In Praise of the Hodgepodge

womanedhatThe first fully independent class I ever taught was right after I finished a course on Team Based Learning (TBL) . I was extremely excited about the new methods I had just learned, and I jumped into them with both feet and no lifejacket. I figured that, since I hadn’t taught before, I could start by “doing it right”: little to no lecture, active learning, and everything fitting perfectly into my new framework. I followed the structure I was taught like a new cook follows a recipe: slavishly, not knowing how to make changes or substitutions when things didn’t work.

Unsurprisingly, I ran into issues. Students who weren’t used to this format struggled and blamed it on the lack of lectures. I struggled with creating meaningful activities that hewed to the specific requirements of the TBL style. I found myself in conflict with my students who were out of their element and uncomfortable, and I was not experienced enough to know how to help.

I still use many of the ideas, but I’ve found myself becoming a lot more flexible as I gain experience. I’m still pretty new at this, but one of the biggest things I’ve learned along the way is that unhappy students don’t learn. If students don’t like the way the class is structured, they check out, and checked out students won’t put in the effort to really understand.

In light of this, I’ve found that my class has become much more of a hodgepodge. In lower level classes, when I lecture less than half the time, my students resent it. I find that including some lecture also provides a structured opportunity to bring my students together, and find out what’s not working. When I ask a question in lecture, whether it’s with clickers, by calling on teams or by asking for volunteers, I get immediate feedback about what’s not working and can try a new approach, in a way that would take a lot longer to get to in activities.

I also give my students a mix of guided readings, animations and links to video-lectures in a sort of semi-flipped class effect. I expect them to come prepared, and I do quiz them on it, but I also expect that we’ll go back over some of it in lecture, to tie in back together. In some ways it’s not ideal, but it does provide one more approach to the material, which can help.

I don’t have any research to tell me what the ideal ratio of lecture to activity is. Maybe any lecture is bad, maybe a mix is best, but I do know that, for now, I’m happy balancing what the research supports with what my students seem to want. If they’re not enjoying it, they’re not going to learn it, and as long as this seems to be the best balance for my students, I’ll continue using my hodgepodge.

What methods have you combined for your classes and why? What do you think is the right amount of lecture, or is any lecture too much?






Susan Weiner is an assistant professor of Biology at Roosevelt University, a liberal arts college in Chicago. Her main interest is figuring out how to help people connect science with their daily lives in and outside the classroom. She teaches Anatomy and Physiology, Animal Behavior and upper level physiology related courses. She is particularly interested in how the structure of a course affects student learning and engagement. Her research focuses on social insect behavioral physiology and genomics, with some dabbling in pollination biology. She did her Ph.D. at Tufts University on the energetic costs of paper wasp behavior.


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