Donald P. French, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Zoology
430 Life Science West
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078-3052
(405)744-9690 (ofc)
(405)744-5664 (lab)
(405)744-7824 (fax)


Development of this course was supported by the National Science Foundation through the following grants:

using some materials developed with prior support by the the National Science Foundation for a project entitled:

Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation

If you would like to learn more, tour the site, try this multimedia presentation , or read the detailed description below

If you would like to experience some of the things we do, try:

  • a sample of the multimedia lecture software
    • We using a diving scenario as the context for photosynthesis, a review of the nervous system, a review of adaptation, a review of cellular respiration, and an opportunity to discuss color vision and its adaptive significance
  • a sample pre-lab tutorial
    • So that students are prepared to begin working on testing their hypotheses when they arrive in lab, we provide them with pre-lab materials of various kinds, including this one
  • a sample web-based animation
    • This animation allows students to compare photosynthesis and respiration. We present the animation without text or labels and have the students work through it on their own (with our help)
You will need the Authorware Web Player mentioned in the site requirements to run some of these examples.

What we do and why we do it

Abstract: To improve student satisfaction and performance, the life science departments at Oklahoma State University recently revised the introductory biology course. The teaching style was changed from expository presentation of detailed facts in lecture and their demonstration/verification in the laboratory to inquiry-based theory classes and investigative laboratories. This article briefly describes the different techniques we use to engage students in actively learning.

The problem Oklahoma State University's introductory biology course offerings included one majors and two non-majors courses. The majors and non-majors courses overlapped considerably in content, expository teaching style, the degree to which faculty and students were dissatisfied. From discussions among the faculty and surveys of the students some general opinions emerged. These courses, like many science courses, presented students with considerable quantities of facts while offering no context in which to place them and little time for students to examine and apply the concepts presented. Student attitudes toward the courses and biology became more negative after taking the course and student performance left room for considerable improvement. Lab exercises were "cook-book" and did not attempt to foster investigative skills. Assessment primarily involved multiple-choice exams or laboratory quizzes testing factual knowledge.

The goal After considerable discussion among a committee formed from the Departments of Botany, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, and Zoology, the heads of the departments, and faculty-at-large from the departments, the decision was made to combine these courses and create a single, one-semester, general-education course suitable for majors or non-majors. In light of the recommendations presented by the National Science Standards, the committee elected to stress inquiry, experimentation, critical thinking, and application over memorizing vocabulary and details. The committee developed a set of general recommendations and design criteria for the course the broadly defined content and pedagogy. These included:

Lecture: In lecture, we present ten scenarios, i.e., stories or situations. Each lasted 1-2 weeks and presented two or more similar to widely different concepts related to a central story or problem. Each lecture period involved combinations of multimedia presentations, time for group work, series of questions posed to students, written exercises, demonstrations, and homework. No lecture period involved solely expository lecture. Questions posed to students were answered, typically, in groups. Each scenario would start with a multimedia introduction that would present items, or situations for the students to observe. Afterward, students were asked to use those observations to answer a broad question. We then introduce related concepts through additional question-answer dialogues. In some cases, questions have readily known and obvious answers. In other cases, the students can construct correct, answers from additional information as it is presented or we ask the students to present hypotheses for situations with no known answer.

Collaborative Groups Students work in the same groups of three, during both lecture and lab. In lecture, we typically ask these groups several questions during each period. Questions are of two general time lengths. In one case, we pose a problem or ask for a hypothesis to explain some observations, and allow 3-5 minutes for a written response on a standard sheet of blank paper. These are graded. If we ask a question that students do not yet know enough to answer, they are graded based on effort. If the question is about a topic that has been covered sufficiently, they are graded based on the correctness and completeness of their answer. In the other case, we tell students to work for thirty seconds and raise their hands when they have an answer. We do this when we ask a question and receive no immediate (within about 10 seconds) responses. Periodically, we give homework assignments or an in-class exercise that requires all or most of the period. For these, each student answers the question on their own and we ask each group to decide which piece of work to hand in. To facilitate interaction between the instructor and the students, some of the instructors leave every third row unoccupied to allow easier access. During lab, each group is responsible for completing a common project and a common lab report. They are allowed to divide responsibilities as they choose. Students are required to hand in individual pre-lab assignments and laboratory planning forms. They may however work together on these as long as it does not appear that they are simply copying.

Multimedia In all lectures, faculty use a common set of multimedia materials programmed for the course using Authorware® (Macromedia, Inc.). Authorware® is designed for computer-assisted instruction, including multimedia tutorials, kiosks, interactive WWW pages, and complex presentation. Authorware® allowed us to create interactive multimedia software that allows flexible ordering of the presentation, immediate access to different sections of the program, presentation of animation's, digital video, CD-audio, videodisc materials, and digital audio. Diagrams were included from the digital library accompanying the textbook and designed so that animation's, other diagrams, or text would appear as the user pointed to or click various portions of the screen. Each piece includes flowcharts or concept maps that could be recalled to help students see relationships and a glossary of terms and concepts that could be accessed at any time. Outside classes, students can access these multimedia pieces in our Learning Resources Center, in the laboratory, or over the WWW (if copyrights permitted.).

