published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, June 2003, Volume 2, Issue 1

SENCER Classrooms: Small Changes, Big Effects

Terry McGuire, associate professor of genetics at Rutgers and an SSI-2002 advance representative, reports how two small modifications - inspired by his attendance at SSI-2002 - have resulted in significant advances in learning in his genetics course. An excerpt from his letter follows:

I would like to share with you some of the effects of the 2002 SENCER meeting on my own teaching. I taught Genetics 380 in the Fall semester of 2002. I have taught this course for 22 years and have a good understanding of student progress in learning genetics. I cautiously adopted the parts of the SENCER approach in Genetics last fall. I began every lecture with a current event. I spent no more than five minutes on this current event but I believed that the students needed to integrate the factual material that I lectured on with real life applications. In addition, every class ended with a one-minute assessment of that day's lecture topics. The students responded to an open ended question (e.g., "What was the most interesting thing you learned today?", "What was the muddiest point in today's lecture?"). These short assessments gave me instant feedback and were invaluable in tracking student understanding. I discovered, for example, that students could get lost in ways that I could never imagine! I addressed the most important questions and concerns either at the start of the next class or on my course website. Many students commented to my teaching assistants that they felt that I was talking directly to them whenever I would respond to the assessments. Incidentally, the students often used the in-class assessments to comment on the current events or to request more information on the current event topics. The current events presentation engaged students more than anything that I have done previously.

The 2002 genetics students only slightly differently from previous classes on the first midterm. There appeared to be more A students and fewer F students but the trend was not strong. By the second midterm, however, it became apparent that I had many more students performing at the A level and fewer students failing the course. This persisted through the final exam (see grade distribution below). Engaging the students even at this modest level tended to raise overall achievement. This is particularly noticeable in the large increase in the number of C students and the very large drop in the number of D and F students and in F students who did not even complete the course (F* students). The other benefit of the SENCER approach was to "engage the professor." I worked very hard at teaching this semester particularly responding to the student assessments. Student response was very positive. I believe that the overall improvement in students learning was an interaction between direct student engagement and my own increased enjoyment of teaching.

I am obviously sold on the SENCER approach and would like to see SENCER ideals implemented in other courses at Rutgers University. The next step is to assemble a team that could act as "SENCER Fellows" and share the materials, suggestions, models, and ideals from the SSI. These fellows would help create a large working group on campus that would meet regularly throughout the academic year to plan, develop and redesign courses within the SENCER approaches to improve science education. Many of the faculty members whom I have talked with are very interested in the SENCER approach. However, it will take the combined efforts of an enthusiastic team of a faculty and administrators to create an effective working group.

Final Grade2001 Pre-SENCER2003 Post-SENCER
A13%22%
B24%24%
C23%35%
D15%10%
F14%4%
F*12%4%
Total No.130134