Pre-reading: Welcome to Class and Strategies for Success - Biology

Pre-reading: Welcome to Class and Strategies for Success - Biology

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Pre-reading: Welcome to Class and Strategies for Success

Welcome to the ERWC Online Community!

NEW! Information about teaching ERWC in online settings is now available. View this two-minute Online Resources for ERWC video to learn more about these resources.
LOG IN to access these new materials, curriculum modules, and many other resources. We welcome your comments and questions!

Links to Recorded ERWC Webinars and Podcasts

These are the recorded Zoom webinars from our spring ERWC Online Professional Learning series. The first episode from our ERWC Podcast Series is also available here.

What is culturally responsive teaching?

Culturally responsive teaching, also called culturally relevant teaching , is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. Traditional teaching strategies emphasize the teacher-student dynamic: The teacher is the expert and adheres strictly to the curriculum that supports standardized tests while the student receives the knowledge. This teaching method is outdated, Childers-McKee says.

“Teachers have more diverse classrooms today. We don’t have students sitting in front of us with the same background or experience, so instruction has to be different,” she says. “It needs to build on individual and cultural experiences and their prior knowledge. It needs to be justice-oriented and reflect the social context we’re in now. That’s what we mean when we talk about culturally responsive teaching.”

Low-Prep Discussion Strategies

Affinity Mapping >

Basic Structure: Give students a broad question or problem that is likely to result in lots of different ideas, such as “What were the impacts of the Great Depresssion?” or “What literary works should every person read?” Have students generate responses by writing ideas on post-it notes (one idea per note) and placing them in no particular arrangement on a wall, whiteboard, or chart paper. Once lots of ideas have been generated, have students begin grouping them into similar categories, then label the categories and discuss why the ideas fit within them, how the categories relate to one another, and so on.

Variations: Some teachers have students do much of this exercise—recording their ideas and arranging them into categories—without talking at first. In other variations, participants are asked to re-combine the ideas into new, different categories after the first round of organization occurs. Often, this activity serves as a good pre-writing exercise, after which students will write some kind of analysis or position paper.

Concentric Circles >

Basic Structure: Students form two circles, one inside circle and one outside circle. Each student on the inside is paired with a student on the outside they face each other. The teacher poses a question to the whole group and pairs discuss their responses with each other. Then the teacher signals students to rotate: Students on the outside circle move one space to the right so they are standing in front of a new person (or sitting, as they are in the video). Now the teacher poses a new question, and the process is repeated.

Variations: Instead of two circles, students could also form two straight lines facing one another. Instead of “rotating” to switch partners, one line just slides over one spot, and the leftover person on the end comes around to the beginning of the line. Some teachers use this strategy to have students teach one piece of content to their fellow students, making it less of a discussion strategy and more of a peer teaching format. In fact, many of these protocols could be used for peer teaching as well.

Conver-Stations >

Basic Structure: Another great idea from Sarah Brown Wessling, this is a small-group discussion strategy that gives students exposure to more of their peers’ ideas and prevents the stagnation that can happen when a group doesn’t happen to have the right chemistry. Students are placed into a few groups of 4-6 students each and are given a discussion question to talk about. After sufficient time has passed for the discussion to develop, one or two students from each group rotate to a different group, while the other group members remain where they are. Once in their new group, they will discuss a different, but related question, and they may also share some of the key points from their last group’s conversation. For the next rotation, students who have not rotated before may be chosen to move, resulting in groups that are continually evolving.

Fishbowl >

Basic Structure: Two students sit facing each other in the center of the room the remaining students sit in a circle around them. The two central students have a conversation based on a pre-determined topic and often using specific skills the class is practicing (such as asking follow-up questions, paraphrasing, or elaborating on another person’s point). Students on the outside observe, take notes, or perform some other discussion-related task assigned by the teacher.

Variations: One variation of this strategy allows students in the outer circle to trade places with those in the fishbowl, doing kind of a relay-style discussion, or they may periodically “coach” the fishbowl talkers from the sidelines. Teachers may also opt to have students in the outside circle grade the participants’ conversation with a rubric, then give feedback on what they saw in a debriefing afterward, as mentioned in the featured video.

Hot Seat >

Basic Structure: One student assumes the role of a book character, significant figure in history, or concept (such as a tornado, an animal, or the Titanic). Sitting in front of the rest of the class, the student responds to classmates’ questions while staying in character in that role.

Variations: Give more students the opportunity to be in the hot seat while increasing everyone’s participation by having students do hot seat discussions in small groups, where one person per group acts as the “character” and three or four others ask them questions. In another variation, several students could form a panel of different characters, taking questions from the class all together and interacting with one another like guests on a TV talk show.

Snowball Discussion >

Basic Structure: Students begin in pairs, responding to a discussion question only with a single partner. After each person has had a chance to share their ideas, the pair joins another pair, creating a group of four. Pairs share their ideas with the pair they just joined. Next, groups of four join together to form groups of eight, and so on, until the whole class is joined up in one large discussion.

Variations: This structure could simply be used to share ideas on a topic, or students could be required to reach consensus every time they join up with a new group.


We began this exploration of metacognition by considering two contrasting students—Josephina and Maya. Now, imagine that you have the opportunity to talk to two of your biology faculty colleagues about their approaches to teaching. Both are research-active, full professors in biology. Both regularly teach introductory courses for biology majors. Both appear to be genuinely eager to help their students succeed in their biology courses. In your conversation with each of them, you begin by asking them about how their teaching is going this semester. In addition, you ask each of them how they prepare for class each week. Their stories are strikingly different.

