August 16, 2017

Encouraging trial and error: A biology professor’s strategy for teaching her students how to evaluate evidence and think critically

Through a discussion with faculty colleagues at a Teaching Matters session, Sherryl Bisgrove (Biological Sciences) grew interested in the idea of giving students the freedom to learn by making mistakes. Her students were excited to move beyond "just memoriz[ing] facts."

Sherryl Bisgrove, an associate professor of biology, faced a challenge familiar to many instructors: students with a limited interest in the course content and underdeveloped skills for dealing with the material. She made the course meaningful and memorable for at least some students by emphasizing critical thinking and adopting an approach that encouraged trial-and-error. Here she describes her experience.

I regularly teach a third-year developmental biology course that has a reputation amongst our undergraduates for its level of difficulty. When I first started teaching this course its reputation took me by surprise, mostly because the same course was my all-time favourite when I was an undergraduate. I have very clear memories of how my excitement for the topic motivated me as a student, so I spent quite a bit of time thinking of ways that I could garner the same level of interest and excitement amongst my students.

Can you generate enthusiasm?

One problem was that the course is required for graduation with a B.Sc. in biology, which means that many students, particularly those who are more interested in ecology, feel that they are forced to take a really hard course on a topic that is outside of their main area of interest. So I devoted a lot of lecture time to trying to convince the students how fascinating developmental biology is and how the material they’re learning underlies many aspects of the biological sciences, including ecology.

This approach had only limited success. There were a few motivated students who, like me, had an inherent interest in the material and were easy to engage. But many still complained about the level of difficulty, and their evaluations of the course were mediocre. It was clear there was something else that I needed to do.

Struggles with critical thinking

Another facet of the course that was troubling for many students was the use of evidence-based critical thinking skills. Interpretations made from experimental outcomes underlie most of our discussions about the processes and mechanisms that control development in different organisms. When I explained these experiments, their outcomes, and the interpretations that scientists made from them, the students were very good at learning exactly what I told them. But they really struggled when I asked them to make their own interpretations from outcomes that were slightly different than the ones we covered in lecture.

In a Teaching Matters discussion with faculty peers, we had discussed an article that described how learning was really a process of trial-and-error and that students learned best when they were allowed to fail and try again. I decided to implement something that would facilitate this kind of learning in my developmental biology course.

Teaching, and practicing, a better approach to learning

I did three things. First, I told the students over and over again that I thought the most difficult and most important part of the course was learning how to evaluate evidence. And I explained why learning how to do this was probably the most important thing they could learn at university—that this would be a skill they could apply throughout their lives no matter what they ended up doing.

The second thing I did was to provide an environment that allowed students to learn from their mistakes without being unduly penalized in terms of their grade. I told them about the “trial-and-error” theory of learning and that I wasn’t going to penalize them for doing what they were supposed to do when they learned something new and difficult. I also told them that I expected them to do poorly on their first exam and that I would not penalize them for this. Their final grade would be based on what I thought they had learned by the end of the course, not on how much they knew near the beginning (i.e., the final exam would be weighted more heavily than the rest if they scored higher on this exam than the others).

The third thing I did was to give students some extra time outside of the exam setting to adequately reflect on the more difficult exam questions. A couple of days before each exam I handed out a long list of possible “hard” exam questions from which I chose a subset to be answered during the exam period. This strategy greatly reduced complaints from students about not having enough time to think about the harder questions, especially for exams scheduled during a 50-minute class.

What students said about the class

The results of Sherryl Bisgrove’s modified teaching strategy were evident in the comments she received on student course evaluations. Below are some excerpts.

  • “Sherryl is a great instructor, very passionate and committed to her students getting the most out of her class. This class really had us think about what we were learning, rather than just memorize facts … I’m so glad I had this notoriously difficult class with Sherryl as an instructor.”
  • “Dr. Bisgrove is very passionate about developmental biology and is very encouraging to students. Some exam questions were quite difficult and required some additional thinking, but the practice questions given ahead of time were helpful.”
  • “Sherryl is a very approachable professor who cares about students learning. She encouraged questions in class frequently. I like that she focused on teaching us analytical skills rather than had us memorise material for exams.”
  • “Topics discussed in class were quite heavy, but Dr. Bisgrove was able to keep me engaged during lecture. She definitely provided opportunities for us to think critically and analyze data from various experiments during lecture—which came [in] very handy when it came to exam time.”
  • “Very difficult course but Sherryl tried to explain concepts clearly and would often spend extra time on concepts which were hard to grasp. Midterms were fair and allowed for critical thinking rather than memorization.”

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