Teaching and Learning: Q & A
Imagine learning without lectures, mastering material without exams, and best of all, enjoying it! Dan Klionsky's innovative approach transforms teaching and learning as he explains below.
In LSI Professor Daniel Klionsky's Introduction to Biology course, the only required readings are concise lecture notes, only two to four pages for each class! "Active Learning" is creating a revolution at the University and beyond. Faculty in the Life Sciences Institute, LSA, and the medical school are waving the flag of the "Klionsky method" and adopting his techniques.
In 2003 Klionsky was named a National Science Foundation Distinguished Teaching Scholar and awarded $305,000 to improve teaching throughout the university. He's written several articles about teaching and presented seminars throughout the country.
What is happening with teaching today?
Imagine there was a time machine, and you were thrown forward from the year 1900. If you were a doctor or a dentist, you would see some major differences in how your profession was carried out. On the other hand, if you were put into a classroom, you would have a pretty hard time telling that there was a difference. We're using a method of teaching that predates the invention of the printing press, when there was no simple way to transmit information other than by word of mouth.
What led to the development of your innovative teaching methods?
I used to teach using a standard lecture format because that was the only method I had and it was the only method my colleagues were using. But for most people it is extremely ineffective to learn by simply listening to lectures. We professors learned by this method, and so we think it's great! Worked for me! But it doesn't work for at least 80 percent of the student population.
So why did you change?
I wondered why students didn't seem to remember or know basic information that we had covered. For example, in office hours students would say, "I don't understand this problem," so I would go over the material with them, and they would nod along, understanding what I was saying, but not really learning the material.
What was your plan?
First, I wanted to get the students to learn to study, and I wanted to get away from lecturing. It is really a simple idea: To force the students to come to class prepared and to make them begin to take responsibility for learning.
So I chose one topic, one lecture to try some active learning. I prepared quizzes and gave them notes that they had to read. I planned to get the students to interact. I asked them individually to come up with a list of carbohydrates in their everyday lives; I asked them to turn to a neighbor and share their lists. Then I said, "Please raise your hand if the two of you had more items than you did individually." And virtually every hand went up. So I said, "Let's do our first problem." And here's the moment of truth. I put a problem up and said, "Now, form your groups and discuss this problem." Instantly the students turned to each other, they formed groups and there's this buzz that goes up in the classroom. "Okay, now I need to hear a group's answer to this problem." There was no hesitation whatsoever. And I have to say, that's been my experience every time.
Is it true you don't use a text book?
The text is completely optional in my course. I use the notes that I developed over the past ten years. They are not outlines, but essentially how I would speak if I was lecturing. They might only be two to four pages for a two-hour session. To ensure that they did that reading, though, I instituted the reading quiz.
They students have the quizzes first thing, which comprise half of the grade. So they have to take it seriously, and they do. Each one is only a ten-point quiz, which removes a lot of stress. The students really have tremendous stress about midterms and finals. Also it makes them keep up; they have to read these notes every time.
I look at the quizzes immediately and if a large proportion of the class has missed a particular question, I will go over that material before I go through the next day's lesson.
Imagine a class that is based on a true realization of where the students are, versus most classes, which simply say today we're going go to over the following subject, I don't know whether you learned the previous material or not, we're simply going on.
How have students reacted?
I've had very positive feedback from the students suggesting that this approach is the best they've ever experienced. I had a student say, "Because of your methods, I know how to answer problems." The important point is not to learn what's the right answer, but how did you get there? I want them to learn how to think, how to find facts that they need and how to put them together into understanding material.
What do you hope to achieve with the grant?
The goal was to move all of the Introductory Biology towards completely active learning. Now I am disseminating the information through papers, talks and developing the Active Learning Workshops I've been leading here at UM and at other seminars and conferences.
What are your hopes for the future of teaching?
I'm excited by the fact that people here at the University of Michigan are starting to do the things I'm doing. I think the new faculty members are going to be using this approach a lot. So I have this dream that at least here over time, it will be like this ripple spreading out, and that more and more faculty will start to use this approach. And of course each time a class is taught through this method, that's 40 to 400 or more students who are exposed to that approach, who hopefully down the line in years to come, when they become teachers, will remember there's a different way to do this.
Bio162 "Introductory Biology - Active Learning" will be offered again Fall '05.
Klionsky, D.J 2004. Lectures: Can't Learn with Them, Can't Learn without Them," Cell Biology Education, Vol. 3, 204-211.
Klionsky, D.J. 2003. Why the scientific method matters: A cautionary tale. Teach. Prof., 17: 4.
Klionsky, D.J. 2001/2002. Constructing knowledge in the lecture hall. J. Coll. Sci. Teach., 31: 246-251.
Klionsky, D.J., and J.J. Tomashek. 1999. An interactive exercise to learn eukaryotic cell structure and organelle function. Amer. Biol. Teacher, 61: 539-542.
Klionsky, D.J. 1999. Tips for using questions in large classes. The Teaching Professor, 13: 1,3.
Klionsky, D.J. 1998. A cooperative learning approach to teaching introductory biology. J. Coll. Sci. Teach., 27: 334-338.