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A. Pre-SoTL Institute Reflections

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Bethany Stone

University of Missouri, Colombia, MO

Assignment #1: Introductions

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

I teach at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO.I am an "Assistant Teaching Professor" which means my job requirements are exclusively teaching with no research obligations.I teach General Biology and elective courses such as Infectious Diseases and Genetic Diseases to non-science majors.I also teach Botany which includes plant science, biology and non-science majors.

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

Even though my job does not have research obligations, I want to conduct education research to keep myself fresh and in touch with my students.I am especially interested in documenting student misconceptions as they enter my classroom, but, like Trish, would like to assess their learning at the end of the course as a measure of teaching effectiveness.I hope the program will help me form quality research questions, create informative assessment tools and interpret results.

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

I am married with a two-year-old boy and four-year-old girl.We live on 65 acres, have horses and are starting to build a new house.The last book I read was "The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson about the Cholera outbreak of 1854 and the beginning of epidemiology.Don't be fooled, however, the book before that was pure mind junk.

Assignment #2: Reflections

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

Many of the concepts we cover in biology are sub-microscopic, without detail when viewed under the most powerful machines. The scale makes learning biological concepts difficult for most students. DNA, genes, alleles, chromosomes -- all of these fundamental concepts in molecular genetics are unfortunately (for the learner) physically small.Students struggle to relate to or understand these terms as easily as they can terms like "gymnosperm", "uvula" and "Drosophila". Bass's paper, The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem included the following quote from Diana Laurillard: "Teachers need to know more than just their subject.They need to know the ways it can come to be understood, the ways it can be misunderstood, what counts as understanding: they need to know how individuals experience the subject."In my research project I hope to discern students' understanding and misunderstandings about molecular genetics when they enter introductory biology. From this research, I hope to develop methods that can help students understand, and experience, these biological concepts.I also hope to advance understanding about the problems that make these concepts so difficult to teach, one of the properties outlined by Benson in his Twelve Properties of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Microbiology Education.

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

I was struck by Randy Bass's statement that he, "resolved to make every course component intentional."Intentional reading assignments, exam questions, lecture material and other course components require a clear starting point and a clear learning outcome.That means defining clear learning goals, assessing students' prior status with these goals, formulating learning tools that help them reach the learning goals, and creating assessment that measures their achievements.All of these steps are deliberate in a way that makes it clear to learner and outside observer that your goals were well defined and, hopefully, met by the learners.

I was also struck by the Boyer Report's summary of scholarship as four activities, of which only one was teaching.To be "scholarly", the other three types of scholarship (discovery, integration, and application) need to be explored as well.The Biology Scholars program opens avenues for educators to expand their use of discovery, integration and application and, by doing so, increase scholarship in the classroom.

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?

One of the powers of the Biology Scholars program is that the research will be shared throughout the process, another of Benson's Twelve Properties of Scholarship.The critical analysis, suggestions and input provided by peers throughout all steps of our research projects will increase the chances that our projects will result in meaningful, and scholarly, results.

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?

Twelve months from now I would like to clearly state priority learning goals in the topic of molecular genetics and share data about prevalent student misconceptions and holes in understanding in molecular genetics, pre- and post-instruction.I hope to define this situation so biology educators can create and share effective teaching strategies to overcome student difficulties with this material. To start on this process, I will create a pre-instruction assessment tool that will be administered to my general biology classes and will measure students' understanding, or misunderstanding, of basic concepts in molecular genetics before it is explored in the classroom.I will then reassess their understanding after instruction as a measure of learning.

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

7) What will you need to develop these products?

Assignment #3: Annotations

I am researching student misconceptions on genetics, but focusing on molecular genetics in non-science majors.  That is, I am interested in students' understand of terms like "chromosome", "genes", "DNA", "protein" and the relationships between these terms.  I would like to identify misconceptions and the sources of these misconceptions so I can design targeted instructional tools on this material.  Unlike Jenny, I have not created an assessment tool so my primary focus at this time is on literature that will help me create viable assessment.

  1. Duncan RG and Reiser BJ. (2007) "Reasoning Across Ontologically Distinct Levels: Students' Understandings of Molecular Genetics", Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(7); 938-959.

In this study, the researchers explored 10th grade-students' understanding of molecular genetics, focusing on genes as physical entities, but also as packets of information.  The authors argue that students struggle with this information for three reasons: the concepts are inaccessible to the students because they are sub-cellular, the concepts are spread across many biological levels, and that multiple molecules are key players that also span many hierarchical levels.   They assessed the students using written assessment and interviews before and after instruction.  What I liked about their assessment tools is they used open-ended questions that avoided "false positives" for misconceptions -- a problem outlined in Jenny's reference, Clerk and Rutherford (2000).  They focused their interviewing on the relationship between genes and proteins, but their methods and many of their questions could be expanded to include the relationships between genes, chromosomes and DNA.  While they identify some interesting misconceptions they did not explore the source of those misconceptions.  Are they a lack of background (and so not really a misconception -- just a lack of any understanding)?  Or are they caused by something in previous coursework or popular media?  I would like to expand on their work and include the source of these alternative conceptions.

