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Playing to Their Strengths: Using Student Produced Animations to Teach and Learn Biology Concepts


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Lynn Petrullo, College of New Rochelle

Watching my twenty year old daughter pull out an old Nintendo 64 from the back of her closet and settle in for what she describes as a relaxing evening of video games brings a smile to my face. More than just rousing a reminiscence of earlier days as a mother, her actions reinforce what I have come to know as a professor about today’s undergraduates: students achieve academic success when they fully participate in learning activities because they feel comfortable and confident in their level of skill. Learning takes place as students focus on the task at hand rather than concentrating on their ability to perform it. The pedagogical challenge to the professor is to develop appropriate structures which respond to students’ needs while ensuring learning occurs.

In designing pedagogies of engagement, knowing one’s students is the key initial step. From Sesame Street to MTV and from PacMan to Facebook, today’s students – often referred to as “the millennials”- have grown up and currently live in a visual culture. This generation, born after 1982, is composed of multitaskers who respond to and focus on movement, color, and sound whether they are presented as bits or bytes of information (Taylor and MacNeil 2005). Science textbook companies realized this predilection and began packaging animation software and websites with their books over a decade ago; in 1990, Garland Publishing launched Hypercell, a CD-ROM teaching program that presented cell biology concepts as animated graphics to accompany the Alberts’ text Molecular Biology of the Cell. Currently, Benjamin Cummings is including MP3 tutorials as part of the student supplements for Campbell and Reece’s Biology. Through gaming, millennial students have developed “Nintendo logic” which they apply as an empirical learning style (Taylor and MacNeil 2005). According to Gretchen Bonfordine (2005) of American Student Assistance, 55% of millennial students perceive that their computer expertise is better than most and 26% of them believe that they are expert.

Extrapolating from an understanding of one’s students, a professor can cultivate their success by creating teaching and learning activities that rely on students’ perceived strengths. Recognizing that contemporary students learn differently than those from a generation ago suggests that instructors need to think out of the traditional pedagogical box. In doing this, one is not required to discard more established means of teaching and assessment; in fact, it is crucial to develop strategies that combine the old with the new. For example, students can receive information via lectures and through reading texts, yet process and learn that information by means of activities more within their comfort zone, such as computer exercises. In this way, students become practiced in accessing information using methods that will be necessary in their post-graduate and professional life and learn in an environment that they perceive as user-friendly. In a Science special section on “Education and Technology,” however, Hines and colleagues (2009) point out that “although technology can be grand fun, the gee-whiz effect is only part of the story. Its real value lies in the underlying learning effects.”

Based on the belief that technology is a necessary tool for intellectual pursuits as well as preparation for living and working in a complex society, many colleges, including the College of New Rochelle, have introduced programs to provide all undergraduates with a laptop computer. A study conducted by Efaw and colleagues (2004) at West Point, involving 527 freshmen divided evenly among 30 sections of General Psychology, demonstrated that students showed significant improvements in learning when laptops were integrated into the instruction as compared to those whose instructors used traditional teaching methods. Computers can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. For the biology educator and learner, they are useful in providing a shared visual representation of abstract concepts for the purposes of instruction. Animation software, in which biology concepts are presented dynamically, allows students to better visualize complex processes. In a study at the University of Toronto at Mississauga involving 393 student responses, Danton O’Day (2007) showed that long- term memory retention of biology concepts is enhanced after viewing animations of the concepts instead of their static representation as graphics. A professor can readily employ computer animations in order for students to visually learn biology concepts because there is a wide array available on the internet for free, as well as upon adoption of particular textbooks. The only drawback is that these animations are created by someone else and as such might not convey the concepts in the same way that the instructor does. To aid biology educators in using animations as a teaching-learning tool in a more idiosyncratic way, O’Day (2006) has described an easy method for making teaching animations in PowerPoint. In a study comparing his animation of “Calcium and the Dual Signaling Pathway” to a static graphic he created of the same concept, students who viewed the 3 minute animation for 15 minutes scored higher when later quizzed than those who viewed the static graphic for the same amount of time.

