Inspiring Undergraduates to Get Interested

9 Apr

Now that I have a full semester under my belt, I’ve spent some time in self evaluation… and I’ve spent the past couple weeks, perhaps months, mulling over what I consider a huge problem with the “modern sophomore student” (or, at least the type at Allegheny). Simply stated, these students have very strong intellectual talents but express little or no interest in actually engaging scientific material.

I’ve tried to organize this blog post in a couple of different ways and I’m not really satisfied with any. So, here goes. My apologies if my thoughts are scattered… and I’m hoping for some dialogue from the larger community.

My Background

Undergraduate research is mandatory for Biology majors at Allegheny College — to graduate, each student must fulfill a two-semester Senior Comprehensive Research project (which they develop during their Junior Seminar and/or during their 1st semester of their Senior Comp). During the Spring Semester prior to their senior year, upcoming seniors select (and rank) 3 faculty members with whom they wish to do their Senior Comp project with; we meet as a faculty and see how things would look if we paired up every student with their 1st choice and make modifications as needed. Generally, students get to do their Senior Comp project with their 1st or 2nd choice and thus pursue a research project they are interested in. Many of our seniors are interested and they end up turning out very nice theses. However, the majority of our sophomores are often disinterested and not engaged in scientific inquiry. This has me wondering whether it is them, us (as faculty), or a combination of the two. How do we balance teaching large classes of sophomores the foundations of biology while promoting their critical thinking? How can we spark their enthusiasm to ask questions and to think beyond their next exam?

Is it Them?

Have modern undergraduate students changed since I was in college? Do they relay on txt message communication so much that they’ve lost any level of comfort in speaking out loud in front of a group? Are risks rewarded in high school or are they discouraged because they detract from the flow of class? I spend quite a bit of time thinking about these types of topics because many of my students are sophomores. Of the 4 class sections that I’ve taught in my first year at Allegheny, 3 of those sections are sophomore-level courses. As a new faculty, I don’t yet have a solid reputation within our department, so I actively recruit students to work with me; most of these students come from the classes that I teach. Part of my interest in these topics is personal because some of these students will end up working with me during their senior year… and I want to work with students that are excited about doing science. Identifying students early in their career that I think would be a good fit in my lab certainly has its benefits. Like most faculty, I am more interested in recruiting students that are interested in asking questions and who aren’t afraid of taking risks than recruiting students with a 4.0 GPA but have little interest in anything that isn’t on their next exam. I spend quite a bit of time conversing with students to “feel them out”, because their personality in a large classroom setting might be fundamentally different than a small group setting.

Is it Us?

Although our curriculum is set up so that students have to develop an independent research project, I’m afraid that we don’t successfully develop these skills until our students are juniors or seniors. As such, I’ve also spent considerably more time than I ever thought I would thinking about how we teach our intro courses at Allegheny. Are all the topics that we teach absolutely necessary? For example, would we service our students better by cutting Hardy Weinberg Equilibrium out of our intro “Genetics, Development, Evolution” course and spend more time discussing case studies related to topics such as evolutionary development that promote active learning? How do we set a culture for this in the classroom? How can we change student customs from being lectured at to engaging with the material and actually thinking and processing it?


I have a feeling that this isn’t a unique problem with Allegheny… and I have a feeling that many of us faculty are frustrated about what we can do. I am confident in the liberal arts model of education and recognize the benefits of their curricula. I also recognize that we might be losing some of our best upcoming scientists because we are not capitalizing on developing their potential research strengths earlier on in their academic careers.


4 Responses to “Inspiring Undergraduates to Get Interested”

  1. Leah April 10, 2014 at 6:46 PM #

    Do the sophomores who seem disinterested go on to become engaged seniors or just continue doing the exact same thing? It seems from your description like it might be the former, and in that case I’m not sure that anyone’s doing anything in particular wrong. As a physics major I can say strongly that, if I had just jumped into research and case studies without a strong background in theory first, I would have been totally lost and disheartened. Students need to have some level of confidence in their baseline knowledge, and I’m realizing more and more that, regardless of how unrelated the content of advanced-level classes may seem from intros, that basic knowledge and confident mindset is absolutely necessary.
    …Anyway, that’s my (slightly long-winded) two cents.

    • Matthew Venesky April 10, 2014 at 7:19 PM #

      Leah — thanks for the comment. That’s a great point. Being a 1st yr faculty, I can’t say for certain how many “disinterested” sophomores become interested seniors. I guess what I was trying to get at, but did not articulate as well as I hoped, w/ the post is that they [sophomores] seem uninterested in thinking about questions in general, whether it be in in a research or classroom setting. They are so test focused and that confines the way they think about scientific inquiry. At some point, most do get interested in asking questions and thinking beyond exams… I’d like to harness the potential that I see in them earlier than their senior year. Can faculty change the way in which we present our material so that it frees students to get interested earlier?

  2. Chris Buddle April 10, 2014 at 7:28 PM #

    It’s a big question you are asking – one solution, in my opinion, is to toss out the idea of ‘foundational courses’ and jump at the opportunity for inquiry-based learning early on in an academic program – jump into research experiences RIGHT away (year 1) – it’s doable, and increases engagement. (we’ve written about the experience, here: )

    So, this pretty much directly contrasts the opinion of Leah, below, but I think we spend too much time thinking ‘baseline knowledge’ is important – knowledge is being accessed by UG students in VERY different ways than in the past, and the foundational ‘building blocks’ are easily accessed now – instead, we need to focus on how to help students filter/assess / synthesize the knowledge rather than assume we need to cram it into courses in year 1.

    Finally, I believe that lack of student engagement is sometimes because the instructors haven’t adapted new ways of teaching. We’ve become accustomed to being slaves to powerpoint slides, and content-rich lectures instead of a more discussion-oriented approach to content, and more active learning opportunities that might include peer-to-peer teaching, clickers, or other methods.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts! The problem is with us, the students, the teaching style, and the fact that new approaches to knowledge acquisition are changing everything.

    Hope this helps!

    • Matthew Venesky April 10, 2014 at 7:44 PM #

      Chris — thanks for the comment and for the link. I downloaded the PDF and will read it tonight.

      I absolutely love the idea of helping students filter, assess, and synthesize knowledge. After a single semester here, I fundamentally changed my approach to the intro course that I am repeating from last semester (“fundamental” = as much as I possibly could in the short time span). I ditched the majority of the PPT slides (I also fully agree w/ your final point) and even cut many of the extra examples that I thought were cool but were getting lost on the students. I now spend the extra time helping students do just what you suggested: filter out the noise, find patterns, and synthesize this with the concepts that we’ve taught them. My stumbling block, and the impetus for the post, is that many of my students aren’t embracing the change. They’d rather have all a set of prefab lecture notes and would prefer (I think) that an instructor never asked an open ended question in class. This changes, of course, by the time they hit their junior or senior year.

      To bridge your comment with Leah’s, I think that I prefer some blend of introductory material and inquiry-based learning. At least that is the approach that I’m trying this current semester in my course. Do you have any feelings on whether this blend works or whether you need to go “all in” on either approach to be an effective instructor? Do/can students easily transition back and forth between approaches within a block of material?

      As a side, 3 of the students in my lab are sophomores and they do fantastic work in the classroom and in my lab. I know it is possible; they are evidence. It would be great to have an entire classroom of them.

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