Improving the Introductory Biology Experience

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Title of Abstract: Improving the Introductory Biology Experience

Name of Author: Allison Wilson
Author Company or Institution: Benedictine University
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Cell Biology, General Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: introductory active learning transfer analysis

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Robin Rylaarsdam, Benedictine University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: We are addressing the needs of our students with a series of modifications to our curriculum and how individual courses are taught. The major goals of the reorganization of the introductory biology course (~ 350 students/year) are to improve continuity and comprehension of material and to promote higher order thinking at an early stage of the curriculum. In the introductory lab (~360 students/year), the goal is to have students participate directly in the scientific process. In addition, specific sections of this lab address the special needs of transfer students (~60 students/year) to promote retention and academic success as they enter the curriculum already in progress. Finally, two of our upper level courses thus far have been flipped to promote active learning that helps to further develop higher order thinking skills (~320 students/year).

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: We are collaboratively teaching the introductory biology course; typically three faculty teaching five sections using shared materials. Abstract concepts are related to real world examples using two comprehensive themes during the semester. This non-linear method also allows the use of topical data from the primary literature in guided-inquiry exercises, thus demonstrating concepts in a real life context. Students are engaged in class by using clicker questions, data analysis and problem solving. In the two upper level courses that have been flipped, student engagement is promoted more intensely using these same methods. In the fall, we will run a trial using the Learning Assistant Model (Univ. CO, Boulder) in these courses to enhance active peer learning, in addition to its intended purpose of promoting teacher preparation. In the introductory lab, students design at least one experiment around a theme. In the introductory lab for transfer students, they design additional experiments and communicate the results for one of them in a scientific paper format. To address the special needs of transfer students, program- specific orientation and advising activities are included.

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 pre/post testing, multiple choice and short answer/essay questions designed to measure higher order thinking, self-reporting of students, course evaluations, focus groups with a neutral third party, course completion rates and a student attitude survey tool for evaluation purposes. For the introductory biology course, there was no significant difference in the % of students earning a C or better between the two course formats. However, significantly more students correctly answered analysis/critical thinking questions with the new format. Pre/post testing indicated improvement in data analysis skills in all situations. Student feedback has been generally positive. We are convinced we are on the right track and will make adjustments as necessary to make the changes as effective as possible.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: It is too soon to detail the impact of these changes on students other than the mandatory introductory transfer lab has leveled the field for lab skills brought to upper level labs. We expect the impact of these changes in general to be subtle; one that may have more to do with enthusiasm for learning science than for retention and level of academic success that may not be measurable due to our admission policies. The science faculty are leaders on campus for trying new pedagogies and technologies. In addition, several science faculty are highly involved in our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. Thus, we anticipate the changes we make in our approach to teaching will influence other faculty and departments on campus.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: One of the biggest challenges encountered is institutionalization of change. Even with the rationale and justification passed down to those who take over leadership, there need to be champions to keep programs alive and to maintain the effectiveness of change. Assessment is essential, but only if combined with effective communication. Brown bag lunches, formal college-wide forums, classroom visits amongst faculty are some of the methods used. A second challenge that is becoming more prevalent is the increased use of adjunct faculty to teach courses. The use of adjuncts started when multiple labs sections were offered, extended to the teaching of all non-major general education classes and now has expanded to key majors classes. We cannot hope to decrease our use of adjunct faculty but strategies can be used to maximize the quality product we deliver. 1) Strategically incorporate adjuncts into the curriculum based on their strengths. 2) Clear communication of course objectives, testing expectations, and a discussion of our departmental philosophy and/or that of the general education initiative for non-majors courses. 3) Partner adjuncts with fulltime faculty in the same field to promote dialog. 4) Utilize lab coordinators for labs with multiple sections. 5) Hold workshops (compensated) to gather feedback on labs and provide instruction for new procedures. 6) Monitor new adjunct performance in the classroom with written student feedback and direct observation followed by a conference.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Portions of the changes described here have been presented at national and local meetings (Experimental Biology, American Society of Cell Biology, Council for Undergraduate Research, Benedictine Pedagogy Symposium, Association of Colleges in the Chicago Area). We expect to publish some of the successful ideas in education journals.

Acknowledgements: Dr. William Carvell, Introductory and Transfer Lab Coordinator Dr. Monica Tischler, Professor, Introductory Biology and Microbiology Dr. Tanya Crum, Visiting Professor, Introductory Biology Dr. Kelly Kandra, Associate Professor, Psychology, Assessment Dr. Bart Ng, Dean, College of Science