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Piquing Interest in Biology Through Peer Teachers

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by Mark Evertz

The smile on his face says everything.

John Koroloff leans back in his chair, arms confidently folded behind his head, as he listens to his biology students relay their findings on the body’s overproduction of insulin, the clogging of receptors and the dietary co-conspirators that can help cause heart disease. The students in this mini-roundtable are all getting it, Koroloff’s smile seems to say.

The smile also reflects an air of accomplishment for Koroloff, who along with six of his former biology students are in the process of transforming biology instruction at Portland Community College, and hopefully at other Oregon colleges, as well.

As of fall term, Koroloff, Ron Narode of Portland State University, Becky Houck of the University of Portland, and like-minded professors from their institutions are jointly directing a pilot project that hopes to infuse science instruction with a dose of instructional adrenaline. The adrenaline for this project is in the form of innovative lesson plans and a handful of student-teachers with a love of biology and a knack for helping people learn.

Grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Oregon Collaborative for Excellence in the Preparation of Teachers (OCEPT) provided the funding for what is being called the "Peer-led Team-learning Model of Instruction."

Narode is the regional head of the peer-led, team-learning (PLTL) model, and the true impetus for it coming together locally. Thus far, Narode says he is enjoying the cooperative partnerships between the three colleges and thinks the relationships will benefit the academic future of many science students.

"I really like the model using the community college and the four-year schools," he says. "I think this will let students transition more easily into the four-year schools."

Narode has two professors implementing the model in chemistry classes at PSU. He said he hoped to have similar models employed in science classes next fall at Lane Community College and the University of Oregon.

"The word I’m getting back from everybody is that it’s very successful," he says.

For Koroloff’s biology 101 class at the PCC Cascade Campus, that means six former all-star students from his biology series (101-103) with an interest in teaching are getting a sneak-peek at their futures by helping foster the learning process in his classroom. In addition to gaining valuable teaching and problem-solving experience, peer instructors receive a stipend for their teaching duties ? roughly $10 an hour.

Peer instructor Nicole Shaw, who has designs on a teaching degree from the University of Portland after finishing up this spring at PCC, serves as a tie-breaker or voice of reason for the students as they attempt to get their heads around some fairly difficult material. The class, broken up into teams consisting of approximately five students, all work through course assignments together to find the right answers.

"I have to say that I was a little worried at first that lazy students would just sit back and wait for other people to do their work for them, but that hasn’t been the case," Shaw says. "The students have been very motivated and want to learn something. They don’t want to be cheated out of learning."

Part of that enthusiasm on the part of the students comes from the way Koroloff presents the potentially dry material. His eyes wide with enthusiasm, his voice filled with exuberance when unearthing biology’s mysteries, Koroloff makes learning the subject fun by marrying his former job as a homicide detective with his current one as a biology instructor.

One recent class assignment had students in search of "The Greatest Serial Killer of Our Century and Unmasking Its Co-conspirators." Within the assignment, students worked in teams to find out ? in biological terms ? what is responsible for killing people who die from heart disease. Students read applicable information on the subject and were asked a series of questions to determine if they understood the material. The student teams then attempted to convince Koroloff that they found the real killer.

Says Shaw of Koroloff. "He is really good at relaying to students that we all live in a biological world and that this stuff really pertains to all of us.

"He is changing people’s lives by getting them to like science," she continues.

One life that has been enhanced by the peer-led instruction/team-learning model, and Koroloff’s unique teaching methods, is that of Rosemary Breihof. A self-professed "hater" of science, Breihof floundered in previous science courses at the college level before discovering Koroloff’s peer-led class.

"Science is what I have struggled with most," says Breihof, "but here when I do it, I am actually learning it. It is more hands-on and that is just awesome for me."

The proof is in Breihof’s improvement. "Hey, I’ve gotten A’s on my first three tests!" she exclaims.

That improvement is being seen throughout the section of 85 students, according to Koroloff. A retention rate of almost 100 percent of his biology students, coupled with an increase in A’s and B’s has Koroloff and the other professors in the peer-led model believing that they are onto something.

Houck, the chair of the biology program at U of P, is seeing similar success and enthusiasm with her Biology 205 students, peer instructors ? and even within herself.

"This is wonderful, absolutely wonderful," she says, remarking that student achievement is up across the board and three of her nine peer instructors are talking seriously about teaching the subject.

"I feel like I have nine peers that I can talk to about the class and get instant feedback on what is working and what isn’t. It is making me a better teacher," she says. "I’m sold."

To say that Koroloff is sold would be an understatement.

"I’ve been teaching for nearly 30 years now and I wouldn’t want to teach this any other way," he exhales, with a big smile.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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