2012. Vol.3, Special Issue, 866-873
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2012.326130
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Meaning Check Questions as an Active Learning Tool in the
University Biology Laboratory Assists International Students
Hye-Jin Kim Hawkes1,2, Aldo Armstron g H a wkes2,3, Kathryn Fay Tonissen1
1School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia
2State University of New York Korea, Incheon, Korea
3Sonic Language Solutions, Seoul, Korea
Email: K.Toni s s email@example.com d u .au
Received August 31st, 2012; revis e d S e p t e mber 28th, 2012; accepted October 9th, 2012
Greater participation by students is associated with better learning outcomes. Therefore active learning
approaches in teaching have been encouraged for teachers to use in the classroom. In particular, student-
centered learning is highly appreciated in a classroom where international students have to learn in Eng-
lish while it is not their first language. Master of Science students at Griffith University, Australia, all in-
ternational students, were exposed to an environment where Meaning Check Questions (MQ) were prac-
ticed as an active learning approach. The MQs were incorporated into a biology laboratory course and
required the students to answer short verbal questions relating to the course content, experimental proce-
dures and scientific writing. The results show that these methods encouraged students to be more active in
class and improved their confidence level and knowledge of the key concepts during the course, com-
pared to students who did not experience the MQ learning approach. Students exposed to MQs during the
course also showed a distinct improvement in their confidence towards scientific writing.
Keywords: Student Centered Learning; Meaning Check Questions (MQ); Scientific Writing Skills;
International Student; Biology Laboratory
It is now well established that students learn more effectively
when “student-centered learning” approaches are used in the
University classroom (Biggs, 2003; Smith et al., 2005; Wood,
2003). In “student-centered” learning, “Learning takes place
through the active behaviour of the student and not through
what the teacher does” (Biggs, 2003). According to studies
completed in the USA a large number of science and mathe-
matics students withdrew from their programs largely due to
lectures being perceived as boring and hard to relate to
(Kardash & Wallace, 2001; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Strenta
et al., 1994). A core message is therefore to ensure students are
actively involved in their own learning by providing them tools
or opportunities to interact in class (Chickering & Gamson,
1999; Smith et al., 2005; Walczyk & Ramsey, 2003). The chal-
lenge is to design the course structure to include activities that
motivate and encourage students to actively engage with the
curriculum (Knight & Wood, 2005).
A highly effective approach to encourage student involve-
ment in the classroom is via Meaning Check Questions (MQs),
also known as concept check questions (Workman, 2005). MQs
are typically simple questions that require short answers. They
are asked just prior to starting an activity and often right after
instructions have been given. The typical amount of time given
to these types of questions is between 2-5 minutes. MQs can
focus on key parts of how and what to do for an activity or the
crucial elements of a concept’s meaning. MQs are viable in
many teaching situations and have been widely used as a tool
for teaching languages (TEFL, 2007).
MQs encourage students to think about the question they
have been asked since they need to verbalise an answer. In
contrast merely asking “Do you understand?” is all too often
just answered with “yes”, even though students in reality do not
understand. Similarly, students in science laboratory classes
quite often follow verbal or written instructions without neces-
sarily knowing why. Thus we considered that adapting MQs to
a laboratory class setting would help to check a student’s con-
ceptual understanding before doing an activity, resulting in
more student interaction as well as less class time lost due to
students not really knowing what to do. The goal is also for
students to develop a deeper understanding of the important
concepts through verbalising their answers. Vygotsky (1986)
postulated that there is a strong relationship between thinking,
talking and learning and more recently other teachers have
promoted the idea of learning through the spoken word (Myhill,
Active learning applies to all students, regardless of cultural
background or discipline of study. However, according to some
researchers there is a common perception amongst many teach-
ers that Asian students rely on rote learning (Chan, 1999) and
therefore prefer a teacher-focused approach. This view has been
challenged by studies showing Asian students, including sci-
ence students, can adapt to a more student-centred style of
learning and in fact, prefer it (Kember, 2000; Wong, 2004).
