Lianna Fung, Developmental and Cell Biology

A typical traditional biology course at the undergraduate level is primarily lecture and a few exams. Lecture time is often only broken up periodically by a few iClicker questions or a few brave students who dare to ask questions. Further down the educational line, a similar environment occurs in graduate courses, called journal clubs, where students are assigned papers and present them to a silent audience of their peers. Both of these situations could be improved with more student autonomy and engagement in the course.

Why Have More Autonomy in a Course?

So, you might ask, “Why do students need choices and opinions within a course?” They have already chosen for themselves to be biology majors or to subject themselves to these courses. This is because as instructors, we want our students to not simply become sponges that absorb knowledge but to become independent learners. By providing more choices and fostering individual opinions within a course, they develop more autonomy and ownership for their work1. This would hopefully lead to a deeper intrinsic motivation and engagement in learning.

Sounds great right? To illustrate this concept, I will introduce two examples of this in two different classroom settings:

Improving Large Class Engagement by Involving Students in the Assessment Process

Often students find themselves in courses where they simply learn material and then are tested through written or multiple-choice exams. The students never have the opportunity to think from the perspective of an instructor by creating assessment material or judging the quality of exam questions. A study by Hancock et al. (2018) found that by having students in a large undergraduate course write multiple choice questions which were then evaluated and answered by their peers fostered deeper understanding of more complicated topics such as biochemistry and molecular biology2. They found the students understood the concepts they created questions for better and this was reflected in their exam performance.

Student-Centered Graduate Journal Clubs

Graduate students in biology often have to take mandatory courses, called journal clubs, which focus around specific topics such as cancer biology, neurobiology, systems biology, etc. Within a journal club, the graduate students can have vastly different expertise and interests. A common practice in these journal clubs is to have the instructor assign a research article for all the students to read and have one student present it to them to discuss. If anyone has been in a typical journal club, there are always individuals who don’t read the assigned paper and often only a few students who actually participate in the discussion voluntarily. A 2020 study by Diane Bimczok and John Graves attempted to address this by developing an “inverted” student-centered model for a graduate journal club in the life sciences3. This design focused on weekly student-chosen topics rather than individual papers. Students would also pick their own papers on the topic to present in class leading to different viewpoints on the topic being presented and discussed. This format was received favorably by the students and resulted in more student engagement and student-to-student interaction. The students also had noted improvements in their presentations revealing deeper understanding of the topic material and in their communication skills.

To conclude, here are just two ways in two very different settings where adding more student autonomy increases engagement and promotes deeper learning. So, if any instructors out there notice that their students have listless eyes or are just not getting the material, maybe it’s time to just mix things up and put students more in control of their own learning?


Dabrowski, J., & Marshall, TR. (2018). Motivation and Engagement in Student Assignments: The Role of Choice and Relevancy. The Educational Trust.

Hancock, D., Hare, N., Denny, P., & Denyer, G. (2018). Improving large class performance and engagement through student-generated question banks. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 46(4), 306–317.

Bimczok, D., & Graves, J. (2020). A new twist on the graduate student journal club: Using a topic‐centered approach to promote student engagement. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, bmb.21337.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 5th, 2020.