Volume 8, Number 1, 1999

Active Leaning at Delaware

On a blackboard in UD’s Brown Laboratory, Harold B. White III, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and program director for the new HHMI grant, has written a Chinese proverb: "I hear, and I will forget. I see, and I may remember. I do, and I will understand."

The words are a reminder, he says, that learning takes place faster and more effectively "when lessons are delivered in story form, and students participate in an active way."Student Dennis Yoon of Park Ridge, N.J., agrees.

Confronted with a photosynthesis problem–the process by which green plants transform carbon dioxide into biomolecules in the presence of sunlight–Yoon shakes his head. He learned about photosynthesis years ago, he says, by listening to traditional lectures. "I remember memorizing the entire process, step by step," he says. "Now, I don’t remember any of it."

In contrast, Yoon, a first-year graduate student, and other students in White’s biochemistry classes retain much of what they learn by investigating real problems presented in a story-like format. To prove this point, White surprised his students with an impromptu pop quiz, questioning them about an anecdotal story he told in a previous class.

"How old was Albert Szent-Gyorgyi when he died?" White asks.

"Was he 93?" a student responds immediately.

White nods, smiling. "Why did he win the Nobel Prize?"

"Discovery of Vitamin C," someone else responds, correctly.

"Where and when did I meet him?" White queries.

"Uh, somewhere in Massachusetts."

White says that he did, indeed, meet the Nobel laureate at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, located in Massachusetts.

His students can’t be stumped. "While this was just a trivia quiz," White says, "it shows how well information can be retained when it’s presented in an understandable context."

Such anecdotal evidence suggests that active learning techniques built around stories help students learn more effectively and retain information longer. White and other PBL pioneers at UD also point to pre- and post-class surveys, which provide more concrete evidence that the method works. White, who joined the UD faculty in 1971, says students faced with real-world problems and situations learn to think critically and work cooperatively in teams.

They also learn to identify the limits of their existing knowledge, and they gain critical investigative skills. Yoon, Heidenfelder and other students, for example, quickly concluded they should visit the library to determine "whether all the carbon atoms in clothing are ultimately derived from photosynthesis."

And, White says, "That’s the whole point. They need to take the initiative to solve the problem independently. They won’t be able to hold jobs or succeed in graduate school if they don’t know how to find answers."

For more information on HHMI, check out: www.hhmi.org/undergrad98 or www.udel.edu/chem/white/teaching/SciEdGrant/HHMI.html