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Click Michelle Smith leads charge for active learning in science education by Beth Staples
Picture of Michelle Smith holding clicker

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Michelle Smith is the principal investigator on four projects and a co-principal investigator on another, all aimed at improving nationwide science instruction and assessments.

Teaching science clicks for Michelle Smith.

The assistant professor in the School of Biology and Ecology is a national leader in a charge to improve science education. And clickers — wireless personal response systems (think of a television remote control) — are part of the equation.

For students in Smith’s spring 2015 genetics course, learning about sister chromatids and homologous chromosomes involved pointing and clicking.

And for Smith, understanding how undergraduates grasp genetic concepts is a rewarding aspect of teaching.

In a heralded study with Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, Seattle, and others, Smith found undergraduates in college science classes that actively engage them in learning are more apt to pass and are more likely to earn better grades than peers in lecture-format classes.

Students in a class taught by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith teaching concepts and applications of genetics in an active learning classroom.


The researchers reanalyzed 225 studies that compared grades of students enrolled in undergraduate science, engineering and mathematics courses taught in a typical lecture format with grades of students in STEM courses that utilized active learning methods.

They revealed that students in classes that incorporated active learning techniques were 1.5 times more likely to pass than those in traditional lecture format classes.

And they found students in active learning sections earned grades nearly one-half a standard deviation higher, or, for example, a B rather than a B-, than students listening to a lecturer.

The study, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Students in classes that incorporated active learning techniques were 1.5 times more likely to pass than those in traditional lecture format classes.

Aleszu Bajak wrote about the research in a piece titled “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds,” for ScienceInsider. The article was ScienceInsider’s third most popular of 2014; plagiarism and Ebola took the top two spots.

In Bajak’s article, Harvard University physicist Eric Mazur was quoted saying the research is important and “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data.”

He continued: “It’s good to see such a cohesive picture emerge from their meta-analysis — an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.”

Not surprising, then, that Smith is invited by colleges nationwide to share her research about active learning.

And Smith’s research is growing.

In 2013, she became principal investigator on four projects and co-principal investigator on another, all aimed at improving nationwide science instruction and assessments.

Those five projects earned $6.8 million in funding from the National Science Foundation; UMaine’s portion is more than $1 million.

Smith says she wasn’t always at the head of the class.

In middle school, she says she struggled to learn and was placed in remedial classes. She’s grateful that a teacher who believed in her gave her extra interesting science-related work.

“I gravitated to it,” Smith says. “It struck a chord. I would say that biology always came more natural to me, and I also really loved thinking about how to approach problems.”

She doubled up on science and math offerings, and progressed out of remedial classes.

Smith excelled at Hanover College in Indiana, graduating magna cum laude in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. In 2000, she earned a master’s in biology from the University of Dayton in Ohio and in 2006, she was awarded a doctorate in biology from the University of Washington, Seattle.

When selecting a school and topic for postdoctoral research, Smith says she often found herself daydreaming about how people learned and what they learned.

“That’s really what I wanted to do,” she says.

Smith was elated that the University of Colorado Boulder had postdoc research in the Science Education Initiative.

“I was the happiest postdoc,” she says. “I admired my mentors and loved what I was doing.”

She still does. In the 2015 spring semester, Smith taught genetics in UMaine’s recently constructed active learning classroom in Estabrooke Hall. Features include 10 round workstations, each of which seats up to nine people, 10 wall-mounted video screens and full-wall white dry erase boards.

In the first class of the semester, Smith invited students to go with her on an adventure and to come to class with their minds turned on.

She introduced research on best practices, including active learning in science and math. She said the course would help students understand genetics with regard to their own health, as well as crime forensics and various genetic disorders, including Down Syndrome, hemophilia and cystic fibrosis.

And she said understanding genetic concepts would be necessary for those who wished to be veterinarians, environmental conservationists, physicians and forensic scientists.

The best clicker questions, according to research, are those that concentrate on concepts the instructor believes are most important.

Molly Picillo, an undergraduate student learning assistant who previously took and excelled in the class, encouraged students to take advantage of the active learning method and called it amazing.

All through the semester, students used their clickers to select answers to multiple-choice questions Smith posted on the large video screens. In real time, a computer recorded the responses and showed Smith and students the results.

A pile of clickers.

The best clicker questions, according to research, are those that concentrate on concepts the instructor believes are most important. They also have several credible answer choices that both prompt discussion and reveal where student confusion exists with the concepts.

Smith listens to small-group discussions at each table to further understand their thinking processes.

“Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t believe they don’t know this’ — I find it interesting how I can move them in a direction,” she says.

Smith says she reinforces challenging genetic concepts three or four times — with a clicker question in class, as part of homework, in a follow-up clicker question where students apply their knowledge to a new situation and on an exam.

In addition to utilizing active learning techniques to share her knowledge of genetics with upperclass students at UMaine, clickers also are used in introductory biology classes with large numbers of students.

Thanks to Smith and Farahad Dastoor, a lecturer of biological sciences, 800 UMaine students in three introductory biology sections also embraced clickers and engaged in small group conversations rather than sitting and listening to information dispensed by a “sage on a stage.”

Smith and Dastoor were featured in a recent National Science Foundation story, “Rules of engagement: Transforming the teaching of college-level science.”

Smith, whose research brings together other universities, as well as UMaine administrators, faculty, postdoctoral and graduate students, undergraduates and area K–12 teachers, “is helping to re-envision science education on her campus as well as across the country,” states the article.

Smith recalls a valuable gift she received as a postdoc with the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder.

She says she used to preface or qualify her research by saying she could switch back to molecular biology. Then an adviser encouraged her to stop apologizing for her field of choice.

The advice clicked and she’s embraced it ever since.

“I’m doing science education,” she says. “It’s important and really great.”

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Spring/Summer 2015

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