Class Strategies to Increase Achievement of ALL Students

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Title of Abstract: Class Strategies to Increase Achievement of ALL Students

Name of Author: Sarah Eddy
Author Company or Institution: University of Washington
Author Title: Research Associate
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Reading quizzes Active learning Practice Exams Underrepresented Minorities Introductory Biology

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Sara Brownell, University of Washington Mary Pat Wenderoth, University of Washington Alison Crowe, University of Washington Scott Freeman, University of Washington

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Our overarching goals for changing the introductory biology series were to (1) increase the retention and achievement of all students (particularly historically underrepresented groups) and to (2) provide students with opportunities to develop skills in class in alignment with the core set of concepts and competencies suggested in Vision and Change.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Beginning in 2007, we implemented a ‘high structure’ introductory biology course. This course redesign involved three major elements: (1) daily reading quizzes to encourage students to prepare for class, (2) an almost exclusively active classroom where students work on questions at higher cognitive levels, and (3) weekly practice exams to provide students low-stakes practice on exam type questions and opportunities to review course material. The active classroom involves clicker based activities following the peer instruction model (Mazur 1997), small group discussion questions where the instructor calls on students by name to encourage participation, and longer worksheet-based activities.

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 evaluate the effectiveness of high structure by correlating changes in course structure with student exam points and final course grade after controlling for student academic ability and potential differences in exam academic challenge. College GPA at entry in to the introductory biology series and SAT verbal score were the most relevant controls of student academic ability (Freeman et al. 2007). To control for differences between exams we (a) determined the Bloom level of each exam question (Crowe et al. 2008) and (b) had experienced TAs predict what percentage of students would answer each question correctly. Both exam metrics revealed exams got harder with the increased course structure (Freeman et al. 2011). We also ran an additional model including whether or not a student was from educationally or economically disadvantaged background to look for disproportionate impacts of the transformed course on historically underrepresented students (Haak et al. 2011). Finally, we followed students through the next two courses in the series, which were taught in a more traditional manner, to determine how students who passed the high structure course fared under low structure. In addition to testing the overall course structure, we examined the effectiveness of course activities. We identified 5 concepts students found particularly challenging and developed two worksheets for each concept. Each of the two worksheets used a different approach to building student understanding which allowed us to test which approach was most effective for student learning. For example, to learn how to read phylogenies half the student groups built a phylogeny from scratch given a character matrix and half analyzed an existing tree. These students completed an online quiz testing their understanding of the particular concept worked on. We used a proportional-odds regression model to determine whether one was more effective than the other.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Changing from a traditional lecture course to the high structure course decreased the failure rate from 18% to 6% and increased student exam performance (Freeman et al. 2011). Interestingly, the performance of educationally or economically disadvantaged students increased disproportionately, closing the achievement gap by 45% (Haak et al. 2011). Overall, this meant that more students (particularly URM students) were able to continue in the major. Furthermore, students who were predicted to fail a traditionally taught first course, not only passed the reformed, but also continued to be successful in the subsequent courses in the series (unpublished data). It seems once students get a core set of skills, they are able to be competitive in the major. The relative effectiveness of different worksheet activities varies. In some cases we found that both activities were equally effective, and in others one approach was more effective for all students or a particular population of students. For example, students who had the building trees worksheet were 1.8 times more likely to get additional questions correct on the quiz (after controlling for student academic ability) than students who completed the analyze trees worksheet, even though the quiz had them analyzing an existing tree (Eddy et al. 2013). By validating both the course structure and the actual activities using student performance data, we have a strong basis for arguing for the adoption of these practices. To date, the majority of instructors teaching this course have adopted the reading quizzes and practice exams and many of the in-class activities.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: We have run into two major challenges: (1) instructors modifying the high structure course as they adopt it without recognizing the impacts of those modifications and (2) helping faculty determine what they should emphasize in their reformed courses. As more faculty adopt the high structure format we notice that there is a lack of fidelity of implementation. To address this we have developed a classroom observation tool that focuses on three elements of high structure that we hypothesize improve student learning: providing practice, creating accountability, and developing scientific thinking skills. We are currently analyzing classroom videos from 27 different instructors to identify whether variation in the frequency of these elements correlates with variation in exam performance (after controlling for difference in exam challenge and student academic ability). Including more opportunities for active learning in a course, generally requires cutting content and without some guiding principles faculty have a hard time identifying what the important concepts are in the introductory biology series. To help with this, we are in the process of developing a curriculum assessment tool aligned with the Vision and Change core concepts. We have established that UW Biology faculty believe that the core concepts of Vision and Change are important. Using a grassroots approach with these faculty, we created a framework articulating what the concepts of Vision and Change mean for different subdisciplines of biology, focusing on what general biology majors should know by the time they graduate. We are currently engaged in national validation of our framework. Once validation is complete, we will develop a 25 question curricular assessment that will be administered at different points to track the progression of students through the major to help us promote curriculum and instructional reform.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: By publishing our results in high profile journals and presenting at national meetings, we have made an impact beyond our institution. Through this effort, we have come in contact with instructors inspired to replicate the high structure course at their own institutions. We now are working with 5 instructors to replicate the high structure course across diverse institutions. This project will identify (1) which elements of the high structure are most effective at increasing student achievement in general, and (2) whether the gains we found in our studies extend to different institution types. The first revised courses ran in fall 2012 and we are analyzing the results. At least one institution, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has shown that increasing course structure is effective even in a non-majors course with a very different student population than UW (unpublished data). In addition, we have the following strategies for dissemination in place: (1) We will continue designing rigorous experiments that allow us to publish our results in high profile journals and to present at conferences to raise awareness of our effective methods. (2) We will continue partnering with instructors interested in implementing the high structure course and helping them development and assess of their courses. (3) We are developing a video series describing how to implement a high structure course which will be freely available on the web. (4) We are developing a research-based suite of activities for introductory biology that we hope to package and make available to instructors to help them implement a high structure course with less of a time commitment.

Acknowledgements: We would like to acknowledge generous support from NSF DUE 1118890 and 0942215 as well as from the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Biology, University of Washington.