Active Learning and Assessments in XULA Biology Curriculum

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Title of Abstract: Active Learning and Assessments in XULA Biology Curriculum

Name of Author: Harris McFerrin
Author Company or Institution: Xavier Unversity of Louisiana
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Adding to the literature on how people learn, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: active-learning, assessments, common exams, technology, HBCU

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Mary C. Carmichael , Xavier University of Louisiana Shubha K. Ireland, Xavier University of Louisiana

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Following the devastating disruption to the University and major shifts in the student population due to Hurricane Katrina, our Biology Department began what would become a two-phase process to introduce more active learning concepts, coupled with increased assessment in an effort to improve student outcomes. The 2009 V&C conference was instrumental in our departmental expansion of the scope of the Post-Katrina Support Fund Initiative (PKSFI) Biothrust 21 Program and review of our entire biology curriculum. This project was started using our two introductory courses, Biol 1230 and Biol 1240, respectively. The intended outcome of these changes was to increase student pass rate from Bio 1230 to Bio 1240. The highly positive results produced from phase 1 provided an impetus to increase personalization of student interventions and to seek input directly from our freshman students to learn more about what they perceived as individual impediments for freshman level success as well as for freshman to sophomore matriculation. Surveys were conducted that identified a need to develop two new freshman-level courses focusing on critical thinking, reading comprehension, organization and analysis of data, math, statistics and computer applications. The needs identified in these surveys overlapped significantly with several scientific competencies described in the 2009 AAMC-HHMI Scientific Foundations report and those discussed during the V&C 2009 conference. Entitled Biol 1210L and Biol 1220L respectively, these courses are currently being offered for the first time as a part of the recently launched, HHMI-funded, multi-year initiative called Project SCICOMP. Long term success will be determined, in part, through analysis of retention and graduation rates normalized to student ACT scores, as well as graduate tracking.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: In the first phase, classroom technologies such as clickers were implemented into Xavier’s very first coordinated introductory biology course (Biol 1230), which uses a common syllabus, common learning goals, and common PowerPoint lectures. Also, in this course, all exams are common with active input and contribution from all instructors. The purpose of using clickers with associated software was not to simply add technology in order to make teaching and grading easier for instructors, but also to generate instant histograms of student responses and statistical measures and to share this information with the entire class right after the administration of the quiz. Students benefited from the immediate feedback by discovering their misconceptions and understanding what they did not understand well, while teachers could use these data as a means of formative assessment to inform necessary adjustments to their teaching. In addition, as part of an early intervention strategy, every underperforming student was required to attend a peer-tutoring center where attendance was tracked, thus allowing faculty to intensify advising for specific students. Faculty development was fostered through weekly discussions of pedagogic styles and classroom interactions. After attending the Gulf Coast Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology (GCSI) in 2012, we created a framework for continued improvement of team-taught coordinated courses at Xavier to further incorporate active learning principles. To supplement the use of ‘clickers’, instructors are encouraged to incorporate techniques of scientific teaching such as cooperative/collaborative learning, problem and case-based inquiry and metacognition. Additionally, online homework providing immediate feedback has been instituted as well as surveys for students to analyze their study habits and performance on exams. Course improvement will be iterative in nature.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: For phase 1, student pass rates for Bio1230 were normalized by ACT- and high school GPA-based student risk categories from 2007-2011. Pre- and post-course surveys are currently administered to gauge student study habits and perceptions about biology. Interventions are targeted based on the analysis of student scores generated with clickers and online Blackboard homework problem set performance. For phase 2, effectiveness of the implemented changes will be assessed across semesters using LXR optical mark reader statistical software comparing isomorphic and identical questions administered throughout each semester. Long term success will be determined, in part, through analysis of retention and graduation rates normalized to student ACT scores, as well as through graduate tracking.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: From 2007 to 2011, normalized student pass rates in Biology 1230 showed dramatic and significant improvement. The average pass rate for students considered low-risk increased from 84% ~ - 0.05 to 92% ~ 0.03; medium risk pass rate increased from 56% ~ 0.04 to 72% 0.05; and high risk pass rate increased from 21% ~ 0.03 to 34% ~ 0.05. Concurrently, instructor evaluations by students on a 5 point scale increased from 3.8 ~ 0.11 to 4.39 ~ 0.04. Student evaluations of the course increased from 3.61 ~ 0.04 to 4.24 ~ 0.04 during the same period. These results were highly significant because, as mentioned earlier, the eight to ten sections of Biology 1230, translating into 400-500 students per semester, utilized a common syllabus and common learning goals, exams and PowerPoint lectures.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: In order for systemic change to occur, particularly in academia, support, cooperation and assistance have to come in from many levels. Our Biothrust 21 project was launched in direct response to the near destruction of not just Xavier but all of New Orleans. We used this tragedy as an opportunity to carefully our department. Faculty, staff and administrators worked long hours without expecting or receiving any overload compensation. Despite objections from many parents, nearly 80% of the ‘Katrina’ class freshmen who attended classes for one week before the campus was evacuated due to Katrina in August, 2005, returned to Xavier when the school re-opened in January, 2006. In fact, all students, faculty and administration were all so glad to be back and grateful that the school was going to re-open after months of mandatory evacuation, that uniting and believing in all re-building projects like Biothrust 21 came readily, with an intensified sense of team spirit and common purpose. Importantly, because the proposed plans for Biothrust 21 originated from the faculty and not the administration, there was even more faculty ‘buy in’ with the motto “Let’s retain what is unique to Xavier and works for our students, but change with times, keep pace with the needs of our 21st century students and utilize whatever we can to enable students to better understand and enjoy biology, and in so doing, become better prepared for their future careers.” Although some more experienced faculty hesitated to adopt new, technologically challenging means of teaching, overall, faculty buy-in has been extremely high.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The 2009 V&C conference was instrumental in our subsequent departmental expansion of the scope of the Biothrust 21 Program and review of our entire biology curriculum. Through self-assessment, gaps were identified that needed to be filled, particularly with respect to the coverage of scientific competencies and the means of measuring student academic success. The focus of the 2013 Vision and Change Conference is the actual implementation and chronicling of these changes, and inspiring future initiatives. Since our 2009 presentation, we have made significant progress in the Biothrust 21 initiative. At the 2013 V&C conference we therefore look forward to sharing exciting information and data on implementation of our newer, multi-pronged approaches for teaching and assessing student learning in order to increase student engagement, academic performance and student retention. In addition to the V&C meeting, Xavier faculty will attend the 2013 GCSI in Baton Rouge and other HHMI-funded workshops.

Acknowledgements: Supported by funding from the Louisiana Board of Regents (Biothrust 21 Program), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Project Scicomp) and NSF (I-Cubed Program).