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The elephant in the college classroom

Anil Kumar Challa, University of Alabama Birmingham

Most Indian undergraduate classrooms still follow the traditional lecture style with a focus on information gathering.  Attending classroom lectures, writing down ‘running’ notes, reading textbooks to reinforce the lecture notes, and preparing descriptive answers for questions (or going over commercially available text papers) constitutes the core of the learning process.  Assessment is predominantly through annual exams, which challenge students with questions requiring ‘short’ or ‘essay’ answers[i].  These aspects of the current undergraduate education highlight the importance of memorization and regurgitation; to those familiar with Blooms’ Taxonomy, the emphasis is on basic remembering of established knowledge.

This situation does seem to worry those who are serious about the quality of undergraduate science education.  Exposing students to research in national laboratories through established summer research programs like the ones organized by the three Science Academies in India is one ‘remedy’ that is routinely sought out.  Sometimes these efforts are towards creating research environments in the college setting (e.g. the upcoming ‘Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Research’[ii] programs initiated at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education in Mumbai).  In addition to the direct focus on students, there are regular ‘refresher’ courses to bring college teachers up to speed with the latest research findings and technologies, who in turn would take those experiences to their students.  Providing rich learning experiences through apprenticeship to at least a small group of motivated students and experienced teachers seems to be the main idea behind these initiatives.  Anecdotally, these efforts have had a positive impact on students, but a critical and careful assessment of their outcomes, along with potential modifications to the existing programs cannot be easily found.  (In contrast, several documented examples from the United States are available in the published literature; see Dirks, 2011 for further references).

There is a clear need and enough scope for documenting the impact of research experiences for undergraduates through small and large programs already established by various centers.  Concurrently, many issues in classroom teaching & learning across the nation also need to be seriously addressed and assessed at the grassroots level in order to raise the overall standards of undergraduate science education.  The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in specific areas of sciences, or Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER)[iii], is essential not only to strengthen the existing undergraduate education system but also to guide the future of tertiary education.  According to the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (IJSoTL) “SoTL is a key way to improve teaching effectiveness, student learning outcomes, and the continuous transformation of academic cultures and communities. …[C]ollege and university teaching is seen as a serious intellectual activity that can be evidence and outcome based.”

An upsurge of active research in discipline-based education began was pioneered in the late 1970s by Physics Education Research (PER) groups.  Subsequently, similar activity arose in Chemistry Education Research and Engineering Education Research.  Following the lead of PER, Biology Education Research (BER) began in the 1980s, and accelerated by the turn of the century; a nice and informative overview can be found in the work of Dirks (2011)[iv]. There is an enormous opportunity and great need to understand several issues of undergraduate biology education.  This is the elephant in our college classrooms![v]  India presents unique situations owing to its socio-cultural diversity.  Coordinated and collaborative BER studies done by teachers at undergraduate science colleges spread across the country[vi] can yield valuable information on current practices of teaching and learning.  For example, data about preparedness of students, predominating perceptions and misconceptions, attitudes and motivating factors to pursue biological sciences will help in assessing the effectiveness of current undergraduate programs.  Importantly, we can learn about hurdles faced by underperforming students and potential solutions; we can learn about valuable resources (both material and intellectual) that are already present, and about resources we can build as a community for the continued success of our undergraduate educational enterprise. 

Enthusiastic college biology teachers can easily find several online resources to take up biology education research.  Open-access journals like CBE-Life Sciences Education [vii] from the American Society for Cell Biology are great resources to learn about the kinds of effective studies teachers have already taken up.  Society for Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER)[viii], which formed in 2010, is an organization that can be a collaborator and a model for building a national or regional organization(s) to promote biology education research in India.  The key is to begin small and focused efforts at the classroom level by individual teachers.  Fortunately, education research does not demand expensive laboratory infrastructure, equipment, and reagents.  Constraints might arise because of inertia of the existing system and lack of immediate institutional support.  But a commitment to improve undergraduate education, an enthusiasm to take up teaching as a scientific pursuit[ix], and the motivation to share results of education research with the community will overcome those constraints.  This important work will also enable us to contribute to similar efforts in several other countries, creating rich learning environments for young people marching into the future.

[i] Several sample question papers can be found easily online for reference, some of which are official University-issued questions.  One online question paper resource suggests that “rigorous practice of these question papers work wonders in the real examination.”  http://education.latestt.com/questionpapers/paperlists.aspx?CatId=597&CatName=B.-Sc-Question-Papers; http://www.nagarjunauniversity.ac.in/ugsyllabus/1yearmpug.pdf

[iii] Susan R. Singer, Natalie R. Nielsen, and Heidi A. Schweingruber (2012) Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering.


[iv] Dirks, C (2011) The Current Status and Future Direction of Biology Education Research. http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bose/DBER_Dirks_October_Paper.pdf

I am happy to see this from Anil: this makes very important

I am happy to see this from Anil: this makes very important points about the mode of teaching and the significant e-resources which the students and teachers can make good use of. While we make use of the e-learning and other current audio-visual aids for teaching, we should manintain the traditional "chalk and board" mode also since I believe that this provides for a very good interaction in class, especially if the emphasis is on concepts rather than information. The laboratory exercies must be open-ended so that the students learn the method as well as the purpose. Some basic skill like measuring and weighing need to be developed through regular practice. Unofrtunately, these simple tasks are often forgotten in this age of "automation".

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