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Pre-SoTL Institute Reflection

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Sherri Morris

Bradley University, Peoria, IL

Assignment #1: Introductions

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

I am an associate professor in the Biology Department at Bradley University, a private comprehensive in central IL.  I have taught a number of courses.  The ones I teach most often are Ecology, Ecosystems Ecology and an environmental science course entitled Populations, Resources, and Environment.  The first two are for majors and ENS course is non-majors upper level general education course.  I have also taught organismal biology in our sophomore level series which is a research immersion course designed to encourage independent thought and a comprehensive understanding science as a process.  I have also taught some grad level courses in ecology and soil ecology.  I enjoy teaching at BU.  We encourage undergraduates to participate in our research labs by allowing research for credit. I have an active research lab with undergraduates and masters students.

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

As varied as my teaching load has been in the past 8 years I have also taught using a number of different approaches and styles.  I have recently become involved with a number of science education activities where we involve education majors in research immersion courses.  It has been quite an experience.  I feel behind the curve in this arena because the education faculty actively assesses classroom performance and teach action research activities to their students as mechanisms to improve their teaching.  I am very interested in assessing the degree to which the different approaches I use in the classroom impact student learning.

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

I am married, with a 5 year old boy, 2 year old girl and new puppy.  Pretty much sums up my free time.  I enjoy reading anything with more than 10 words on the page, relatively few pictures and am especially fond of books that don’t rhyme.  The book I most recently chose of my own free will was Yvonne Baskins Under Ground: how creatures of mud and dirt shape our lives. But am looking forward to reading several recently mentioned on the list. 

Assignment #2: Reflections

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

My research problem focuses on the use of research in the classroom.  In majors courses I use student driven novel research projects rather than 3 hour labs.  It has been suggested that research in the classroom and across the curriculum aids in cementing the knowledge of science as a process and provides avenues to teach critical thinking, encourages engagement at a higher level than a simple understanding of course content and often provides students context upon which to place content knowledge.  I have never challenged my assumption that providing research experience in place of “canned laboratory exercises” actually achieves those objectives.  Furthermore if my use of research does not achieve those objectives how can I change the way I assign, organize, orchestrate, etc. the use of research to achieve those goals?

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

There was a great deal in the reading that resonated with me.  It is sobering to realize that I really should recapture a portion of the blame for student failure.  The ““transactional relation” between teaching practice and student performance” should be actively recognized in teaching and utilized to achieve the desired student performance.  My experience with majors and especially with non-majors has been that poor performance on exams is often tied to class attendance and failure to utilize available course materials (i.e. actually reading the book they complained about spending so much money on).  While I am cynical enough to believe that teaching personal responsibility to ones children is overlooked as a necessity in this country, hence the failure to participate to the full extent of ones capacity (or maybe it is really driven by societal values i.e. it really does seem to be all of the current generation) I do believe I should recapture some blame for not finding a mode of delivery that allows them better access to that which I believe essential to my course.  As a new professor it seemed essential to change the things I could and not feel depressed or overburdened by the things I could not change in my courses.  In hindsight, it was perhaps a crutch I used that allowed me to explore more comprehensively all of my roles at the university rather than spending what I saw as an inordinate amount of time on a problem (student engagement and learning outcomes) that perhaps had a solution only outside of my control.  It is now time to reassert control over my teaching and use the tools that are obviously available to scientists as a scholar of teaching. 

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 properties, the 1st property that focuses on reflective analysis is most relevant to my project at this stage.  I reflected on the course materials used and the reviews from students in the first several years I taught.  As the student evaluations improved to a reasonably acceptable level I began to focus on my research program.  Student evaluations are a lousy tool for understanding the degree to which ones teaching actually teaches.  It is time to begin the process of reflection again but with a much more serious effort elucidating the approaches that best elicit the desired student outcomes using the same systematic approach I use in research.  As for concerns, the readings affirmed by developing suspicion that while I may be considered a good educator I am not teaching in a manner that provides the best education to my students or achieves the goals I think I am achieving in the classroom.

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?

As a result of m Scholars experience, I believe I can evaluate the effectiveness of specific teaching practices I use in the classroom and begin to put into place a research program that will provide tangible results that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of specific methods for achieving specific student learning outcomes.  In the first 12 months I expect to set up the research design and begin preliminary data collection.  I expect it will be an iterative process over the next few years to get the assessment tools adequate for answering the questions I need answered to evaluate the process of student learning with the objectives needed for my specific problem. 

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

I don’t know that I will have data that supports the use of research on student learning outcomes to present at the follow-up session at ASMCUE 2009but I will certainly have a research plan designed specifically to evaluate this teaching method.  The greatest challenge to developing the products for the ASMCUE meeting in 2009, and to investigate my overall problem will be to develop the pre-tests that will allow me to evaluate whether specific outcomes were achieved as a consequence of specific course elements. 

7) What will you need to develop these products?

Thoughtful development of assessment tools will be essential and I have little experience in this arena.

