Shannan Muskopf
Master's Degree in Educational Technology



I have been teaching biology for eight years, and my instruction methods have evolved from undergraduate coursework in education and from trial and error experience over the years. I have altered and revised my instruction based on observations, analysis, and evaluations of my students' learning process. Two major approaches to learning guide my teaching practices: a behaviorist approach and a cognitive approach.

Behaviorist Approach

B.F. Skinner defined a behaviorist model of learning and in general expressed it in a cause-effect relationship, that one could encourage a positive effect by providing positive stimulus. Though his famous skinner box, with the rats and the lever and the food was a good model for a behavior approach, it doesn't effectively describe how this approach can be used on humans and learning. From a teaching and learning standpoint, the behaviorist model describes a model of instruction where desired outcomes are encouraged and rewarded.

"Skinner and others viewed the teacher's job as modifying the behavior of students by setting up situations to reinforce students when they exhibit desired responses, teaching them to exhibit the same response in all situations. " (Roblyer, Edwards, 2000, p.53) By this reasoning, a teacher's main job is to impart information and reinforce students' being able to memorize and restate this information on tests and tasks. Though this sounds like a sterile way to describe teaching and learning, it is not as bad as it sounds. The instruction style that follows a behaviorist approach is "direct instruction" and is a very standard classroom instruction style. Teachers lecture, students take notes, students memorize notes or perform basic tasks on worksheets and then take a test. This method has also gotten somewhat of a bad reputation with the development of new theories, but it does have a place in the education system. It also has a place in my own teaching styles. Biology is a subject that contains a large amount of vocabulary and technical terms that students must learn in order to advance to more intellectual concepts of biology.

Direct instruction is a method I use to facilitate the learning of lower level skills and vocabulary. As it relates to technology, direct instruction and behaviorist theories of learning are best supported by drill and practice programs or tutorials, both of which I have used in my classes. Students are expected to know the structure of DNA, and be able to identify the main components of the theory of evolution: who Charles Darwin was, how did he conduct his research, and the definitition of natural selection. Direct instruction, followed by guided practice and evaluation is the best method for learning these concepts. For instance, I would give students a lecture and notes on the board which they would be expected to write down. This would be followed by individual practice and reading to reinforce the information. The next day, I would spend time reviewing the information by giving the students oral questions and positive feedback for participation and correct answers.

Instructional Technology can support this learning process by allowing students to explore topics using programs or resources on the world wide web. Specifically, I find students have a hard time understanding the process of DNA transcription and translation, or the process by which the code in the DNA is translated to body form and function. Lectures and diagrams do not always give students a wholistic view of the process. To supplement this lesson, students access animations and graphics (using shockwave or quicktime) on the world wide web. I have had several students tell me after the lesson that they can now "see" how the process works, and how each step leads to the next, which in the end results to a protein (or trait) in the human body. Without the clickable animations, students would be left to fill in the blanks between the diagrams, and they often do not see DNA transcription as a continual process until they see it in action. Without animations and other resources available with technology, students may never have seen the process in action at all. Direct instruction and the understanding of advanced concepts is made easier by technology, and affords students the opportunity to work at their own pace, and even review from home topics that are covered in class.

Direct instruction is not, however, the best method for encouraging higher thinking skills in students. Most students can learn to work the system by memorizing facts and figures and regurgitating them on tests, but this does not guarantee that same student can use those facts and information in meaningful ways, such as creating value judgements or comparing theories, or even understanding what differentiates a scientific theory from a fact. For these skills, I use a cognitive approach.

Cognitive Approach

"Many educational psychologists found the emphasis on observable outcomes unsatisfying. They did not agree with behaviorists' views that stimulus-response learning alone could form the basis for building higher level skill. As they focused on capabilities such as rule learning and problem solving, they became more concerned with the internal prroecesses that went on during learning. With this knowledge, they hoped to arrange appropriate instruction conditions to promote learning of these kinds of skills" (Roblyer, Edwards, 2000, p.53)

I agree with the idea that behaviorist approach of observable outcome does not lend itself well to higher order thinking. Understanding the definition of natural selection does not guarantee and understanding of the process itself. I use directed instruction to build a foundation so that students can use vocabulary and basic concepts to build a larger knowledge pool about the concept. Once the students have the basics down from direct instruction, I move toward project and lab oriented teaching. Students are required to use prior knowledge to build a wholistic picture of concepts and biological process, also known as constructivsm. I use several specific strategies:

Learning Strategies

Collaborative Learning

Students work in small groups to develop their understanding of a subject. Essential features include: "students work in teams to master academic materials, teams are made up of high, average, and low achievers, and are racially and sexually mixed, reward systems are group-oriented rather than individually oriented." (Arends, 1994, p. 344)

Sometimes peer to peer teaching can be more effective as students offer their own insights on a topic and phrase it in ways that other students understand. I use collaborative learning in lab settings and sometimes in group review work. For instance, students work in small groups to dissect a fetal pig and help each other learn the structures. Collaborative learning can work in conjuction with direct instruction, where students help each other grasp difficult concepts. Collaborative learrning can also work with cognitive intruction practices where students develop skills and knowledges more independently of a teacher.

