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A biology instructor rethought her students’ role—and her own
By Jackie Amsden
In Megan Barker’s Fall 2019 BPK 408W course on cell physiology, students worked together on lab-based research projects to investigate questions they themselves defined.
It was a powerful combination of teamwork and agency that led to deeper understanding and the acquisition of essential skills.
It was also a carefully considered approach resulting from Barker’s reflection on how instructors can best promote student learning.
“We throw a lot of content at students in universities, but until they have the opportunity to integrate and apply it, they really don’t own any of it … I mean, what am I doing here if I can be replaced by a YouTube video?”
Teamwork through coffee
For Barker (lecturer, biological sciences) and course co-authors Damon Poburko (assistant professor, biomedical physiology and kinesiology (BPK)) and Nadine Wicks (lecturer, BPK), one of the important parts of teaching students how to turn knowledge into action is helping them learn how to work in a team.
“There are no longer any single-author papers. Science is about communities of people troubleshooting experiments and talking through the data. Students need to know how to contribute to a group process and support others to contribute.”
After dividing the class into groups of two or three, Barker fostered her students’ team management skills by providing them with “structured prompts” throughout the course.
“One of their first assignments was to go for coffee with their partner and talk about what is working great in their relationship and what they can do better to improve it. To me, it’s important to signal to them that group process is integral to their progress and that it takes work.”
Barker also cut out course content to allow for in-class project time, so that students wouldn’t feel overburdened by the additional time that collaborating with others can require.
Giving students the power
Ensuring that teams had the freedom to direct and own their own projects was also essential, notes Barker.
“I provided feedback to the groups at various stages in the process, but I had to be really careful that I stayed in a consultant role and not in a management one. As soon as I take over their experiment, I take their agency away, and then the team loses its purpose. For me, it’s more important that they are in control of the process than that they get perfect-quality data.”
Nasim Abrisham, one of Barker’s recent students, says the opportunity to take charge was exciting.
“Instead of having an instructor feeding us articles, we got to learn through a real-life setting that involved lots of hands-on learning—it was really fun.”
Adjustments to maintain instructor sanity
In addition to cutting back on content and allowing students the freedom to make decisions, Barker notes that one of the biggest shifts she made to accommodate the self-directed nature of the assignment was to build in lots of peer-to-peer feedback.
“In a lot of ways, this course is like running 48 directed studies all at once, which could make you go insane if you try to take on all the support yourself. Instead, my approach is to leverage the knowledge in the room by getting students to give each other project feedback.”
“MEGAN LET US HOLD THE REINS OF OUR PROJECTS, BUT WAS THERE TO GUIDE US, SO THAT WE STILL FELT SUPPORTED. I’M IN MY FOURTH YEAR, AND THIS WAS ONE OF MY TOP THREE COURSES OF ALL TIME.” – Irene Choi
Even so, Barker notes that she, her TA and a lab instructor spent a lot of time in the lab providing hands-on support during the two-week period allotted to the experimental portion of the students’ projects.
“It is much more work for me running the course this way, but I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t worth it.”