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Pre-SoTL Inst Reflections

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Didem Vardar-Ulu

Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA

Assignment #1: Introductions

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

I am Didem Vardar-Ulu a second year tenure track assistant Professor in the Chemistry Department at Wellesley College, in good old Massachusetts.

As you’ll soon see, I had a rather indirect way of getting to the position that I have right now, which includes teaching as a part of the job description.Hence, one of my biggest expectations from this experience is to build a long lasting social and scholarly network with colleagues, who share a similar interest and passion towards science education.

I had my undergraduate degree in physics in Turkey and came to Boston for my Ph.D. in Biophysics and then did a total of 5 years postdoc mainly in the field of Structural Biology/ Biochemistry.For all of these 15 years I was based in exclusively “research” oriented settings and there was very little, if any room or sympathy for spending (wasting) time with teaching.I loved (and still love) bench-side research, yet I also felt that I truly enjoyed any opportunity to get involved in teaching and training other students.As years went by, I also realized that I wanted to contribute to the understanding of how science education can be made more effective and have a say as to how to go about it.Hence, two years ago when I became aware of an opening at Wellesley College, which is an all undergraduate women’s liberal arts college that gives equal emphasis to undergraduate research and teaching, I was extremely happy to venture a setting change.With that said, though I love my job, I have to confess that with almost no teaching experience, picking up different biochemistry courses offered by the department both to science majors and non-science majors who are almost all premed students as well as specifically to Biological Chemistry majors carrying out lectures and labs and trying to implement a few (that I now realize perhaps too many at the same time) unconventional teaching strategies was challenging to say the least.

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

Since based on my training and experiences I consider myself to be an experimental Biophysical chemist, I like to think about my classroom as another work bench.So what got me so excited about this SoTL program and this fellowship in particular was to perhaps have the opportunity to learn how to conduct education based experiments in the classroom with the same rigor and quality that I am used to doing in the laboratory and how to objectively evaluate the outcome.In short, how to turn my intuition and passion into scholarly work.So hopefully, I’ll have a much better idea about it in a year.

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

I am married and have a VERY ENERGETIC son who is 4 years and 4 months.

And between first two years on this job with demanding premed students at Wellesley and my son at home, I have forgotten the meaning of free time, but I do love traveling, spending time outside and swimming especially miss the long spring time back in Istanbul and the blue warm Mediterranean sea (still not a big fan of pools).A recent book I read and really liked is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Assignment #2: Reflections

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

The specific question I want to investigate is a result of some preliminary observations I had as I was teaching the two different Biochemistry courses in the College this year.The Chemistry Department (which I belong to) offers one, one semester Introduction to Biochemistry Course for a multitude of science majors (dominated by biological sciences, chemistry, and neuroscience) as well as a few non-science majors who are pre-meds.The second course is a two-semester Biochemistry Course designed primarily for Biological Chemistry majors, who take it in their junior or senior years.Over 90% of the students taking these courses are pre-med students. The two courses have pretty similar content learning expectations with a bigger variation in the “other expectations” based on the professor who is teaching the course.Finally, they have very similar pre-requisites except that the one semester course requires two semesters of organic chemistry and the two semester course requires a Cellular Physiology Course.

I came up with my research question towards the second half of the spring semester as I was desperately trying a wide variety of techniques to motivate the students to take more responsibility in their own learning and feel productive about it.Not surprisingly, there seemed to be a very clear correlation between the enthusiasm students showed toward learning and how comfortable (and hence positive) they felt throughout the process.

So I decided to work on figuring out the key elements that are the real prerequisites for productive learning (both short and long term) in an interdisciplinary field.My hypothesis is that there are two totally independent factors that are in action: 1) The content knowledge from different disciplines that students bring in to the first day of class and expand on throughout the course 2) An analytical thinking/ logical reasoning skill set which ensures that they can put these (unfortunately extremely compartmentalized) information together to tackle and explain interdisciplinary problems.Initially, I had assumed that by the time students reach their junior/ senior years in college they would have had at least some basic opportunities to develop on both of these areas so that an upper level interdisciplinary course in Biological Sciences (such as Biochemistry) would be an enjoyable and fruitful application ground for them.However, I have observed that despite the relatively uniform and broad educational background we offer at Wellesley, the students display an amazingly varied competence in these two categories which I believe greatly impacts how they perform.So throughout this year I would like to design and develop a methodology that would both test the relative importance of these two factors in student learning and performance (during the course and beyond) and also could potentially aid the professor teaching the course customize their teaching efforts for a particular cohort of students each semester.

