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Preparing students for upper-level biology courses; pre-requisite to failure? 


As indicated by test scores, students in Microbiology, Anatomy and Physiology, and Nutrition courses appear to be most challenged by course material related to cellular metabolism and molecular genetics. A key assumption guiding the development of these (and other) upper-level biology courses is that students who successfully complete pre-requisite courses comprehend basic principles of biology and chemistry. To evaluate this, students were provided with a concept evaluation instrument consisting of 10 questions requiring the recall of basic cell biology, energy metabolism, and genetics concepts. The questions were open ended, written in plain language, and intended to be answered in one or a few words. With few exceptions, students demonstrated little to no recollection of the fundamental concepts evaluated with this instrument. The following semester a second instrument was designed using exam questions from the non-majors level introductory biology course most often used as a pre-requisite. Again the questions were written plainly with no jargon, and the foils were in part based on students’ answers to the open-ended instrument. Students were also asked to self-report which pre-requisite(s) they had completed and their approximate grade. Overall, a slightly greater percentage of the questions were answered correctly, but the difference was not significant and could be attributed to students feeling less intimidated by the multiple choice format. Additionally, there appeared to be no significant correlation between students who reported receiving an “A” or “B” in the stated prerequisite(s), and their score on the concept evaluation instrument. These results imply that students are able to recall biology and chemistry concepts long enough to be successful in pre-requisite courses, but do not transfer that knowledge to the upper-level course and are therefore unable to understand more complex topics such as physiology and metabolism. This apparent disconnect invites examination of the purported role of pre-requisite courses in the design and pedagogy of upper-level biology courses at the community college level. 




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Interesting study--abstract would benefit from removing some of the detailed background information at the beginning. To me, those first few sentences do not necessarily help the reader see what your study is about. Starting with the sentence where you indicate what they seem to struggle with might be better.
Posted 16:43, 14 Feb 2009
Hi Holly,
I agree with Jenny. The first couple of lines obscure the thrust of the abstract to me. Removing them could allow you to include more information such as the number of students tested.
Posted 00:57, 15 Feb 2009
Hi Holly,

I like how you are looking up the course chain! Understanding how little students transfer from one course to the next is a great question and I look forward to talking with you about your results.

I am not sure if you are submitting to ASM-CUES or not, but you might want to check out their abstract format requirements if you are (no more than 1850 characters with spaces -- you have over 3400, title and author format as well as author contact information). It is all available at:

I agree with Chris and Jenny: cut back on the introduction and include some numbers, if possible.
Posted 11:50, 15 Feb 2009
Holly, this sounds really cool and I'm impressed with how the idea has evolved since last summer! The abstract itself is wordy and the sentences sometimes long and hard to follow. Can you state your problem right up front? I don't want to read a third of the abstract before getting to "This study was undertaken to evaluate..." and then the problem (students don't retain anything.) Then you sort of end with a problem too - as if it is just hanging there. Are you in a position to turn your observations about not transferring knowledge, to a recommendation for further study?

Best, Anne-Marie
Posted 17:13, 15 Feb 2009
Hi Holly,
Sounds like a great project. Without repeating any of the above : towards the end "Preliminary analysis of the data related to course grade" Which course grade - the prerequisite or the upper level? Also "inherent problem in the way students are being prepared for upper-level study at the community college level" I might not go quite this far- I think you will find similar problems with 4 year schools. The only way to answer would be to partner with the closest instititution you send students to and find out if their students entering the upper level are similarly unprepared. Perhaps you can change the last statement so that it reflects either overall inabilty to remember and apply material after they leave your classrooms which is either inherent to your program or to the manner in which students enter your program. LIkely a consequence of both and that would be apparent if you were to look at the broader cohort ie as they move into you program and other programs. Looking forward to seeing the project at the meeting. Sherri
Posted 08:28, 17 Feb 2009
Wow! Great question and nice approach, but I agree with the others, you can (and need) to remove a lot of info from your abstract. One idea is to remove the passive voice, which tends to take up more space than other options. For example you can change this phrase "This study was undertaken to evaluate" to This study examines" and you will be surprised how many characters you can trim. Another suggestion is to remove some of the parenthetical phrases you start many of your sentences with. For example, if you want to keep your introductory sentence, it could be restructured like: Lower-level biology courses (100 or 200) at community colleges are often taught at a level equivalent to the corresponding upper-level course (300 or 400) at the transfer institution to facilitate a seamless transfer into a 4-year degree program. Just a thought.
Posted 09:40, 17 Feb 2009
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