  1. Marbach-Ad G. (2001) "Attempting to Break the Code in Student Comprehension of Genetic Concepts", Journal of Biological Education, 35(4); 183-189.

While most studies I have read have been conducted on a specific grade level, this research spans early high school, late high school, college and post-degree, pre-service teachers.  Students were assessed on their understanding of molecular genetics using open-ended questions on written questionnaires and verbal interviews as well as concept maps (see more below in 3b).  They received fascinated results.  Students at all levels compartmentalized their definitions of "genes", "DNA" and "Chromosomes" as either structural (chromosomes) OR functional (genes and DNA), but not both.  If the definition was functional, terms were made distinct even though, in reality, they have similar functions.  For example, genes "determine traits" and DNA "transfers hereditary information from one generation to the next".  The conclusion of the study was that students at all levels fail to make many connections, both structural and functional, required for a full-picture understanding of molecular genetics.

  1. a. Rotbain Y, Marbach-Ad G, and Stavy R. (2005) "Understanding Molecular Genetics Through a Drawing-based Activity", Journal of Biological Education, 39(4); 174-178.
    b. Yarden H, Marbach-Ad G, and Gershoni JM. (2004) "Using the Concept Map Technique in Teaching Introductory Cell Biology to College Freshmen", Bioscene, 30(1); 3-13.

Many students claim, correctly or not, that they are visual learners.  Both these papers use visual tools to facilitate and assess student learning.  I like the first paper because the authors present a drawing-based learning activity that encourages students to analyze, complete and replicate figures commonly found in biology textbooks.  The upper-level high-school students were assessed on their understanding of molecular genetics after the activity and their scores and learning attitudes were compared with a control group who received traditional instruction.  The researchers found that the visual tools increased student performance on the post-instructional assessment.  In the second paper, biology majors were given an introduction to concept maps and asked to create a concept map of various terms in molecular genetics. The researchers then used the concept map as a tool to assess student understanding of the concepts.  By using this assessment technique the researchers were able to uncover several misconceptions that were previously unidentified by the instructor.  
I included these papers for two reasons.  First, some of their assessment methods using drawing or concept maps could be used in my assessment.  Second, someday I hope to develop instructional methods that target these misconceptions and the techniques presented in these papers may be a good place to start.

  1. Klymkowsky MW, Taylor LB, Spindler SR, and Garvin-Doxas RK. (2006) "Two-Dimensional, Implicit Confidence Tests as a Tool for Recognizing Student Misconceptions", Journal of College Science Teaching, Nov/Dec; 44-48.

I have previously conducted research in my classroom on student understand of molecular genetics, but the assessment tool we used (mostly multiple choice) failed to assess how sure students were in their answers.  In order for a wrong answer to be deemed a misconception, the student must have some confidence in their incorrect answer and not be guessing.  In this paper, the authors present a study on the usefulness and gender-neutrality of implicit confidence tests -- tests used with multiple-choice assessment to measure students' confidence in their understanding.  They provide substantial background about misconceptions and include their logic for using the two-dimensional tests (TDTs).  The focus of this research was to test this method for gender bias.  Previous research has indicated that female students are naturally less confident in their opinion, so they compared the number of times students of each gender indicated they were "confident", "semi-confident" or guessing on the TDT.  Their results indicate there is no difference in the selection rate of those options between the genders.

  1. Clerk D and Rutherford M. (2000) "Language as a Confounding Variable in the Diagnosis of Misconceptions", International Journal of Science Education, 22(7); 703-717.

I did not know about this paper until I read Jenny Knight's bibliography, so I want to give her full credit for finding this resource!  As I create assessment tools this paper seemed important to include as it directly addresses the over-diagnosis of "misconceptions" (AKA "alternative conceptions") in education.  I agree with the authors when they describe multiple-choice tests as creating the illusion of misconceptions that do not actually exist.  To test this hypothesis, they administered a multiple-choice physics exam to 48 students and selected 9 students for a follow-up interview to more deeply explore their understanding of the material.  In their results, 23.5% of all "misconceptions" are false positives, meaning students answered the question incorrectly on the written exam, but demonstrated sufficient understanding during the interview.  An average of 16% of the incorrect answers to the physics questions they raised revealed true misconceptions; that is questions that were answered incorrectly on the written exam and again in the interview.  This study emphasizes the importance of creating discerning assessment tools and using multiple methods to measure student understanding.

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