DidacBiol

Annie Champagne Queloz, PhD. ETH Zürich

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At ETH Zürich, teaching biology matters!

Recently, the Department of Biology at ETH Zürich, in Switzerland, has introduced new forms of teaching such flipped classroom. It aims to encourage students to become more involved in their learning (see the article here).

Changes

“Deblocking” teaching in well-established universities!

Traditional educational practices 

It is often difficult to initiate educational reforms in prestigious or top-ranked universities (this idea of top-ranked universities is quite debatable… Article 1. Article 2. Article 3). It requires commitment and some humility to recognize the limits of a system and the need to change it. Usually, traditional educational practices are strongly anchored into well-establish universities. Traditional teaching refers to a lecturer who is the main actor involved into the transfer of knowledge. In this context, students have a passive role by absorbing knowledge. Common assessments are usually constructed to measure abilities of students to memorize large amount of knowledge and to distinguish/describe “the right” and the “false” statements. The principal exchange between the lecturer and the students is normally during informal oral questions sessions during or at the end of the lecture. Most of the time, only few students are willing to share their questioning or comments. In addition, the room to discuss in class is often restricted, dominated by the time requires to teach the content.

At ETH Zürich, some professors were unsatisfied with such traditional approach. They have realized that, even if students are learning something, they don’t demonstrate any ability to discuss or to develop critical thinking. Such competencies are fundamental to develop a better scientific literacy. In addition, many students interpret wrongly what we tend to teach them by demonstrating important misconceptions (read here our article about this subject). Those misconceptions are often immutable when not addressed and not revealed by common assessments.

Flipped Classroom

A flipped classroom consists for students to get acquainted with the subject of the lecture before to come in class through self-study using interactive learning exercises with texts and videos available via a learning platform. Then, students are coming in class and the lecturer introduces briefly the subject. After this short introduction, students are working in small teams to do some learning activities and discuss between them, with the lecturer and the teaching assistants. Developing such educational approach takes considerably a lot of time to prepare and update the material and a workforce to assist students in large-enrolled groups during discussion sessions.

A survey done at the end of every semester reveals that ETHZ students are highly happy with this approach. In addition, according to the lecturers, the teaching assistant and the students, the discussions immediately reveal some weak understanding, offering the possibility of the lecturer to readjust his teaching quickly. Consequently, students develop a better conceptual understanding.

Center for Active Learning (CAL)

The Department of Biology has founded the Center for Active Learning (CAL). The team is offering counselling and development services for the department’s lecturers. They collaborate with the department of Educational Development and Technology at ETH Zürich to improve the learning platform.

Educational Tasks of Universities

Prestigious or top-ranked universities should remain at the forefront of the key improvements in education, not only in research activities. The main role of universities is the formation of future professionals or researchers having knowledge, of course, but also demonstrating conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Traditional education doesn’t accord to measure such competencies. Obviously, this suggests that authorities must therefore show a certain open mind for changes. Challenging a well-establish system demands engagements, the conviction that changes are needed, but, principally, some humbleness to recognize that we can do better.

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