We carried out an experiment to determine whether student learning gains in a large, traditionally taught, upper-division lecture course in developmental biology could be increased by partially changing to a more interactive classroom format. In two successive semesters, we presented the same course syllabus using different teaching styles: in fall 2003, the traditional lecture format; and in spring 2004, decreased lecturing and addition of student participation and cooperative problem solving during class time, including frequent in-class assessment of understanding. We used performance on pretests and posttests, and on homework problems to estimate and compare student learning gains between the two semesters. Our results indicated significantly higher learning gains and better conceptual understanding in the more interactive course. To assess reproducibility of these effects, we repeated the interactive course in spring 2005 with similar results. Our findings parallel results of similar teaching-style comparisons made in other disciplines. On the basis of this evidence, we propose a general model for teaching large biology courses that incorporates interactive engagement and cooperative work in place of some lecturing, while retaining course content by demanding greater student responsibility for learning outside of class.