Thus, learning styles are more likely to be contextual rather
than cultural (Wong, 2004). It is therefore important for teach-
ers to adopt strategies that promote active student learning and
be aware that despite initial reluctance, students from all cul-
tures will respond similarly.
Within science, a key issue is to teach scientific writing ef-
fectively. Significant scientific research findings need to be
H.-J. K. HAWKES ET AL.
clearly communicated through writing, which takes many forms
including reports, journal articles and conference presentations.
Improving students’ writing skills in science degree programs
is necessary because writing is an important form of profes-
sional communication and also improves critical thinking
(Libarkin & Ording, 2012; Peat et al., 2002; Quitadamo &
Kurtz, 2007). It is clear that a greater emphasis on developing
effective communication is required among scientists and thus
needs be part of their education (Ali et al., 2007; Libarkin &
Ording, 2012; Quitadamo & Kurtz, 2007). However a survey at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that 45% of biol-
ogy students did not like writing despite 98% regarding writing
as important for learning (Manske, 2010). International students
who do not have English as their preferred language are even
more overwhelmed when faced with a technical writing task
(Jordan & Kedrowicz, 2011). Tools and activities must there-
fore be utilised that inspire students to want to develop their
writing expertise. We have shown previously (Lee et al., 2011)
that the use of writing activities embedded into a laboratory
class can assist students to gain confidence in their writing and
we were therefore interested if oral MQs could complement this
approach to encourage international students to write.
In the study described herein oral MQs are implemented as a
simple method to encourage non-native English speakers to
adapt to a student-centered style of learning in a biology labo-
ratory course, with the goals of developing a deeper under-
standing of the concepts underpinning their laboratory experi-
ments and improving their confidence at performing scientific
Student participants were in the course entitled “Biotechnol-
ogy and Molecular Biology Laboratory”, which is taken by
students in the second semester of the first year of the Master of
Science program at Griffith University, Australia. This program
is only available to international students who complete under-
graduate studies overseas and then come to Australia to under-
take a two-year program. This research project received ethics
approval from the Griffith University Human Research Ethics
Committee and students signed consent forms to allow the use
of their responses for research purposes.
Five students were enrolled in 2008. They were all interna-
tional students and English was their 2nd language. The aim of
the course was to conduct a project (a series of experiments) in
the laboratory and to submit a written report. It is a 7-week, 8
hours/week (in 2 × 4 hour sessions) semi-intensive course. Ex-
periments are completed in the first 5 weeks. Students also
commence work on their written report with feedback through
writing exercise (Lee et al., 2011). In the final 2 weeks students
were given 2-hour workshops aimed at improving their written
report. Assessment also includes 2 written quizzes (weeks 3 and
5) on the concepts underpinning their experimental work and
includes problem-solving questions. A control group of 8 stu-
dents was also used for this study. These students experienced
the same course taught in the following year without MQs.
Use of MQs to Learn Scientific Concepts
Before, during and after each laboratory session students
were asked oral MQs. This was to encourage students to pre-
pare for the class and to check how much they had learnt.
Another benefit is that the teacher receives frequent real-time
feedback of what students know. A teacher would explain a
technical procedure and then ask short questions to the students
to probe their understanding. The number and type of MQs
varied, with questions based on information from the laboratory
manual. Example MQs are: “Why are we using NaOH in this
step of the plasmid preparation procedure? What is the next
step?” How does the T7 expression system work to induce pro-
tein expression? Unless students understand what they are do-
ing and why they are doing such an experiment, they can’t an-
swer those MQs. The intention is to encourage students to think
and to verbalise their answers. Then as needed, the teacher
guides them towards the right answer. The MQ approach con-
trasts to asking students one-on-one questions once the class
has commenced, as is normal practice in laboratory courses.
Students know they must answer the MQs before commencing
laboratory work and therefore they come to class prepared.
Implementing MQs only requires a few minutes yet it is a sim-
ple and effective approach to involve students in the subject
material. The time spent on MQs is soon saved as students are
more efficient in the laboratory.
