Designing a Student-Centered Integrated Biology Major Course

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Title of Abstract: Designing a Student-Centered Integrated Biology Major Course

Name of Author: Caroline Breitenberger
Author Company or Institution: The Ohio State University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses, Integrative Biology
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: Curriculum development; Faculty engagement; Integrating scientific concepts; Student-centered learning; Multiple modes of instruction

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Stephen W. Chordas III, Ohio State University; Judith S. Ridgway, Ohio State University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The biology major at the Ohio State University is administered by an interdepartmental unit, the Center for Life Sciences Education, and consists of coursework from several departments within the College of Arts and Sciences. The biology major attracts more students than any other major at Ohio State, over 2000 students. Previously, the core requirements of the biology major consisted of five courses, selected in any order from a menu of courses representing five different areas of the life sciences. A curricular review in 2007 cited redundancy of courses within the biology major core curriculum, as well as inadequate integration of prerequisites and fundamental biological concepts in major courses as reasons to revamp the curriculum. Student feedback included numerous examples of duplication of concepts and topics in different core courses (such as cellular division, Mendelian genetics, the lac operon, or mitochondrial respiration), and encouraged the committee to develop a core course that would eliminate this redundancy. The goal of the project described here was to implement the recommendations of the review committee by developing an Integrated Biology course to serve as the core course in the biology major.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: A committee of faculty representing six departments, and including a regional campus representative, used backward course design principles to create a one-semester Integrated Biology course for the core course in the biology major. Students in this course apply knowledge and concepts from introductory biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics to analyze a specific biological problem. Students in Integrated Biology are expected to engage in group work, presentations, written reports, seminar summary papers, discussions, and many other activities. During a semester, two to three faculty members each prepare readings, instructional materials, and in-class activities (a ‘module’) about a topic of interest. Each module is focused on a central theme, such as cancer, the Gulf oil spill, or malaria. In addition to the 140-student ‘lecture’ sessions with faculty instructors, we have developed activities to help students extend their skills and elaborate on what they learn in class in smaller ‘recitations’ (taught by graduate teaching assistants). Activities in the larger and smaller class sessions are complementary. Modules change from one term to the next, depending on the instructors, but all share common aspects of engaging students in active learning, and are designed to support course learning outcomes based on integrating knowledge from introductory courses to develop a better understanding of the central theme.

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 have used embedded exam questions, evaluations of student assignments and papers, and the Student Assessment of Learning Gains to systematically gather feedback associated with student learning gains and student perceptions of how the Integrated Biology course structure supports learning. We used data from a Graduating Student Survey to gather general information about the performance and outcomes of students majoring in biology. In addition, we are working with the departments that teach advanced courses taken by students majoring in biology to assess the impact of the Integrated Biology course on student performance in these courses.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We compared results from Graduating Student Surveys administered to students graduating with a biology major in 2009 (128 respondents, of whom a small number had taken Integrated Biology), and 2013 (158 respondents, most of whom took Integrated Biology). Even though the Integrated Biology course replaced another course within the major, students reported no decrease in their improvement in knowledge about their major (in fact there was a small increase, from 89.0 to 89.8% of respondents). An increased percentage of students reported that, based on their biology major program, they improved their knowledge, skills and personal development regarding integrating knowledge from different fields, the focus of the Integrated Biology course (from 75% to 82.2%). In addition, we observed 5-9% increases in biology students reporting improvements in communication, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and ethics and moral reasoning based on their major program. While these results cannot be attributed solely to the Integrated Biology course, the results are consistent with its learning goals and activities, suggesting that it serves the purpose and addresses the issues for which it was designed. Another indication of the success of this course is that it has since been added as a core requirement for students majoring in zoology or evolution and ecology, and as a recommended course for mathematics majors interested in mathematical biology. Faculty who have taught Integrated Biology expressed a renewed commitment to their teaching and have developed a more student-centered classroom in other courses they teach. Four of the faculty involved in this course have participated in the National Academies Summer Institutes, and many have attended or presented on-campus workshops to develop and help others develop a wider repertoire of teaching skills.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Barriers to course implementation included student resistance to the pedagogy used in the course, faculty and TA workload issues, and difficulty recruiting faculty to become involved in the course. Survey results from students indicate that a core group of students would prefer a more passive learning style - they dislike group activities, complain about “busy work” in reference to active learning exercises, and express a preference for memorizing facts to prepare for course exams. On the other hand, some students express appreciation for the conceptual knowledge and real-world applications they explored through this course. Changes implemented in response to student feedback include adjusting the number and types of activities, the way we explain the purpose of the activities, and course policies. One simple change that seems to have improved student perception of the course is that we now use ‘large group session’ and ‘small group session’ instead of ‘lecture’ and ‘recitation’ to refer to class sessions. To address workload issues, the entire instructional team (faculty, graduate teaching associates, and course coordinator) meets weekly to review the progress of the course and to make sure grading and other work is distributed equitably. To encourage faculty participation and include graduate students as part of the team, we offer a mini-summer institute that focuses on scientific teaching principles, and provide financial incentives for participation. During the institute, faculty present their modules in a teachable unit format, which facilitates group critique of the teaching frameworks and student activities. As a result of the intensive preparation and communication among the instructional team, students experience the diverse modules in a cohesive course that covers the full breadth of biology.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Awareness of scientific teaching strategies at Ohio State has increased significantly as a result of the summer institutes associated with the Integrated Biology courses. Because faculty teaching this course come from diverse departments, they disseminate these teaching strategies into other departmental courses. We plan to present the findings about the Integrated Biology course at departmental meetings and seminars with the hope that additional faculty will be recruited to develop and teach modules in this course. We plan to use the model of course design followed by continued faculty development during annual summer institutes to redesign introductory biology courses for majors and non-majors. Finally, we hope to publish the findings of our study so that others can use our model for course design.

Acknowledgements: We thank the numerous faculty who worked to develop and implement the Integrated Biology course, including Charles Daniels, Harold Fisk, John Freudenstein, H. Lisle Gibbs, Erich Grotewold, Joan Herbers, Norman Johnson, Eric Juterbock, Hans Klompen, Roman Lanno, W. Mitch Masters, and Mark Seeger.