Student-Centered Learning in Biology at Georgia Tech

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Title of Abstract: Student-Centered Learning in Biology at Georgia Tech

Name of Author: Jung Choi
Author Company or Institution: Georgia Institute of Technology
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: General Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.)
Keywords: Flipped class clickers student-centered learning Intro Biology student-created content

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Shana Kerr, Georgia Institute of Technology

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: At the Georgia Institute of Technology, the School of Biology faculty have incorporated student-centered, active learning strategies throughout the core curriculum, the Honors courses, and selected upper-division elective courses. The overall goal is to promote student learning of skills and processes, especially quantitative analysis and reasoning. The challenge is to get students closer to actually doing biology and thinking like biologists: 1. Students should see biology as integrative, interdisciplinary, and relevant. 2. Students should be able to search and synthesize the published literature on specific biological topics and questions. 3. Students will learn to work effectively in teams. 4. Students will learn to communicate biology, to both their peers and to professional audiences.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The large (150-250 students per lecture section) freshman intro biology classes use peer-instruction strategies, including student-response systems, just-in-time teaching with on-line homework platforms (Mastering Biology), and 'flipped' classes with integrative case-studies. Biol 1510 begins with an in-depth learning module on evolution, and evolution shapes and enriches student understanding of subsequent modules on ecology, cell structure and energy metabolism, genetics, and recombinant DNA technology. The emphasis is on conceptual learning and application, rather than memorizing facts, and understanding the design and interpretation of experiments and their results. Much of the course has been 'flipped,' with on-line notes containing short video lecture segments. On-line Mastering Biology homework is due before class, so students come to class having at least worked with the concepts, and instructors know what concepts students found difficult. Class sessions use clickers to further test student understanding and launch peer discussion. During class, students work in groups to discuss and answer a series of questions related to a recently published paper, a model simulation, or a case study that illustrates how the biological concepts apply to real problems. Students also work in groups outside of class to research an assigned topic (usually a recently published journal article) and create and post a YouTube video. These videos must show real data from the paper, and discuss how the concepts learned in class apply to the research.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: The primary evaluation methods involve mid-semester student surveys and end-of-course evaluations to gauge student attitudes, and both formative and summative assessments (in-class clicker questions and mid-term/final exams, respectively). These data are examined to determine whether changes in instructional modes or materials affect students attitudes, and student learning. After a large portion of Biol 1510 was 'flipped,' analyses of student performance on exam questions showed significant gains on higher-level (Bloom's Taxonomy level 3 or higher) questions, for students who learned cellular structure and energy metabolism in the flipped class compared to students who learned the same topics in a more traditional lecture format with clickers. Preliminary results of such analyses have been presented as a poster (published with doi on Figshare: and published as a blog post:

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Beyond the freshman Biology sequence, most of the core courses in the Biology major curriculum now use some form of peer-instruction, with clickers used to gain real-time feedback of student understanding and stimulate peer discussion. Other courses take a student-centered approach: Developmental Biology students create and maintain web pages on various model organisms, read papers and use on-line sources instead of a textbook. Honors Intro Biology have service-learning, project laboratories working with Atlanta organizations such as Piedmont Park and the Botanical Garden. Honors Ecology has a studio model of learning, that makes no distinction between laboratory and field versus the classroom. Mathematical Modeling in Biology is a sophomore-level core course where students work in groups to build and explore mathematical models of biological processes. Other faculty have watched the flipped class with interest and will begin implementing this model in their own classes next year.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: A significant portion of students express dislike of student-centered pedagogies, particularly the 'flipped' class. Students complained about having to spend too much time preparing for class, and having to learn on their own. Some pleaded for a return to traditional lectures. The instructor's student evaluations dropped significantly in the two semesters of flipped teaching. Another instructor had a similar experience with lower student evaluations of her teaching after she instituted process-oriented guided instruction and learning (POGIL) in her upper-division Immunology elective course. Student resistance to taking charge of their own learning may discourage some instructors, particularly those with non-tenure track or part-time appointments, from adopting such pedagogies.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: To date the dissemination activities have been largely informal: peer interactions via meetings of the intro biology faculty working group, co-teaching, and a journal club discussing aspects of the scholarship of teaching and learning literature. More broadly, a few of the instructors have presented some aspects of their classroom innovations to a broader campus teaching-and-learning community via workshops and brownbag lunch seminars organized and sponsored by the campus Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. Preliminary results from assessments have been presented to conferences largely focused on biology instruction, as posters and brief talks or demonstrations. Future plans include designing and executing formal studies on efficacy of various innovations for publication in science education journals. A major avenue for dissemination is via the world-wide web and social media. Lecture videos, case-study materials and ideas, and some assessment data are all made publicly available on course web sites, along with student-produced work. Student-produced videos are posted on YouTube, publicly accessible with links from the course web sites. Student-authored blogs are similarly available to the public. Here is a list of relevant website URLs:

Acknowledgements: The authors are indebted to their colleagues: Linda Green, Chrissy Spencer, Jennifer Leavey, Mirjana Brockett, David Garton, and support from the rest of the faculty of the School of Biology, and the staff of Georgia Tech's Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.