Transformation of Biology Courses and Department at Oberlin

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Title of Abstract: Transformation of Biology Courses and Department at Oberlin

Name of Author: Taylor Allen
Author Company or Institution: Oberlin College
Author Title: Assoc. Professor and Chair
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: investigative labs art epistemological understanding teaching evaluations departmental reform

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Marta Laskowski, Oberlin College Liliana Milkova, Oberlin College Maureen Peters, Oberlin College

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The primary goal is to boost the extent to which the learning environment in classroom and laboratory is centered on the student and high-end cognition.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Transformative efforts by several professors, largely within their intermediate-level courses (each enrolling 8-32 students), have been two-fold: 1) designing, implementing, and assessing open-ended projects drawing inspiration from constructivism; and 2) shifting from heavily weighted final examinations and toward more frequent evaluations of student learning, as well as studying the consequence of this shift on students’ evaluation of teaching. Complementing these efforts has been systemic reform of the department's curriculum, prompted by careful, thorough self-reflection on goals, strengths, and weaknesses of the curricular program. The Department re-allocated faculty effort, enabling a split of large-enrollment introductory courses into multiple sections of 20 to 40 students. This division is seen as an important way to enhance opportunities for in-depth learning in introductory courses through broadened incorporation of pedagogical approaches centered on the learner, on assessment, and on the learning community.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We are using a blend of quantitative (direct and indirect) and qualitative methodologies to test for gains in quantitative reasoning, epistemological understanding, critical thinking, attitude, and engagement.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Regarding course-level reforms, replacement of “guided labs” with discovery-based research investigations yielded a gain of 6.3% (p=0.0017) by students in one dimension of epistemological understanding, namely, views on the characteristics of scientists. Direct assessment of students’ analytical ability similarly revealed a statistically significant gain of 9.5% (p=0.0014) following implementation of a second kind of open-ended project, one asking students to examine original works of art through the disciplinary lens of biology. Correlating with replacement of the final examination with a capstone project and portfolio was a statistically significant (p=0.0007) positive shift in students’ perception of fairness of grading, one dimension on Oberlin’s Student Evaluation of Teaching form. Regarding departmental-level reform, while targeting only a small part of the curriculum (3 of ~36 courses), the systemic curricular reform has multiple vertical and horizontal connections to other classes and involves all members of the Biology faculty, leading to a strong sense of ownership.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: At times, the process leading to systemic reform at the department level was disorderly and lacked a clear way forward. The chair gained wisdom and help from writings on creative problem solving, team-building, and the nature of change processes in higher education, notably research revealing that successful change processes, in contrast to those that fail, generally are disorderly.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: A manuscript has been submitted to CBE-Life Sciences, and preliminary reports of findings have been made at International C. elegans Meetings, at Plant Biology Meetings, and at an annual meeting of the College Art Association.

Acknowledgements: The authors thank members of the Dean's Office of Oberlin College (Sean Decatur, Joyce Babyak, and Heather Hogan) for their strong, public commitment to meaningful assessment of well-considered learning outcomes at the department level. The transformative efforts of individual professors benefitted from the NSF Chautauqua Conference series for faculty development, as well as from CAREER (IBN 9985315), CCLI (DUE 0411070), and RUI (IOS 0842830, 0950866) grants from NSF.