long-term goal is to implement the underlying theme of my teaching
philosophy, which is to help my students develop the conceptual
understanding and critical thinking skills they need to pursue
meaningful inquiries in neuroscience. My pedagogical experiences have
revealed distinct teaching philosophies between undergraduate and
graduate science education. I feel undergraduate science courses
primarily use lectures to communicate informative facts that are
regurgitated by students on exams. While effective in transmitting
information, I feel this teaching philosophy attenuates the learning
process and gives students the impression that knowledge is a static
collection of facts to be memorized. Conversely, knowledge is
perpetually evolving, utilizing established information to ascertain
new ideas and discoveries. The graduate school model is based on this
thought process behind the derivation of information. Discussion
formats combined with the traditional lecture format are typically used
in graduate science education.
of the major challenges of utilizing a lecture format is to communicate
a deeper understanding of the material. Students cannot achieve a level
of understanding by simple communication of facts. Students must grasp
core concepts and initiate their own views to incorporate knowledge.
Pedagogical literature suggests lectures are effective as any other
method for transmitting information (Lodish et al. 2004) and
progressing students along the knowledge and comprehension categories
of Bloom's Taxonomy. However, the use of lectures solely is
insufficient to advance students along the entire cognitive continuum.
Most lectures are not as effective as discussion methods to promote
thought. Compared with discussion methods, the students' role in a
lecture format is often passive. The essence of learning to think
requires practice; lectures do not generally incorporate this, nor do
they provide an opportunity for active expression and assessment of
thoughts (Bligh 2000). A current wave of reform in undergraduate
science education has prompted many instructors to move away from a
passive learning format in which the instructor attempts to convey
knowledge to students through lectures and note taking (Allen and
Tanner 2002). They are replacing this approach with ones that involve
active learning, such as Cooperative Learning Strategies (CLS). The use
of different methodologies to teach information addresses various
learning styles effectively, as well as maintains the attention levels
of students (Bligh 2000). By supplementing lectures with other teaching
methodologies, students are better able to fully grasp the material to
develop their own perspectives.
address this principle, I decided to conduct a pilot study on
investigating whether CLS complement the traditional lecture format to
facilitate student learning. My teaching plan was to use lectures to
effectively transmit informative facts combined with analytical
discourse to develop conceptual progression, essentially fusing the
most valuable aspects of undergraduate and graduate education. I am
exceptionally interested in whether group activities deepen students'
synthesis and critical analytical skills with respect to traditional
effective are CLS at facilitating student learning? Specifically, I
assessed the impact of small group collaboration on students'
conceptual understanding and self-confidence.Do Participant Perception Indicator (PPI) surveys accurately measure student confidence, experience, and knowledge?What effect do CLS have on students' responses to the post-test assessment, as well as the PPI ratings?Is there a correlation between student PPI responses and conceptual understanding of the material? Do CLS help students to synthesize and apply their knowledge?
Clint Carter invited me to give several neurophysiology lectures for an
undergraduate Biological Sciences course, Vertebrate Physiology, at
Vanderbilt University. Dr. Carter was very enthusiastic about
collaborating to design a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning project
within the Neurophysiology Module. The protocols described here were
approved by the Vanderbilt University Institutional Review Board.
coordinated with three other graduate students to teach the
Neurophysiology Module that spanned the first month of the course. The
class had 25 students and met three times per week for one hour. The
students were mostly upper classman with a major in Biology and/or
Pre-medicine. The student composition was advantageous for a study on
student learning. The course served as a requirement or preferred
elective for the students; therefore, the students' interest and
motivation was higher than an introductory undergraduate course.
study should be of interest to others who use a lecture environment in
their education techniques. Large lecture environments form the
foundation for transmitting information in most biological science
courses. Lectures allow the professor to teach the basic concepts of
knowledge that are important and necessary to initiate scholarly
practice in the field of interest. Ideally, teachers want students to
apply their knowledge to develop new concepts and perspectives. By
using CLS, teachers may deepen students' conceptual knowledge and
facilitate the progression of student learning from knowing to
overall goal was to determine whether CLS enhance the depth of student
learning and understanding. To assess my goal, I compared individual
student responses to answers derived from group activities. The data
collected was comprised of student assessments from problem sets and
exams, PPI surveys, as well as student feedback concerning teaching
strategies. PPI surveys assess students' personal views about how
knowledgeable, experienced, and confident they are in their responses.
The PPI responses were based on a numerical scale with 1 being lowest
and 5 being highest. A more in-depth reading of PPIs can be found in
the link below. As a secondary goal, I wanted to evaluate the
correlation between students' conceptual understanding of the material
and associated changes in PPI responses.
study spanned the full three weeks of the Neurophysiology Module, and
data was gathered over three class sessions spread throughout the
module. On the first day of class, a Baseline Assessment (see attachment below)
was administered to the students asking them two questions; one
question covered previous material from an introductory class and the
other asked about material from the upcoming course which the students
were not knowledgeable. Each question was accompanied by PPI surveys to
determine a baseline for student responses. I expected the PPI ratings
regarding previous material to be higher for all categories (knowledge,
experience, and confidence) than the PPI ratings regarding the question
the students were unfamiliar with.
to the limited number of class sessions I led (4), I needed to devise a
project plan that would incorporate lectures conducted by various
instructors. For two weeks, instructors used a traditional lecture
format to cover the material. After all the neurophysiology lectures
were completed, I gave the students a Pre-test Assessment (see attachment below)
to assess the effectiveness of the lecture format on student learning.
