Two days before each exam in my nonmajors biology class, I pass out quarter-sheet pieces of paper and ask two questions:
1. What is the most interesting thing you have learned in this section of the class?
2. What is something you still don’t understand?
The purpose of question 1 is to have students reflect on what they have learned over the past couple of weeks and evaluate the material in a new light. Also, I admit taking a certain amount of comfort from the notion that, despite the occasional bored facial expression in the class, each student can find some way to answer that question. The purpose of question 2 is to help me to focus my efforts on the next day’s review session.
We recently finished the genetics unit, and I thought I’d share some of the answers to
question #1. Here’s what my sampling of nonmajors students found interesting, from most mentions to fewest:
- Cloning (I admit that
this one surprised me a little, given that cloning isn’t in the news as much as it once was)
- Inheritance and sources of variation among offspring
- How DNA encodes proteins
- DNA technology in general (this was an “umbrella topic” that included cloning, stem cells, transgenic organisms, and gene therapy)
- Stem cells
- Transgenic organisms
- Down syndrome
- How cells divide (mitosis/meiosis)
Surveys like this help me refocus my lectures for future semesters. Some topics (like cell division) are necessary components of a biology class, whether students find them interesting or not. But perhaps next semester I can use cloning and stem cells (among the most interesting topics to students) to “sell” the importance of cell division. It only takes a few minutes to collect quantifiable feedback, and it helps me improve my course each semester.
Have you ever tried surveying what your class finds interesting?