewer than 10% of all applicants are accepted (although for regional applicants, the acceptance rate is approximately 27%: http://www.cvm.umn.edu/education/prospective/Profile.html). It is currently harder to get into a veterinary program than medical school. Of the six students who I am aware of have applied to vet school over the past five years, four have been accepted to veterinary programs and one plans to re-apply next year. The record of acceptance for Gustavus students would therefore suggest that they are well-advised.

In summary, I collaborate with my students to learn about the biological world. In doing so, both the students and I continue to develop our curiosity, compassion and critical consideration of the world.


[1] Nord WA. 1995. Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.

[2] Broadbear JT. 2003. Essential elements of lessons designed to promote critical thinking. The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 3(3): 1-8.

[3] National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn; Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Chapter 2, How experts differ from novices; p 31-50.

[4] Unfortunately, these interesting questions are rarely asked in subsequent years, so I never look particularly clever by knowing the answers the second time around!

[5] Reviewed in: National Research Council. 2003. Bio 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. Washington, DC: The National Academic Press.

[6] This was presented as a poster, “Engaging students in the scholarship of discovery using a Drosophila deficiency screen ”, at the Society for Developmental Biology annual meeting July, 2008.

[7] Bloch Qazi MC and Miest TS. Sick of mating: Sexual transmission of a pathogenic bacterium in Drosophila melanogaster. In press, FLY

[8] I have attended several conferences hosted by The Collaboration (Deep learning; Promoting student engagement & retention), a Pew workshop on quantitative literacy, Innovations in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning on liberal arts campuses, and sessions at national biological society meetings devoted to teaching.