Broadening access through curricular changes to the BIO125 with problem solving course and the FOCUS colloquium

Debby Walser-Kuntz, Biology, Carleton College
Author Profile

Summary

Genes, Evolution, and Development with Problem Solving course:

Development of structured pre-class readings to allow more time for active learning activities in class; the pre-class readings are paired with in-class problems, which students solve in small groups. Additional formative assessments were developed to determine if students learned key concepts with less lecture time.

FOCUS Colloquium:

Development of an investigative lab for the cohort based FOCUS colloquium course for students interested in pursuing math/science majors. Students gained experience designing a lab and communicating their results by writing a lab report in the format of a scientific paper.


Learning Goals

Learning goals for students enrolled in the BIO 125 with problem solving course (Genes, Evolution, and Development):

1) Demonstrate an ability to read scientific information more independently and rely less on "receiving" information from the instructor verbally in lecture format. These readings and their associated problems will ask students to think critically and to synthesize concepts covered throughout the term.

2) Students will learn to model pathways and interactions and they will gain practice making visual representations of complex biological mechanisms and processes.

Learning goals for students enrolled in the FOCUS colloquium:

1) Demonstrate the ability to design and carry out an independent experiment. Students will work cooperatively in groups to plan and run their experiments; they will also have the opportunity to analyze their data.

2) Demonstrate the effective communication of scientific results via a written lab report that follows the style of a scientific paper.

Context for Use

Bio 125 with problem solving course:

I co-teach the introductory biology course Genes, Evolution, and Development with Problem Solving, which incorporates multiple active learning strategies to help students learn essential concepts. Students from underresourced high schools tend to do better with this type of class format versus the traditional lecture format. Students spend a large portion of their class time working through problems in small groups. The problems provide checkpoints to test student understanding, identify misconceptions, and provide practice applying new material. Faculty circulate to coach students on their approach to solving problems and to answer questions about content. We've found the in-class problem-solving format to be effective for all students, but particularly helpful in broadening access for students who often struggle in a lecture-based format (for more detailed information on our approach to this course, see the pedagogic module "Faculty-coached, In-class Problem Solving" http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/coached_problems/index.html). The course had 69 students enrolled last year and more often has an enrollment of about 48.

When the course was initially designed several years ago, it was designed to meet five days per week instead of the typical three. We recently switched to a three-day per week class format, which necessitates some changes in pedagogy. One of the things we learned from the experience during the fall of 2010 was that we needed to rely less on lecture time in class and more on reading and preparation done outside of class by the students to allow sufficient time for problem solving. Students, however, report that biology textbooks can be daunting, particularly if the high school they attended did not offer AP courses using college-level texts.

To address the loss of contact time, we incorporated two major changes. We asked students to read more outside of class to minimize lecturing, and made use of some lab time to solve problems. In order to make sure students were on track with learning major concepts, we designed two new formative assessment tools: clicker questions and the use of a personal response system and "quizzlets."

I began to write sections for the students to read to replace or supplement the textbook. These readings also included checkpoint questions to ensure the students were understanding the readings. One approach that we tried this past year and will continue to refine is to introduce a topic and give the reading as homework during one class period. Students read and may begin working on the associated problems individually. At the beginning of the next class session, students discuss their answers in small groups and then as a class. The personal response system can then be used to assess individual understanding of the key topics covered in the reading and also serves as a brief review. Questions and common misconceptions can be immediately addressed and then additional, more sophisticated topics can be covered together in class. Students are then given a second set of problems, which ask them to synthesize ideas, design or interpret experiments, and/or apply the concepts to novel situations - all questions requiring higher order thinking.

In addition to assessing student learning with the clickers, we relied on the quizzlets as important tools. Although they were worth a very small percentage of the final grade, the quizzlets served to keep students on task as they solved problems with their groups, and they required students to have read and thought about the lab prior to the beginning of lab. The lab instructors observed a major change in how smoothly labs flowed compared to previous years. Students knew what they were doing and they worked more efficiently. The quizzlets also helped us identify areas where we needed to write additional problems for students to solve or additional short background readings. For example, I recognized this year that I need to write a short summary of prokaryotic gene expression.

This format of using short, interactive lectures followed by in-class problem solving and/or use of the personal response system is a format that could easily be adopted for most courses. It is important to note that designing and writing new problems, writing the background pre-class reading pieces, and designing effective formative assessment questions all require time and creativity. It is important to recognize that a course can evolve over time and that additional problems and activities can be added each time the course is taught.

Description and Teaching Materials

As described above, the format of this course is to intersperse short, interactive lectures where new material is introduced with in-class problem solving in small groups. Solving problems requires time and the strategic pruning of material previously covered in lectures. This development grant allowed me to work on generating some pre-class readings for students, where I moved information from lectures to these homework pre-class readings. These pre-class readings are paired with questions and problems for students to solve to help ensure understanding of the readings. Assessment was carried out using a personal response system and "clickers" along with short, frequent "quizzlets." These new forms of assessment were developed to ensure student learning and to provide immediate feedback to students about their learning throughout the term.

Samples of Teaching Materials Developed For Bio 125 with problem solving course:

Cell Cycle pre-class reading, problems and clicker questions (Acrobat (PDF) 330kB Jul25 12)

Example of a pre-class reading written to replace the textbook chapter on the cell cycle. This handout includes an introduction to the cell cycle, questions to check student understanding of the material, and sample "clicker" questions for assessment. The topic of the cell cycle was briefly introduced near the end of one class period, and students were assigned the reading and problems as homework. Some of the questions in the reading addressed our second goal: Students will learn to model pathways and interactions and they will gain practice making visual representations of complex biological mechanisms and processes. For example, one question asks the students to diagram the pathway described verbally in the text. The next class began with the "clicker" questions and questions from the class to assess understanding of the reading before moving on to a specific example of how the cell cycle is regulated. A written key was posted prior to the exam.

