Teaching methods

For the objectives of higher education to be fulfilled, it is important to put emphasis not only on scientific content but also on the teaching methods (Figure 4). Employers of university graduates do not ask just for subject knowledge; they also ask for ability to search for information, to critically analyse and make syntheses, to deal with new situations, to manage projects and problem solving, to co-operate, to communicate information and knowledge, and to have a global perspective.

Figure 4. Ineffective versus effective teaching.

There is a pool of teaching methods and activities to choose from, such as: lectures, exercises/labs, assignments, computer labs and use of information technology, group work, cross-group discussions, seminars and tutorials, problem-based learning, case-studies, role play, study visits, internships, projects, research activities, literature reviews and self studies. Furthermore, various examination forms, which influence student learning, can be used.

Using a variety of teaching methods in university programmes and courses is often a good way to encourage students to seek and acquire knowledge and skills. The focus should be on student learning, understanding and development of skills. Overloading students with information, leaving them no time to think about, integrate and work with the content, is not an effective way of teaching. It is essential to use teaching methods that stimulate student activity and participation and make them feel responsible! Students need training in finding, interpreting and validating information and research results; they also need training in various forms of science communication. Furthermore, students should be regarded as a resource in teaching and research.

In the following sub-sections some teaching methods are discussed.


The lecture is one of the oldest and, maybe still, the most widely used teaching method. A committed, inspirational lecture can be effective for structuring, linking and transferring information, and for generating interest in a topic. However, lecturing should not be the only teaching method used in a course. Lectures seldom leave enough opportunities for students to digest, integrate and deal with the information provided. Sometimes, a lecture is merely a process where the lecturer's notes become the notes of the student. If this would be the case, it might be more effective for the teacher to just provide the written notes, or leave students with a textbook, if that is available.

Giving a good lecture is an intellectual and emotional challenge that should be worth real effort. Some essentials of a good lecture are illustrated in Figure 5


Figure 5. Essentials of a good lecture.

Do your best to make the topic understandable and alive for students, and keep in mind that your main task is not just to give information, but also to motivate and facilitate their learning. Make sure that what you say is heard and what you project on the screen can be seen from the last row of seats in the lecture room. If you are not certain of the font size needed in visuals, make a few test examples and go to the lecture room and to have a look at them from the last row. A general recommendation can be to use font size 24 points as a minimum, but preferably larger.

The benefit of a lecture is enhanced if the students are involved during the lecture. Leaving time for questions and discussion is one way to achieve this. One method to stimulate activity is using buzz-group discussions. You make a short break in your lecturing and ask the students to take a few minutes to discuss or analyse an issue using the content of the lecture, or ask them to compare their notes. The students may do this two by two, where they are seated in the lecture room. This usually causes intense student activity and should improve their understanding of the topic. The buzz-group discussion might be followed by a short class discussion. Several buzz-group discussions can be included in a lecture. Another option for stimulating questions and discussion could be to start a lecture by giving a short summary of the previous lecture in the same area, and then give the students an opportunity to ask questions on things they have not understood.

Note taking during a lecture is a form of student activity that should be encouraged. It increases students' attention, and gives them something to go back to afterwards. As a lecturer, think of how you can facilitate for students to make good notes. Start your lecture by giving the skeletal outline and some signposts for the content, make clear transitions and links as you move along in the lecture, make frequent summaries and highlights of essentials, and give students some possibility to reflect upon the information given.

Visuals are useful in a lecture, but presenting lots of visuals at high pace will make it impossible for students to take effective notes; it may just cause frustration. When you build your lecture on visuals, it will be more effective if you at the start of the lecture provide a handout print (e.g. six slides/page) to your students; this will form a "skeletal" in which they can make additional notes (there will be some more space for notes if the visuals in the handout are not framed). If you plan to talk a lot around a visual you can insert one or two blank slides next to it to give some extra space for students' notes in the handout.

For some brief advice on oral presentation and visuals, see compendium [Science Communication] and [PowerPoint Guide]; these two tools are provided in the Animal Genetics Training Resource. Further advice is given in a book by Malmfors et al (2004).

Group work and discussions

Group work can be applied in many different situations in teaching; it is useful for developing the students':

  • communication and discussion skills
  • co-operative ability
  • self-confidence
  • responsibility for learning.

