Will Increasing The Number of Practical Examples of a Difficult Science Concept Improve Understanding?

Submitted by Charles Bell on

Biology concepts like tonicity are difficult to grasp, especially for students in BIO100.Most students “get it” when a concept is applied to their lives. But the question is, will more practical applications translate to a better understanding of the concept?

The Fall 2014 unit for tonicity consisted of notes, slides, and a handout showing the three possibilities of tonicity. Also included were 2-3 practical examples. The same materials were used in Spring 2015 but this time multiple examples (10) were used. Six specific exam questions regarding tonicity were compared from fall to spring terms---three focusing on definitions and three were practical applications.

Results showed a percentage improvement for all six questions during spring term. A table with details is included. Interestingly, the average increase for practical applications was nearly double that of the average content understanding (19.2% spring vs. 9.7% fall). Use of more practical applications will be added to this unit, while other teaching techniques will be explored to improve content understanding.

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Average: 4.5 (8 votes)


Anil Kapoor Fri, 03/27/2015 - 10:37am

Wow what great results Charles and you cant argue with those stats!! IM going to incorporate this into my class as well.

Teri Graham Mon, 04/13/2015 - 12:35pm

Wow...double the average is amazing!  I found that practical application vs memorization applies to math as well.  When my students interact with the information and can see a "purpose" they appear to grasp the basic concepts even better.


Becky Baranowski Mon, 04/20/2015 - 8:06am

Making the material more relevant to students through practical examples is a great way to get them to understand the concepts.  Nice job. Do you have other concepts that you would like to do this with?

Charles Bell Wed, 04/22/2015 - 7:56pm

In reply to by Becky Baranowski

Thanks for the comments, Becky. Yeah, I do have plans to add more examples for homeostasis, pH, and adaptation. What I did notice is that each concept has a practical example saturation point where students roll their eyes and say, "Geez, not another example!", but I'll try to avoid reaching that spot!

Peter Turner Mon, 04/20/2015 - 11:50am

I applaud your efforts, Charles! Your efforts to improve students' learning by  increasing both the number and practicality of applications is extremely brain friendly. Well done!

Rachel Holmes Mon, 04/20/2015 - 6:59pm

This makes perfect sense and is something that I definitely want to implement in my own classroom.  I always to make content relevant, but I like the addition of a concrete number of examples.  Excellent work!

Bronwen Steele Tue, 04/21/2015 - 2:18pm

Chuck, this is great. This aligns with another CATS - practice makes perfect. I think we should do this in our majors class. I know we do a couple of examples but 10 would really reinforce the concepts. 

William Farrar Wed, 04/22/2015 - 8:48pm

It's nice to see a great demonstration of the power of examples!  I think a finding like this could generalize to almost every discipline, but particularly to those where students wrestle with relatively abstract concepts!  Nice work.

Shannon Manuelito Thu, 04/30/2015 - 7:33pm

Great work! Finding a way to incorporate applications is an excellent way to teach tonicity. Well done. 

Jeffrey Miller Thu, 04/30/2015 - 9:04pm

Great work.  Nice to see data showing how making science relevant and teaching content through real world examples can have a positive impact on student learning.

Olga Tsoudis Thu, 08/27/2015 - 10:12am

Chuck, Thank you for sharing. What a great way to improve on students' learning by using practical examples. This CATS would help other instructors across all disciplines. Olga