Our Projects In Large Lectures

Large lectures are common in competetive research universities. We are using multiple mechanisms to improve student learning and make teaching more enjoyable for faculty.



1. Inverted ("flipped") introductory biology:

The increased availability of streaming video, online quizzing and clickers has made it possible for many more instructors to prepare material for students to use before class and design critical-thinking activities in class. In Fall 2012 we developed a "flipped" or inverted version of introductory biology to introduce the experience to research faculty. We are analyzing whether this format produces improved learning and retention in underprepared or underrepresented minority students. We are also posting these resources here for faculty to modify for their own use.


2. Value of lecture recordings for student learning:

In Fall 2011 we captured student use of lecture recordings in introductory biology. While some studies have surveyed students about use of lecture recordings or quantified the number of views, few have followed use by individual students and looked for associations with improved exam scores. We found that lecture recordings were very popular with students (65% used them), particularly students who entered the university with lower math or reading SAT scores. We found a significant improvement correlated with increased podcast watching. But the effect was very small, and only seen in students who watched many recordings and had moderate to high math SAT scores. Students who enter underprepared in math and choose podcast watching as a primary study technique did worse than their counterparts. Paper in preparation.


3. Laptop zoning in the large lecture hall:

The goal of this study was to determine if laptop use in lecture negatively impacts learning outcomes of surrounding students taking notes on paper. Two sections of a large introductory biology course were zoned into a laptop-permitted and a laptop-free area. Two sections in which laptop users could sit anywhere served as the Control. We found no effect of zoning on the grades of paper notetakers. However, the majority of both laptop and paper users in the Zoned sections supported a policy restricting laptop use to specific areas. There was an interesting correlation between exam performance and note taking preference: paper note takers scored higher and laptop users scored lower, than predicted. This has led us to create workshops on notetaking and studying to improve the quality of both in incoming first-year students.


Read the paper here:

Aguilar-Roca, N.M., Williams, A. and D.K. O’Dowd. 2012. The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers in Education 59(4): 1300-1308


Student Workshop on Notetaking in Biology

Student Workshop on Studying in Biology



4. Independent post-exam analysis can improve final performance:

The goal of this project was to determine if a post-midterm exam analysis activity could increase student performance on cumulative final exams in a large introductory biology class. Graded midterms were returned electronically, students were guided in analysis of example questions in class, and each student was assigned to analyze a subset of homework questions selected from the midterm. Our data suggest this easy-to-implement exercise can be useful in large-enrollment classes to help students develop self-regulated learning skills and improve learning outcomes. It also highlighted challenges our novice learners face in gaining broad understanding of core topics.


Read the paper here:

Williams, A., N.M. Aguilar-Roca, M. Tsai, M. Wong, M. Moravec Beaupré, and D. K. O’Dowd. 2011. Assessment of learning gains associated with independent exam analysis in introductory biology. CBE-Life Sci Educ 10: 346-356




5. "Learn before lecture" generates active learning in class:

To create time for active learning without displacing content we developed strategies for introducing material before class. We hypothesized that pre-exposure to new material before lecture, combined with in-class exercises, would increase student learning in our large introductory biology course. Our results demonstrate that LBLs combined with interactive exercises can be implemented incrementally and result in significant increases in learning gains.


Read the paper here:

Moravec, M., Williams, A., Aguilar-Roca, N., O'Dowd, D.K. 2010. Learn before Lecture: A Strategy That Improves Learning Outcomes in a Large Introductory Biology Class. CBE Life Sci Educ 9(4): 473-481



6. Garage demos: physical models of biological processes:

We have found that using physical materials in introductory biology to illustrate biological processes makes lecture more interesting and increases student understanding of basic concepts.


Read the essay here:

O'Dowd, D.K., Aguilar-Roca, N. 2009. Garage Demos: Using Physical Models to Illustrate Dynamic Aspects of Microscopic Biological Processes. CBE Life Sci Educ 8(2): 118-122.


See videos of our demos here.



7. Email etiquette is improved with 2-minute training:

We have completed a study analyzing the effect of training on student emails to faculty. We found a significant increase in the overall professional quality of emails in the trained class due to increases in use of a proper salutation, consistent capitalization, and a signature. These data suggest that most students do not send intentionally disrespectful messages and respond to guidance in constructing professionally formatted emails.


Read the paper here:

Aguilar-Roca, N., Williams, A., Warrior, R., O'Dowd, D.K. 2009. Two Minute Training in Class Significantly Increases the Useof Professional Formatting in Student to Faculty Email Correspondence. Int. Journ Schol Teach Learn 3(1):










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