Within a small group, students are more willing to reveal what they have not understood, and also to try to explain things to one another, rather than asking the teacher. This is an important aspect of group work; teaching and explaining to others is often considered to be the best method for learning. The teacher then has the role of a supervisor or tutor; a person who encourages and supports students and the group process, and provides help when needed. It is important that the tutor does not dominate the discussions. Students often learn more from each other than they do directly from the teacher!

Cross-group discussion is a group activity that is useful to improve students' learning and understanding. It can be used as a follow-up of a section that has been taught recently in the course, for example, and it can also be used for other purposes. The principle behind this teaching method is illustrated in Figure 5.

Students are seated in groups (in one or several rooms) and are provided with a set of questions, each one fairly extensive. Every group discusses one question (group 1 - question 1, group 2 - question 2 etc) and all students in the group take part jointly in the discussion and make notes of the answers. The tutor(s) circulate to give supervision. They should also do a brief check of the answers of each group by reading the notes; this is important to do before the groups are split (see Figure 5).

After about one hour, groups are split and cross-groups are formed. This is done in such a way that the full set of questions will be covered in each cross-group. Students start teaching one another and the tutor(s) help to clarify issues, but only when needed.

Cross-group discussion is normally highly valued by students. It is an efficient exercise; every single student needs to be active. It can be done at low cost, and it can be used also in quite large classes (e.g 60-80 students), but then more teachers are needed, at least for the first part of the group discussion. Several groups


Figure 6. Illustration of how groups are formed in
the two parts of a cross-group discussion.

can be given the same question, if needed. Some examples of questions for [Cross-group discussions] used in an animal breeding course are presented in the tool "Exercises" in the Animal Genetics Training Resource.

Plenary or class discussions are other forms of discussion that can be beneficial to include in a course. Those might include external participants, such as collaborating researchers, teacher colleagues, extension specialists, farmers, representatives from NGOs or industry, as well as consumers; such contributions can add to broadened perspectives. Students often need some stimulation to take part actively in plenary discussions; you might ask them to prepare questions for the discussion. Seating is also important; sitting in u-form or in a half-circle is usually beneficial. The discussion sessions can be chaired by students or by the teacher. The main issues of the plenary discussion should be structured and summarized by the chairperson, and the discussion climate should be open and friendly, making students feel confident to take an active part in the discussion.

Exercises, assignments and labs

Practical work has a critical role in science education. Different types of exercises and assignments can be used to help students get a better understanding of concepts and methods covered in a course. Exercises/assignments can be scheduled and supervised, or given as homework, or even be optional. The type of exercises needed varies, of course, with the topics taught. Being a teacher in animal breeding, you might find it useful to use numerical examples dealing with gene frequencies, heritability, breeding values and genetic progress. Some [Manual Exercises] for use in animal breeding courses are available in the tool "Exercises".

Laboratory teaching is valuable for training manual and observational skills in subjects like chemistry, physiology and molecular genetics. It can also be helpful for developing understanding, assuming the lab practicals are not just carried out according to a "cook book" recipe. Lab work can be time consuming and expensive, so it is important to get the most out of it. Written instructions must contain the objectives of the experiment, clear instructions for the lab work, as well as some questions on the experiment or its implications. Students' learning is enhanced if they write lab reports.

Computer labs

Computers, software and the Internet are powerful teaching and learning tools in higher education; they are efficient for activating students and they provide tools for life-long learning.

Computer software can be used in teaching and research for a vast number of purposes, such as data management, calculations, statistical analyses, simulations, word-processing and presentation;

there is also software for interactive learning. Students having access to the Internet can find huge amounts of information, and also quite a lot of free software. A number of free search engines are available on the Internet (for examples, see [Section 14.3] of this module); possibilities for quick and easy information search stimulate student activity and curiosity. By use of the Internet, teachers and students might communicate through e-mail, course home pages and virtual discussion groups; this also gives great opportunities for distance education.

