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Students Teaching Students: 4 Ways to Foster “Discovery Learning”

Oluwole Ariyo, PhD, a biology professor and advocate of encouraging student inquiry, offers four organic ways to help students drive their own learning.

Educator

Oluwole Ariyo, PhD

Associate Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology;Director of Research;and Chair, Institutional Review Board (IRB), Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina

PhDin Molecular Virology, MS in Plant Pathology, BS in Crop Protection and Environmental Biology

When Oluwole Ariyo, PhD, was in high school in Nigeria, he took an agriculture science class with an instructor (Mr. Oluwole Robert) who not only had a passion for plants but also ran many scientific experiments that allowed students to engage with one another. The instructor ended up being his favorite teacher—and his technique planted the seed for an idea that Ariyo uses with his own students today.

Now a biology professor at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, Ariyo still conducts experiments (he is currently studying gene expression patterns during rice and wheat inflorescence development). But his true passion is discovery learning, in which—as in his high school class—student interest and inquiry lead the learning. The idea, says Ariyo, is that students should “discover” knowledge on their own instead of being told information by an instructor.

“Students learn so much better when they work with one another to achieve the best results,” Ariyo says.

What are Ariyo’s recommendations for best practices when it comes to implementing discovery learning? Here, he shares his top four tips.

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Context

“I’ve always been an inquisitive, curious person who’s driven by passion for learning and understanding. I want to convey the importance of that to students and help them see how teaching each other can be much more effective than just listening to me or keeping their noses in a book.”

— Oluwole Ariyo, PhD

Course: BIO 402 Cell and Molecular Biology

Course description: In this course students are introduced to modern molecular and cellular biology. A comprehensive study of the structure and function of cells including biochemistry is addressed. Some emphasis is placed on cell organizations, DNA replication, transcription, protein synthesis and enzymology. Selected topics in molecular genetics including DNA recombination, as well as gene regulation are covered. Molecular cloning and molecular tools for studying gene and gene activities are studied.

4 tips to help students realize the power of discovery learning

The strategies Ariyo outlines here, he says, are the result of a trial-and-error approach in the classroom. “Even though the discovery learning method was already out there, I came up with these four strategies on my own,” Ariyo says. “They came to me from my experiences in the classroom and from seeing what’s effective.”

Contemplating this approach? Ariyo says these four tactics work.

1. Figure out where students are before turning them into teachers

On the first day of class, Ariyo leads students in a number of exercises to get a sense of who they are and what they know. This is important, he adds, because up to 70% of them do not have a solid understanding of the prerequisite information.

“For example, I ask them questions about monomers and polymers,” he says. “A monomer molecule can be reacted together with other monomer molecules to form a larger polymer chain in a process called dehydration synthesis. Students need to know this, so I check to see if they do. Getting a read of the students’ knowledge will help me shape the class.”

Based on responses, he can also get a sense of the subjects the students like, so he can shape his instruction for better engagement—for example, by pulling relevant materials from his library. “As long as their interests relate to what we are studying in the course, I am happy to join in with what’s exciting them and give them more information about those topics.”

2. Use gaps in knowledge as opportunities for discovery learning

After the icebreaker is complete, Ariyo builds assignments to shore up student knowledge that is incomplete. “I type a set of vocabulary terms and have students go research what the terms mean,” he explains.

The peer-instruction part comes in when students complete the work in a class discussion. “Instead of sending me the assignments, students share what they learned in class,” he says. “This lets them teach each other what the terms mean, often in their language and using their words, which their peers respond to better than if they are just hearing it from me.”

3. Set up student work groups that lead naturally to peer teaching

During labs, Ariyo creates competitions based on students’ findings and presentations. “Students learn so much better when they work with one another to achieve the best results in the lab,” he says. “And they’re motivated to succeed, since it’s both in front of their peers—whose opinions they value—and a competition in which the winners get extra points applied to their final grade.”

Of course, he strives to equalize the groups, so the higher-performing students can teach those who are lagging behind. “In a class of 30 students, I might identify six students as having more knowledge of the topic than the others,” he says. “I intersperse those six among the lab groups, but I do this so students don’t know what I am doing.”

To strengthen the relationships, lab groups remain the same for the entire semester. “Students act as meticulous overseers of each other’s work,” he says. “Working together so closely creates a bond, and the students are invested in each other’s success.”

4. Reward students for asking each other questions in class

Ariyo assigns specific research assignments based on topics that students showed an interest in on day one. “In my Genetics class (Bio 405), one group of students liked genetic variation; another group was passionate about inheritance patterns and blood groups,” he says. Students present their findings on their chosen topic to the other students.

Then, as added incentive for being a good peer learner, Ariyo awards extra points to students who ask questions during or after student presentations. He takes the same approach when students present their final PowerPoint project to the class at the end of the semester, although for this assignment he asks all students to prepare questions in advance of each presentation. “I found out that this approach makes students research other classmates’ topics ahead of class,” he says. “In addition, it fosters an atmosphere where every student is enthusiastic and ready to learn from each other. It takes away boredom, and students are engaged remarkably well throughout the class period.”

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