Making large classes into personal learning experiences

Laurel Roberts, senior lecturer in biological sciences


Faced with swelling fall enrollments of 1,400 students in the introductory Foundations of Biology 1 class — which requires 10 instructors, a 400-seat lecture hall and 75-student recitations — faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences knew they had to do something to make the classroom experience better.

“We have more people teaching in the core sequence than most schools have on their biology faculty,” says Senior Lecturer Laurel B. Roberts, one of the biology 1 instructors.

“We have a culture that prioritizes active learning in the classroom,” adds Suzanna Gribble, the department’s co-director of undergraduate studies; however, “we have constantly struggled with how to give a personal learning experience in these classrooms.”

For one, the main classroom is, well, a lecture hall: “The seating is ancient, the lighting could be improved, and we’re using chalkboards, not whiteboards.”

“Students are not sponges,” notes biology Lecturer Erica M. McGreevy, who teaches biology 1 in fall and spring. “They don’t just absorb learning and ideas and concepts.”

Active learning would mean giving students opportunities to discuss ideas during the lecture, to talk about these ideas among themselves, to diagram some of the new scientific concepts presented, and to respond to questions in class — which, in a lecture, means voting on a multiple-choice answers using the Top Hat software and a clicker.

“The challenge of doing active learning in that class is huge,” McGreevy says, as is “a lack of that sense of community in the class,” particularly since, for most students in this foundations class, it’s their first semester of college.

So Gribble led a team application for Pitt’s first Course Incubator Project last year, in which the University Center for Teaching and Learning offered funding and expertise to “radically redesign large enrollment classes,” as the application instructions put it.

Biology’s Foundations 1 and 2 classes were selected for the Incubator’s two-year program, along with classes in two other Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences departments — economics and chemistry. Altogether the incubator project should change the course of courses for nearly 4,000 students.

“The goal of the project is to improve outcomes in large enrollment classrooms,” says teaching center director Cynthia Golden.

“And to improve the students’ experience and the level of student engagement,” adds Lorna Kearns, director of next generation learning for the teaching center.

Stickers, syllabus infographics, roaming lecturers

In the biology classrooms, that last aim has been the easier first step: the faculty essentially branded the course to create a student community. They printed stickers declaring “I found BIO,” to welcome the course’s first-year students to campus “providing them with a mechanism to identify with the course,” Gribble says.

The course’s undergraduate teaching assistants got stickers identifying them as UTAs, and students moving on to the second foundation course in the spring got their own stickers as well, which helped to signal their success.

“Apparently the students liked them quite a bit,” she says; they can be seen on laptops, water bottles and notebooks, allowing students to identify classmates anywhere on campus or off, creating new social connections and studying opportunities. Students even get extra credit for bringing the stickers to a conference with the instructor, as a backdoor way of encouraging such interactions.

“Our upperclassmen are very upset they haven’t gotten one,” says McGreevy of the stickers. But eventually, she adds, there will be four years of students with stickers who are able to connect, socially and academically.

The course’s instructors, working together, also have re-designed its syllabus, both to fully standardize the curriculum and to keep students from being overwhelmed with a mass of information.

Now a two-sided, single-page syllabus summary, with infographics displaying the dates of exams, schedule-at-a-glance and grading methods, comes ready to pop into clear slipcovers at the front of a notebook. “It’s a way to give (students) something to reference very quickly in a colorful, streamlined way, and pretty successful too,” Gribble says.

Working toward the new syllabus was itself helpful, says Roberts, as the instructors gathered to hone the curriculum and make sure each section focused on the core competencies students would need.

“We did struggle with this, but I think we are all satisfied with the result,” she says. The next step, Roberts says, is for the team to make certain each section’s exams contain a core set of vital questions as well.

The incubator project also has facilitated the installation of a new projector with crisper imagery in biology’s 400-person lecture hall in Clapp Hall. New AirMedia software allows instructors to roam the lecture hall as they speak, and Microsoft Surface tablets let each lecturer control the PowerPoint presentation and draw on them as needed, for a richer, more fluid classroom experience. The new tech also records class activity for online review later.

“There was a bit of a learning curve,” McGreevy says, “but the value has been huge.” 

Wider benefits and future moves

All the incubator winners have gotten together more than a dozen times to trade information about what’s working so far in their transformations. Becoming an incubator classroom, says Gribble, “was an excellent opportunity for us to introduce people in other units of the University to what we do.”

In fact, the best part of the project so far has been forming new relationships across the University, she says — not only in the teaching center but among the provost’s office classroom management team, which oversees classroom renovation efforts. While there has been no chance yet to change the large lecture halls from their rigid seating configuration to something allowing small-group, active learning, the incubator project did help spur the University to modernize two smaller biology classrooms nearby in Clapp Hall.

Now halfway through the project, Roberts says it has opened new doors and new ways of thinking among biology instructors. “We’ve noticed more energy in our (faculty) meetings,” with more people tossing out fresh concepts for improvement, she says. Working to transform the foundations courses also has given her new ideas for changing her upper-level courses, she adds.

“My hopes are that we’ll have test-driven enough ideas that we’ll actually be able to … see which ones are worth going to battle for — and I mean budget battle,” Roberts says. Brainstorming course improvement concepts “will become a regular part of department culture because we know they work and that they enhance student learning.”

When the incubator project got underway, she says, “I didn't know — we didn’t know — what it would entail. We didn’t know how enthusiastic the administration would be, and it’s been great.”

All three incubator projects “have been very creative in envisioning ways to get the students more engaged,” says the teaching center’s Lorna Kearns. The chemistry classroom faculty, for instance, are instituting “process-oriented group inquiry learning,” which uses specially designed small-group activities with the instructor facilitating teamwork, rather than merely conveying new information. In economics, the focus has been on redesigning their recitation sections to coordinate lessons across each week and offering more training to the TAs.

Cynthia Golden says her office is still unsure whether there will be further rounds of the incubator project, since the winners are still experimenting with changes: “One semester isn’t enough time to know whether what you’re doing is working or whether you have to tweak it,” she notes. And teaching center is still gathering data through assessment reports.

When the two-year incubator project has concluded, Golden says, “What we plan to do is widely show what we’ve learned among our faculty here at Pitt — what can we try, what can we learn and how can we share this.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.