Limited access to computers, software and the Internet might be a constraint for using a full range of computer labs, but teachers should use these tools where possible. Building infrastructure to improve access to the Internet will probably be given high priority in many countries, so the situation may change in the near future. Furthermore, important information, software and databases, for example, can be made available in a CD, which does not rely on Internet access. The Animal Genetics Training Resource CD, where you found this text, is an example of such a computerized tool.

The use of information technology in higher education might influence teachers' role. Students can find information themselves to a larger extent than before, but need the teacher as a supervisor and coach in their learning process. Moreover, the major part of the information found in the Internet has not been peer reviewed before entry; it is important, therefore, to discuss quality and validation of such information.

In the following some examples are given on software and databases useful in teaching Animal Breeding. For brief highlights on each item, as well as for more examples, see the tool [Web Resources] in the Animal Genetics Training Resource.

Examples of computer software useful in teaching animal breeding

- for web-addresses, see [Section 14.1] of this module.

There are software packages available to support teaching in animal breeding; some of those can be downloaded free from the Internet. One example is GENUP (by B. Kinghorn) designed to help students to master concepts in quantitative genetics and its application in animal breeding. Other examples are PEDIGREE VIEWER (by B. & S. Kinghorn) to display pedigree structures and calculate inbreeding coefficients.

Some useful interactive computer-assisted learning (CAL) programs are available on CDs for purchase. One example is [Animal Breeding: an introductory tutorial] (Roden et al. 2001); it includes modules on inbreeding, heritability and selection. The tutorial helps students to get an introduction to basic concepts and their meaning, and there are a large number of interactive exercises, as well as self-tests, included. The modules also contain links to GENUP. By using computer-based tutorials students can explore a topic at their own pace.

Software such as Microsoft Excel can be used in various types of calculations and for production of graphs. Excel can also handle matrix operations in small data sets and be helpful in numerical exercises dealing with matrices. A brief [Excel Guide] is provided under "Compendia" in the Animal Genetics Training Resource.

Two examples of using Excel in computer exercises in animal breeding courses are available under "Exercises" in the Tools menu of Animal Genetics Training Resource:

  • [Prediction of breeding values]. In this exercise students are presented some situations for prediction of breeding values; they are asked to set up the BLUP equations in matrix form and to solve those by using Excel.
  • [Optimization of breeding plans]. In this exercise Excel has been used to pre-produce a sheet where different parameters and other numerical information can be entered to generate the genetic gain achieved for a given situation. For example, students can study the effect on expected genetic gain when they change population size, heritability, percent selected animals, testing method and amount of information in breeding value estimation. The exercise is based on dairy cattle breeding in tropical countries, but may be used also for other species.

Software useful for statistical and/or genetic analyses in students' research projects might be downloaded free of charge from the Internet or through a named contact person. Some examples are:

  • GenStat Discovery - free version of GenStat for use by not-for-profit research organizations, charities and educational institutes based in the developing world. GenStat Discovery Edition 2 (2005) includes e.g. basic statistics, calculations and manipulation, linear regression, analysis of variance, and REML analysis of mixed models.
  • R Statistical package written in S-language - can be used for a vast range of analyses, including also mixed models and estimation of variance components.
  • VCE, PEST, WOMBAT, ASREML - software packages for estimation of variance and covariance components, and/or for prediction of breeding values.
  • SelAction - predicts response to selection and inbreeding for practical livestock improvement programs (available free for teaching purposes).
  • Microsoft Access - not a free software, but users of MS Office might have it installed with the other packages. MS Access is a useful database management tool to store, view and retrieve data. An [Access Guide] is included in the tool compendia.

For more examples of software, see tool [Web Resources] in the Animal Genetics Training Resource.

Examples of useful information sources in teaching animal breeding

- for web-addresses, see [Section 14.1] of this module.

There are several information sources in the Internet that can be useful in teaching animal breeding. Some examples are given below (those available also as a CD are indicated by *):

  • FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)*
    From this website, lots of information can be retrieved, such as Statistical databases with agriculture data (including livestock data), software, publications and various types of news and links within the area of agriculture.
  • DAD-IS (Domestic Animal Diversity Information System)*
  • LEAD (Livestock and Environment Toolbox)*
  • ILRI (International Livestock Research Institute)*
  • DAGRIS (Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System)*
  • Breeds of Livestock (Oklahoma State University)
  • OMIA (Inherited disorders in animals) and OMIM (Inherited disorders in man)
  • OCOA (Cytogenetics of animals)
  • Informatics (Mammalian homologies and comparative maps)
  • ArkDB (Animal genome database) and Anubis (Animal genome maps).