At the end of a session MQ questions were asked such as,
“Why were we doing this experiment? Why did you use this
chemical and not that one?” The purpose is to ensure that stu-
dents have cemented their understanding of the laboratory pro-
cedures and why they were performing them.
Writing Activities and the Use of MQs
During the laboratory sessions the students also completed
some writing activities similar to those reported for an under-
graduate biology laboratory class (Lee et al., 2011). These writ-
ing activities included simple written tasks that required analy-
sis of their own experimental data on which they received for-
mative feedback from teaching staff to assist them with their
final report. Tasks varied in each session but included writing
figure legends, describing results and deciding which informa-
tion should go into the discussion section. The Masters students
also had two 2-hour workshops devoted to developing and re-
ceiving feedback on their written report drafts. The type of
verbal MQs used to guide students in their scientific writing
development included “What type of information do you need
in this particular figure legend” and “With respect to your re-
striction digests what analysis will you provide in your discus-
Evaluation o f T eachi n g Stra tegi es
Evaluation of the effectiveness of the MQs was conducted
using five different evaluation methods:
1) Regular written surveys
Anonymous surveys were conducted at weeks 3, 4 and 5.
Students were asked open-ended questions such as to recall the
MQs asked that day, whether MQs had helped with subject
material comprehension and if MQs had helped them to per-
form experiments correctly. They were also asked to specifi-
cally describe how the MQs helped.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 867
H.-J. K. HAWKES ET AL.
2) Interviews of students
A teacher (external to the course) conducted interviews with
the Masters students in the final session of experiments (week 5)
without the presence of the teacher who utilised the MQs. Stu-
dents were asked specific open-ended questions regarding their
opinions on the effectiveness of using MQs during the labora-
tory sessions and if improvements could be made.
3) Official university evaluation
An anonymous voluntary survey was conducted, at the end
of the course, according to University policy asking students to
rate the effectiveness of the teaching strategies implemented in
the course. Respondents were asked to mark one number on a
Likert scale rating from 1 to 7, where 1 is regarded as poor and
7 as excellent. Open questions further encouraged feedback on
course strengths, weaknesses and the teaching activities.
4) Analysis of quiz results
The student results from both quizzes were compared to quiz
marks obtained by the control group of students who did not
experience MQs. The data were analysed using the GraphPad
Prism software package and applying the student’s t-test. The
grade point averages (GPA) of the students in each group were
also compared and analysed using a t-test. The GPAs are cal-
culated on the courses undertaken by the students in their first
semester of the program. These courses are theory based and
specialised to their discipline of study. Thus they are an indica-
tor of a student’s academic capability prior to commencing the
5) Students’ attitudes towards scientific writing
Surveys were also conducted at the start and end of the
course regarding student attitudes towards scientific writing.
The same surveys were given to the control group (in the fol-
lowing year) who did not experience MQs. Participation was
anonymous and voluntary. The closed items were designed to
determine the student perceptions of their own scientific writing
ability and their confidence at performing certain writing tasks,
such as writing a figure legend and deciding what information
should go into discussion versus results sections of a report.
Students were asked to circle one number on a Likert scale
rating from 1 to 5. The data were analysed using the SPSS
software package and applying the Mann-Whitney two-group
test, which tests whether there is a difference between two pop-
ulation medians. Open-ended questions sampled student opin-
ions on the course teaching strategies used.
MQ Approach and Student Acceptance
To determine if students adapted to the use of MQs in class,
surveys were undertaken on a regular basis (Table 1). The re-
sults show that students retained the information probed by
MQs earlier in the course. Students also reported that the MQ
approach helped them to understand more about the project.
Initially, when students were asked MQ questions, further ex-
planation was given for wrong answers only. Survey results
indicated that students wanted a brief summary or further ex-
planation even after MQs were answered correctly to ensure
they understood the concepts accurately and in sufficient depth.