The student comments included in both the Efaw and O’Day articles are particularly interesting. As expected from their millennial profile, these students report a generally favorable perception of the computer as a learning tool. Building on this positive assessment, millennial students’ perceived expertise in computer technology, and the ease of creating animations of biology concepts in PowerPoint, it is a logical departure from the traditional pedagogical box to require one’s students to produce their own animations. Many biology concepts are more than static ideas; they are complex and dynamic processes that progress in time – a quality almost impossible to capture in textbook images. Animation software does a better job of presenting the dynamics of the concept allowing students to gain a fuller appreciation of this property. Having students produce animations of these concepts extends visual learning further as the students construct the concept step by step in time, mimicking the progression of the process. The learning environment can be converted to one in which students create, rather than watch, biology concepts unfolding, making them active learners. For the student, computer technology becomes more than a skill to acquire; it becomes a tool to engage them in learning.

For the instructor, a carefully designed animation project can combine more traditional pedagogies with the use of technology, allowing students to learn and be assessed in multiple ways. It provides a process for continual feedback between the teacher and the student, aiding the teacher in determining student misconceptions and allowing for early intervention. The project progresses in four steps and can be most useful if most of the activities can be performed, or at least begun, during class time:

  1. following a lecture and reading on a particular concept, students are asked to look at graphic representations of the concept and then write a narrative providing detailed steps of the concept’s procession in time;
  2. after receiving feedback from the instructor in which misconceptions can be addressed, students then create a storyboard of the process;
  3. students produce an animation considering the teacher’s comments on the storyboard; and
  4. student learning is assessed by viewing the animations and evaluating post-animation narratives on a subsequent exam.

For example, when I assigned this project to my classes, one student chose to animate osmosis. Her initial narrative lacked detail and was more a definition of the process rather than a description. She was asked to write a new narrative that proceeded in detailed steps. The second narrative was a more detailed description of osmosis but still did not consider it as a dynamic process. For this student, the storyboard proved to be the better medium to initially detect her misconceptions, such as a lack of a semi-permeable membrane between the solutions undergoing osmosis; she then could receive more individualized instruction. Both her animation and her post-animation narrative were more detailed and contained fewer misconceptions than the original narrative and storyboard.

When I asked my students to comment on the process, the response was very favorable in terms of enjoyment. Students appeared to be very engaged in their work and were proud of their final animations; out of twelve students involved in the project, eleven stated that they liked making the animation. With respect to learning, the students who enjoyed making the animation believed that the project helped them better learn the concept. Some students valued the repetition inherent in the process, others claimed that it allowed them to better “see” the concept or “visualize” it in steps making it easier to learn. One student mentioned that the process of creating the animation helped her learn the material better than if she just tried to study the images in the text. In general, I found that the project allows the students to get a deeper and more accurate understanding of the concepts that they animate. The writing component is essential, since many students need practice to become more effective in communicating what they know in words. It also serves as a way to evaluate what the students have learned through producing the animation. For some students, however, the visual representation in the storyboard and animation is a better format for the instructor to identify their misconceptions because the original narratives often lack detail. One outcome of the project was that ten of the twelve students wrote a more detailed, accurate description of the animated concept on a subsequent exam. I am currently developing rubrics so that I can quantitatively assess what the students have learned from making the animations.

As an educator, it is quite satisfying to watch your students enjoy learning, perhaps more so when one sees that they have actually learned. Pedagogies that are multi-faceted best serve today’s students who have grown up and learned in a dual system comprised of text driven curricula and a visually oriented culture. Teaching and learning biology concepts via student produced animations as described allows them to merge the two worlds. They can practice and improve on more traditional demonstrations of literacy and additionally employ one that they perceive as a strength: a type of visual literacy that allows them to “read and write technical pictures,” which Richard Lowe (2000) believes is “fundamental to scientific and technological literacy for students at many levels, from school to university.”

Bonfardine G. 2005. Interfacing with the millennial student. 2005 Southern Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators Conference. Available from Interfacing with the Millenial Student PowerPoint. Accessed 2008 March 15.

Efu J, Hampton S, Martinez S, Smith S. 2004. Miracle or menace: teaching and learning with laptop computers in the classroom. Educause Quarterly Nov. 3: 10-18.

Hines PJ, Jasny BR, Mervis J. 2009. Adding a T to the 3 R’s. Science 323: 53.

Lowe R. 2000. Visual literacy and learning in science. Eric Digests Available from Visual literacy and learning in science. Accessed 2008 March 15.

O’Day D. 2006. Animated cell biology: a quick and easy method for making effective, high quality teaching animations. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 5: 255-263.

O’Day D. 2007. The value of animations in biology teaching: a study of long-term memory retention. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 6: 217-223.

Taylor S, MacNeil N. 2005. Understanding the Millennial Student. 2005 Midwest Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators Conference. Available from Understanding the Millennial Student. Accessed 2008 March.