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Promote Active Learning with Drama in the Classroom

This professor received critical acclaim from students when he replaced lectures with student-led performances on how genes switch on and off.


David Marcey, PhD

Professor of Biology and Developmental Biology, California Lutheran University

PhD in Genetics, BA in Biology, minor in Chemistry

Today you would never believe it, but David Marcey, PhD, did not always plan to enter the classroom.

“I was on the fast-lane science track,” Marcey recalls. As a postdoc in the late 1980s, he was working at the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany under the renowned scientist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, PhD, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1995.

“Initially, I thought that I wanted to do R1 institution research, or perhaps even something with biotech,” says Marcey of his early career aspirations. “But I had attended a small school [as an undergrad], and I really enjoyed that environment. I realized that I wanted to [be a part of the] small liberal arts colleges. I like the ethos of those places.” He reflects, “[Now,] even when I think about my time in the lab, I realize that I found myself drawn more and more to explication as opposed to hard-core grant writing and benchwork, although I do maintain a vigorous undergraduate research program in my lab.”

As Fletcher Jones Professor of Developmental Biology at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Marcey feels that he is right where he belongs. Additionally, beyond finding personal fulfillment in imparting knowledge, Marcey has discovered additional gratification from engaging his students in the pursuit of their own understandings as they begin their career journeys.

Challenge: Consuming educational material, not engaging with it

When Marcey reflects on his concerns about some of the ways schools educate students today, he points to his favorite quote:

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”—Richard Feynman, American physicist (1918–1988)

Marcey observes that when students are asked to consume content rather than engage with it, their understanding of the subject only scratches the surface. He explains, “We used to expect students to take lecture material—brilliant lecture material, I might add—and then go home and read the textbook. We assumed that they thought critically about that material outside of class, so they would be prepared for an exam that asks them to apply that knowledge in a new context. Well, guess what? Most of them weren’t doing that.”

Without substantive, experiential learning, students are ill equipped to apply their knowledge once they leave the classroom, Marcey adds. “Memorization is not understanding. You can look at birds and name different species, but it really doesn’t tell you anything about the mechanics of bird flight, or the amazing evolutionary adaptations of birds,” he says. “It’s useful if you want to distinguish between a sparrow hawk and a peregrine falcon, but it’s really secondary to the main goal of biology, [which is] to understand mechanisms and processes.”

Innovation: Having students “act out” a genetic process

Marcey is a passionate proponent of active learning, which engages students in physically interacting with course concepts rather than passively consuming them. Marcey notes that the classroom is not a podium for his own performance; instead, he has created a space for student exploration, fearless mistake-making, and above all else, collaboration. One way that Marcey achieves this is by bringing the sciences into the realm of the arts—theater arts, specifically—and then moving students from their traditional role as audience members into those of actors and directors.

In his course The Flow of Life: Introduction to Metabolism, Genes, and Development, Marcey introduces an exercise he affectionately calls Operon Theater, in which students become the various players involved in the switching on and off of genes. (Director’s note: An operon is a coordinately regulated cluster of bacterial genes that works together to effect a particular process. Operons are controlled by repressor proteins that either turn the genes on by falling off a binding site, the operator, or turn them off by binding to the operator.)

“This exercise supports the content they’re learning about, and they actually get to apply it,” he explains. “Students are learning more, and they are learning at a deeper level. [With active learning approaches], they are much more able to think critically, as shown by performance on exams.”


Course Title: BIO 122 The Flow of Life: Introduction to Metabolism, Genes, and Development
Frequency: 3 times per week, 50 minutes per session
Class size: 30
Course description: This course introduces basic biochemical concepts that govern cell function and energy flow, mechanisms of heredity, the expression of genetic information, and the means by which genes encode developmental programs. It will be seen that genetics and development are part of a continuous process and that the genetic mechanisms and developmental patterns of living organisms reveal a fundamental kinship of life on earth. Genetics as a tool for the study of biological problems will be introduced, as will some current topics in genomic research and biotechnology.
In his words: “My goal in teaching Biology 122 is to awaken student fascination about the intricacies of biological processes, even though this is an introductory course. I sometimes refer to the course as ‘The Flow of Life’ because we concentrate on the flow of energy in metabolism, the flow of information between generations in classical transmission genetics, and the flow of information from DNA to functional gene products. As students begin to construct their own understanding of these flows through out-of-class videos and in-class active learning, it is fun to watch their appreciation of the ‘flow of life’ increase.”

BIO 122 The Flow of Life: Introduction to Metabolism, Genes, and Development

See materials

Lesson: Operon Theater: A Student One-Act on Genetic Switches

In Marcey’s Operon Theater, students must physically demonstrate the regulation of a gene process—that is, how the genetic switch that turns operon genes on or off is thrown. But this group activity has a twist: It relies on audience participation that is directed by small groups of students. Marcey describes the exercise with the passion of a producer:

“Each student group must plan how they’re going to direct the whole class to model [the] regulation of the operon,” he says. “And there are different players: There’s the repressor, there’s lactose, there’s the DNA, there’s the RNA polymerase. These are all the players of the play, and the students are acting out these roles in the process.”

While “active learning through performance” may sound like a relatively simple concept, its implementation involves methodical planning. Marcey’s Operon Theater is a culmination of a series of well-planned steps, which set the stage for the final performances.