Technology can support collaborative learning in several ways. Students can discuss topics over forums and even chatrooms. I had a particularly engaging discussion at the Talkorigins chatroom with students who were doing a group project to create a web page on evolution. The java chat provided at talk origins gave normally quiet students the opportunity to speak out and ask questions. Groups would even discuss with each other what they had found on the web and how they would incorporate it into their web sites. In addition to communication devices, students can work collaboratively on web quests and other web based projects.

Exploration and Discovery Learning (Inquiry Based Learning)

I use inquiry based labs in some situations to promote thinking skills and problem solving abilities. Inquiry based labs do not have set guidelines or instructions and instead offer students a goal or problem that they must work through to solve on their own. In these cases, the teacher serves as a guide in the process, to help the students work through the problem.

Discovery learning is "an approach to instruction through which students interact with their environment-by exploring and manipulating objects, wrestling with questions and controversies, or performing experiments" (Ormrod, 2000, p. 442)

This method of learning works particularly well in science classes because science lends itself well to hands-on exploration type learning. Though many labs are not inquiry based and follow a "recipe" format, I have modified several to shift them to a discovery based strategy of learning. For instance, in tthe seed germination experiment, students are given a set of materials and asked to answer a question about how environmental factors affect the germination of a seed. They are not given instructions on how to design the experiment, instead they work in groups (collaborative learning) to determine what materials and tests should be conducted to answer the experimental question.

Inquiry based learning can be supported by instructional technology as programs and websites also align with a more open ended approach. While tutorials are excellent for understanding processes, open ended programs, that allow students to manipulate data and view results are great supplements to lessons. These programs can eliminate the time and cost of running long term open ended experiments. For instance, students use a shockwave program to manipulate the intensity of light on a leaf. The program allows them to change the parameters and view the rate of photosynthesis. Not only do students get a feeling for how light affects the process, but they can also view the steps and chemical reactions of photosynthesis as they perform the activity.

Project-Based Learning

"Project Based Learning is an innovative model for teaching and learning. It focuses on the central concepts and principles of a discipline, involves students in problem-solving investigations and other meaningful tasks, allows students to work autonomously to construct their own knowledge, and culminates in realistic products." (Buck Institute for Education)

Project based learning is also used in conjunction with direct instruction in my classroom. It is similar to inquiry based learning in that there is no specific "right" answer students are expected to find. Though with inquiry based lab, some answers are more right than others, depending on the type of lab. With project based learning, I am more interested in the process itself, where students must analyze a problem or topic from a variety of perspective and then present their knowledge (usually in the form of posters, web pages, or power point presentations). Project based learning facilitates an in depth study of a topic, where students have the freedom to construct their knowledge base on a specific topic. I use web quests and internet lessons for project based learning, often students working in collaborative groups to complete a project. For instance, in Evolution Webquest, students are asked to analyze the misconceptions regarding the theory of evolution and create their own web site to present their findings and "debunk" evolution misconceptions using internet research.

Instructional Technology supports cognitive methods of learning in several ways. The world wide web and science programs offer a vast resource for students to learn complex biological processes. In the past, students and teachers had only black and white, two dimensional graphics to help them understand these topics. I am constantly amazed by the advances in technology and programs that now allow students to VISUALIZE processes that were once a great mystery. Introductory biology students can now use a computer to investigate photosynthesis, DNA replication, and other biological topics. I have found that incorporating technology also promotes a sense of amazement in students, something that has been lacking in many science classrooms. Students often get inundated by the definitions and the diagrams and never get a chance to see a wholistic view of all of life processes. Technology is moving in a direction to help science teachers solve this problem. I will never forget the look of rapt attention on a student's face as she viewed a shockwave simulation of mitosis, and exclaimed "Is all this really going on inside the cell!?" The statement made me realize that I had been missing that element from my instruction, the element of showing students a world that was beyond their eyes in new and innovate ways that awed and amazed them.

In addition, technology allows students the opportunity to explore topics of their own interest. In one project, students had to choose a genetic disease and create a powerpoint presentation to the rest of the class. Students often went beyond the project guidelines to find alternate resources and their presentations often taught me something that I didn't know about a particular genetic disorder. All in all, the power of technology is in its ability to teach the students to be lifelong learners. As we explore sites and topics and students learn how to find information, they become more capable of sorting and finding information on their own. This should be the ultimate goal of education, words and dates and formulas may be forgotten by students, but their ability to explore topics and make judgements outside of an educational institution marks them as truly educated.


Arends. R.I. (1994) Learning to teach. (3rd ed.) New York, NY:McGraw Hill, Inc (ch.11)

Buck Institute for Education. Project Based Learning [ Online ] Available, July 2, 2002.

Ormrod, J. (2000). Educational psychology: Developing learners (3rd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall

Roblyer, M.D. & Edwards, J. (1997) Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching, Merrill, Upper Saddle river, NJ.