This feedback was taken into consideration and from week 3 a
summary of all questions and the day’s laboratory activities
were included as part of the session. In week 4, all students
were satisfied with the improved approach (Table 1) with no
further recommendation or dissatisfaction. The students’ re-
quest to provide more explanation shows that they were com-
fortable in providing an honest evaluation if they thought
something needed improvement. The students also stated that
the MQ approach helped them to better understand the labora-
tory experiments with quotes such as “My understanding has
improved and I know what I am doing”. In addition the quote
“It is interactive and informative” shows that getting involved
in their own learning is perceived as a benefit.
A teacher familiar with the content, but external to the course
interviewed the students after the experimental phase had con-
cluded. Opinions were solicited regarding the use of MQs dur-
ing the laboratory sessions (Table 2). Quotes such as “Im-
proved understanding of the lab” and “Consolidated knowledge
about lab work” revealed students regarded the MQs as benefi-
cial. There were no recommendations for further improvement.
The final official University evaluation consisted of an anony -
mous survey with both open and closed questions that sought
students’ opinions of the effectiveness of teaching strategies
(Table 3). They indicate overwhelming support for this teach-
ing style, with all questions scoring an average greater than 6
out of 7, placing the course in the top 5% out of the 350 courses
taught within the faculty in this semester. The following are
representative comments made by students: “MQs really helped
me...!!”, “MQs as well as the feedback given were very good”
and “The MQs are done well and should be continued”.
Use of MQs Enhance Student Learning
In their surveys and interviews the students also stated that
the MQs helped them prepare for the laboratory quizzes (which
test understanding of the laboratory course techniques and data
analysis). The marks from both quizzes were shown to be sta-
tistically significantly higher, when compared to a control
group of 8 students who completed the same course in the sub-
sequent year when MQs were not utilised (Figure 1). All other
learning techniques were identical between the two groups. An
analysis of the grade point average (GPA) was not significantly
different between the two groups of students (5.1 (with MQs)
compared to 5.0 (without MQs)), indicating that their academic
ability was comparable (as detailed in the methods).
The Quiz results show that the students’ understanding and
knowledge did match their belief that the MQs had assisted
them to better understand the experiments they were perform-
ing. The quizzes contained some questions that assessed their
ability to utilise their knowledge and understanding of the core
concepts to solve problems, rather than to merely recall infor-
mation. Thus, questions were in a different format to MQs,
which typically were shorter simple questions. The quiz results
suggest that MQs were encouraging a deeper learning approach
and that students could apply their knowledge to a wider scope
MQs Enhan ce Student Attitudes and Confidence
towards Writing Tasks
One goal of the course was to instruct students in scientific
writing. As such we wanted to determine if the students found
the teaching strategies helpful. The anonymous surveys at the
commencement and end of the course asked students how they
rated their confidence and ability to write. The results are
shown in Figure 2.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
H.-J. K. HAWKES ET AL.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 869
Biotechnology laboratory student surveys (MQ approach).
Survey Questions Yes (%) Student Responses
Did you understand what “Meaning
Check Questions” are when the
teacher explained them to you? Wk 3 80%
How the insulin assay and expression system works, why we run a pr ot ein gel.
Regarding the protei n expression.
About the last stage of the experiment especially analytical procedures.
Regarding protein expression system and activity assay etc.
What MQs have you been
Introduction of fragments into pETThio vector and summary of whole project.
About the entire project.
Which enzymes would you use for exp eriment; expression vector.
The work don e in the la b to day and yesterday.
MQs were about the entire process that was c arried out during the p ast 4 weeks.
Wk 3 80% Yes. It is a good way to check your knowledge about the subject. Along with the MQs,
the demonstrator should also explain the entire activity.
Wk 4 100%Yes, it helped me a lot.
Do you think M Q has helped you in
the course today?
Wk 5 100%Yes, it expl ained the gaps in part o f t he exper i ment.
It helps us rea li ze our weakness and improve on them as well as prepa ri ng questions as it en-
courages us to read ahead of time.
H elped me to u n d erstand the activity better. I th ink the explanatio n given by her is sufficient
enough for me to present my s elf in the MQ.
