Stratifying Concepts/Competencies in the Biology Program

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Title of Abstract: Stratifying Concepts/Competencies in the Biology Program

Name of Author: Joyce Hardy
Author Company or Institution: Chadron State College
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Curriculum Revision Biology Concepts Competencies

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Ann Buchmann, Chadron State College Wendy Jamison, Chadron State College Mathew Brust, Chadron State College

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Disruptive change in personnel, funding, and workload opened the opportunity for complete curriculum mapping of core competencies and concepts across the undergraduate biology curriculum at Chadron State College. The faculty committed to developing a coherent, structured curriculum inclusive of significant core concepts, systems-level integration with micro-level processes, multi-disciplinary application of knowledge, and professional skills and attitudes. The desired outcome is a strong coherent curriculum that seamlessly and progressively integrates and expands toward a cumulative set of core knowledge and abilities, to facilitate student success in future professional schools and careers.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The new biology faculty revised program/course learning outcomes for deliberate and strategic stratified expectations for student learning of disciplinary skills and concepts. Faculty pursed learning opportunities regarding the biology concepts and competencies needed by future program graduates, through participation in the national Vision and Change (V/C) as well as discipline-specific conference conversations. Scholarly inquiry into learning-theory based instruction, high impact activities, brain functioning theory, authentic assessment of learning, and disciplinary theory were undertaken. We mapped the core concepts against the course learning objectives and found gaps in teaching and expected learning, introducing some topics multiple times, assessing in the capstone course concepts that had not been introduced or developed, and inconsistent expectations for assessing appropriately-leveled cognitive understanding. A new program mission and outcome was crafted. Most course learning outcomes were mapped against the V/C Five Core Concepts (evolution; structure/function; information flow/exchange/storage; energy/matter transformation; and systems) and Five Core Competencies (using, understanding, and applying scientific process; quantitative reasoning; modeling & simulation; interdisciplinary analysis and communication; and science/society relationship) of Vision and Change, and also with progressive levels of learning and application (based upon Bloom’s cognitive levels). A new faculty member is joining the team this fall; hiring questions focused on her willingness to embrace the department's mission and direction, and be an engaged part of the process.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Structural curriculum changes were made. Introductory Cellular Biology is now a sophomore course with a required chemistry prerequisite. Advising changes resulted in Botany being within the pre-health curriculum core in the freshman year. A new Evolution course complements other senior capstones in Molecular Biology, Developmental Biology, and Biology Seminar. Functional changes reduced core concept overlap and increased focus on competency development in freshman Zoology and Botany courses. Structure-function correlation, energy flow, interconnected systems, evolutionary relationships, and application to real-world problems now underlie many classroom activities. Laboratory experiences require scientific inquiry, observation with both written and visual documentation, data collection and interpretation, structure/function correlation, modeling and mathematical analysis, and collaboration. Prerequisite courses are structured to provide clear understandings of the transferable knowledge and skills needed for subsequent courses, which then hold students accountable for this knowledge. Class time usually involves a ‘flipped-class’ model, where students independently acquire basic knowledge to bring to class for synthesis and application learning activities. The faculty model approaching problems from both a systems and a detail perspective, to achieve a more complete understanding of the issue of interest. Throughout the program, faculty inform the students about the expectation of learning and professional competencies they will exhibit, and they (and we) are held to these standards. Assessment of student acquisition of concepts and competencies occurs throughout the courses, at the end of the courses, and across the curriculum. Deliberate inclusion of signature assignments and pre-tests over prior-gained transferable knowledge provide hard data for assessing student learning.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Participation in the Vision and Change national conversation, and continued on-campus commitment to facilitate deep student learning, has led to a very different Biology discipline at Chadron State College. We have retained the commitment to student learning, added the structures and processes of Vision and Change, sought additional knowledge in recent brain-based learning and student-centered learning theory, and actively maintained conversations that reflect the use of scholarly inquiry in our teaching. The evidence gathered to date reflect both student discomfort with their increased role in the learning process and their lack of having the self-directed learning skills necessary for this to happen. Additional refining of program courses to deliberately stratify expectations and supportive processes is happening. An upper-division survey indicated that students were recognizing increased connections between courses taken across the curriculum in this past year. Senior theses produced in Bioseminar are expected to be at a higher cognitive level, but we will need to gather and interpret that evidence this coming year. Other disciplines within the department (chemistry and geoscience) are now engaged in similar conversations and have implemented the modified flipped-classroom learning approach as well as requiring transferable knowledge to be brought into the course. The synergy from this effort is substantial, as students now have similar expectations in nearly all science courses. The biology faculty are engaged in cross-campus communications regarding student learning, curriculum reform and changing nature of expectations for our graduates. We are recognized as campus leaders, and receive institutional support in our endeavors.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Challenges have centered around three main themes: diversity, student discomfort, and time. Our five faculty have different backgrounds, experiences, priorities, and biases. Differing definitions and expectations allowed for substantial and significant conversations, resulting in clearer and deeper understanding of the curriculum. The common goal of improving student learning kept us focused on finding common themes, understandings, and processes while valuing the diversity of our program offerings. A new (5th) faculty hire has just occurred. During the hiring we focused not only on content knowledge but also on the dispositional traits and teaching/learning biases held by the candidates. The new faculty member is eager to be a part of this ongoing curriculum revision, and brings additional diverse perspective to our conversations. Most students are uncomfortable with their expanded role in learning - many have been taught through rote memorization with minimal required knowledge transfer to near- or far-concepts. They are resistant. We are proactive in discussing this with administrative supervisors, as only two of the biology faculty are tenured and disgruntled students can be quite vocal in student ratings that form a part of our annual evaluations. We are deliberate in explaining to students the rationale for our teaching style and the programmatic changes, in a positive and supportive manner that focuses on their success in the future. Biology started our revision discussions one year prior to the institution having a rapid, major change in the essential (general) studies program. The conversations complemented one another, and biology faculty were actively engaged in both initiatives. This time involvement made it difficult to keep the biology momentum moving forward. However, we have strong support of one another, our offices are in close proximity which allows for frequent informal discussions, and we are committed to improving student learning.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Learning for one’s one use is hoarding of knowledge. The scientific discipline functions only because of dissemination and sharing of knowledge, applications, interpretations, and critical review. Two presentations have occurred at the national Teaching Professor Conference, one focused on application of Vision and Change core concepts and core competencies within General Botany (June, 2012) and one focusing on the curriculum revisions for the program (June 2013). One presentation occurred at the National Biology Teacher’s annual conference (October 2012), focusing on integration of competencies and content in on-line science laboratories for non-majors. Additional presentations have occurred at disciplinary conferences. Sharing of knowledge and outcomes also occurs on campus, through Teaching/Learning Center presentations and discussions, committee discussions in Essential Studies implementation, and over informal settings. Additional information within individual classes is being gathered, and additional data across our program are being gathered, with the intent of additional regional presentations and a publication.

Acknowledgements: Grateful acknowledgement is given to the Chadron State College administration for past and continuing financial support and encouragement of this project. NSF and NIH funded AB and JH to be involved in the early Vision and Change conversations.