Andra Ionescu Tucker, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior

Biology courses, particularly for first year college students, are taught in a traditional lecture format at most research universities. As a teaching assistant for such a class, I have observed how easy it is for students to disengage and how challenging it is for them to decipher complex topics. Recent studies indicate that putting the focus on student learning, as opposed to instructor lecturing, can lead to measurable improvements in student learning outcomes. Whether you are a new or veteran instructor, the following tips can improve student comprehension and performance.

Design your course around student learning objectives

Student learning objectives (SLOs) are the backbone of a course design technique called backwards course design, and ensure that both teachers and students understand what they want to get out of a course. SLOs place the focus on what students should achieve, as opposed to what instructors should teach. They articulate what measurable learning goals you want your students to meet in each class. Furthermore, class activities and assessments align with SLOs, ensuring that class time efficient.

A study of undergraduate students showed that SLOs helped narrow their focus and organize their studying, which is of particular importance for first year students who may have limited study skills. In a class with measurable SLOs, students who used these objectives to study, as opposed to those who did not, performed better on assessments.  Using SLOs can help you avoid the dreaded “what’s going to be on the exam” question while ensuring that students are mastering the skills you want them to learn.

Explore concepts using case studies

Active learning improves performance in a variety of STEM courses, but professors are unsure how to implement this technique. Case studies, more than any other content delivery method, improve student performance and perceptions of learning gains in biology. Case studies also help students draw connections between biological concepts and real life. However, if you are short on time and can’t make your own, feel free to find some online; authorship of case studies does not impact learning outcomes. Using case studies in a large lecture hall requires some creativity, but teaching assistants and a few handouts can help you implement this effective active learning technique.

Flip your classroom in a structured way

Flipped classrooms require students to read course material before class, leaving class time open to discussions focused on building understanding. Students are thus responsible for completing the “lecture” portion at home, and come to class to complete the more difficult task of thinking critically about their learning.

A persistent issue in many flipped courses is that students frequently do not complete their readings, leaving them unprepared for in-class activities and unsatisfied with their learning experience. Reading guides can help structure pre-class assignments, similar to how SLOs structure lessons, and those who complete reading guides have significantly higher exam scores. Reading guides break down the reading to what is most important, motivating students to read for understanding as opposed to reading to complete the assignment. Similar techniques can be used to guide student learning with other forms of pre-class assignments, such as videos. When flipped courses have a high level of structure, students can stay on track and perform better than their lecture-taught peers.

By implementing these techniques, we can make biology more accessible, encourage critical thinking and best support student learning.


Armstrong, P. (2018, August 13). Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains †. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 16(1), 21-28. 

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., Mcdonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. 

Lieu, R., Wong, A., Asefirad, A., & Shaffer, J. F. (2017). Improving Exam Performance in Introductory Biology through the Use of Preclass Reading Guides. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(3). 

Osueke, B., Mekonnen, B., & Stanton, J. D. (2018). How Undergraduate Science Students Use Learning Objectives to Study †. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 19(2). 

The Educational Value of Course-Level Learning Objectives/Outcomes [Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence]. (n.d.).

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on June 5th, 2019.