Redefining ecology classes: Transitioning from lecture to discussion
“Traditional” lecture courses in which instructors lecture students for one to two hours and in which there is no active discourse have proven to be ineffective for student’s long-term retention of what they have learned. With fields such as ecology, with strong theoretical and practical components, there is a compelling need for the incorporation of active learning and engaged discussion. Instructors are often interested in new teaching pedagogies, but hesitant about this transition. Facilitating discourse in large-enrollment undergraduate courses presents a challenging task. To improve learning outcomes of undergraduate students, our objective was to explore the best methods by which instructors can engage participants in discussion and practice with the integration of evidence-based active learning experiences.
Before including active learning activities within the classroom, instructors must carefully consider desired outcomes and goals for student learning, the use of low stakes assessments, and planning evidence-based experiences and instruction, all based on the theories and researched practices of how students learn. The following activities can be effectively applied in ecology courses: engagement in hands-on investigation in small groups; discussion about sense-making strategies employed to make sense of investigation; self-assessment of current course pedagogy within context of evidence-based practices to support student learning; and application of evidence-based strategies. These suggestions provide a process to support undergraduate learning, retention of knowledge, and increase student’s intrinsic motivation to engage in STEM lecture courses. These methodologies have been developed and are available as faculty course, stemming from a NSF-funded WIDER project, Faculty Learning Program, which aims at improving learning outcomes of undergraduate students in STEM through a focus on faculty professional learning. Two cohorts of faculty have participated in this program and have responded that incorporation of active learning activities and pedagogy in their courses has remarkably improved their teaching and courses, and has improved their students’ retention of knowledge.