Plenary III:
New strategies for learning biology

Plenary III
New strategies for learning biology

Saturday, November 22, 2003
9:00 - 10:10 am

Carey Phillips, Professor of Biology- Bowdoin College

The way that students communicate, gather information and even the way they go about learning differs markedly today from how their predecessors were able to function. Digital communication, the Internet, access to networked databases, computer games, and other types of interactive environments have shaped the cognitive abilities of students since before they were in middle school. Yet, for the most part, college instruction still follows the more traditional methods of a hundred years ago. This discussion explores how we might integrate some of these new technologies into the learning environment, both to address the different ways that students learn and the different ways they will interact with information in the future.

Available technology tools can assist our teaching in three areas. In the same way that on-line businesses, like, create clientele profiles to understand how to provide better services, we can create a learning profile for each student, recording how they use information and what types of information each student finds most useful. For example, using on-line course material we record which students learn best by reading and which students need to interact with information in a kinesthetic sense before they can build a useful cognitive framework for problem solving. Taking the analogy a step further, we can create learning materials for each topic that address different learning styles or strengths and customize the delivery of these materials as appropriate for each student, based on their individual learning strengths. We found it useful to provide formative assessment exercises of the same learning style. A third way to use technology is to create a place where students can construct and organize their own information resources. We are experimenting with on-line virtual reality environments that allow students to work collaboratively, inputting their own information as a way of addressing issues or problems.

These technologies have been designed to provide multiple levels of assessment concerning educational materials and how students use them. The assessment reports are beginning to provide feedback about what types of information might be most useful to different students, based on their individual learning strengths. Our findings so far suggest that some of our initial assumptions about how students use information were oversimplified.