Informed Learning Practices in Biology Using Peer Leaders

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Title of Abstract: Informed Learning Practices in Biology Using Peer Leaders

Name of Author: Nancy Pelaez
Author Company or Institution: Purdue university
Author Title: Associate Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: Peer Led Team Learning (PLTL); Inquiry; Library Research; Information Literacy; Informed Learning

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Clarence D Maybee, Purdue University Maribeth Slebodnik, Purdue University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Vision and Change (AAAS, 2011) calls for making undergraduate courses more student-centered and relevant. We introduce undergraduates to the practices that 'inform' biology professionals and explicitly address the potential for students to inform themselves in a biology course for first-year undergraduate students.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Students are given practice with skills for informing themselves as part of weekly problem sets during the first six weeks of the semester. In tandem with lectures, each semester a section with about 50 students utilizes Peer-led Team Learning (PLTL). The entire class meets twice a week, while weekly workshops are facilitated by a peer leader who has successfully completed the course. Early in the course, students are directed to develop a question that is personally relevant to them that can be investigated through engagements with biological information sources. During the workshops, the peer-leaders periodically prompt the students to report on the status of their developing question. Students work through problems with information literacy focused questions that were developed by the instructor and the librarians involved in the project. The questions are scaffolded, beginning with developing a skill and building toward having students reflect on and improve their own strategies to inform themselves. For example, in the first week the students find images or videos on the Internet to help understand a concept, but as they reflect on the quality of biological information they find and evaluate how useful it is for their question, they eventually examine experiments in the primary literature.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Adobe Connect Meeting software was used to facilitate the small group workshops and also to record class sessions during the first semester that the PLTL version of the course was offered. The Adobe Connect video footage of students working in their peer-led groups was iteratively reviewed by the instructors and librarians to improve the questions and scaffolding for students and the guiding probes or prompts peer leaders use and how those relate to the personal relevance of the tasks to the students. In the PLTL environment, students teach one another to be critical and consider ethical guidelines for using biological information. An example of this arose when a student offered dubious sounding research findings to his group to support a claim. The other students pressed him to learn the source of the research findings, and upon learning that he read it on Wikipedia called on him to trace the research to primary sources. Peer-leaders write weekly reflections discussing the successes, needs and challenges of the students working on problem sets within their team. In the second half of the semester, the students apply what they learn to create academic posters. Students completed peer and self-evaluations related to the academic posters.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Life science majors gain competence and confidence in their ability to inform themselves by applying the foundational principles they learn beyond the textbook. PLTL workshops show students what it means to think like or to be an information empowered professional. The peer leaders benefit, too. Video footage of PLTL workshops and the peer-leader reflections provide a window into the students’ abilities and challenges as they work in teams outside of the classroom. This information makes it possible for Purdue librarians in collaboration with the instructor to more explicitly address students’ learning to use information. The approach to informed learning developed for the biology course would apply to any discipline-specific course where HOW students learn a particular subject and how they inform themselves is just as important as WHAT they learn.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The major challenge is to engage students with a topic of personal relevance as they practice informed learning strategies. We found the video footage of the students working together a source of invaluable information to help us understand the students’ experiences as they complete their coursework. In the future, we plan to return to requiring student teams meet online.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: A talk was given at the Changing Classroom Conference at Purdue for IMPACT - Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation, and ongoing dissemination involves librarians using the lessons learned from this research to impact instructors who sign up for IMPACT with other courses. This provost-initiated, campus-wide course redesign program, under the leadership of Dale Whittaker, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs at Purdue, aims to bring active-learning to foundational courses traditionally taught through lectures by involving librarians as in-the-trenches liaisons to course redesign projects.

Acknowledgements: 1. College of Science (CoS) Instructional Technology Award; 2. IMPACT - Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation; 3. EDUCAUSE and Next Generation Learning Challenges Award for Cyber Peer-Led Team Learning consortium, IUPUI/Purdue/Florida International University; 4. HHMI for Deviating from the Standard Faculty Learning Community; 5. NSF Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) DUE #0837229