Sample Clicker Questions (Acrobat (PDF) 53kB Jul23 12)

Sample clicker questions used as an in-class review before the exam. The clickers provided immediate feedback on understanding and increased student engagement. I posted the clicker questions and answers as a pdf on Moodle (our online course management system), so students could use them while studying. Students responded very positively to the clickers and enjoyed when we used them in class.

Quizzlet #1 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Jul23 12)

Sample weekly lab "quizzlet" with answers. These quizzlets served as an individual check on student understanding - since students frequently work in groups, the quizzlets let each student know how well he or she was doing when working alone. The quizzlets also served as a motivator to read the lab manual prior to lab. The laboratory Teaching Assistants graded and returned the quizzlets during lab, so the students got immediate feedback about their progress.

Sample problem for Genes, Evolution, and Development course (Acrobat (PDF) 332kB Jul26 12)

Example of one set of problems students solve in class. This problem set is about DNA repair mechanisms and DNA replication and is an example of a problem with an initial short paragraph that extends the information covered in class; we frequently use both the problems and the answer keys as mechanisms to introduce new material or to extend and review concepts covered previously. This sample problem set also includes questions that ask students to analyze or modify figures from the text. This problem set is used early in the term and the problems become more sophisticated as the term progresses and the students' skills improve.

Assessment

Assessment of Genes, Evolution, and Development with problem solving course:

I co-teach Genes, Evolution, and Development with Problem Solving, an introductory biology course in which students spend a large portion of their class time working through problems in small groups. The problems provide checkpoints to test student understanding, identify misconceptions, and provide practice applying new material. Faculty circulate to coach students on their approach to solving problems and to answer questions about content. We've found the in-class problem-solving format to be effective for all students, but particularly helpful in broadening access for students who often struggle in a lecture-based format (for more detailed information on our approach to this course, see the pedagogic module "Faculty-coached, In-class Problem Solving" http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/coached_problems/index.html). When the course was initially designed several years ago, it was designed to meet five days per week instead of the typical three. We recently switched to a three-day per week class format, which necessitates some changes in pedagogy. One of the things we learned from the experience during the fall of 2010 was that we needed to rely less on lecture time in class and more on reading and preparation done outside of class by the students to allow sufficient time for problem solving. Students, however, report that biology textbooks can be daunting, particularly if the high school they attended did not offer AP courses using college-level texts.

I developed written materials to help students better prepare for in-class problem solving while minimizing formal lecture time and additional formative assessments to help both students and instructors. I wrote short, targeted background pieces for students to read before coming to class; these written pieces replaced some of my lectures, thus allowing time for more active learning in class, i.e. solving problems and addressing misconceptions or points of confusion. One of my goals for students was to provide opportunities for them to be able to draw representations of mechanisms and processes occurring in the cell or organism and to diagrammatically indicate relationships between events. Some of the background writings and the associated problems to solve that I developed included a strong visual component. Just as with reading text, it can be difficult for students to interpret textbook figures or to see connections between the figures used in the textbook and processes they may be asked to diagram on an exam. These reading modules and their associated problems will give the students additional practice in independently reading biology text, identifying the important principles, and learning to ask clarifying questions.

I developed two new tools to use in class to assess student learning and to ensure that student understanding was not compromised by the loss of "lecture" time. I used the personal response system with handheld clickers to assess student learning throughout the course. These anonymous check-ins provided a checkpoint for the students about where they were in relation to their classmates, as well as pointed out to me areas that were challenging for a large number of students. Students were very positive about the use of the clickers and on the end of term evaluation reported that the clickers were one class activity that helped their learning. Graded homework assignments that ask students to generate visual representations of complex processes were used to assess their ability to work with models.

Because of the shift to a three day per week, course, we also needed to use a portion of the four hour weekly laboratory class to incorporate additional problem solving time. Our "lecture" and lab components of the course are closely connected and many of the problems students worked on in lab explicitly connected the two. We decided to try weekly "quizzlets" to check progress on these problems, as well as to ensure student preparation for lab. We predicted lab would go more smoothly and efficiently if students had read the lab manual and knew what was expected of them; we would then have additional time to devote to problem solving. These quizzlets were a small percentage of the students final course grade and served largely as another formative assessment tool.

We developed and have used both a pre- and post-assessment for several years in this course. We again administered these assessments both to track student learning gains for this particular term and to compare learning gains of students enrolled this term with those enrolled in prior terms. Fold increase in learning gain scores were calculated based on the assessments and shared with students before the final exam.

FOCUS Colloquium:

As part of the current HHMI grant, Carleton developed the FOCUS colloquium, a course which provides opportunities for students interested in pursuing math/science majors to strengthen their scientific skills. Often these students are from backgrounds historically underrepresented in these fields.

I developed a new investigative lab activity for the FOCUS colloquium. This project involved the students reading a published scientific article and then independently designing and carrying out a simple experiment. Students communicated their results in a lab report following the format of a journal article. I designed a lab based on the role of spices in minimizing microbial growth in food and the difference in number of spices in vegetable and meat dishes based on latitude.

The effectiveness of the colloquium lab experience will be assessed as a part of the ongoing multiple year SERC assessment of FOCUS. In addition, I observed student discussions while planning the experiments and evaluated final laboratory reports to determine the student's ability to design an investigative experiment and effectively communicate findings.

References and Resources

Journal article used by FOCUS students to design experiments:

Sherman, P.W. and G. Hash. 2001. Why vegetable recipes are not very spicy. Evolution and Human Behavior 22: 147-163.

Background on design of problem solving course:

Faculty-coached, In-class Problem Solving http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/coached_problems/index.html