Let’s just admit it: We are all busy (and a little lazy) and searching for information is harder (and requires more effort) than if it is just handed to us. Who wants to cook or drive to a restaurant after a long tiring day when you can just have hot food delivered to your door? Convenience and learning do not usually go together. Learning is an active process, and activities that require students to read and seek out information offer more potential for achievement than simply requiring students to follow a series of steps. In my view, a culinary arts school wouldn’t be preparing future chefs if they simply asked the students to follow a rote recipe. Requiring the aspiring cooks to develop their own recipe would be a much more effective activity.
Teaching internet courses is a challenge. There is always the temptation to provide information to students and then simply have them regurgitate it. Teaching internet biology labs is a little like cooking school in that you expect students to collect and evaluate data or to be creative and demonstrate their understanding of a particular topic.
One particular activity that I require of my internet biology students is to build a DNA model out of household items that includes 20 nucleotides as well as a “legend” which shows what each item represents. They must then submit a digital photograph of their model and legend for grading. I simply give them the assignment requirements and several links to good DNA structure websites (they are also exposes to this information in the corresponding “lecture” course). They must carefully read and evaluate this information in order to build a model that contains the correct parts in the correct positions.
On average, 10-15% of the students are troubled by the freedom they have and how vague the assignment instructions are. Many of these students are high achievers and would rather simply be given a clear recipe to follow rather than to have to demonstrate their understanding through creative expression. These students ask lots of questions about if they can use X for the DNA bases and if they can use Y for the sugar phosphate backbone. The key to completing this assignment with a high score is reading carefully. Careful reading and understanding of the background information on DNA structure is essential for being able to build a suitable model.
As instructors, we may have the tendency to simply hand the students a step by step recipe for the assignment. But let’s not forget that we all grow by being challenged, so challenging our students to learn more and develop their reading and critical thinking skills should be a part of our teaching pedagogy. Reading for understanding is an essential part of success in modern day life. We all have to read the fine print before we sign a contract lest we end up locked into a situation with unexpected conditions. Giving our students assignments which force them to read carefully will help them to excel in their future educational pursuits as well as in their lives outside of the classroom.