Improve Student Engagement by Ditching Classroom Traditions

M. Chad Smith works as science coordinator and biology professor for Beaufort County Community College (BCCC) in North Carolina. He also teaches biology and environmental science courses as online adjunct faculty for Shaw University and Miller-Motte College. He discusses how he keeps his nonmajor biology students engaged by incorporating active learning in his classroom.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a biology instructor in higher education is keeping students engaged in the classroom, whether it is face-to-face or through synchronous virtual learning. After talking with my students on the first day of class, it was always clear to me that many do not know what they want to do with their lives. Some were unsure whether biology would be relevant to their degree path and career. This class response was not uncommon, as the majority of my students are still in high school through dual enrollment or the early college program. I asked myself, can I use this as an opportunity to get students to leave my class with an appreciation for biology—and what is the best approach to achieve this? This got me thinking more about student engagement through classroom traditions such as lectures and in-class exams.

Image Credit: Chad Smith

As we stand in front of the classroom (or gaze at our students on the screen via Zoom) delivering lectures, we may think students are absorbing every word we say. But how do we really know if we do not allow them to be active in the classroom? Traditionally, we can gauge what students know by administering in-class exams. However, are exams good indicators of what students know? Are they retaining the information after the exam? Could those exam days be replaced with active learning?
Active learning is when students are actively engaged in their own learning process. Research has suggested that students learn more about the concepts being taught by engaging in active exercises that include group assignments, interactive assignments, in-class questions, and article discussions—to name a few (Handelsman, Miller, & Pfund, 2007).

I was into my third year teaching when I realized I needed to make a change. I was stuck in a rut where I found myself mostly lecturing during class and wasn’t getting the engagement from students that I wanted. Ultimately, I decided to diverge from the deeply rooted culture of traditional lecture and in-class exams. Instead, I replaced them with active learning exercises and assessment alternatives. My first task for implementing change was to find a new textbook that supported active learning, was less cumbersome, and had a more engaging writing style. After researching different publishers, I landed on an online sample chapter from Biology Now, published by W. W. Norton & Company. As I read through the chapter, what really piqued my interest was that the authors use a journalistic approach by intertwining biological concepts with current and relevant stories. When I adopted the book the next semester, I discovered that the chapter stories promoted active learning through classroom discussions. Furthermore, these discussions helped identify student misconceptions, which proved helpful when determining what concepts needed to be addressed in the classroom. All things considered, there were times when I needed to lecture to explain these misconceptions or other difficult concepts. However, I avoided slipping back into my old habits of lecturing for prolonged periods of time. Instead, I would spend 2–3 minutes lecturing followed by asking questions or requesting that students explain the concepts again—then repeat the process as necessary.

As I started to incorporate more active learning exercises in the classroom, I realized it does take time and some degree of trial and error, but I actually found this process to be fun and a way to work the creative mind. First, I explored available resources that were provided to instructors through the Biology Now website. Additionally, I located other websites and professional groups dedicated to biology instructors that shared active learning exercises. My colleagues were also great resources, as we would often discuss exercises that were successful with student engagement. I even started to design my own exercises. Below is one example of an exercise I would often use in the classroom when I taught students about evaluating scientific claims:

This exercise is my own twist of a classic exercise that is often used as a classroom icebreaker activity. I call this exercise, Who Got Me Sick.

Each student would receive a small paper cup of water. However, one of these cups would contain a small amount of a weak acid that resembled water (be sure to include safety measures for acid handling). The scenario was that students would be attending a party, so they were advised to take their cup and mingle with at least five classmates (depending on class size). While mingling, they were instructed to exchange a small bit of liquid from their cups. When the students finished mingling with their classmates, I would tell them the bad news: that one of their classmates tested positive for a contagious virus. Using an acid indicator solution, I would have each student come up to the front of the class to get tested. If the indicator solution turned the contents in their cup a certain color, it would indicate they tested positive for the virus. Once all students were tested, I would let them devise a method to see if they could identify patient zero. Afterward, this exercise would be tied into a classroom discussion regarding vaccines and their controversies. Currently, this is extremely relevant, as students are amidst the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccine rollout.

In addition to adding more active learning exercises in my courses, I also made the decision to ditch in-class exams—you should see the happy faces when I tell students this on the first day of class. In place of exams, I generate three customizable assignments for each chapter using the online interfaces that accompany Biology Now. Students complete these assignments at home. Previously, I would spend four class sessions to administer exams. Now, I can use that time for further instruction that may better benefit students.

One of these online interfaces, InQuizitive, offers an interesting approach to how students learn chapter concepts. Students complete their first chapter assignment by wagering points on questions. If confident in their response, they can wager more points. If they get the question wrong, a feedback box appears assisting them with the correct answer. The questions featured in the InQuizitive assignment also target different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy to ensure mastery of the concepts. Another benefit is that each question includes a link to the ebook of Biology Now, where students can be directed to the pages where they can find the answer. I always thought this was a good strategy for getting the students to eventually read the entire chapter as they continued with the assignment.

The other online tool, Smartwork, was instrumental in replacing the in-class exams. This interface allowed me to customize the second and third chapter assignments that students would complete in succession. The second assignment offered three attempts to attain the correct answer before a point penalty was applied; the third assignment only allowed one attempt.

I decided to administer three assignments per chapter so students could work toward mastering the concepts before they would start the third assignment, where mastery was expected. Each semester, I would request student feedback regarding the structure of these assignments. Most of my students preferred this method over the in-class exams. Furthermore, their feedback helped me fine-tune the number of questions included in each assignment and question type (e.g., multiple choice, labeling, sorting, etc.). Both online interfaces came with the feature to produce activity reports, which allowed me to view commonly missed assignment questions. This was helpful to identify concepts that I needed to revisit in the classroom or, perhaps, develop into active learning exercises so students might be better prepared in the future.

Two years have passed since I made the decision to incorporate active learning and ditch in-class exams. During this time, I have noticed improvement in final averages, student participation, and enrollment. Students also seem to be less anxious about the class, since biology can often intimidate students. Some have even told me that they were now considering biology as a degree path and career. From my observations alone, I feel this positive shift was due to evaluating student engagement and my methods of classroom instruction such as assessments; being cognizant of student attitudes and behaviors in the classroom; and implementing more active learning exercises in lieu of traditional lecture.

For educators reading this post, I would like to leave you with a suggestion to develop at least one new active learning exercise each semester. Consider starting or joining a faculty group at your institution where you can share active learning exercises with one another or test them out. Do not be afraid to shake the classroom up by experimenting with different methods or ditching classroom traditions. Remember, education continues to evolve, and we need to continuously explore methods for improving teaching effectiveness so that we are not creating a disservice to our students.


Handelsman, J., Miller, S., & Pfund, C. (2007). Scientific Teaching. New York, New York: Roberts & Company Publishers.

One thought on “Improve Student Engagement by Ditching Classroom Traditions

  1. Kevin Law

    Would you be willing to provide a detailed protocol for the “cup mingling” exercise, so it can be carried out safely?

Leave a Reply