Flexible Learning Spaces Fellowship: Alison Hill

Alison Hill, Biology

As a fellow in CIT’s Flexible Learning Spaces Fellowship (2008), Alison Hill participated in meetings, mini-workshops, and other fellowship activities centered around the concept of ‘flexible learning’ – specifically focused on the uses of the technology and space arrangements made possible by Duke’s new teaching and learning space, the Link.

Course overview

During Fall 2008, Hill taught the Biology of Aging course (a non-majors biology course) in Link Classroom 5. The following lists Hill’s core goals of her course:

  • Students will apply scientific knowledge and methods to evaluating scientific claims presented in the mass media.
  • Students will be able to distinguish between correlations and causality as this relates to claims about health and aging.
  • Students will understand general concepts in genetics, genomics, molecular and cellular biology by applying these concepts to the biology of aging.
  • Students will come to recognize how biology directly intersects many of the important social, ethical and policy issues they will be confronted with in their lives.
  • Students will articulate their perspectives on biology and society by public speaking and writing.

Uses of technology and flexible learning spaces

  • Used the classroom for traditional lecturing and projection of PowerPoint presentations
  • Small breakout groups of students worked collaboratively on problems and data analysis
  • Small breakout groups discussed ethical/social implications of aging research
  • Projected displays of group findings for classroom presentations
  • Filming/recording of role-playing in town-hall forums and/ or congressional hearings
Using breakout spaces for group work

“For all three of the classes I have had small group activities where I have grouped the students in groups of four and given them either a discussion topic or set of questions and problems to work on. Each time I have introduced the group activity, I have suggested that maybe some of the groups would like to leave the classroom and go out into the adjacent common space or classrooms to conduct their discussions or, alternatively, they were free to totally rearrange the furniture to enhance their interactions. Today for the first time, I had two student groups leave the classroom and go out into the common space–this seemed to work fine. As to rearranging the furniture, the most they have done is rolled their chairs together leaving the tables in place. Fortunately, the acoustics in the room are good so that the sound of 34 voices in conversation is not overwhelming. I suspect as the semester progresses the students will become more bold in their explorations of the breakout spaces.”

Using the ‘Jig-Saw’ strategy for group activities

“Last Thursday we spent class time doing our first “jig-saw”. I was delighted at how engaged the students were throughout this activity. The various student groups ventured out into the common space of the link and were  actively discussing the assigned articles and guide questions. When we reconvened for a wrap-up and summary at the end of the class time, the students appeared to be far more invested in the topic than I typically see at the end of a standard lecture. I think this was a very effective class activity, although my preparation time prior to the class was enormous.”

In the following video, Hill explains how she set up the Jig-Saw activity:

“I was very pleased with how my Biology of Aging class went this semester in the Link. One of my goals was to be able to offer the “intimacy” of a seminar-style class to a larger group of students (36 students). The combination of both holding my class in the Link and participating in  CIT’s Flexible Learning Spaces Fellowship  program encouraged me to break-out of the traditional lecturing mode of teaching by incorporating small-group work and “jig-saw” activities into my classes. There were multiple times this semester that I was delighted (and amazed) by the level of engagement and enthusiasm that I observed in my students as they pieced together complex concepts during jig-saw activities or discussed ethical/ policy issues in small group work.

As a teacher, I was reminded of how important it is to provide the students with sufficient structure for these in-class activities to ensure that the conversations remain focused; giving them a list of questions or problems to guide their discussions is effective. Also, requiring student preparation before class (i.e. homework) is essential for the success of these classroom activities/ discussions. In future semesters, I will make the completion of homework a mandatory pre-requisite for student participation in these activities.”

In an anonymous, informal survey, students responded favorably to both the ‘in-class group discussions’ and the ‘jig-saw activities’.

  • “…Allowed people to think about the issues and concepts…”
  • “….Great for reinforcing the ideas we learn in class…”
  • “….The course structure was pretty awesome…”
  • “…Loved the interaction; much better than just having lecture alone in a course…”
  • “…Would like more Jig-saw puzzle activities (or other “hands-on” activities”)….”
  • “….Great class! Learned a ton!……..”

Hill’s teaching in the Link was also featured in a Duke News story in early Fall 2008.