Figure 1 presents an example of the software. In this case, we placed a "button bar" at the bottom of the screen to control navigation. The left and right arrows allow for linear flow. The timer button produces an adjustable timer to time question periods. The concept button produces a screen of hyper-linked terms and definitions. The map button produces a basic concept map or flow chart to give an overview of the scenario. The Lab button presents relevant material from the laboratory. The P button toggles a display of page numbers in the text for the specific item on display. The narration button provides an audio-clip for this particular scene. The remaining buttons allow the user to skip back and forth to various parts of the presentation. This particular scenario starts and ends with the story of a diver who cuts her finger while collecting algae samples at 15 meters and is surprised to see that her blood and the algae are not red but a brownish-green until she returns to the boat. The students then discuss photosynthesis, the vertebrate eye, action potentials, chemical and electrical gradients, protein structure and function, crypsis, properties of light, and several other concepts.

Some additional select technology components

Fig. 1

Other Technology: The lecture hall is equipped with a wireless microphone system. We periodically use this when interacting with a student by allowing the student who has been selected to answer one of our questions to use the microphone. For a variety of reasons, students appear to prepare more rapidly when they know this may happen; some students actively seek the opportunity to present their answer this way. The lecture hall is also equipped with a visualizer. We use this to show students demonstrations, e.g., the effect of temperature on activity in sow-bugs. We use the electronic white-board extensively as well. This writing surfaces allow the professor to record pen-strokes and distribute them to students over the www or form a campus server. They can also be played back for review next class period. Unlike an overhead, the material recorded can actually be played-back to add the time component to a diagram or problem solution, e.g. use of a punnet square to solve genetics problems. We use our listservs/e-mail to communicate with students as do many faculty today. In some cases, students have elected to take part in electronic tutoring by submitting descriptions of concepts, processes, or solutions to problems to the faculty member and listserv for critiques. Students who have taken advantage of this form of student-to-faculty communication have benefitted considerably. Other study aids To help students see connections and follow the direction pursued in lecture, we incorporate several aids. A website ( makes notes, outlines, tutorials, reading assignments, announcements, concept maps, flow charts, sample exam questions, a glossary and other useful materials available. Because exams extensively involve application questions, we post longer passages on the web before exams. We have been experimenting with producing concept maps for each days lecture. This is done using the electronic white-board.

Facilitators: A single faculty member faces a daunting task in trying to interact with 25-63 groups of students, run a multimedia presentation, produce a concept map, run a demonstration and talk - sometimes all at once. To make this more feasible, we have created a companion course, ZOOL 5030 Teaching Zoology. This three-credit graduate level course can be taken by graduate students or seniors in life-science or science education. These "facilitators" run the multimedia presentations, interact with students, help distribute materials, run demonstrations, etc. This allows the faculty member to get out into the audience and interact with students or lecture without losing his/her concentration or wasting time something temporarily fails. Facilitators also conduct reviews at the beginning of class and periodically lecture. For students, facilitators can act as an additional source of information. Students who may be uncomfortable with or too intimidated by talking with the professor or who simply don't want to wait in line to get to speak with the professor can take advantage of the facilitator's availability.

Laboratories: To promote student understanding of the process of science, we replaced traditional "cookbook" labs with investigative ones. For each lab, students begin with a general question stemming from a short story related to a lecture topic. Working in collaborative groups, they pose hypotheses, design and conduct experiments, and write a short report, all within a three-hour period. To help students prepare, we require them to perform pre-lab activities in our Learning Resources Center, on the WWW, or on their own. We also require them to prepare a planning form describing their hypotheses, predictions, and experiment. During the lab, the students choose from the standard set of equipment available to them. For certain labs, specific equipment is made available to them. Each group of students is equipped with a computer workstation and laboratory instrument interface, an assortment of laboratory probes, a spectrophotometer, a video-microscope camera, and additional equipment. Each group must complete their lab report during the lab. The computers are equipped with spreadsheet, word processing, image-digitizing, graphics and library and Internet access. A grading rubric in the manual helps guide the students. TAs are encouraged to review students work during the period and critique it. They can use a PC-Video network to observe what the students are doing from the TAs' computer in the front of the room.

Results and conclusions. We surveyed our students extensively during the semester. Students opinions of all labs and scenarios were measured on a 5-point Likert scale and mean responses of all groups were positive. Students were overwhelmingly satisfied with the facilitators, collaborative work, and the use of multimedia. The workload and the challenge of the exams received mixed reviews with widely differing opinions. Student grades have improved.