Evidence indicates desire for change in undergraduate learning techniques

As an undergraduate psychology major, I had a mandatory course—Biological Basis of Behavior. Previously, I had taken a neurobiology course as an elective and absolutely loved it, so I was looking forward to this course. Unfortunately, the professor teaching the mandatory course never interacted with the students, only used recorded lectures from a professor at NYU or TED talks, and just showed up to give us our quiz and exam grades. I didn’t have a choice, I had to take the course, but it was terrible, and quite obvious that the instructor had no interest in the material or the students.

Credit: One Room School (University of Nebraska, Kearney).

I wondered why he phoned it in. Is he publishing his own work and doesn’t have time? Has he taught this for 50 years, and he’s just done? Does the university have such tight parameters on their staff? To answer questions like these, researchers are currently studying ways to improve undergraduate teaching by examining current pedagogical practices, discussing classroom planning, and projecting forward with the effects of wide-scale changes.

Course Planning

Why do some educators only present lectures, while others use interactive visual components, student interaction, etc., in the classroom? What makes some educators reticent to change? The answer could lie not with the educators but with those at the institution with the ability to enact change.  Empirical evidence reveals that altering the format of a course to include more student-focused and active learning in the classroom results in the improved successes of both educators and students. A 2018 study by Jana Bouwma-Gearhart conducted at three research-based universities indicated that educators planned their courses using several factors including when to use lecturing and how to incorporate active learning into the lower-level course. The issue that stood out was that the educators meant to do what they did. They planned their classes and worked within the parameters they were given. Educators were not asked for opinions about the curriculum, and if the educators did offer recommendations for change, it was usually not heeded by the institution.

“Educators and their advocates should insist on improvement initiatives that build from these realities,” Bouwma-Gearhart wrote in her paper. “Proponents of teaching improvements that do not acknowledge disciplinary concerns should be challenged. Educators should push back on any initiatives, or related narratives, built on inaccurate assumptions regarding their intentions.”

Global Change

Most change in protocol is done by observing a few instructors at a university and then making changes in the classroom. Sometimes ideas for change are discussed during a break with their colleagues. However, to make a change in teaching on a larger scale, a 2017 study by Melinda T. Owens at San Francisco State University researched policy changes across the entire department. A program called Biology FEST (Faculty Explorations in Science Teaching) introduced educators across the department (39 tenure-track or tenured faculty and 23 faculty members) to scientific teaching over a three-year period. Educators were given chances to communicate with their colleagues and to share experiences about the changes in programs, view videos of themselves teaching, and, most importantly, raise concerns about the need for change in existing programs to the Dean, Provost, and other change agents. The results were overwhelmingly positive, both in student surveys and educator surveys. Another point to note is that the participating educators did not report negative effects on the time spent on their research, which, to some of the teachers, was of particular concern (Miller et al., 2000; Hanson and Moser, 2003; Pundak and Rozner, 2008).

Fears and Concerns

What are some of the other fears and concerns faculty raised? Many educators have concerns about incorporating more student-involved or active learning into their curriculum. Participating in a study to analyze teaching behaviors also causes concerns because educators fear disciplinary action from their institution, no support from their colleagues, or if they are on a tenured faculty track, the inability to dedicate time to their research.

As demonstrated in the previously mentioned study by Owens, fears about research opportunity were relatively assuaged. In addition, teaching is often considered to be somewhat of a failure among graduate students, where the culture of the discipline is often “publish or perish.” The evidence presented in a study by Daniel Grunspan uses the model of a cultural evolutionary theory. The possibility of long-term change on a departmental scale as the end goal has a better chance of taking hold as the variants become the norm.

“By this definition, culture is information, and this information can influence behaviors, beliefs, and use of technology,“ Grunspan states. “Because people learn this information from one another, their interpretation and performance of cultural information shapes how that information is passed on to other actors and can establish group and institutional level social norms.”

Collected evidence shows that pedagogical change is needed and desired at the undergraduate level in science. I have been fortunate to have only come across a few instances in my undergraduate career where I felt that the educator was not focused on the students’ needs or was distracted and recycling class material. However, in some cases, these teaching behaviors could have dissuaded some students from further scientific studies. Those who have the ability to enact change would be doing both the learning and the educating populations a huge service by paying closer attention to the changes needed to teach an evolving discipline to an evolving culture.


Bouwma-Gearhart, J.L., et al (2018). Exploring postsecondary biology educators’ planning for teaching to advance meaningful education improvement initiatives. CBE Life Sci Educ, Fall 2018. (17:ar37) 1-12

Grunspan, D.Z., Kline, M.A. & Brownell, S.E. (2018). The lecture machine: A cultural evolutionary model of pedagogy in higher education. CBE Life Sci Educ, Fall 2018.(17:es6) 1-11

Owens, M.T., et al. (2018). Collectively improving our teaching: Attempting biology department-wide professional development in scientific teaching. CBE Life Sci Educ, Spring 2018(17:ar2) 1-17

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.


About the Author:

Beth is working on her BS in Psychology at University of Maryland University College and is the summer writing intern at the American Society for Cell Biology. Email: agreenberg@student.umuc.edu