M y understan ding has improved alon g with the tec h nique. I ge t to know what exactly I am doing
and why I am doing that.
It consolidat es what I a l r eady know and emphasizes import ant things.
I think it helps me for quiz (test).
It helps to know how c ertain questions should be answered.
Improved my understanding.
It has improved my understanding and has made me think about this project.
If yes, how d id you bene f i t from this
MQ approac h?
M y understan ding has improved and I know what I am doing.
It is interactive a nd in formative.
It made answers clearer.
This MQ is a link for the missing clues of th e lab.
H elped to im p r o ve my und erstandin g.
Wk 3 The demonstrator should also expla in a bit more.
Wk 4 All g ood.
Everything is perfect.
If any, please mention what we can do
better to ass ist you to l earn.
Wk 5 All g ood.
Previously, students asked for a
summary of MQs. Did the teacher
summarise the answers to all MQs?
Wk 5 100%
Yes, she was giving expl anation as well as the summary.
Yes, she was giving expl anation as well as the summary.
Students showed a statistically significant improvement in
their rating of their scientific writing ability (Panel A) and in
their confidence at being able to decide if information should be
included in the results or discussion section (Panel C). While
the results also show an improved trend in their confidence at
writing figure legends (Panel B) there was no statistical sig-
nificance. This is likely due to a couple of reasons. First, writ-
ing a figure legend follows relatively simple rules and second,
they were Masters students with some prior experience. In con-
trast, writing a coherent results and discussion section requires
higher order analytical and critical thinking, which can only be
obtained by practice and appropriate training.
Of particular interest is that this course was also conducted in
the same format in 2009, without the MQ approach. Identical
survey questions were asked before and after the course and
there was no statistically significant improvement in the student
rating of either their scientific writing ability, figure legend
writing or ability to decide which information went into results
vs. discussion sessions (data not shown). The students in 2009
also stated in the open ended questions that they had problems
learning the scientific language needed for writing reports,
whereas the students in 2008 had very positive things to say
about how the teaching strategies (including MQs) helped to
improve their scientific knowledge and writing skills. In the
2008 survey 100% of students responded that they better un-
derstood the purposes of the experiments after MQs and writing
activities. In contrast only 50% of students in 2009 responded
that they understood better the experiments after the writing
H.-J. K. HAWKES ET AL.
Interviews of students taken at end of course by another teacher.
Survey Questions Yes (%) Ope n-Ended Responses
1. Did the teacher ask MQs in every lab class? 100%
2. Do you think MQ has helped you in this class? 100%
3. If yes, i n what way did you benefit from MQs approach?
Helpful for the quiz a n d u nderstanding the lab better.
Helps with answer structures.
Unde r stand lab activities.
Improved understanding of the lab .
Made work clearer.
4. Did the teacher summarize the answer of MQs that are asked in the class? 100%
5. If yes, h ow did you bene f it from th is “MQ” approach?
H elpful for the quiz and g ave a clear picture about the lab approach.
Knowing the correct answer and how to write them.
Learned how to bett er phrase scien tific writing.
U n d erstand overall picture of lab.
Consolidated knowledge about lab work.
6. If anything, what we can do better to assist yo u in better learning. No further suggestions
Final university survey taken at end of course .
Survey Questions Average
Explaining Aims and Objectives
1: How effective was this lecturer/tutor in helping you to understand what you were expected to learn? 6.6
2: How effective was this lecturer/tutor in using teaching methods that helped you to learn? 6.4
Teacher’s Capacity to Motivate
3: How effective was this lecturer/tutor in motivatin g and inspiring yo u to learn? 6.6
Concern for Students and their Le arning
4: How effective was this lecturer /tutor in showing concern for you and your l earning? 6.4
Commitment to the use of Feedback
5: How effective was this lecturer/tutor in ensuring that you received feedback which helped you to lea rn (written or oral on your work)? 6.6
6: How effective was this lecturer/tutor in helping you to understand the standards of work required in the assessment items? 6.8
Focus on Learning
7: How effective was this lecture r/ tutor in helping yo u t o extend y o ur knowledge understanding and skills (i.e . beyond memorisation)? 6.4
8: How effective was this lecturer/tutor in teaching in an organised, coherent and well ordered way? 6.6
Commitment to Improvement
9: How effective was this lecturer /tutor in seeking and u sing feedback to improve his/he r teaching ? 6.6
10: Overall, how effective was this le cturer/tutor in helping you to l earn? 6.8
11: How effective were the meaning check questions in helping you t o understand the laboratory course? 6.8
Note: aT he score is ra ted on a 7 point Likert scale where 1 = Poor, 4 = Avera ge, and 7 = Excellent.