Problem Based Learning and the Case Method

Using problems or cases from real life in teaching is effective for motivating students and enhancing their learning and development of skills. Problem Based Learning (PBL) and the Case Method (CM) are two methods used quite frequently, but also other alternatives of problem-oriented teaching exist. In this type of teaching, students are usually presented a situation, a case or a problem as a starting point. From there they search for the information and knowledge needed to explain background and context, or to identify and analyse factors and causes of importance, and to suggest solutions when applicable. The role of the teacher is to be a "manager of a process", not to give the answers.

CM is used both in small and large groups of student, and a teacher usually chair the discussions. Normally a joint seminar session is included, where students from different groups get together. A case might be analyzed from the perspective of different stakeholders, and role-play might be included. The [Case Studies] available in the Animal Genetics Training Resource can be useful in this type of teaching.

In PBL the students are split into groups of maximum 7-10 students; the students normally chair the meetings, and the teacher acts as a tutor to support the group process. PBL is based on a series of steps that each group of students follows (Figure 7). The first step is for the

students to do brainstorming and thereafter decide what they need to learn to deal with a situation/problem. The next step is to search relevant information from different sources, such as reference people, the library, lectures, exercises, and study visits, CDs and, where possible, the Internet. Each group of students summarizes its findings and conclusions. The way of reporting can vary. Reports might be done in writing, orally (e.g. in cross-groups) or as posters.

The subject knowledge gained by students is considered to be about the same for PBL/CM as for traditional teaching methods,but it


Figure 7. Some steps in problem based learning.
seems that critical and creative thinking and skills in problem solving are better developed when PBL/CM are used. Students learn how to use and integrate knowledge from different sources, and they "learn how to learn" effectively. Furthermore, they practice working with others. The outcome of these teaching methods, however, largely depends on the suitability of the problems and cases presented.

Field work, internships and field visits

Contacts with farmers, extension specialists and industry will add much to the relevance of an education programme. Students need to get professional identity, and it is essential that they experience and become familiar with problems and conditions in practice. That will help to put theories into a context, to see practical application of knowledge, and to integrate knowledge from different disciplines; this increases students' understanding and motivation. Field experience gives students frames of reference, and will awaken questions in their minds that promote active learning; it also helps them to become acquainted with, and to appreciate, indigenous knowledge.

Field experiences can be achieved in different ways, through study visits and excursions, field projects or through an internship period. Students in animal science/animal breeding can learn a lot from visits/projects/internship at various types of livestock farms, national parks, AI stations, livestock and breeding organizations, education and research institutions, feed industries, abattoirs, dairy plants, extension services etc. Livestock experimental herds may also offer good opportunities for practical exercises, for projects, and for MSc thesis research. Funding might be a major constraint, especially for study visits, which usually require travel. Considering the value of field experiences, it is worth trying hard to make these visits possible. When it comes to projects and internships it is important to emphasize that here university students can be a resource to people in the livestock industry.

It is important to set clear goals to maximize the outcomes from field experiences. Students should always be informed or asked to reflect upon what they should observe, analyse, document and learn from these activities; and also to produce some kind of report.

Projects, literature reviews and research tasks

Training students in performing projects, literature reviews and research tasks is vital; such activities are our best tools to help fulfil the objectives of higher education and they give students supervised experience of how to:

  • formulate and analyse problems, explore an area deeply, and draw conclusions
  • apply and integrate knowledge acquired during the education, and search and evaluate any further information needed
  • do research in the form of experiments, field studies etc (e.g. for the BSc and MSc degree projects)
  • communicate research results through scientific and popular science writing, as well as oral and poster presentations.

Projects etc. help students get contacts with scientists and/or representatives from the farming community, extension service or the industry. Furthermore, students' curiosity and motivation increases, and they develop ability for life-long learning.

