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Pre-SoTL Institute

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Carol Hurney

James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Assignment #1: Introductions

1) Describe your teaching responsibilities and the type of student you

I teach the non-majors biology course at James Madison University.  I also teach a few sections of the introductory lab portion of our major’s course.  I really LOVE teaching the non-majors and have been using a lot of different teaching strategies in this course (most recently, clickers).  Typically, I have about 75 students in each section where I help them explore all sorts of topics including human cloning, evolution, cancer, and drug addiction and this past semester I let them pick some of the topics, so I ended up running a unit on the colony collapse disorder in the honey bee population.  Life is good in the world of non-majors.

2) Describe what you would like to take home as a result of attending
the institute

My take home from this group is the motivation to publish some of my SoTL work. Collecting the data is one thing, but finding time to get it out there is something quite different.  In addition to my role as a teacher and a biologist (I study salamander tail development); I recently transitioned into a new role as the Assistant Director of the JMU Center for Faculty Innovation.  This is the campus teaching and learning center and I help coordinate and run a number of faculty development programs designed to enhance the learning environment at JMU.  So, I also want to bring back ideas from our work to other faculty on my campus.  Interestingly, our programming theme for the 08-09 academic year is SoTL.  I guess I am hoping to “walk the walk” so that I can help/inspire other faculty to join me.

3) Tell us about your interests outside of the classroom and a book that
you've read recently

Outside of the classroom you will find me teaching aerobics at the local gym, riding my bike or cooking something fabulous in my newly renovated kitchen.  I share my world with 3 amazing cats and they seem to like the new kitchen as well.  The last book I read was “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver, which inspired me to purchase a share of a local community supported agriculture program.  This means that sometime soon a whole BUNCH of organic vegetables will start being delivered to my house and so I may be bringing samples for all of you in July.

Assignment #2: Reflections

1) How would you describe your “research problem(s)” to the Research Scholars group?

My research problem focuses on the meta-reflective process that Bass discusses in his article. Do students know when they have learned something?  Or that their learning has improved?  The two classes I teach have very different student populations. The non-majors introductory biology course is filled with students of various backgrounds and ages. Initially these students do not understand that skills they can obtain from this class can have a significant impact on their lives.  They think they should just come to class, memorize a bunch of terms and then be on their way.  I want to create an environment where they see the value in achieving the course learning objectives and that they can track their own journey towards becoming a scientifically literate citizen.   My other course, introductory lab for biology majors is targeted for freshman biology majors.   These students often think that they already know how science works and feel confident about their ability to deal with biological content. Unfortunately, this mindset proves to be a barrier for some of these students to see that they still have much to learn.  In many ways, getting the introductory biology student to explore their own learning process is more difficult than it is with the non-majors.   But in both cases, I want the students to be aware of their own learning process.  To that end, I want to know that the teaching strategies I use in each learning environment impact student perception of their mastery of the course learning objectives.   I hope to approach this problem by collecting meaningful data regarding teaching strategies I use in these classes to promote the meta-reflective process.  

2)What theme(s) based on your readings, resonate with your “problem” and/or your proposed approach to address your problem?

I was particularly struck by the “Inverted Pyramid” discussion by Bass.  Early in my teaching career, I was giving the final exam to the non-majors class.  As I sat there and watched them take my exam, I was looking over the questions and thinking about the semester we had just finished.  Although I didn’t have the language to describe the problem back then, I did realize that I wanted those students to gain skills about how to use science in their lives.  I had even incorporated skill building teaching strategies and other projects that would impact the development of such skills.  So why did my test only contain 50 content-based, multiple-choice questions?  I wanted to stand up and tell the students to STOP taking this stupid test! That is when I flipped the pyramid and started to teach & TEST to the skills that my students were developing in my class.

3) Which of the 12 properties of SoTL in microbiology education proposed by S. Benson’s article are particularly relevant to your project at this stage?

I am somewhat of a novice in the SoTL process, so I am examining the literature to determine how other educators have explored this problem (Property 4).  I have attempted to collect data regarding some of my teaching strategies, so I am hopeful that the Biology Scholars will help critique my experimental design (Property 3).  Finally, I think this problem is central to many disciplines and will foster connections to different biological sub-disciplines as well as many other educational areas (Property 11).

4) Do you have any questions/concerns/comments that have evolved from your reading?

5) What do you see as tangible products to be developed as a result of your Scholars experience within the next 12 months?

