Problem-Solving Practice, Analysis of Real World Issues Boost Performance

STEM in Your Classroom

Teaching For Meaningful Learning

It’s time to stop the class lectures. Instructional methods that emphasize daily and weekly practice at problem-solving and real-world analysis boost college students’ performance in introductory biology classes, especially among those from poor backgrounds who may struggle in comparable courses, researchers report in the June 3 Science.

Years before the college level learner receives a boost in their performance, we can witness the success of problem-solving methods, taking it down to a middle school age level of meaningful learning. Thanks to partnerships with the Center for Advancement in STEM Education and the Department of Defense (NDEP), our middle school campus progressively moves forward as a problem-solving learning environment.

“Two paragraphs into my lecture I could see them disengage,” said my STEM engineer partner reflecting on a recent visit to our discovery-based science lab. He quickly did his own problem-solving and re-engaged their curiosity, moving into the building phase of their own spectroscope to explore light diffraction. The room was energized by the students’ interest in building and playing with the tool. He was a success and they asked him to come back. That’s always a good sign from a tough audience.

I remember the engineer partner reflecting at the end of that set of class periods, “I wish we had more time for the exploring and playing part.” I agreed. All too often the 43 minutes in class come at a fast pace towards the next bell when the students are into a good discovery unit. My goal is to have only good discovery units. Each year, we get closer to that goal.

I see the most meaningful learning happen when the unit of discovery is structured enough to guide them towards a target topic, but flexible in that their own questions energize two things: personal interest and higher quality reflective lab reports. They work in teams and share data from their labs.

A highly structured course design that included: peer instruction and peer-graded practice exams, but no instructor lectures, generally yielded a better grasp of biology and higher grades for all students, relative to courses grounded in lectures and small-group exercises, say biologist David Haak of the University Washington in Seattle and his colleagues. (Source:Bruce Bower)

I have had feedback from my students who moved on to Pre-IB Biology who shared, “I am so glad I had your course. I would have been lost in the genetics and heredity section without that base.” It’s far from perfect, but keeping tuned into the needs of how learning and understanding occur in those marvelous minds, I know I want to steer a path towards what needs to be meaningful learning. I love to engage those who did not have a strong interest in science; they therefore empower themselves to succeed either as students of science or simply smart consumers of technology.


  • Teaching: D. Haak et al. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, Vol. 332, June 3, 2011, p. 1213. doi: 10.1126/science.1204820

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