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Pre-SoTL Institute

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Min-Ken Liao

Furman University, Greenville, SC

Assignment #1: Introductions

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

Greetings from Greenville, South Carolina where the sky is blue, water is clear and people drink sweet tea.I am an associate professor in the Biology Department at Furman University, a private liberal arts college. I teach Microbiology once a year, Genetics twice a year, and another course that can be Molecular Genetics, Human Genetics, Introductory Biology (major or non-major), or First Year Seminar.It is also expected that we engage students in research activities so I have a research group of 3-4 students.

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

There are several Biology Scholars projects I have in mind but the most important one is to design a teaching evaluation/learning assessment form to use for biology courses.The current Student Response Form that Furman uses does not tell me how effective I am in helping students learn.

Having "I LOOOOOOVE her" as my strength or "she hates me" as my weakness does not help me better myself.(By the way, the sentence also gives you a clue about my gender, in case minken is not easily identifiable.) Additionally, I believe that the questions asked on the evaluation form also send students messages about what good teaching/learning is like.

Therefore, students should be exposed to the form in the beginning of the class so they know what to pay attention to then provide more valuable information at the end of the class.I know there is no such a thing as a perfect form so I am aiming to develop a better one.And I am not an expert in assessing learning so I really don't know what I am talking about.

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

It is difficult for me to finish a book because I always have multiple books going on at the same time.When I am in my office, I feel like reading "twelve diseases that changed our world"; in my study, "the god of old"; in my bedroom, "the ghost map"; in the living room, a Chinese book about a historical figure (I am from Taiwan); and in the bathroom, "you might be a redneck if..."I just finished "Why we get sick" and a Chinese book on traditional Chinese medicine.I think I have reading ADD.Other than reading, the only "fun" thing I do daily is sitting in on classes.I have been at Furman for 8 years and I have sat in on 10 courses on campus so far.I plan to retire as a one-person liberal college.

Assignment #2: Reflections

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

My research problem that I would like to address is whether a course evaluation form can be used to engage students and to improve their learning by alter their attitudes toward a course.Too often a course evaluation form serves as a venue for students to vent.Very little information can be extracted for future curricular/course designs.Such a course evaluation form also sends students a message that a successful learning experience depends solely on the teacher.It tends to place students and teachers in opposite positions while students and teachers should work side by side for meaningful learning to occur.My hypothesis is that if students’ inputs about the content/activity/format of a course are specifically solicited in a course evaluation, they will be more likely to take the ownership of the course and give teachers more constructive suggestions that are useful for future course design.

Meanwhile, the sense of ownership will lead to a more engaging, responsible learning attitude, which ultimately will enhance their learning.Furthermore, course objectives should be the backbone of this course evaluation form, and it should be stressed that both students and teachers are responsible for meeting the course objectives.Because of this, a course evaluation form should be presented to the students in the beginning of the course and their inputs be solicited in the end of the course.

Here is a set of example questions that I have in mind: (1) On which

concept(s) should your instructor spend more time?How much longer, 30 minutes, 60minutes, or more?(2) There are a finite number of lecture hours in a semester.If one more lecture hour should be devoted to a particular challenging and important concept, then you are responsible for learning one hour of material on your own.What might that be?

Hopefully, presenting questions like these in the beginning of the course will help students develop a sense of ownership, prompt them to realize their responsibility in mastering the materials, and constantly evaluate their own learning.Their answers to these questions can also be as guides for future course design.

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

Therefore, Bass’s story about his selection of and his student’s reaction to Parkman’s book resonates most strongly with my research problem. Students do not always understand why we do what we do.Tome, the recurring theme of the article is this gap between students and teachers. We don't know why certain students did better than others. We can't tell the difference between understanding and performing understanding.They don't know why we think certain concepts are important. Bass proposed the scheme of the inverted pyramid by identifying and focusing on the one ultimate goal of his course. And I believe that he should not do so alone.Students are equally responsible for the goal.As I often tell my students, “You got it doesn't mean you have it.You still need to work on it.”

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?

Of Benson's 12 properties of SoTL in microbiology education, I found #1 (reflective analysis), #5 (to be built upon), #8 (problem centric) and #10 (engagement in teaching) are most relevant to my project, and #6 (stimulating intellectual exchange) is my ultimate goal.

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?

I hope that within the next 12 months I can design and “test-drive” a course evaluation form (with proper controls) and develop a convincing and effective way to assess student’s responses.

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

And I have to present at ASMCUE 2009because that was what I promised in my grant proposal.I, too, look forward to a publication in JMBE.

7) What will you need to develop these products?

Assignment #3: Annotations

I guess it is a good sign that the more papers I read, the more focused my research project gets.My project is to encourage students to reflect upon what they have learned on a weekly, if not daily, basis and identify which topic(s) needs more lecture time and which topic(s) they can learn on their own.My hypothesis is that reflecting course content in such a way will encourage students to assume responsibility for their own learning.Ultimately, I hope it will make students realize that, in addition to the teachers; they are also responsible for the success of their learning experience and consequently become self-motivated learners.I am in the process of fine-tuning my experimental designs and am seeking applicable semi-real-time classroom self-assessment methods for students and end-of-the-course evaluation methods for this approach in literatures.I could not find papers addressing and reporting similar research questions but I found many that are helpful.After having read the papers/handbook listed below and more (which I am not thrilled about because I am swamped by four first-time student researchers and two week-long conferences), I am grateful that I was “forced” to make significant progress in my research project.

