Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: Cynthia Brame, homework to highlight “real life” relevance, and flipped classes
By Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern
During Spring 2020, the Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt blog series will highlight teaching innovations that CFT staff have implemented and evaluated in their own courses.
Working at the CFT has been one of the best decisions I have made in college. It has afforded me many wonderful opportunities, like starting this blog series. This my last semester and therefore I find it very fitting that to finish out the blog series with interviews with the CFT senior staff (who also have faculty appointments in their home disciplines) about their own teaching. I’m starting my CFT interviews, with Dr. Cynthia Brame, Associate Director of the CFT and Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences.
Brame, in BSCI 2520: Biochemistry, which she co-teaches with Dr. Jared Nordman, is working to use graded homework to connect students with the material and flipping lessons to help teach tough topics.
Brame teaches the second half of biochem, focusing on metabolism. This involves a lot of pathways, and Brame finds that students can get lost in the details and become frustrated. The relevance of the material to their lives isn’t always obvious, and they may not automatically know that metabolism is a highly dynamic, research-active area. To help students make those connections, Brame created four graded homework assignments. For the first, Brame gave students a paper to read, High-fructose corn syrup enhances intestinal tumor growth in mice, and gave very general instructions asking them to describe the mechanism outlined in the paper with supporting evidence from the text. I read the paper myself and, despite not taking the course, immediately recognized how relevant biochemistry still is—and, not to spoil the paper too much, I’ll never drink soda again. The other assignments were:
- A case study on the Tylenol tampering deaths in 1982
- Connecting a news story on a yearly epidemic of deaths among children in Bihar, India, with a paper describing the discovery of the mechanism
- Exploring how the pathways taught in class change under starvation conditions
Each of these assignments allowed students to discover the value of biochemistry for themselves in different ways. In a survey at the end of the course that about a third of the >150 students in the course filled out, the feedback was positive; many enjoyed reading the papers and seeing the connections to life outside of class. That said, some said they would have preferred homework that was more directly test prep. Brame is thinking about how to make more clear how the homework helps students prepare for the exam—and perhaps, how to make that link stronger.
Another new implementation in the course is a flipped classroom setup for a few topics that students often struggle with. Before class, Brame gave students prep sheets (here and here) to guide their textbook reading—as we all know, textbooks can be quite dense—and had them watch a molecular model animation to illustrate the concepts in action. In class, Brame replaced her typical interactive lecture (that includes discussion and question time) with students reviewing the material and their answers together in groups before moving on to application questions that let students explore the implications of the basic information the prep had given them.
Student feedback was mixed. Many liked the prep sheets but some still wanted a traditional lecture. Brame hypothesizes that this might be for two reasons:
- A traditional lecture gives students direct feedback on the prep sheet (i.e. the “right” answers) which allows them to check their work and enhance their learning
- Students feel that a traditional lecture is more helpful because it doesn’t require work on their part. This is largely a fallacy, but a common one; people generally feel as though they learn more when they are taking information in, but actually learn more when retrieving and generating answers themselves.
Brame still enjoyed the flipped classroom style for those topics and she found that on those sections of the exams students did better this year than in previous years. To address student requests, Brame may record a more traditional lecture and make it available to students after the class so that they can benefit from class discussion and the ability to check their answers clearly. This highlights an intriguing conflict that I’m sure many teachers face: do you implement a teaching technique that will help improve student learning even if students don’t like it or perceive it as helpful? No student wants to just be told what to do and working with students to improve their learning benefits teachers and students, but how should conflicts that arise be resolved? I don’t have the answer, but thankfully there are many wonderful educators constantly working on this problem.