Kara expresses dissatisfaction with the students in her upper-division biology course. She thinks that the students are getting worse every year, even though she works harder and harder to bring them more cutting-edge research in the field. She shares that she has committed to updating all of her PowerPoint lectures this semester, even though she already has tenure, and has often stayed up very late the night before to make sure that her slides are really clear. When queried about how she gets insights into how students are thinking, she shares that she has added an additional exam between the mid-term and the final to motivate students to keep up with the reading. She is also very frustrated that no students come to her office hours. She feels like she is doing everything she can to help students understand the material, but they do not seem to be willing to work as hard in a course as she did when she was an undergraduate. She is worried about her student evaluation scores, which have declined over the years, and she thinks it is not fair to be evaluated by students who do not seem to care about their learning.

In contrast, another faculty colleague, Aerial, seeks your input on a new series of clicker questions she has developed as the basis of a classroom activity she is trying out with her students the next day. From prior experience, she knows that few students are able to connect the ideas of photosynthesis with those of climate change, and she wants to start her new unit on transformation of matter and energy with an assessment question that will really get students thinking about their prior ideas. She has changed this unit of her course each time she has taught it over the last several years, based on all the information she has collected from students about their ideas on the topic. She is aware that the more she knows about how students are thinking, the more ideas she has about new things to try in her teaching. She also shares that many of the homework writing assignments students have already submitted before the midnight deadline show that they have identified exactly the confusions she wants to alert them to tomorrow! When you ask her if she is concerned about how students will react to her new clicker-based classroom activity, she is not too worried. She regularly shares with students her own rationale for why she has developed a particular learning activity for them and gets their feedback on it through an index card or homework assignments so that she will have insights for the next time she teaches the same activity.

So, what is different about Kara and Aerial? No doubt many things, but one key difference is their ability as faculty members to be metacognitive about their teaching. Similar to the contrast between Josephina and Maya's abilities to be metacognitive about their learning, there is a difference in the extent to which each of these faculty members is thinking about how they think about their teaching. While instructors no doubt bring a deeply metacognitive approach to their field of scientific research, cultivating a metacognitive lens toward one's teaching does not appear to automatically or easily transfer. However, developing a metacognitive stance toward one's own teaching—thinking about how you think about teaching—can be a wonderfully natural entry point into iteratively changing one's own teaching practice. Self-analysis about one's own ideas about teaching could include: What assumptions do I hold about students? To what extent do I have evidence for those assumptions? Why do I make the instructional decisions that I make? What do I know about teaching? What would I like to learn? What am I confused about? These analyses can also become more specific to particular granularities, ranging from an individual class session to the scope of an entire course. Table 3 provides some starting points in the form of sample self-questions for faculty that may aid them in becoming more metacognitive about their teaching.

Table 3. Sample self-questions to promote faculty metacognition about teaching

Postscript 1: Using Metacognition to Make the Most of Active Learning—Learning from History

As stated above, attention to improving undergraduate biology education is high at present, and active-learning strategies are a central approach among suggested changes (AAAS, 2011). However, what different instructors mean by active learning and what active learning actually looks like in a different classrooms has not been well documented or investigated (Ebert-May et al., 2011 Tanner, 2011). Metacognition is not generally central, or even included, in discussions and articles about active learning. In fact, the term “active learning” is prominent and often used in the Vision and Change for Undergraduate Biology Education report, whereas “metacognition” does not make an appearance (AAAS, 2011). One possible difference in the effectiveness of active-learning pedagogies in the hands of different instructors may lie in the extent to which these instructors consider student metacognition when they implement active-learning strategies.

During the 1980s, K–12 science education experienced a period of intense focus on hands-on learning, which might be considered parallel to the recent rise in emphasis on active learning in undergraduate biology education. However, there was a general dissatisfaction, with reports that K–12 students were doing a lot of activities but not necessarily very much thinking. The hands-on era in K–12 science education was followed a shift in both the language and emphasis in policy documents to minds-on and inquiry-based learning in the 1990s (National Research Council, 1996). One aspect of this shift in emphasis in K–12 science education reform was an increased emphasis on student metacognition, students thinking about what they were thinking while they were doing, as opposed to just doing hands-on, active things without the thinking. As such, attention to student metacognition may be especially salient at this moment in the history of the undergraduate biology education revolution. To avoid repeating the trajectory of K–12 science education reform, explicit attention to integrating metacognition into undergraduate biology classrooms could help keep a focus on the learning part of active learning.

Postscript 2: On Thinking about Your Thinking about This Article…

Why, in the first place, did you choose to read this feature? Was it the title? The term “metacognition”? What did you already know or think about metacognition before reading this feature? How, if at all, have your ideas changed? What in this article was most intriguing to you? What are you thinking about in terms of how you might use those ideas? What in the article was most confusing? How do you plan to follow up on that to clarify your ideas and learn more? Will you? Why or why not? As you read, what, if anything, came to mind that you already do with your students that may promote their use of metacognitive strategies? Are you thinking about how explicit you are with your students about the thinking strategies and processes that you yourself use as a practicing biologist? What is the most important thought you had in reading this article? Did it even have anything to do with metacognition?


  1. Sorrell

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  2. Hilel

    Instead of criticizing it better, write the variants.

  3. Kanris

    A very interesting phrase

  4. Bale

    It is exclusively your opinion

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