As a high school biology student at Alternative Scarborough Education 2, Sanja Hinic-Frlog, an evolutionary biologist, paleontologist, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, discovered that the process of learning could consist of more than just the traditional methods of reading textbooks and writing tests. Hinic-Frlog’s biology teacher introduced her class to hands-on learning by organizing activities that allowed the students to design, discuss, and engage with experiments. Now as a professor in the biology department, Hinic-Frlong adopts similar teaching strategies in her own classrooms where she works to combine “reading with doing.”Hin
From a young age, Hinic-Frlog’s love and interest for animals sparked a childhood wish to attend veterinary school. She completed her undergraduate degree in biology at Queen’s University, where she experienced more active learning through field work for her courses. During her graduate schooling at the University of Toronto St. George campus, courses in animal behaviour and field courses in ornithology and paleontology ignited a new, and slightly more specialized, passion in Hinic-Frlog—a love for birds and fossils. After her two-year master’s degree, she worked for a non-profit organization devoted to bird conservation in California, and eventually pursued her Ph.D. in the United States.
“It was a love for research and teaching from that point on,” Hinic-Frlog explains in reference to the conclusion of her doctoral journey. “[The love] was always there, but I just didn’t find the subject that I was most interested in until I was doing my Ph.D.”
Through implementing her love for education and a desire to nurture a passion for learning within her students, Hinic-Frlog received an Early Career Teaching award from U of T in recognition of her efforts in incorporating creative and engaging teaching techniques in her undergraduate biology lectures, such as active learning and problem solving. Inspired by her high school teacher’s approach to education, Hinic-Frlog dedicates time, even in large classroom settings like her BIO202: Animal Physiology and BIO210: Anatomy and Physiology classes, to stop the lecture and challenge her students to apply the concepts they learned to practice problems.
To foster deeper conversation in her introduction to human and animal physiology courses, Hinic-Frlog encourages her students to complete their assigned readings before class. During lecture, Hinic-Frlog explains that she typically structures her class around what she refers to as “mini-lecturettes,” a 10-to-15 minute segment of content heavy teaching.
Followed by assigning her students a task that, depending on the content, may take between two to five minutes to complete. Often, Hinic-Frlog poses problems that the class must solve in groups or provides a sample question in preparation for an upcoming test.
“Right now we’re studying muscles and bones, so there’s a lot of terminology involved. You can’t have a conversation until you know the terms, so I pause the lesson and challenge my students,” Hinic-Frlog explains. “I use terminology to get them to stretch their bodies in class, or I’ll play a video of a dance and ask them to identify, using the terminology, what movements they see in the video or what muscles are mostly used in the activity.”
Hinic-Frlog carries these active-learning techniques into her upper year classes as well. In BIO326: Ornithology, a class focused on the study of birds, she teaches her students how to identify bird calls and takes the class on a walk along UTM’s nature trail to practice the listening, observation, and identification skills learnt in lecture. Hinic Frlog reveals that this outdoor component of the course exposes students who attend school in the city to the sights, sounds, and realities of bird calling.
Although it is often difficult to implement this style of teaching into large classes, Hini-Frlog notes that the idea of integrating active-learning into lectures is not a new discovery. She explains that there is ample evidence in pedagogical research that shows how students who engage in active learning in the classroom perform better in those courses and enjoy the content more in comparison to classes without these techniques. Her students often provide feedback on her teaching and that she uses their comments to modify and improve the structure of her lessons. Hinic-Frlog explains: “I hear students say ‘I’m not used to this, it’s so much fun’ and sometimes I hear ‘I’m not used to this, I don’t know how to deal with it.’ I challenge myself to stay open to changing. It’s important to listen to students to see what works for them.”
For Hinic-Frlog, the university experience is a composition of gaining expertise in your field of study and understanding how to apply those skills outside of the classroom.
“It’s fun for me. Everybody is different in how they teach and you have to figure out what works best for you, just as you figure out what methods are best for your learning. I’m learning from students every day and I’m learning from what other people have published,” she says, “It’s a combination of those two things that help me create these new ideas.”