activities alone. This belief by the MQ group of their enhanced
understanding was borne out by achieving higher quiz marks
Students were asked to prepare a draft of their written report,
which was assessed by an independent examiner not involved
in teaching the course. The trend was for students who experi-
enced MQs to achieve a higher average mark (7.2/10) com-
pared to the control group of students (5.9/10). However upon
individual feedback to each student both groups of students
ultimately ended up with very similar overall marks for their
assignment, but the control group required more assistance to
reach this level.
The overall results suggest that MQs are a simple, yet effec-
tive approach in assisting students to learn concepts and to en-
hance their confidence at performing scientific writing tasks.
While student-centered learning is now regarded as good
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
H.-J. K. HAWKES ET AL.
Average Mark /20
Quiz results from students experiencing MQ
approach compared to those who did not. Re-
sults from quiz 1 and quiz 2 were pooled.
Mean SEM. N = 10 (with MQ) and N = 16
(without MQ). Statistical significance was de-
termined using a student’s t test (P < 0.0 5).
practice, selecting the appropriate active learning approach may
be influenced by many factors including the teaching context,
class size, and the previous experience of participants. Teachers
may also be reluctant to adopt particular active learning strate-
gies for their course without prior validation they are likely to
be worth the effort (Knight & Wood, 2005). MQs are a tool
used in teaching English and this study demonstrates that suc-
cessful approaches in one discipline can be transferred to an-
other, in this case to teach scientific concepts in a laboratory
setting. The MQs assisted students to consolidate and extend
their knowledge and to apply it to problem solving questions
and to scientific writing. This approach is particularly suited to
laboratory classes because the student: demonstrator ratios are
in a range that enables active participation of each student,
however MQs may also be adapted for other courses.
MQs were used to specifically check if students understood
the content relevant to each particular session or activity.
However it had even greater benefits than originally intended.
Students began automatically reviewing and previewing the
course materials before coming to the laboratory sessions. The
class time could then be spent focusing more on “how much” or
“what” students know. MQs also helped to verify what they had
learned in the previous session without the need for a formal
test. Since students studied before coming to laboratory ses-
sions, MQs also functioned as an interactive review. As a result,
students became more positive and competent towards all as-
pects of the course, as seen in Figures 1 and 2. Students could
therefore be challenged with deeper, harder questions to en-
hance their scientific knowledge and skill base. One MQ was
particularly powerful: “Tell me one important thing you learned
from the previous class”. This greatly helped the teacher to
determine what students learned and any important points not
mentioned could then be re-emphasized. Thus, MQs acted as a
checkpoint for the teacher to determine what students were
learning and which concepts needed further explanation.
Verbalising answers assists with the learning process and
through talking ideas are formulated, refined and subsequently
firmly established (Myhill, 2010; Vygotsky, 1986). In particu-
lar verbalizing something before doing an activity results in
improved performance, especially in the initial stages of learn-
ing (McKeachie et al., 1986). The students in our class believed
that the use of verbal MQs improved their understanding of the
Nil Poor Average Good Excellent
A. Student rating of scientifing writing ability
Not confident Extremely confident
B. Student confidence of writing figure legends
Not conf ident Extreme l y co nfident
C. Student confidence at deciding to put information
into results versus discussion
Student opinions of their scientific writing ability (Panel A) and their
confidence at performing scientific writing tasks (Panels B and C). The
Likert rating scales were: Panel A: 1 = Nil, 2 = Poor, 3 = Average, 4 =
Good, 5 = Excellent; and Panels B and C: student confidence levels of
Not confident (=1) through to Extremely confident (=5). Students were
surveyed pre and post course. *Significant differences between pre and
post course surveys were determined using the Mann-Whitney test (2
group); P < 0.05 for Panels A and C.
