Title of the Course –  Introductory Biology

Instructor –  Michael Gustin

Department – BioSciences

Course Number - BIOC 201

Intended Student Audience- Undergraduates

Course Description: Develop critical insight into basic biological mechanisms of biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, and development of animals and plants through exploration of initial observations, definition of problems and questions, construction and testing of hypotheses, and analysis of the results of experiments.

Professor Gustin teaches biology in a way that knocks you out of your comfort zone.
— BIOC 201 student


How can we create opportunities for learning through small group discussion and peer instruction in a large lecture class?

Gustin's BIOC 201 is a popular introductory course enrolling around 200 students each semester it is offered. The course is a requirement for BioSciences majors, a prerequisite for upper level courses in the BioSciences and other disciplines, and it also fulfills the University's distribution credit for science courses. Therefore, students enter the course with varying levels of preparation in the biological sciences and different motivations for mastering the material.  Gustin says that in order to facilitate more meaningful learning experiences he knew he had to get students talking to each other and working together during class. However due to the survey nature of the course, the lectures cover a large amount of material and are fast paced leaving little time for students to work together in groups during lecture. In addition, the large course enrollment creates logistical challenges for managing group work and discussion during lectures.


To create structured opportunities for small group work Gustin decided to make it an integrated part of the course design. At the beginning of the semester each student is assigned to a team of 10-12 students that they will work with over the semester in breakout discussion sections.  Eight class meetings over the semester (about 15% of classes) are dedicated to these breakout discussion sessions. Prior to each breakout session, Gustin assigns a few questions or provides a topic that one or two team members on each team must address. For example, for one session students are asked to create an analogy for one of the topics discussed in the previous lectures. These students prepare a response ahead of the discussion section, then give a presentation to their teammates and guide discussion during the breakout session.  An undergraduate teaching assistant is there (with a rubric) to observe and make sure all students are participating. At the end of the discussion session another student on the team writes up a summary of the discussion and identifies any unanswered questions. Before the next lecture Gustin scans these write-ups for the ‘unanswered questions' and these become potential topics for extra credit on the next exam. He says that this motivates all students in the class to read and try to answer these 'unanswered questions,' which are posted on the course webpage. In addition, when appropriate, he brings the work completed in these small groups back into the large group lecture. For example, the lecture following the analogy assignment he presents all of the analogies to the whole class and they vote on what they believe are the best two analogies. In this way, Gustin encourages students to see the small group work and peer instruction as an integrated part of their overall learning in the class, as opposed to 'supplemental' or 'additional' coursework.

I appreciated the discussion groups as it was a chance to discuss the material in a smaller forum and an opportunity to become more engaged with the subject and share knowledge with classmates.
— BIOC 201 student


Gustin says that there have been a few challenges with implementing these small group breakout sessions that he has not yet found solutions for. To begin with, due to the large number of students enrolled in this course integrating small group work at this level requires a lot of administration on the part of the instructor. Using undergraduate teaching assistants helps with some of the administrative tasks, but Gustin says he continues to look for ways to streamline the administration of the group discussion sessions. Gustin has also found that student absences from the small group discussion sections are difficult to account for since the these class meetings are more heavily factored into students grades than lecture meetings. This is particularly challenging when it comes to student athletes who may miss classes when their sport is in season.


Mike Gustin is a Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology.  He has earned multiple teaching awards over his 25 years at Rice University. In 2016 he received the George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit, thereby officially being retired from the competition for the Rice University Brown Teaching Awards. Professor Gustin's research is in the area of molecular genetics and biochemistry of signal transduction.

Posted on August 8, 2016 and filed under Natural Sciences.