Fishbowl 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 emphasizes problem solving.


Description of Tool/Strategy Implementation

In the STEM disciplines, a critical component of student success is the ability to solve complex problems utilizing fundamental concepts in the field (in this case, biomedical engineering).  In this course, students build upon their prior knowledge of chemistry and math to broaden their understanding of mass conservation.  Typically, course content is delivered via interactive PowerPoint presentations and problems that are solved on the document camera in lecture. Problem solving methodology is explicitly discussed and students are encouraged to participate in the problem solving during class.  Despite this, a need to improve students’ understanding of both course content and appropriate problem solving methodology was evident from student performance.  Additionally, a common question in class and in office hours is “how did you decide to use those equations based on this problem description?”  Thus, the fishbowl exercise was introduced and executed.


The fishbowl exercise is an active learning strategy aimed to deepen student understanding around a specific topic through peer observation and collaboration.  Traditionally, the fishbowl exercise has been shown to be most effective when 4-8 students are seated in a circle either in the middle or at the front of a classroom, and surrounded by a group of observers who are able to listen and observe the discussion [1].  This exercise was therefore adapted to accommodate a larger class in a fixed seating lecture hall.


The goal for the fishbowl was for students to help each other develop the skills and confidence to methodically solve problems.  To accomplish this, two variations of the activity were implemented in this course.  In both variations, a problem statement was first shown on the projector and students were given 3-4 minutes to independently think through the problem statement.  The activity then progressed in either of the following ways:


Variation 1:  Four volunteers worked through the problem in front of the class at the front board.  While volunteers worked on the problem, the rest of the class silently focused on either the accuracy of the solution or the methodology used to solve the problem.  At any point during the exercise, if someone from the class wanted to join the volunteer group at front, they were free to walk down and contribute.  An existing volunteer was then excused to go back to his/her seat.  Once the volunteers reached a conclusion, the intention was to engage the entire class in discussion regarding both the achieved solution and methodology used.


Variation 2:  One volunteer was asked to solve a part of the problem at the front board, in which afterwards, a class discussion was held.  Student observers commented on the work, and the student volunteer described his/her rationale for the work.  The instructor facilitated the discussion and emphasized the problem solving methodology used in each part.  Following discussion on methodology and accuracy of this part, a new volunteer came to the front to attempt the next part of the problem.  A second mini-discussion was held in the class to focus again on both accuracy and methodology of that part.  This was repeated for each part of the problem.


Assessment and Analysis

Many lessons were learned through these implementations of the fishbowl exercise, from format and timing, to practical considerations of the classroom itself.  In Variation 1, the last 20 minutes of class were spent on implementing the fishbowl, and several interesting observations were made.  The structure of the fixed seating classroom led to some student disengagement during the observation phase of the exercise.  While student volunteers were at the front board, many observing students had their own conversations and therefore did not pay close attention to student work at the front.  With regards to the student volunteers, most wanted to solve the problem independently rather than with each other. When volunteers did attempt to talk to one another (upon encouragement from the instructor), students in the back of the classroom could not hear the discussion clearly.  Prior to concluding the session, the class officially ended, and students were dismissed.  The intended discussion around problem solution and methodology therefore, did not occur.


In response to the time limitations in Variation 1, considerably more time was spent in Variation 2 (40 minutes vs. 20 minutes).  As a result, students gained the opportunity to work through an entire problem in more depth and arguably with less chaos.  Less time was left for outside conversations as a result of breaking the problem down into multiple sub-problems, and class discussions held after each part allowed increased dialogue between the instructor, class, and student volunteers.


While the adapted fishbowl exercise was unsuccessful in many ways during the first implementation (Variation 1), I believe that it has potential to being an effective in-class method if certain parameters are optimized (i.e. time allotted, classroom setup, clear guidelines and rules).  Variation 2 was more effective in some ways, as most students were engaged in the problem solving process (less noise and time for distractions).  I believe that there is potential for success in utilizing either Variation 1 or 2 moving forward, perhaps in conjunction with other active learning activities (small-group based) throughout the quarter.  To further assess the effectiveness of these activities along with the impact of spending more time on problem solving methodology on overall course performance, I plan to collect formal student feedback on these activities in future offerings of the course.



[1] Gleason BL, Peeters MJ, Resman-Targoff BH, et al. An Active-Learning Strategies Primer for Achieving Ability-Based Educational Outcomes. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2011;75(9):186. doi:10.5688/ajpe759186.

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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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