Introduce the concept of active learning

“I want them to see that I’m not teaching them so much as providing a forum and venue where they can learn and construct their own knowledge.”

— David Marcey, PhD

Marcey understands that his “active learning” methods may tread unfamiliar territory for many. “So, on the first day of class, we go over why we are teaching the course this particular way,” he says. “I want them to see that I’m not teaching them so much as providing a forum and venue where they can learn and construct their own knowledge.”

Flip the classroom with “cinelectures”

At the core of Marcey’s active learning success are what he calls cinelectures—10- to 15-minute videos he creates to replace in-class lectures. Students view the cinelecture at home (even at 3 a.m., he notes), then discuss the material in it during the next class meeting. This strategy puts students more in control of their learning and frees up class time for collaborative activities.

Use a scaffolded approach

For students to be able to play their roles in Operon Theater like acting pros, they need to first understand the “characters” involved in the “scene.” For this reason, Marcey’s first cinelecture—this one on Regulation of Gene Expression (Part I)—begins with very basic foundations, illustrating the basics of gene regulation with the example of the lactose operon in bacteria.

Add a dose of history

Beyond the foundational concepts, Marcey believes students need to understand the scientific discoveries that culminated in the explanations found in their textbooks. “[In their book,] there is a cartoonish model of how the lactose operon is regulated, how the genetic switch is thrown on or off in response to their environment, etc.,” says Marcey. “Students can look at this and understand the mechanism, but where did this model come from? It didn’t appear on golden tablets, handed down from some mountain. It had to be wrenched from nature by very clever experiments. I want students to understand the empirical basis—how we came to know this.”

For this reason, Marcey’s second cinelecture focuses on how the first genetic switch was deciphered by two French geneticists: François Jacob and Jacques Monod. With historical context such as this, students may feel better equipped to pursue their own intellectual discoveries in the future.

Make them work backward

To prepare for the culminating Operon Theater activity, Marcey challenges students to put themselves in the shoes of the famous geneticists. For this activity, small groups of students start by working with the model devised by Jacob and Monod, applying it to more than one type of gene regulation. At the end of this relatively simple exercise, Marcey asks each group to do something tougher: work backward to determine what each piece of data would have told them if they did not have the model. This exercise shows them what Jacob and Monod had to do to create the model in the first place.

Facilitate the performance

As mentioned earlier, the class divides into small groups—just five or six students in each—who create a scene for Operon Theater—a performance of a particular scenario in which lactose, the sugar that the operon’s gene products utilize, is either present or absent, or in which components of the operon’s genetic switch are broken by mutation. Each group selects a director and then, as a team, they write a script and devise an effective way to have peers act out the regulation process that was assigned to them. A few specifics:

  • Each student in the class must have a role in the scene.
  • The director organizes all of these “actors” to follow the script and bring the group’s vision to life.
  • Students do a few dry runs, along with a dress rehearsal.
  • Marcey films each final Operon Theater performance and shares it with the class and on YouTube.

“This exercise is an effective way for students to recognize if they understand the concept yet,” Marcey reflects. “If they can’t think about what the players are or how they’re supposed to be moving, that lets them know that they don’t understand [the gene regulation process].”

Operon Theater has a side benefit for some struggling students, too. “There are kinesthetic learners, so having them actually get up out of their seats and be active—do something that gets filmed and ultimately shown to them—it’s encouraging for them,” says Marcey. Ultimately, it can help switch on the light bulb of understanding about gene regulation, which is the reaction Marcey hopes to see in every student.


Marcey believes that some version of active learning is possible for virtually any classroom, though he acknowledges that it may not be easy to implement at first. “For a professor who is very introverted, I imagine something like [Operon Theater] could be scary because, in order for this to work, you really do need to interact with the students,” he says. “If you’re more comfortable lecturing and feeling in control, it can be very intimidating.”

Furthermore, he adds, making the switch to active learning from a more traditional approach is best done in increments—something that Marcey learned the hard way. “When I first started, I tried to do everything at once, which was a mistake,” he says. “I made all my cinematic lectures during one semester, and some of the active learning exercises I used didn’t work. I was a basket case that semester.”

He suggests first adapting just one lecture, or even one part of one lecture. “Just think about how one concept that you are now delivering in a classroom lecture could be changed from you talking and showing slides to students working out a problem,” he says.


Operon Theater

Testimonials from students in Marcey’s class, as well as footage from Operon Theater in action, are available in this video he created for his school.

Operon Theater is just one piece of Marcey’s larger approach to active learning. While its results are certainly encouraging, the data to support active learning in general has been even more inspiring: “We’re scientists. We live on data. And the data about how people learn is clear,” says Marcey. “I published a paper which showed dramatic improvement in student performance based on the active learning modules that I have been designing and improving on over the years. [These modules] have a profound effect on student learning outcomes. [Student quiz and test] scores are now much higher—statistically significantly higher—in my introductory course than they were, say, 7 or 8 years ago.”

Student feedback

Even with his passion for active learning, Marcey initially had a degree of uncertainty around his Operon Theater exercise. He reflects, “The first time I did this, I was worried students would hate it, or think it was hokey. But on the course evaluations, it turned out they really liked it and felt their learning was improved by it. [Of course,] there are always a few students who would rather be passive recipients of information, but for the most part, they like the metacognitive approach. We focus on letting them understand their own knowledge.”