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Letter from the Chair

Newsletter issue:
H.D. 'Toby' Bradshaw

Dear alumni, friends, and supporters of UW Biology,

The Department of Biology at the University of Washington is the global leader in education research that is fundamentally transforming the way that biology is taught in classrooms and laboratories around the world.  If, like mine, your memories of college biology classes include listening (or pretending to listen) to interminable lectures, followed by carrying out the same “cookbook” lab experiments done by innumerable prior generations of students, you could be forgiven for not recognizing the experience that our current UW Biology students enjoy.

Active learning (in which the instructor guides students as they grapple with case studies and “what if … ?” questions in the classroom) has replaced the traditional lecture format in nearly all UW Biology courses.  In active learning classrooms, students respond with their cell phones to questions posed every few minutes by the instructor, giving the faculty instant feedback on the current state of every student’s knowledge.  Students are called upon at random to answer questions, which keeps everyone throroughly focused on the classroom discussion even in a class of 700 students filling every seat in Kane Hall!

Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) have been developed as a substitute for rote lab exercises across the Biology curriculum, including in the huge (up to 1200 students) Introductory Biology courses.  Mentored by faculty and graduate student teaching assistants, undergraduate students carry out original, authentic research that generates novel discoveries – the same thrill that has always motivated the scientific enterprise.  The first UW Biology CURE, exploring the real-time evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, was taught by Professor Ben Kerr a decade ago.  His pioneering teaching innovation resulted in a paper in Nature co-authored with three undergraduates, and led to Professor Kerr winning the campus-wide Distinguished Teaching Award!

Active learning and CUREs have profound effects on student achievement because rather than just studyingscience, our students become scientists.  This radical change in teaching methods and philosophy is driven by overwhelming evidence (the most compelling of which comes from the UW’s own Biology Education Research Group) that while all students benefit from active learning and CUREs, the students who benefit most are those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds – the same students most likely to abandon STEM careers if taught by traditional methods.

In a study led by Principal Lecturer Scott Freeman, members of our Biology Education Research Groupanalyzed 225 different peer-reviewed articles on the effect of active learning on student performance.  They found that students taught with traditional lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail science courses than students taught in active learning classrooms.  The positive effect of active learning is so great that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman stated in his commentary on the Freeman paper that traditional lectures are “the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting” in medicine; i.e., outdated and unethical.  Apparently Professor Wieman’s view is becoming more widely shared, as the Freeman paper’s citation history places it in the top 1% of all scientific papers published since 2014, and in the top 0.1% of all papers published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USAover the past 100 years.

Scott Freeman has made a tremendous impact on the teaching of biology at the UW and around the world, and helped to make UW Biology the global epicenter of biology education research. Scott is retiring this year, but if you missed your chance to see him work his magic in the classroom, you can still enjoy one of his online seminars on active learning.  And Scott’s legacy lives on in our Biology Department’s commitment to our students!

Warmest regards,