Projects, literature reviews and research tasks can be performed in groups or individually. In both cases, however, it should be under supervision. The degree projects give students a real opportunity to go in-depth into an area of their own interest, and to apply and display their knowledge and skills. These projects usually include a research task to be performed and reported individually by the student. The supervisor plays an important role in giving guidance, but without telling too much what to do. Examples of free software for statistical and genetic analyses of research data were given in [Section 5.4.1] of this module.

Minor projects and literature reviews should be included as parts of most courses. These projects can be performed in small groups so that students train to co-operate in solving a task. Specific literature reviews, on the other hand, might be better to do individually, thereby making it possible for a student to select a topic of own interest and to train in writing and presenting.

A minor project in animal breeding could be, for example, to let students (in groups) work with the various components of a breeding programme continuously during a course. They can be given a data set with phenotypic and pedigree information from a model population of animals and, thereafter, use computers to estimate genetic parameters, economic weights of different traits, breeding values and their accuracy, genetic progress, farm revenue and profits etc. Doing each step in direct connection with the teaching provided gives the students motivation to learn and adds to their understanding of the subject. Such a project can be done at hardly any additional cost, assuming computers are available.

Another project task could be to make a plan for a village of smallholder farmers to produce milk, meat, eggs and other commodities, both for own consumption and for sale at the farm gate, as well as to dairy cooperatives, butcheries etc. Students could consider, from the farmers´ point of view, all important aspects of the chosen production, such as species and breeds to use, herd size, climate of seasons, available farm labour, management systems, feed stuffs, feed production, manure handling, breeding programmes, recruitment of breeding stock, production and health control programmes etc. Simple calculations of economic revenues can also be included. The production system should be sustainable and include considerations for environmental health. Different groups of students might focus on different types of production, and each group may present its results both in writing and orally, or as a poster. The value of the project will be enhanced if some representatives from the livestock industry or extension service are present at the oral/poster presentations.

Most [Case Studies] available in the Animal Genetics Training Resource identify knowledge gaps. Such gaps could be used as starting points for various projects in teaching.

Literature reviews can be separate tasks or parts of research projects. Literature searches can be done manually in libraries, or more efficiently, by use of computers. The latter requires access to bibliographic databases. These are available in many libraries, but not everywhere. Some bibliographic databases on the Internet provide free literature searching, e.g. [AGRICOLA], [AGRIS] and [Ingenta]; for web-addresses, see [Section 14.2] of this module. For further literature databases, see [Web Resources] in Tools menu of the Animal Genetics Training Resource, and for some full text documents see [Library].

Self studies

Reading textbooks, compendia, scientific papers, reports and other types of literature is important in the learning process. Unfortunately, lack of literature is a constraint in many universities; not only because modern textbooks are often not available in the libraries, but also because students cannot afford to buy them.

Literature available in the Animal Genetics Training Resource can be useful in courses. Examples are the module texts, case studies, full papers, and the compendia. Furthermore, Internet links to some lecture notes in animal breeding are given in the tool [Web Resources]; most of those notes can be downloaded and/or printed. More lecture notes etc. can be found by exploring websites of different universities; for web-addresses to universities, see the reference "Universities Worldwide" in [Section 14.4] of this module.

Learning portfolio

Students can be asked to continuously document (e.g. weekly) what new things they have learnt, as well as thoughts they might have concerning these issues, and how their new knowledge can be applied. This makes students reflect upon their new knowledge, and to find out what they have not fully understood. They will then also better retain the knowledge. The procedure might best fit MSc students.

Supplemental Instruction

Supplemental Instruction (SI) is an academic assistance program built on scheduled, out-of-class study sessions related to a specific course (module). Students meet in groups and each group is assigned an SI-leader: an "older" student who already passed the course and who received training in group facilitation techniques. During study sessions, students compare their notes from the course and discuss readings; they try to explain things that everybody in the group has not understood, and they discuss strategies on how to study effectively for the course. The role of the SI-leader is not to give answers to the students' subject specific questions, but to facilitate the meetings and to give advice on study strategies. The teacher(s) in the course get feed-back through regular reports from the SI-leaders.

Students who regularly attend SI sessions usually improve their understanding of the subject and earn higher course grades; failure rates, therefore, are reduced. To learn more about SI, see e.g. the UMKC SI website; for web-address, see [Section 14.1] of this module.