Teaching without lecturing: Exploded discussion in Class 3

IMG_7967   In discussion session on Friday the students told the TA, Omar, they wanted me to explain some of the questions that they did not understand. So I agreed and offered them one of two lectures. Either they could hear my normal first lecture on behavior, or they could hear a more general one that also talked about my research. I told them it was important to know what I did. I also told them that both lectures would get at broad concepts useful for the upcoming test. They chose to hear the lecture on my research, which is a version of this one from Distinctive Voices. Actually, it looks like there are a lot of other cool talks there, like the one on stereotype threat.IMG_7980

But first, we went over the study questions. They worked with their six person groups, putting the questions that baffled them up on white sheets of paper that hang around this odd room. After awhile I pointed out that no one was answering the questions and that they better do so. I reminded them that I did not grade on the curve, so they could all do well. Slowly they got up and started circulating, reading the questions and sometimes answering them.

Quickly there was a marvelous vortex around the posters with lots of vigorous discussions as the students looked at the questions and answers. They started to copy stuff down also. I pointed out that understanding was more important than copying and anyway I would post photos of all the sheets for them. Soon all the students were milling about and there was so much attention to the posters. I walked around writing my own opinions and developed a bit of a following as they queried my answers. Why runts? Why do mammals and not birds have runts? Why would a mother rear fewer babies than she could? Why mate with the male in the center of the lek? At the ESS, who does better, hawks or doves? And so on.IMG_7968

There was only a half hour left for my nice lecture. Did they want to hear it? Seemingly no one did. This conversation seemed more important for understanding. One student told me she was humiliated to see that after an answer she had written, I had simply written “NO.” I  pointed out that I didn’t know who she was, and if we weren’t all prepared to be wrong, we could never learn. She agreed and said that was one answer she would never forget.

Now if on test day they can just show me that they haven’t only learned these questions, they also know how to think about the topic. Then maybe I’ll treat them to a lecture, told in story form, of course.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in behavioral ecology, Teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Teaching without lecturing: Exploded discussion in Class 3

  1. Duncan Mackay says:

    Test day. I’m curious about that! I’m enthusiastic about implementing the approach you’ve exemplified so nicely here, but I’m a little leery about how I would fairly grade individual students, particularly in large (ca. >80) classes.

  2. Laura M. Walker says:

    Thanks Joan, I really appreciate your reply to the student, “…if we weren’t all prepared to be wrong, we could never learn.” That is so simple and so true. Also, thanks for linking to the Distinctive Voices lecture series. I’m always looking for good science lectures & podcasts. – Laura M.W.

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