Each question in the Pre-test Assessment was accompanied by PPI
surveys. Students were instructed to work on the Pre-test Assessment
individually and to bring their individual responses to the following
class. During the next class, I utilized CLS to attempt to deepen
students' understanding of the material. I divided the class into small
groups for the first half of the class. Each group discussed their
individual responses to the Pre-test Assessment. I didn't specify how
long they should spend on each question. The structure was left to each
group's discretion. We reconvened for the second half of the class to
discuss answers as an entire group. After the CLS session, students
completed a Post-test Assessment (see attachment below) where
students were assessed on the same material as the Pre-test questions.
Again, students completed PPI surveys with each Post-test question.
I had students evaluate the CLS approach. The link to the student
evaluation form can be seen below. Baseline, Pre-test, and Post-test
Assessment questions can also be seen below.
Student Evaluation Form
Participant Perception Indicator Website
established a baseline for student PPI responses in the first class by
asking a question students were expected to know from previous courses
(Figure 1; Question 1) and asking another question that students were
unfamiliar with (Figure 1; Question 2). The PPI responses were based on
a numerical scale with 1 being lowest and 5 being highest. In Figure 1,
the Question 1 PPI average is significantly higher for knowledge,
experience, and confidence ratings than the Question 2 PPI averages.
This difference is also summarized in Figure 9. The baseline data
suggests students give higher PPI ratings to questions that assess
remainder of the analysis compared individual student responses before
the CLS session (Pre-test Assessment) to student responses after group
activities (Post-test Assessment). Similar to PPI responses, students'
grades were based on a numerical scale with 1 being lowest and 5 being
highest. Figures 2-4 show the average student grades for the Pre-test
and Post-test Assessments. For each question, the CLS increased the
grade average. The most personally rewarding aspect of this study was
that the CLS led to a substantial normalized gain (Figure 5),
suggesting the group activities enhanced students' conceptual
understanding of the material.
Figures 6-8 illustrate the PPI ratings increased in the Post-test
Assessment with respect to the Pre-test Assessment for each question.
The change in PPI rating is also summarized in Figure 9. Interestingly,
there was not a significant difference between the categories,
suggesting the students did not discriminate between knowledge,
experience, and confidence. Perhaps, this can be best explained if
confidence is defined as a function of knowledge and experience.
CLS increased both students' grades and PPI ratings. To further explore
this correlation, I plotted the change in PPI rating versus the
normalized gain (Figure 10). Students seemed to rate their experience
and confidence higher as their responses improved. However, students
did not perceive an increase in knowledge as their responses improved.
student evaluations were very positive regarding the CLS approach. All
but one student felt the group activities increased confidence. The
lone exception suggested the various views that arose from discussion
led to uncertainty in his/her answer. Most students agreed that
discussion with others uncovered aspects of their responses that they
had not thought of. A couple students stated that discussions are more
effective in maintaining their attention and participation, leading to
a better understanding of the material. Several students felt the CLS
required them to synthesize and apply knowledge from the entire
Neurophysiology Module. Moreover, students felt the CLS session
clarified certain aspects of the material and reinforced others. By
engaging and applying their knowledge, students were able to gain a
complete conceptual understanding of the material.
Resources and Obstacles
would like to thank the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching for their
guidance and organization of the Teaching Certificate Program.
Specifically, I would like to give special recognition to Derek Bruff,
Ph.D., Assistant Director of the CFT, and Susan Crisafulli, a former
Graduate Teaching Fellow of the CFT, for their advice and insights with
regard to the design, implementation, and analysis of this project.
I would like to think Dr. Clint Carter, Vanderbilt University Professor
of Biological Sciences, for giving me the opportunity to conduct this
study in the context of his course. Moreover, Dr. Carter was extremely
helpful in designing and implementing this project.
had a couple obstacles in conducting this study. First, the course was
team-taught so I was extremely limited on the number of classes I led.
I feel that this problem was circumvented very well by incorporating
the lectures of the entire Neurophysiology Module. Secondly, I did not
have full control of the course, so it was difficult to design a study
within the context of the course. Hopefully, in the future, I will be
able to design a more complete study involving CLS.
statistical analyses assessing PPI ratings and student responses
suggested CLS supplement traditional lectures very effectively to
enhance student learning. The student evaluations also reflect the
self-perceived gain in confidence and understanding of the material,
supporting a further use of a CLS approach in my teaching practices.
However, I would like to conduct a more long-term Scholarship of
Teaching and Learning assessing CLS and the value of PPI surveys.
study will be extremely informative for my future evaluation of CLS. I
will change several aspects of this study. For instance, I will
structure the small group discussions so that there is equal time for
each question. In addition, a reliable control group will be essential.
I will have half of the students use CLS, while the other half will
only be taught by lecture-based approaches. This will allow for a
direct analysis of the benefit of CLS within the same student
1. Allen, D. and K. Tanner (2002). "Approaches to cell biology teaching: questions about questions." Cell Biol Educ 1(3): 63-7.
2. Bligh, D. A. (2000). What's the use of lectures? San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Lodish, H. F., R. K. Rodriguez and D. J. Klionsky (2004). "Points of
view: lectures: can't learn with them, can't learn without them." Cell
Biol Educ 3(4): 202-11.
This page was designed as part of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching's Teaching Certificate program.
Author: Brandon Lute
Last Updated: October 29, 2007