The Benefits of Working Together to Learn
As educators, we frequently present information to our classes in the form of the outcomes of the work of our subject matter. We conduct the research, gather the data, and compile the information into a final product. In most cases, students are expected to demonstrate in their assignments and exams that they have learned what academics have already discovered. They rarely get the chance to discover those things for themselves. However, giving students “hands-on” experience with the work of the discipline and giving them the opportunity to use raw materials on their own can be very rewarding.
Both the Chemistry Department and the Biology Department have offered undergraduate courses in which students participate actively in ongoing faculty research projects or occasionally develop original research projects for a number of years. Students in Chemistry typically devote at least two semesters to working on an offshoot of a larger problem that has been described by a research professor. Although students rarely work on their own research idea, they might do something that is either in addition to the research problem that the professor has described or an extension of it. In Biology, undergraduates also focus primarily on a subset of a larger lab-based project. The majority of undergraduates are unable to conduct independent research in Chemistry and Biology due to time constraints, the complexity of the subject, and financial resources. However, many undergraduate researchers contribute valuable work to a larger project, and their findings enable them to serve as second or even first authors on publications.
A list of undergraduate professors who take undergraduate students into their labs and their particular area of research is provided to students who are interested in conducting research. After that, the students talk to a few professors to find out what they would do for the research and if there is room in the lab. After selecting a lab, students frequently have to demonstrate their proficiency with standard lab techniques. Because undergraduate Research Assistants frequently possess the same level of expertise as graduate Research Assistants in their first year, research professors express gratitude for undergraduate research assistants.
Students who intend to attend graduate school are encouraged to enroll in Biology and Chemistry, which are taken by a large number of students pursuing careers in medicine and dentistry. Even though students who have been actively involved in research at the undergraduate level go to medical school, they tend to take advantage of more research opportunities in medical school. I believe that many of them enter medical research after not considering it as a career option.
Problem solving is a learning method that encourages students to analyze and think critically by integrating and synthesizing the facts and ideas they have learned in order to solve or suggest potential solutions to a real problem—one for which there is no existing solution—or one for which one does not yet exist. In a class of ninety students studying microbiology, an instructor might employ the following strategy for solving problems in groups:
You are hired as a consultant for a large mining company due to your knowledge of microbiology. They want to clean up and possibly extract minerals from their mine tailings (remaining materials) using bacteria. They own a wide variety of mines. Do you think bacteria capable of doing this could be found in which minerals? Would it be simpler to locate bacteria that can oxidize or reduce minerals?
The Microbiology students divide up into small cooperative learning groups within the large classroom on most Fridays during the semester to develop group solutions to complex problems like this one. The problems frequently necessitate the practical application of concepts and theories and are specifically connected to the lectures and text readings that came before them. For instance, lectures and readings on oxidation-reduction reactions and how bacteria obtain energy from redox reactions lead to this issue.
The problems are explained in the syllabus so that students can prepare and bring individual solutions to their groups. These solutions might also include a problem area or a topic they need to talk about.
There is at least one significant difference between cooperative learning groups and discussion groups: The cooperative learning group’s goal is to complete a group task, like discussing, choosing, and writing down a group solution to a problem. Students become accountable not only for their own learning but also for the learning of the other students in the group as a result of this process. The majority of scientists now collaborate in groups because science is currently a cooperative field.
The logistics for weekly interactive discussion and writing in a large lecture class are provided by cooperative groups, which is a secondary but equally important reason for using cooperative groups to address problems in a large class. The instructor can read eleven group papers each week, but it would be impossible to read ninety individual papers each week.
We ensure that each group has a balance of students with the various areas of expertise necessary to solve the complex problems by employing a straightforward questionnaire in which students mark the science courses they have taken. For instance, each group includes students who have taken other relevant science courses, at least one student who has taken a number of Physics courses, a student who has taken Biochemistry, a student who is enrolled in the optional lab for this course, and so on. Seniors with strong science backgrounds are prevented from being in one group and sophomores with weaker science backgrounds from being in another group by this distribution method.
On Fridays, the groups meet in class to discuss a particular issue. It is expected of each student to bring a written solution and any difficulties they may have encountered in addressing the issue to their group. The teacher and the TA inspect the groups one by one to ensure that each student has completed a written assignment. A student may not participate in the discussion if they are unprepared. Students are encouraged to prepare ahead of time and the group is prevented from relying on one or two individuals to complete all of the work by this straightforward check. Students discuss and highlight flaws in various proposed solutions in groups. One person drafts the collaborative solution over the weekend and calls several group members to ensure that it accurately reflects the group’s decision after the discussion is over. Each week, this “scribe” position must rotate. Sometimes, the whole group will get together over the weekend to talk about and work on the problem more.
The group papers are graded on a scale of one to ten by the instructor, who does not grade them competitively. Instead, each group can earn up to 80 points, which will make up 20 percent of their overall grade for the class. Eight of the eleven problem scores are counted by students. Additionally, the teacher has the flexibility to drop an entire problem if it does not work well with the groups. Students select their top eight scores on the eleven problems at the conclusion of the semester. By giving students the chance to earn bonus points, the teacher also encourages innovative thinking and taking risks when solving problems. Students can write “bonus” on any of these questions by drawing a line across the bottom of the page. After that, they can put any imaginative, out-of-the-box ideas they come up with. This will not be included in the standard response, but it will not be excluded if it is completely absurd and incorrect. After the final grades are added, bonus points are awarded to the entire group.
The process of thinking about science is a major conceptual focus in the course “Philosophy of Science.” The perspective of how a conceptual framework, such as a theory or set of theories, may determine the interpretation and explanation of observed facts is taught to students. When they investigate and suggest potential solutions to a problem, students take into account the current theories and assumptions that comprise the problem’s framework. The course generally operates as follows: Students are given a summary handout by the instructor to begin a topic. For instance, the following sections can be found in the handout titled “Cancer in Adolescents and Young Adults”: 1) a few descriptive terms’ meanings and definitions; ( 2) a list of known information or recent evidence regarding the causes of cancer in humans; 3) descriptions of cancer chemotherapy drugs; 4) a brief explanation of the differences between cancer cells and normal cells, and 5) important questions for class discussion. In these handouts, the instructors summarize what is known, the reasonably specific questions for which there are no clear answers, and the hypotheses that are the subject of debate. No matter what kind of science background they have, these handouts provide everyone with a common grounding.
Students are required to conduct an analysis of the topic and identify the subsequent issue that must be resolved in order for them to carry out research in this field during class discussions and writing assignments. Students read short papers and talk about articles in class, focusing on figuring out what the article actually says and explaining the ideas presented. Students read these research articles to learn what is known and what is unknown, as well as to note where the next step’s clues are. Students also learn how to deal with evidence that contradicts their hypothesis or explanation by either expanding their hypothesis or explanation to include it or coming up with a good reason to ignore it. The objective is for students to construct a complete picture or explanation of what may be occurring by combining a number of distinct concepts and theories gleaned from the research. Instead of a sudden major revelation that alters everything, scientific research relies on individual contributions that add up over time. This is something that students learn as they put the various research findings on a problem together. The course emphasizes the thrill of discovery rather than just the joy of learning, and it gives students the opportunity to experience the joy of solving a problem.