  1. Belzer, S., Miller, M., & Shoemake, S. (2003) Concepts in Biology: A supplemental Study Skills Course Designed to Improve Introductory Students’ Skill for Learning Biology. The American Biology Teacher 65(1):30-40, 2003

The authors seek to convince readers that to help students succeed in biology courses of introductory level it is necessary to improve their study skills.The authors first identify and describe a “high risk” course (course with a higher failure rate) in their institute and further indentify possible reasons for failure.Targeting one of the possible reasons - a lack of self-discipline and study skills, the authors offer students the one-hour per week Concepts in Biology course which focuses on teaching study skill and biological thought processes.They hypothesize that students taking the Concepts while taking the high risk course will improve their content knowledge and motivation significantly (demonstrated by lower failure rates) and will also perform better than students who do not (demonstrated by comparing two student groups.)Additionally, they investigate whether the Concepts course impacts female students more significantly and whether students’ performance in their pre-course content knowledge tests is a good indicator for their final grades.The authors conclude that the Concepts course significantly increases in student motivation and success rate in the high risk course.The relationship between student’s pre-course content knowledge test scores and the final grade is weak.Female and male students are different significantly on content and motivation measures.While the experimental designs are tight and analyses are valid, the paper loses its focus when reporting whether the pre-course content knowledge test is a good indicator for student’s overall course performance and whether the Concepts course impacts female students more significantly, as these are not their objectives of developing and offering this course.Additionally, one can easily argue that although students who took the Concepts course did not perform significantly better than students who did not take the course in the pre-course content knowledge tests, they were more conscientious about their learning experience in biology, as demonstrated by voluntarily taking the course, and would naturally work harder.Nevertheless, numerous skills taught in the Concepts course are stimulating and have helped me tweak my experimental designs.

  1. Brewer, C. A. (2004) Near Real-Time Assessment of Student Learning and Understanding in Biology Courses. BioScience 54(11):1034-1039

The author presents two instructional technology tools that prompt students to reflect on their learning constantly and allow faculty to assess student’s learning simultaneously.The tools are (1) off-the-shelf personal response systems (PRS) for in-class assessment, and (2) a custom-designed Web-based assessment for use between lectures (BioBytes).These tools are also designed to encourage more faculty to use computer-aided instruction.The PRS functions similarly to the classroom Clickers system in that students’ answers to a question are tallied real-time.This in-class assessment tool allows teachers to address any confusions or misconceptions instantaneously.The BioBytes is basically online quiz system.Students take the quiz by providing the answers as well as their confidence level in each answer.What makes this paper stand out in my blurry memory of research papers I have read since the beginning of the summer is that the author asks students to report the confidence level in their answers.Confidence level can be used to indicate how well students think they understand the materials, which allows instructors to make adjustment in teaching accordingly.Therefore, I plan to survey student’s confidence level in my research.

  1. Dancy, M. H., & Beichner, R. J. (2002) But Are they Learning? Getting started in Classroom Evaluation. Cell Biology Education 1:87-94

The paper consists of three major points.(1) The authors first argue that in addition to traditional classroom feedback, formal educational research is necessary in order to effectively help students learn.(2) The authors also assert that, though usually not formally trained in doing educational research, biologists are more ideal than education experts in designing and conducting educational research in biology.(3) The authors point out that the methods of and supports for education research are readily available.They demonstrate so by providing information about the resources of education research and describing/distinguishing quantitative and qualitative research in great details.Additionally, the authors report their physics education research project as an example, because both quantitative and qualitative investigations are implemented in this project.However, the results of the research project are not included in the paper, which makes the example not as illustrative and helpful as it would have been otherwise.The paper is of great value to my research project because it provides resources where more databases, methods, listservs and literatures can be found.

  1. Leahy, S., Lyon, C., Thompson, M., & William, D. (2005) Classroom Assessment: Minute by Minute, Day by Day. Educational Leadership 63(3):18-24

This paper is written for teachers of K-12; however, this is the most practical paper I have read.The authors first point out the difference between assessment of learning and assessment for learning.Assessment of learning is an end-point evaluation of student’s performance/learning, while assessment for learning is a real-time process of teacher-student interactions.The authors identify a set of five broad strategies relevant for teachers who are interested in assessment for learning: (1) Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success, (2) Engineering effective classroom discussions, questions, and learning tasks, (3) Providing feedback that moves learners forward, (4) Activating students as the owners of their own learning, and (5) Activating students as instructional resources for one another.The authors also provide practical examples in each strategy for implementation.Compared to other “heavy-duty” educational research papers (which I’ve read and forgotten), this paper is relatively light.However, its emphasis on assessment for learning has made a strong impression on me and challenges me to think longer and harder about assessment.

  1. National Science Foundation (1997) User-Friendly Handbook for Mixed Method Evaluation. URL: July 1, 2008

When conducting educational research, it is preferable to incorporate both quantitative and qualitative investigations (mixed method design) in order to strengthen the validity of results and gain more complete insights.Most biologists are more familiar with quantitative methods and more capable in analyzing quantitative results.However, the same cannot be concluded with qualitative methods as qualitative data are more difficult and time consuming to analyze.Thus the National Science Foundation has developed a detailed user-friendly handbook for those who are interested in qualitative research.The 124-page handbook gives an overview of qualitative methods and analytic techniques as well as designing and reporting mixed method evaluations.I have not yet finished the handbook but have already identified useful sample forms and examples in the handbook.

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