Individualizing the ‘Factory-Like Experience’ of Large Courses to Enhance Learning

Headshot of Lisa Elfring
Dr. Lisa Elfring draws inspiration from K-12 instructional methodology to place value on the student, improve their performance, and revive the joy of teaching.
Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Imagine sitting in an auditorium-style lecture hall, surrounded by hundreds of other college freshmen as you listen to the instructor present on foreign science terms and abstract concepts. You’re feverishly scribbling down notes while wondering, “Will this be on the test?”

Your instructor doesn’t know your name. You could sit next to them at a café without the slightest bit of recognition. But that’s ok – if you can just recall the myriad of multisyllabic words on the exam next week, it doesn’t matter if your instructor knows who you are…right?

Scientist-turned-instructor Dr. Lisa Elfring, University of Arizona Associate Vice Provost for Instruction and Assessment and Associate Specialist in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, combines her background in research and education to improve teaching practices for introductory undergraduate biology courses. Drawing inspiration from K-12 educational practices, Elfring aims to enhance both the student and instructor experience through personalization, technology and evidence-based teaching strategies.

“As somebody who is trained as a scientist, I know there’s an incredibly rich and diverse set of research literature that we use as a basis for all the scientific discovery,” said Elfring, a member of the BIO5 Institute. “As an instructor however, you don't always realize there's equally strong educational best practices literature to help you understand what works, what doesn’t, and in which circumstances.”

When Elfring first came to the University of Arizona in 1998, she spent several years teaching intro-level biology courses. By immersing herself in the college education process, she was able to experience first-hand the challenges both students and instructors faced. 

The field of biology encompasses a whole new dictionary of terms, many of which can be challenging for students, even if they are learning the subject in their native language. Elfring observed that not only was mastering these terms a challenge, but there was too much emphasis placed on memorizing the terms first. Application seemed like an afterthought.  

“You can tell students whatever you want, but until they actually work with the ideas, try them out, apply and compare them, and sometimes get them wrong, they don't actually understand,” she said.

Elfring also found it difficult to connect with her students because of enormous class sizes. With 300-500 students taking the same first-year biology course, it’s nearly impossible for a college instructor to observe each student’s learning style and cater to their individual needs.

“It’s incredibly difficult to give undergraduate students in a factory-sized course the same individualized attention that K-12 teachers can,” she said. “Because college students can’t get a personalized learning experience in a class with hundreds of other students, it’s easy for them to feel as if they don’t matter.”

To begin to tear down the factory-like experience of large lecture-style classes and replace it with more individualized components, Elfring focused on creating a community and by placing value on the student – both of which are evidence-based practices. 

Though it’s easy for a student to feel unnoticed when they and hundreds of their classmates are all vying for the attention of one professor, Elfring strived to connect with her students by learning their names.  

Elfring said, “On the very first day of class, I’d say, ‘The biggest reward I have in teaching is helping individual students to make progress towards their goals. The only way I know whether or not I'm doing that is if I get to know individual students, so I'm going to try and learn your names.’” 

To attempt this feat, Elfring asked the students to print their names on manilla folders and hold them above their heads. She would look each student in the eyes, then look at the printed name, and finally say their name while looking directly back into their eyes. Through this basic exercise, Elfring was able to learn more than 80 names – something that was never possible for her and many instructors in a large class like introductory biology. 

Though she admits she’s not a “mental giant” and will never be able to learn every single name, Elfring knows that the simple effort makes a big impact.

“While it's not much, even just knowing that I was trying to learn their names helped the students understand that I wanted them to be known,” she said. 

Elfring has also implemented active learning techniques through which the students spent out-of-class time on readings and homework, replacing the traditional lecture portion of class with group work and discussions. Instead of focusing on the definition of a term, Elfring aimed to have students focus on the application of the term at the same time of its introduction to their science vocabulary.

Additionally, Elfring has employed technology to get a gauge for what the students knew prior to beginning the course. By using predictive testing at the beginning of the semester, she was able to tailor her lesson plans to unfamiliar concepts as opposed to wasting time on topics they had already mastered.

Once she implemented these changes into her instruction, Elfring quickly saw the improvements in student achievement and course satisfaction, as measured through graded materials and the Student Course Survey (formerly Teacher Course Evaluation). 

As the Associate Vice Provost for Instruction and Assessment, Elfring shares her practices with colleagues across the university. She’s proud to say that not only do their students also reap similar benefits, but the instructors also enjoy teaching more. Using these techniques, educators can spend less time speeding through a textbook’s worth of information and instead, help individual students and smaller groups within large classes to apply the facts and practices outlined in the textbook into real-world examples.

While Elfring has made great strides in improving in-person learning, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed new hurdles. 

To allow for social distancing and mitigate the spread of disease, many classes have transitioned online, making a personalized educational experience based on active learning, often in groups, more challenging. Elfring is drawing upon not only her years of work improving teaching practices for an in-person experience, but also utilizing her first-hand experience teaching a virtual upper-division biology course this semester. 

“It’s an incredibly important time to be teaching,” she said. “I can experience firsthand what challenges the instructors are facing and the challenges the students encounter. It’s really important to have both perspectives.”

Virtual education requires more attention from both the instructor and the student, and because everyone’s learning environment looks different right now, it’s hard for the instructor to create a space conducive to learning. Normally someone who likes to read body language and gauge the noise level in the classroom, Elfring finds it impossible to do so over Zoom. 

Most importantly, Elfring is missing the connection with her students. 

“Not being around students makes me feel disconnected from what we do at the university,” she said. 

However, virtual learning does have its benefits. The Zoom platform provides the ability to send students to breakout rooms to discuss concepts much like they would in small groups in-person. Students are also able to collaborate with one another in real-time through shared electronic documents and presentations. 

Though she’s made a tremendous amount of progress improving instruction of not only biology courses but in subjects university-wide, Elfring knows there is still much work to be done to enhance the experience for both students and instructors. 

She and others are revising the systems to assess the quality of teaching, as well as conducting grant-funded research on the efficacy of instructional teams that include the instructor, teaching assistant and preceptor. 

“You're never done making changes to your teaching to make it better for students,” she said. “The day I think I don't have anything else to change is probably the day I will decide to retire.”