Active Learning Ideas from the Great Teachers National Seminar in the Rocky Mountains and the LifeSciTRC

female student sitting at desk with hand raisedGreat Teachers Seminars are open to any college instructor and are held all over the world with National Seminars in Banff, Alberta, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Hawaii.  I was initially attracted to this seminar due to its interdisciplinary nature since my usual professional development activities involve attending discipline-specific conferences.  I was seeking inspiration from great teachers from other disciplines in order to help me create an active learning environment for science majors in my first year anatomy and physiology course as well as for non-science majors in my introductory biology course.  The gorgeous setting in Banff, Alberta didn’t hurt either!  Participants at this year’s seminar came from Alberta, British Columbia, Washington State and Wyoming and instructional areas included the trades, performing arts, English, adult education, mathematics, broadcasting, and communications.

In advance of the seminar, we were each asked to write two single-paged papers: 1) describe a teaching innovation we use in the classroom and 2) describe a teaching problem we would like to discuss with our fellow participants.  I will focus on the teaching problem.  Biology courses are typically content heavy and taught chapter-by-chapter.  In the case of anatomy and physiology, integration of all of this information is vital in studying the maintenance of homeostasis.  To this end I have been assigning homeostasis as an essay topic at the beginning of the course and have asked students to work on this essay throughout the year.  Unfortunately, the final product is lacking in course concepts and terminology.  Within my small discussion group, an English instructor suggested that the students write what they know about this topic during the very first class, submit a copy to me, and then build on it throughout the term.  We can then visualize what learning has taken place.  Genius!  Now at the end of term they are less likely to write “that during the fight-or-flight response the heart rate increases and breathing gets deeper” when this is likely what they knew the first day of classes.  I suspect that they would now realize they need to explain why.

An additional area of interest I wished to pursue at the Great Teachers Seminar was to find ways of making a biology course for Arts majors less intimidating.  I filled my note book with many ideas including ice-breakers for the first day of class such as partner interviews followed by introducing each other to the class, the sorting game where students move into groups based on characteristics such as where they live and if they are a dog person or a cat person, flip-chart drawing of what biology means to them, but my favorite was brainstorming characteristics of the best class ever and the worst class ever as a trick to get students to set the ground rules for the class.

If you would like more ideas about student-centered learning, check out the Interactive Lecture Collection assembled by Marsha Matyas.  Her PowerPoint PDF entitled Student-Centered Learning is a wonderful collection of ideas for matching the type of assessments for its intended purpose, expanding on cookbook laboratory experiments to create inquiry-based projects, and descriptions of many different active learning techniques one could use in the classroom.





Julie Dais is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches at Okanagan College in British Columbia. Julie teaches a variety of first and second year courses including biology for non-majors and second-year Health Sciences. At the end of the day, she hopes her students will want to learn more about biology and health beyond the classroom.


2 thoughts on “Active Learning Ideas from the Great Teachers National Seminar in the Rocky Mountains and the LifeSciTRC”

Thanks for the great ideas, Julie! I also appreciate the links to Marsha’s tips. I will be checking them out. Always looking for ways to help students learn…

I love the idea of seeing what makes a class “the best or worst class ever”. I am going to try that. At the end of the year, I ask my students what they liked about our class and any improvements they would make.
Thanks for the tip!

Leave a Reply