General Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
The General Biology Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is dedicated to enhancing the learning outcomes of introductory biology students by utilizing modern teaching pedagogies in a supportive learning environment.
Division of Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Profile submitted by Caroline J. Wienhold, Ph.D., Assistant Director of Biology Teaching and Learning
Vision and Goals
The goal of the General Biology Program is to use evidence-based pedagogy to provide students with a solid foundation of basic biology concepts and process skills to guide them through their degree. Our faculty design, produce, and participate in professional development activities to incorporate active learning and other best practices in their classrooms. This training extends to our teaching assistants and to faculty teaching in upper level courses. Additionally, we collaborate with other campus units and individuals to expand the impact of our work and bring new ideas into ours.
The General Biology Program resides within the Division of Biology, which is an administrative unit that supports the departments of Microbiology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology. Our unit coordinates the 100 and 200 level courses offered through the Division of Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, reaching nearly 4000 students per semester. Our group consists of one tenured faculty member who functions in a 10% capacity as the Director of Biology Teaching and Learning, one full-time non-tenure track Assistant Director, eight full-time non-tenure track lecturers, and 3 full-time staff members. In addition, multiple tenure-track faculty and upwards of 60 teaching assistants rotate through instruction of our courses each semester.
Are there advantages of being structured this way?
Being our own unit within the Division of Biology, we have the benefit of being able to focus solely on and prioritize our own needs. We determine as a group how we want to educate our students and have a lot of freedom in running our program and training our graduate students.
Are there particular challenges that result from this structure?
As an independent unit under the umbrella of the Division of Biology, we can suffer from a lack of input or interest from the three Biology departments. The other departments can view us as a "feeder program," and not the foundation to the departments and something they should engage with to ensure the best teaching and curriculum alignment for their students. Also, by running the introductory curriculum, many topics related to the undergraduate degree curriculum, retention, or student life become our responsibility.
Funding comes from the Provost's office for most non-tenure track faculty salaries and is renewed annually. A few positions are covered under a recurring base budget. The operating budget is funded through course fees, lab manual fees, and summer course offering. This structure is advantageous because there is no fear of a base budget getting cut. However, it does mean that much of the instructional team is under yearly renewable contracts.
Description of Programming
The General Biology program runs the 100 and 200 level courses offered through the Division of Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, engaging nearly 4000 students per semester. A lot of our programming revolves around the day-to-day tasks necessary to instruct students, run labs, oversee TAs, and manage the administrative side of the unit.
For graduate student professional development, we lead the teaching assistant orientation and offer two evidence-based teaching practices courses each year, and conduct teaching observations in all 100-level courses each semester. As part of the weekly preparatory meetings for each 100-level course, we infuse pedagogy training and model useful best teaching practices that are appropriate for the week's lesson. For example, modeling community building practices in the first preparatory meeting, discussing rubrics the week before TAs write and administer quizzes, and discussing how to digest student feedback the week of mid-term evaluations. We also work closely with the CIRTL group on campus to mentor TAR projects and align our teaching practices courses.
For faculty we provide internal pedagogy support and development through one-on-one mentoring, learning communities, and workshops. We also collaborate with other campus teaching and learning groups to facilitate or participate in campus-wide events for faculty. Some of these include leading STEM focused book groups, hosting a cross-disciplinary DBER community, advising faculty in SoTL, repeating internal workshops for the broader campus community, inviting faculty from other STEM disciplines to participate in events organized within the Division, and attending events sponsored by other groups.
Finally, the Director and Assistant Director are tasked with assessing student success and retention in the 100-level courses and through the degree. This is accomplished using institutional data, surveys, and artifact assessment and developing appropriate interventions such as first-year seminars.
Successes and Impacts
The most significant change was a curriculum reform at the 100-level led by the faculty to embrace the core concepts of biology as described in the 2011 AAAS Vision & Change report. The reform also included training all of the instructors in active learning techniques. We conducted observations each semester to record the use of active learning in these courses and have been able to demonstrate an upward trend of the amount of time spent doing active learning and the variety of strategies used.
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville recently joined CIRTL, a national online network for graduate student teaching professional development (https://www.cirtl.net). Through this relationship we have been able to obtain CIRTL level certification for a number of our TAs and expand the offerings of courses and resources.
Elements Contributing to Success
Being "in-house" helps with buy-in from the tenure track faculty and graduate students to participate in our professional development activities. Because we all teach in the same discipline this gives us "real-world" experience with the students and curriculum that many external teaching and learning units cannot offer. We have the benefit of having a lot of contact with faculty and graduate students creating many touch points and valuable "water-cooler" conversations which makes us extremely effective in tackling teaching and learning hurdles broader than our own unit.