Brad Richardson, MBA, adjusted his lectures, class discussions, and other classroom elements to teach students biology concepts—and better ways to learn them.
Instructor of Biology,Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, California
MBA, BA in Biological Sciences
Do I have to memorize this? Every semester, this question pops up in the classroom of Brad Richardson, MBA, a biology instructor at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, California. While Richardson recognizes that some memorization is necessary in learning the “avalanche” of information doled out in subjects like anatomy and physiology (both of which he teaches), he says it is not the best way for students to learn the material well enough to retain it for the long term.
“I find that students may ‘know’ information by just capturing it to repeat on the test, but they don’t really learn it that way,” says Richardson. “They may have studied the subject, but they have no idea what they’re actually studying.”
So, rather than simply answering “yes” or “no” to the “Do I have to memorize this?” question, Richardson has developed a more complex answer. Each semester, he holds a series of conversations with students to help them become more aware of their own thought processes—and rethink their approach to information storage and retrieval.
“If I can give my students the tools to learn through a conceptual process,” he says, “they tend to improve in both their academic and professional careers.”
Below, he shares six techniques that include finding a use for “wrong” answers, running slide presentations backwards, and letting students teach their peers.
“Memorization is a common problem because students feel it is the easiest shortcut to succeed in class. Teaching a science course like anatomy … provides ways for students to understand that ‘learning’ is actually easier than memorizing material.”
Course: BIO 140 Human Anatomy
Course description: Students will embark on a study of the systems of the human body. This is accomplished through a study of the organization of the body’s systems from a microscopic level of organization to the gross anatomy level. The relationship between structure and function will be examined through the study of histological slides, photomicrographs, anatomical models and charts, and mammalian (cat) dissection.
Richardson’s unique spin on 6 common classroom scenarios
Here, Richardson offers insights and tips on how to create a cooperative learning environment throughout the class period to help students organize their thinking and replace rote memorization with deeper learning.
1. Use roll call to demo the difficulty of remembering facts without context
On the first day of the semester, Richardson uses the act of taking attendance to demonstrate that rote memorization of information, unattached to a concept or useful association, is an ineffective way of learning.
“As I’m going through the roll, I’ll ask one student, ‘Who was that person whose name I just called?’” says Richardson. “Then I go to the next two names and ask a student to say those two, and it keeps growing and trickling down.”
Before long, Richardson is calling upon an entire group of students at a lab table to repeat back as many names as they can recall from the complete list. Of course, this is not easy for anyone individually, and though the recall is usually better in a team, it still is usually incomplete. Further, even if students do know someone’s name, they likely know nothing else about the classmate, so they are still essentially strangers.
“It’s my first way of teaching that, in this class, you’re not going to succeed by just memorizing, because there are too many things to know and learn,” he says.
2. Show students that note-taking can be a barrier to learning
Richardson believes that hyper-focusing on note-taking can drive a wedge between the volume of information being taught and the brain’s ability to absorb it.
To illustrate this, he selects a day to teach information that his students have already learned in prerequisite biology classes, then he encourages them not to write anything at all as he lectures.
“I’m trying to get them to realize that you can learn a lot just by watching the PowerPoint and listening to me,” Richardson says. For students who are auditory learners, this can be a revelation if they realize they learn better by simply tuning in their ears and setting down their pencils. In other cases, students realize that they already remember the basics—terms and other things they would normally write down—and then they realize, “Maybe I can get something out of just listening.”
3. Reverse slideshows to demonstrate how to learn a topic forward and backward
Though some professors fear that PowerPoint presentations can bring on sleepiness, Richardson uses the presentations to show students how to organize their thoughts on a single topic or chapter. For starters, he reminds students to read the title of every PowerPoint slide, as a way of categorizing the content so it will be easier to retrieve from memory.
As he goes through the presentation (which students can print out or view on computers or tablets), Richardson restates the titles, and asks the students to repeat them aloud. He then adds greater detail about the slide’s subject, just as most professors would. Then he finishes by running his presentation backwards. This final step gives students a better sense of how the information is organized and it helps stimulate their thinking, he says.
“I want them to realize, ‘I’m trying to get through the coursework, but in order to be successful, I have to go backwards and rephrase things in a different way, and then go forward again,’” he says.
4. Use class discussion to enhance learning and egos
Another trick Richardson employs to add dynamic learning to a lecture-heavy class period is peer teaching. After reviewing a chunk of material, he will stop and have the students work in groups (usually everyone at their lab table) to “teach” each other the topic once more.
“It forces them to talk to one another, so it teaches them about public speaking—about thinking about what they are saying and about listening to each other,” says Richardson. After about a minute, he stops the discussion and asks, “Well, why did we just talk about that, and why is this important?”
“I find that you can do these little things to help students feel successful,” he adds.
5. Break the lecture into chunks to show students how to parse their study time
Richardson teaches in organized blocks of related information rather than unleashing an endless torrent of facts throughout the entire class period. Just as lab work typically moves students from station to station, his lecture moves them from concept to concept.
“I try to teach in blocks, where it’s almost like a small little package of material,” he explains. “I want students to train their minds to study that way, too, so that as they begin to master material, they can move more quickly through it.”
To divide their study time into small chunks—and to avoid burnout—Richardson recommends that they schedule regular breaks. He tells them, “Just like when you exercise for an hour, you need to take a break. It’s no different when you train your brain.”
Finally, he suggests to students that, after a nighttime study session, they double-check their recall in the morning. “That’s the best time to figure out how much you’ve learned something, because you got the rest you needed, and hopefully you’ve retained it, and then you can figure out what else you have to master after that,” he says.
6. Celebrate mistakes to show students how to learn from them—and grow
It might sound strange to celebrate mistakes in a biology class, but Richardson sees this as a way to make students appreciate the path to scientific discovery, which is typically riddled with missteps. So, when a wrong answer pops up in class, he immediately asks other students to volunteer to clarify the concept in a different (correct) way. “Sometimes you’ll get better buy-in when another student says, ‘I understand this, and I would like to share my explanation,’” he says. “I’m trying to create an environment where students don’t have a problem saying the wrong answer—and to show them that you can still use an incorrect answer to learn.”
“We can correct anything,” he adds. “But just getting them to be vocal about their ideas and sharing the information with each other is the best way to learn.”