In the next 12 months I will develop research strategy that I can use to collect data from my two classes so that I can describe the impact a learner-centered teaching environment has on the meta-reflective process of students.  

6) What do you see yourself presenting at the follow-up session at ASMCUE 2009?

In the next 12 months I will develop research strategy that I can use to collect data from my two classes so that I can describe the impact a learner-centered teaching environment has on the meta-reflective process of students.  

7) What will you need to develop these products?

Encouragement, feedback and time!

My annotated bibliography contains articles that address multiple facets of my research questions. One of my research questions focuses on the use of personal response systems in large classes and so I have included two articles that address the efficacy of these devices.  I am also interested in exploring the impact of the Socratic teaching method and although I did not find many resources that addressed this teaching strategy, I did find articles on facilitating effective discussions.  In addition, I include an article that deals more broadly with the impact of active learning.  Finally, I have an article that discusses the transfer of cognitive skills in higher education.  This article provides a context for both of my research interests (non-majors intro bio and majors biology laboratory).

  1. Caldwell, J.E. (2007).  Clickers in the large classroom:  Current research and best-practice tips.  CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6, 9-20.

This paper gives an excellent overview of the uses of clickers in the classroom and then goes onto focus on pertinent research questions.  In addition to summarized the current literature on clicker research, the author provides insights on issues such as content coverage, student attitudes toward clickers and impact of clicker use on attendance and grades.  The paper concludes with an overview of best-practices. This article provides an excellent launching point for the clicker component of my research question.

  1. Trees, A.R. and M.H. Jackson. (2007).  The learning environment in clicker classrooms:  student processes of learning and involvement in large university-level courses using student response systems.  Learning Media and Technology, 32(1), 21-40.

An important aspect of clicker use in my non-majors biology class relates to how the well the use of clickers in my course integrates into the overall design of the course. This paper explores the social and educational infrastructure needed to support effective clicker use.  More importantly in examines the ways in which student characteristics and course design relates to the impact clickers have on student learning.  The authors analyze student survey responses from 20 courses that measure student assumptions about large classes, desirable learning processes, classroom involvement, and student motivation.  This analysis suggests that students who value feedback, do not value a traditional lecture style, and prefer to be engaged tend to be more positive about clickers.  Now all I have to do is make sure those students enroll in my class!

  1. Grover, N. (2007).  How to create successful discussions in science classrooms.  Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 35(6), 397-403.

This paper is a descriptive study of the components of successful discussions. Given that the Socratic method is similar in some respects to discussion-based teaching, I feel this article will help me dissect the components of the Socratic strategies I utilize in the majors laboratory course to help the students better prepare for this learning experience.  In particular the author explores what it really means to discuss science concepts and how effective preparation on the part of the student will influence the discussion. This paper provides a better context for me to build the Socratic dialogue with my students in a way that helps them to understand the benefits of this type of learning environment.

  1. Freeman, S., E. O’Connor, J.W. Parks, M. Cunningham, D. Hurley, D. Haak, C. Dirks, and M.P. Wenderoth. (2007).  Prescribed active learning increases performance in introductory biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6, 132-139.

This article examines numerous course designs that differ in the type and amount of active learning exercises.  Since learner-centered teaching strategies can be viewed as extension of active learning, I feel this paper provides the balance for my thought processes.  I had the pleasure to meet the primary author of this paper, Scott Freeman, and have used his introductory biology book to support the laboratory course I teach.  This type of paper sends the same message I hope to send in my work. “If you do it, they will learn!” I also appreciate the methodologies the authors employ to address their research questions and will most certainly attempt to design similar experiments for my projects, if possible. Although, I think I will need a refresher in statistics.

  1. Billing, D. (2007).  Teaching for transfer of core/key skills in higher education: Cognitive skills.  Higher Education, 53, 483-516.

Creating a learning environment that promotes the development of scientific reasoning skills provides the foundation for the non-majors and majors courses I teach. So I feel like I am supposed to be reading papers like this one.  J  This paper reviews over 700 papers that contain analytical and empirical evidence addressing the teaching and learning of tasks with high cognitive content. Although this paper doesn’t specifically address scientific reasoning skills, many of the variables analyzed align with the cognitive processes of science.  Most importantly, this paper provides insight into some of the work addressing the meta-cognitive process.  So I will continue to work my way through this paper as I continue to prepare for the upcoming institute.

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