Active learning activity for in-class problem solving

Course Information

Course Name: Fundamentals of Bioengineering

Enrollment: 99

Brief Description: This is a 4 unit 2nd year required course for Biomedical Engineering majors, and addresses fundamental bioengineering concepts through the application of conservation principles to biomedical engineering problems.  Students meet for two 1hr. 20min. lectures and one 50 min. discussion per week.  This course focuses on applying prior knowledge predominantly gained in Chemistry and Math, acquisition of new quantitative and qualitative knowledge in mass and energy conservation, and further development of problem solving skills in the context of Biomedical Engineering applications.

Schematic of course overview; Presented in the first lecture.

Strategy Implementation 

More than a specific concept, I find that students often struggle with the approach that they need to take when interpreting problem statements.  Though a problem solving methodology is first introduced at the start of the class, and reinforced throughout the quarter, many students do not utilize it.  Students feel they can do everything in their head and feel it is tedious when faced with the simpler problems early on.  However, when they encounter more complex problems, I have seen that many of the errors could have been prevented if the methodology was fully utilized.

Problem solving methodology presented during first week of class, adapted from [1].

In order to improve students’ problem solving skills in this class, I have tried several in-lecture activities.  Typically, a problem statement would be posted on the front board (via PowerPoint or DocCam), and students are asked to solve the problem in class on their own (using a blank sheet of paper).  After a few minutes, they are asked to talk with their neighbors to compare work.  During these exercises, I would verbally encourage them to use the presented methodology.  Once discussions in class start to deviate from problem content, I would pull the class together and facilitate a class-wide discussion around the problem.  One example of a problem, derived from the course textbook, is as follows [1]:

The heart is divided into 2 sides, each with 2 chambers.  Blood enters the left atrium from the pulmonary veins and drains into the left ventricle, where the blood is pumped out at an average rate of 60 beats per min.  The stroke volume (the volume of blood discharged from the ventricle to the aorta) is 70mL for each contraction.  Assuming that no reactions with blood occur in the heart and the heart chambers do not accumulate blood, determine the inlet and outlet volumetric flow rates for the left side of the heart.

I have also previously utilized the Fishbowl exercise (described in an earlier blog post), however limitations regarding physical classroom structure, timing and expectations were evident.  It is important to note that in both of these activities, students were not required to explicitly write out each step of the problem solving process.

In an effort to make the methodology an explicit aspect of the in-class activities, a new activity based on reported evidence of effectiveness of lecture-tutorials [2] and active reading [3] was developed.  A guided worksheet was developed to walk students through the problem solving methodology in the context of a given problem statement. The worksheet contains a problem statement, along with prompts to identify each step of the problem solving process.  Students were asked to solve the problem by specifically providing a response for each step in the methodology, and labeling the problem statement using specified methods.  For example, the words/sentences that helped determine the extensive property of interest were to be labeled with *’s and the words/sentences that helped determine the system and surroundings were circled.  All students were given this worksheet (vs. having it posted on front board), and were asked to work on it individually first for a few minutes.  They were then asked to work with their neighbors to complete the exercise while the instructors (myself and TAs) circulated the classroom.  After about 10-15 minutes, the class came back together, and a facilitated discussion was held.

Guided worksheet for in-class activity.

Assessment and Analysis

Students seemed to like having a specific set of questions to answer when looking at the problem statement.  Previously, when doing an in-class problem on their own notebook paper, it was not uncommon for me to see blank papers as students were seemed unsure of how to approach the problem, especially early on in the course.  With the guided worksheet, most students had something written down during the individual component.  Once students were asked to collaborate with one another, discussions seemed to be more focused on the specific questions asked.  One note however, is that there were several students that despite encouraging to annotate the problem statement as instructed, they did not want to either because it seemed too elementary or perhaps they did not know the answer.  In the future, a student survey following this activity would provide much insight regarding the student experience.  Additionally, adding low-stakes participation points to this activity may increase motivation.

From the instructor point of view, I found that the worksheet was helpful when conducting the facilitated discussion after students worked on the activity.  Not only could I explicitly answer each question and annotate the paragraph based on student responses, it served as a nice resource for students to have, as this was uploaded to the course website.

This is the instructor’s annotated worksheet that resulted from the facilitated class discussion.

As a result of this activity and continued reinforcement of the methodology throughout the quarter, I noticed a change in the quality of questions that some students were asking me either in office hours or in lecture.  For example, instead of simply asking how a particular problem was to be solved, with problem statement in hand, one student asked where specifically in the problem statement text can they look to determine a particular property, and how should they make the appropriate connections to content to solve the problem.  I felt that students were interested more in developing a deeper conceptual understanding of the problems than in previous years.

A second guided worksheet was developed later in the quarter when a new topic was introduced, and I felt the in-class experience was similar.  Moving forward, I plan to continue using this approach as an in-class activity as well as administering a survey to gain additional feedback from the students.


[1] Saterbak et al., (2007) Bioengineering Fundamentals, Pearson Prentice Hall.

[2] Prather et al., (2005) Research on a Lecture-Tutorial Approach to Teaching Introductory Astronomy for Non-Science Majors, Astronomy Education Review, 3(2).

[3] Justin M. Dubas & Santiago A. Toledo (2015) Active Reading Documents (ARDs): A Tool to Facilitate Meaningful Learning Through Reading, College Teaching, 63:1, 27-33.


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About Jennifer Choi

Jennifer Choi is currently a Lecturer with potential for security of employment (LPSOE) in the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at UC Davis. In addition to teaching core undergraduate courses, Jennifer is aimed at integrating engineering design principles and hands-on experiences throughout the curriculum, and playing an active role in the senior design course. She has interests in engineering education, curricular innovation, as well as impacting the community through increased K-12 STEM awareness and education. Prior to joining UC Davis, Jennifer taught in the BME Department at Rutgers University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Advanced Technologies and Regenerative Medicine, LLC. She received her doctoral degree in Biomedical Engineering from Tufts University, M.S. degree from Syracuse University, and B.S. degree from Cornell University.

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