laboratory experimental work and as a consequence became
more confident with the course material. Confidence is an im-
portant attribute to develop among students. Increased confi-
dence at performing a task usually results in higher productivity
and better outcomes (Compte & Postlewaite, 2004). A study
using data from 41 USA colleges and Universities showed that
students with more confidence and greater self belief achieved
higher GPAs and were more likely to graduate than students
with the same academic ability, but with less self-belief. Thus
even over-rated self-belief was of benefit. (Mattern et al., 2009).
While our study size was small, the students recorded statisti-
cally significant quiz results compared to students who had not
experienced MQ and who self-reported a lower confidence
level. Thus it would appear that confidence among the MQ
students did correlate with a better understanding.
An interesting finding was that using verbal MQs assisted the
students to become more confident towards scientific writing.
Training in scientific writing was provided in the laboratory
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 871
H.-J. K. HAWKES ET AL.
class and required the students to complete writing activities,
where they received feedback. Verbal MQs also probed aspects
of scientific writing. The use of both verbal and written ap-
proaches to guide writing development equates to a multimodal
approach to develop academic literacy, as advocated by Archer
(2006). A multimodal approach using verbal, written and visual
approaches to train engineering students was preferred to solely
focussing on a written mode, since learning can be shaped by
many stimuli (Archer, 2006). In our class, where one goal was
to develop scientific writing skills, verbalising their thoughts
may have assisted the students to better organise how they
would write their report. Alternatively it may have enhanced
their overall confidence, leading to a belief that they were now
more competent at scientific writing.
Since all students were Asian, these teaching methods had a
deeper significance. In a classroom setting Asian students are
usually regarded as quiet and do not often voluntarily speak in
class in comparison with native English speakers (Farell, 2009).
That means that it can be even harder to determine if they un-
derstand the material being discussed in class. However, the
results from this study show that these active teaching ap-
proaches are very promising. In the beginning students ex-
pressed the usual “sigh” when they found out they had to par-
ticipate so often. However, once they built up their confidence,
they were quite comfortable expressing their opinions and even
stated that they preferred this approach. In addition students
stated that MQs helped them prepare for the formal quizzes and
thus could see some personal benefit. These results support
other research on how Asian students prefer active learning
approaches once used to this style of teaching (Kember, 2000;
The results obtained in this study are significant as there is a
growing number of overseas students who are studying in Eng-
lish speaking universities. Of the 34,000 students attending
Griffith University in 2008 about 7000, or approximately 20%,
were from overseas countries (GriffithUniversity, 2008). From
experience in teaching both in Australia and Korea for over 10
years, it is empirically evident that students using English as a
second language become particularly intimidated when they
need to speak in a lecture, workshop and even in a small group
setting with native speakers. By appreciating these difficulties
and adopting strategies that encourage more active participation,
students can adapt and succeed in a foreign environment.
This small study shows that MQs are a viable active learning
approach for the biological science laboratory, and these initial
results show that MQs warrant further investigation as a learn-
ing tool. Students whose mother tongue isn’t English experi-
ence difficulty in communicating while learning due to obsta-
cles such as English proficiency level, culture and customs. The
results show that despite these obstacles a noticeable improve-
ment in their competence, confidence and level of learning is
possible once they became actively engaged in their learning.
Furthermore the utilisation of simple active teaching methods,
such as MQs, is potentially a powerful tool for student-centred
learning in the biology discipline and could be easily applied to
a larger range of courses.
We thank Dr Roger Moni for supporting the development of
this manuscript, as partial requirement of the Graduate Certifi-
cate in Higher Education at Griffith University. We acknowl-
edge Griffith University for supporting this project through a
Learning and Teaching Grant.
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