Assignment #3: Annotations

My research problem focuses on the use of research in the classroom. In majors courses I use student driven authentic research projects rather than 3 hour labs.It is a tool that allows students to create and test their own hypotheses in a broad somewhat unrestricted manner. It has been suggested that this process used in the classroom and across the curriculum aids in cementing the knowledge of science as a process and provides avenues to teach critical thinking, encourages engagement at a higher level than a simple understanding of course content and often provides students context upon which to place content knowledge. I have never challenged my assumption that providing research experience in place of "canned laboratory exercises" actually achieves those objectives. Furthermore if my use of student driven research does not achieve those objectives how can I change the way I assign, organize, orchestrate, etc. the use of research to achieve those goals? Perhaps as an alternative a more guided set of inquiry activities would be more useful.

The following will be of use in my endeavor to address the question of whether research in lieu of "laboratory exercises" achieves greater understanding of the processes of science and what it means to be a scientist.

  1. Lord, Thomas and Terri Orkwiszewski. (2006) Didactic to Inquiry-Based Instruction in a Science Laboratory. The American Biology Teacher 68 (6): 342-45.

Lord and Orkwiszewski discuss the ramifications of inquiry based science laboratories.They performed a study that compared performance in an inquiry based laboratory compared to a cookbook using several hundred studies. While there results supported the value of inquiry methods the paper was particularly valuable for me because of the tools used for the analysis.Pre and post tests were required of all students participating.Assessment tools will be particularly important to determine the degree to which specific assignments produce specific outcomes.The weekly testing on comprehension and the amount of time concepts resonated with specific students could also be an important gauge for student learning.Also important is the conclusion from the written comments that students will love or hate any method you give them based on previous experience, what they perceive as reasonable demands and degree of engagement in higher education.Overall a very nicely presented study that provides important data in support of inquiry in college laboratories.

  1. Rogers, Meredith A. Park and Sandra K. Abell. (2008) The design, enactment, and experience of inquiry-based instruction in undergraduate science education: A case study. Science Education 92(4): 591-607

The Rogers and Abell paper provides an introduction to inquiry methods and its development over the past forty years including discussion of the terminology used in inquiry based methods.They note that while inquiry has been discussed by science educators since the nineteen sixties there has been little data collected on the outcomes achieved with this specific set of teaching methods.The journal article provided a study on inquiry based instruction for a smaller group of students than the Lord and Orkwiszewski paper.They used a number of assessment tools within the classroom and outside of the classroom that would be useful for collecting data on student learning outcomes and achievement rather than simple course grades.Their focus was on learning for non-majors.Their conclusion was that the experience allowed students to gain a better perspective on the process of science rather than facts of science.Their approach will be helpful when I hone my hypothesis as I teach both majors and non majors using a variety of approaches in each classroom.

  1. Basey, John, Loren Sackett, and Natalie Robinson. 2008. Optimal science lab design: Impacts of various components of lab design on students' attitudes towards lab.International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2(1): 1-15.

This paper does a great job of aligning instructional goals with intended outcome.There are two issues that must be addressed before one can develop a hypothesis regarding the use of a specific technique in the classroom.First is what does one intending the outcome of a specific experience to be and then second are the students achieving that.This requires different tools than are the students engaged in the materials.Effective teaching will require identifying intended outcomes of the use of authentic research in the classroom and designing the assessment tools to determine whether the outcomes were achieved.The paper focuses on research that would allow users to identify "optimal science lab design" based on the student achievement given a specific set of required outcomes.Assessment tools necessary for developing the optimal lab design are described, which will provide a new set of tools that can be evaluated for use in my project.

  1. Jenkins, Alan and Mick Healey.2005.Institutional strategies to link teaching and research.Higher Education Academy, York, United Kingdom.68 Pp.

The paper presented an argument for integrating research into the educational system.The benefits associated with use of research in the classroom are discussed and the conflicts with institutional assessment of performance are also addressed.The means by which institutions can begin to move towards blending teaching and research and the outcomes of such movement are addressed.The content is important for introducing the concepts that authentic research will improve the laboratory environment.As with several other papers, it was not the content of the paper that will be helpful with the study but its identifying the source of the material.The Higher Education Academy has a wealth of information on teaching however in this case there are a large number of resources that emphasize the utility of research in the classroom.

  1. National Academy of Sciences.Improving undergraduate education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Report of a workshop.National Academy of Sciences.176 Pp.

The report focuses on the outcome of a workshop wherein educators discussed mechanisms by which undergraduate STEM education could be improved.Each of the chapters has information that is worthwhile with regards to improving classroom experiences and learning outcomes for students.The specific challenges addressed in the document are how to measure learning in undergraduate STEM courses, how to create criteria and benchmarks to assess instruction using these measurements, and how such a framework could be used at the institutional level to bring about change in STEM education.As assessment tools will be important for conducting a study on learning outcomes tools will be important.However as important are the thoughts in this document on organizing your ideas regarding appropriate and achievable outcomes for students and the experiences that others have had in this arena. This report was also important in my investigation for research materials because it led me to the important resources available from the National Academy of Sciences.

  1. Cusick, Judy. (2001) Practicing Science: The Investigative Approach in College Science Teaching. An NSTA Press Journals Collection. National Science Teachers Association, Arlington, VA. 71 pp.

While I have not read the entire collection the document provides a wealth of examples of how to bring inquiry to the classroom both with research and other activities.It provides messages on skill development, benefits of specific approaches, pitfalls, and lessons on how to improve content learning in a wide range of classrooms across a wide range of disciplines.The great value of this particular piece is that it lead me to the great resources available thought the NSTA.

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