Talking Teaching: Engaging remote biology students

Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies. This month, we discussed how biology students could perform labs and research remotely and methods to help students develop scientific writing skills.

In this blog, I’d like to discuss how New York University kept their biology students engaged while teaching labs and research skills online. The article is published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education and is open access.

The article we’d like to share with you this month is:

What’s this paper about?

This paper details how New York University adapted its seminar-style undergraduate biology courses during the pandemic. Like many teachers and institutions, the authors ran into a few challenges immediately. 

  • The shift to distance learning was sudden and unexpected.
  • It was difficult to maintain effective communication, class participation, and transition to remote learning/teaching.
  • Lessons needed to involve groups and asynchronous activities.

Despite these challenges, the authors were able to achieve remote experiential learning, designed a remote lab, and engage students in remote research. They outlined what worked well for them and how their students responded to the modified activities.

Experiential learning

Students were asked to take a half hour walk around their neighborhood and identify 20 unique plant species. This activity was chosen since students didn’t have to purchase any additional supplies nor travel. Students were expected to hit three learning objectives.

  1. Observe local adaptations of plant traits.
  2. Compare plant diversity in different locations.
  3. Identify examples of convergent and divergent evolution.

These learning objectives were possible since students were located worldwide in a wide range of environments. Students used a free app called Seek to ID plants. If students did not have a smartphone, they could upload the images to Seek’s website. 60 students with no botany background were able to identify 1,200+ plant species. After data collection, each student was paired with another student living elsewhere. These pairs answered pre-assigned questions and presented their results and analysis in a 3-minute pre-recorded presentation in Zoom.

Related: New labs in the Lt Biology Collection: Easily teach about DNA, proteins, pollution, and climate change »

Interactive virtual lab

The lab the authors discussed was on Mendelian genetics and leaned on a few previous findings.

  • Mendelian genetics is foundational to understanding many other ideas and is a common source of scientific misconceptions.
  • Students learn more about this topic when provided with human examples, rather than examples featuring other species.
  • Team-based approaches are effective and enjoyable for students.

Normally, students were put into teams of four to record each other’s phenotypes for traits exhibiting Mendelian patterns of inheritance (hand clasping, earlobe shape, iris pigment, freckles, Hitchhiker’s thumb, PTC tasting, etc.). Each group’s data was combined into class data which was used to discuss related scientific concepts and misconceptions (alleles, genotypes, dominant/recessive traits, etc.) Students were consistently more engaged and interested in this activity than other class exercises and performance on assessment questions related to these concepts were higher than average than other questions on the same exam.

When the lab was taught online, educators opted for collaborative activities rather than individual assignments to keep engagement high. They formed synchronous Zoom sessions where small groups of students worked together in breakout rooms to complete a Mendelian genetics assignment. Students used a Google Doc to record their phenotypes which was later combined with data from the whole class. The next part of the lab allowed small groups of students to work together to complete a worksheet with questions about the underlying biological concepts. Finally, a full-class discussion on key findings and questions rounded out the virtual lab.

Remote research

The authors report that a majority of students have little to no prior scientific research experience (even in the form of a primary literature review). Before the pandemic, think-pair-share and group discussions were used to engage students in literature-based group projects on biodiversity conservation. Once students were remote, the authors used COVID-19 to get students to look at environmental health through the lens of the pandemic.  
Research projects were structured by using synchronous and asynchronous modalities. Semester-long “class buddies” conducted a think-pair-share review on a chosen environmental health case study using either the institution’s  LMS chat or Google Chat in a synchronous Zoom session. Students and the instructor had permission to curate the resources within a Google Doc regardless of location or library experience. 

Each group met up outside of class to plan a 10-15 minute presentation on their case study. The presentation had to include both journal publications and news articles. Each group was to explain their case study, address misconceptions, cover significance, threats, and strategies and post questions for a student-guided discussion. These presentations were made via a synchronous, recorded Zoom session. Those unable to attend submitted records and discussed via Google Doc or forum. Assessment was carried out by the instructor and peer-reviewers using a rubric shared with students beforehand.

Initially, most students had an anthropocentric perspective. Many were also confused by misinformation being spread online. Students were able to counter these misconceptions by researching how humanity interacts with environments containing pathogens and the export of organisms through consumption and wildlife trade. This research also expanded student’s perceptions of environmental health to a biocentric approach encompassing human effects on wildlife.

Related: WEBINAR: How to Enliven Your Online Biology Teaching »

Final thoughts

We love the creativity behind these activities - the educators brought the classroom to learners' home environments, made examples and assignments relevant, paired semester-long buddies to build support and enhance collaboration in an isolating year, and helped students build skills to improve their research and combat the spread of misinformation. Impressive under normal conditions – and outstanding for a sudden, unexpected shift to remote learning!

Looking to teach biology online, or curious about how you might design your course using modern resources? Preview the Lt Biology Collection, or experience Lt with our free trial!

Join the discussion

Have you had success with group activities when teaching biology? What’s your preferred way to encourage research skills? What methods worked best for you when teaching labs remotely?

Join us in the ADI: Educator Community on LinkedIn and let other educators know your thoughts!

Our online community is a hub for life sciences education in #highered, where you can share resources, ask questions, get feedback, and build meaningful relationships - across campus and across the globe!

Additional Resources:

PCR, CRISPR, ELISA and more! Bio-Rad kits expand the Lt Biology Collection »

WEBINAR: Versatile Biology: Engaging Experiments for Any Learning Environment »

Lesson Design: How to promote the six core competencies for undergraduate biology students »

Celebrating Darwin Day – Preview Lt's new Population Genetics and Evolution Lab! »


Are you interested in using Lt to deliver your course? Try Lt now – for free!

Lt comes complete with 900+ ready-to-use, fully-customizable lessons and labs for teaching physiology, anatomy, biology, chemistry, medicine, and nursing courses. Instantly preview a selection of lessons, or Try Lt for yourself. View all 12 content collections »