Toward Student-Centered Active Learning at Rice (SCAL@R)

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Title of Abstract: Toward Student-Centered Active Learning at Rice (SCAL@R)

Name of Author: Beth Beason-Abmayr
Author Company or Institution: Rice University
Author Title: Lecturer and Laboratory Coordinator
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Faculty Development, graduate students, High school, Introductory Course(s), postdoctoral fellows, Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.)
Keywords: SCALE-UP, clickers, flipped classroom, whiteboards, teamwork

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): David Caprette, Rice University Elizabeth Eich, Rice University Scott Solomon, Rice University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Our overall goal is to create a student-centered learning experience that gives biology students an intellectual framework and adaptable skill set, leading them to incorporate new knowledge as they advance in their studies and as information and technologies change. Toward this goal we developed SCAL@R, or Student-Centered Active Learning at Rice (, a teaching model that promotes active participation of students in the classroom. Modular lab courses offered by Biochemistry & Cell Biology (BCB) and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB), designed and implemented by Ph.D. teaching faculty, introduce and reinforce core concepts and competencies in biology as outlined in Vision and Change. We focus on fundamental skills, including communication, critical thinking, and teamwork. In this somewhat structured environment, our students collect and analyze their own data, may have an experiment fail, and often design follow-up experiments rather than conduct traditional experiments with predetermined outcomes. A logical next step for many students is to move from lab courses to independent research. We aim to maximize student interest in research while considering their majors and career trajectories. We continuously adjust content and examples illustrating key concepts and take advantage of new technologies. We are modifying traditional lecture courses to balance lectures with validated methods that promote active learning and de-emphasize memorization.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: In the fall 2011 semester two core lab courses in BCB were part of a SCALE-UP ( pilot program. We incorporated SCALE-UP and multiple active learning approaches into lecture components of Intermediate and Advanced Experimental Biosciences. SCALE-UP seating, in which several teams of 3-4 students discuss questions and solve problems at round tables (, promotes teamwork and improves communication and critical thinking skills during group activities that are interspersed with short lecture chunks. To make more effective use of class meetings students read online material and/or watch 3-5 min video clips on biochemical theory and equipment before class. This flipped classroom permits students to learn informational content before lecture, leaving valuable class time for active reinforcement of core concepts. We use clicker questions to promote collaboration and discussion and provide formative assessment and immediate feedback, confront common misconceptions, gauge student preparedness for class, and encourage students to predict experimental results. We have since incorporated similar strategies such as guided discussions, interactive demonstrations, and case studies into additional lecture and lab courses. In introductory biology students prepare to discuss assigned topics in small groups using readings, notes, and other resources. BCB and EEB students prepare for labs during class by working on problems together. Students in our advanced biochemistry lab can see the sizes and fittings of equipment during pre-lab lectures before having to use the equipment in a lab setting. In a new physiology course teams of students will draw conclusions and answer questions using data tables and figures from current primary literature.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Identical assignments and grading rubrics with an absolute grading scale (i.e., no curve) that are consistent among semesters have facilitated comparison of student performance before and after implementing new strategies in some of our courses. Using these methods we detected an increase in class averages in our core BCB labs after introducing new strategies. Higher attendance rates, increased class participation, better preparation, and higher pre-class quiz scores suggest that with these strategies our students are significantly more engaged in learning. Formal surveys administered by Rice IT to document student perceptions of course modifications during the fall 2011 semester suggest generally positive student attitudes. After the first meeting of the core labs students frequently comment on teamwork and a commitment to preparing for class. Student reflections often reveal increased confidence, a better understanding of the process of science, and a newfound desire to participate in independent research.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The initial SCALE-UP pilot in 2011 included two laboratory courses in one department with a combined enrollment of 135 students. This approach quickly expanded from the pilot to ~15 courses taught by at least 7 faculty in 4 departments, growing through word of mouth, seminars, video, and news articles. Hundreds of undergraduate students are impacted each semester. At faculty meetings we have presented active learning strategies that we learned at the National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education (SI) and invited faculty and administrators to observe our courses. In the summer of 2013 Rice will send its third team to an SI meeting and three faculty members will serve as facilitators at another meeting. We obtained funding for supplies, giving faculty and teaching assistants (TAs) access to whiteboards and clicker units. We train faculty in active learning methods and equip our Ph.D. graduates with active learning approaches that they can take to their future academic institutions.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Fixed classroom seating, raised stages, and poor acoustics that discourage two-way conversations promote an instructor-centered approach to teaching. SCALE-UP classrooms seat fewer students per square foot and conversion can be costly, presenting major barriers to implementing change. Our pilot program solved this problem by having Educational Technologies install technological enhancements in a college residential dining hall that already had the proper seating arrangement. We have since added two dedicated SCALE-UP classrooms and more classrooms in which tables can be moved to accommodate student-centered teaching approaches. To adopt a student-centered approach to teaching, new faculty often must develop all new materials to replace existing, traditional, lecture material. To avoid having to revert to traditional teaching methods when pressed for time, one might begin with a traditional course and gradually incorporate active learning, perhaps adopting proven strategies from internet sources or from senior teachers at the home institution. Active learning makes it challenging to deliver all of the essential informational content. We use a flipped classroom to help address this problem. Traditional student evaluations, which reflect student attitudes and perceptions, must not serve as the sole measurement instrument; however it has been difficult to identify assessment tools that effectively measure quality of teaching.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have presented active learning strategies to faculty in BCB and EEB, leading some to transition to SCAL@R. Our journal club on pedagogical innovation included faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. Informal chats with faculty have led to more student-centered approaches. We train TAs in active learning strategies and provide technology for use in their help sessions. A member of our group recently partnered with a nearby institution to provide active learning strategies to their doctoral and postdoctoral trainees. We also offer a professional development program for high school teachers ( We plan to develop online resources with examples of student-centered teaching activities. Future plans include more socially oriented activities such as coffee breaks or happy hours where faculty in the natural sciences can share ideas and resources. All of these activities fit well with a recent call from our administration for initiatives to improve student engagement in the classroom.

Acknowledgements: These departmental and institutional changes were made possible by strong support from the administration. In particular, the support and encouragement from our department chairs, our dean, and Educational Technologies proved essential. We would like to thank the following individuals at Rice University for their ongoing support: Janet Braam, Department Chair and Professor of Biochemistry & Cell Biology; Daniel Carson, Dean of Wiess School of Natural Sciences, Schlumberger Chair Adv Studies & Research, Professor of Biochemistry & Cell Biology; David del Pino, Instructional Technical Specialist II, Academic & Research Computing; John Hutchinson, Dean of Undergraduates, Professor of Chemistry; Gary Kidney, Director, Academic & Research Computing; Hector Pineda, Audiovisual Systems Technician, Academic & Research Computing; Jane Puthaaroon, Media Services Coordinator, Educational Technologies; Evan Siemann, Department Chair and Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology; Carlos Solis, Manager, Educational Technologies. We would also like to thank the students and faculty associated with Jones College for offering us the use of their residential dining hall to implement SCALE-UP approaches.