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

I have two big challenges/ concerns in this undertaking.The first one is probably more applicable for everyone in this group and that is:How do you perform “experiments” with student subjects and ensure that you get the right, objective, and interpretable controls/data while ensuring that everyone gets the same learning opportunity? (A similar dilemma to the one faced in clinical research where some people end up with placebo materials).Also, as a branching concern from this point is the fact that students are human beings, so they think, they feel, and they learn, which means that it is not possible to rerun your experiments over and over again and assume that they will produce independent data.

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?

This is why I think the problem centric design (Benson- P8) and reflective analysis (Benson-P1) as well as becoming fully aware of what others have already done (Benson-P4) are most relevant to the current stage of my project, though I see the importance of many of the other points as the project develops.

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

The second challenge I have is due to my status as a junior tenure track faculty who is coming up for reappointment in a liberal arts college that prides itself in setting high standards of excellence in both teaching and traditional research.Although I do agree that a lot of the ideas outlined in the articles we were assigned to read are and should be trivial for a true scholarly educator, in these past two years I have come to appreciate how varied actual philosophies and expectations about teaching could be even within the same institution. Probably this is why of all the reading assignments we had, the one that resonated most with me was Benson’s clear distinction between “excellence in teaching” and “scholarship of teaching”.Of course, I feel that the ultimate goal for scholarship of teaching should be to arrive at a point that combines it with excellence of teaching.However, I completely agree (and even now have my own personal experiences) with Benson’s statement that many scholarly attempts in teaching or educational research may fail, just like in any other areas of research and since as Bass nicely puts it we should be focusing on “defining and investigating educational problems rather than trying to fix them”, a negative result should be as valuable as a positive one.However, now I realize that such an approach is extremely risky for a junior faculty in an institution where the success or excellence in teaching is mainly (if not solely) determined by student evaluations administered just before the finals.

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

So what I hope to gain through this one year immersion is some wisdom as to how to construct worthwhile scholarly educational research projects in a way that would be true to the real nature of doing scholarly research (without the fear or threat of failure), but also get advice on how to best execute them so that as Bass nicely puts it :”the ongoing investigation of the problem rather than its terminal remediation” would be a beneficial exercise in student learning and curriculum development even when the outcomes negate the hypothesis.I would certainly welcome any suggestions and help from the group to achieve this goal and get started in developing specific research projects that would bring about concrete and testable outcomes.

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

For ASMCUE 2009, I plan to have at minimum a specific set of materials to assess the relative importance of the two factors (content knowledge and reasoning skill-set) in determining a productive learning experience for students taking interdisciplinary courses, as well as hopefully some preliminary data on a few initial trials conducted on the cohort of students I will be teaching over the 2008-2009 academic year.

7) What will you need to develop these products?

Assignment #3: Annotations

This assignment of searching for previous research in the SoTL field was an extremely interesting and an eye opening experience for someone like me, who is use to going to Pubmed on a daily basis and immediately finding almost an exact match to what I am looking for.Certainly this was not the case when I tried to search all the different sites suggested in our assignment starting with some of the keywords I had in mind for my research.After working my way around many very interesting but at best tangentially relevant material, I came to believe that there are three main reasons for this: 1. I am still in the process of defining exactly and clearly what my project is going to be about and learning the precise or appropriate jargon that go with it.2.It seems like in the SoTL field a lot of referencing to other work and their findings is very anecdotal, so it is extremely difficult to trace some ideas or data to primary sources or citations. 3.There really seems to be a lack of previous work in the specific area I am interested (which I am surprised at, but happy about at the same time) So most of the following annotated references, as well as many others I started collecting are articles that helped me redefine my project as:

The relative importance of discipline specific prior knowledge (specifically chemistry and biology) versus informal and/or formal logic skills for success (defined as demonstrating “critical thinking”) in an interdisciplinary field (specifically in the field of biochemistry).

1.Thompson Ross, A., Zamboanga Byron L., (2004) Academic Aptitude and Prior Knowledge as Predictors of Student Achievement in Introduction to Psychology. Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol. 96 No.4 778-784

This is the only article that comes relatively close to the type research I would like to carry out for my project.It describes the results of a study that aims to determine whether preexisting differences in the general ability or the aptitude of the students contribute (and if so to what degree) to the previously studied positive association of prior knowledge with course achievement. It starts out by discussing the impact of prior knowledge in new learning, both potentially assisting and hindering it and how it specifically affects psychology courses.The authors then pose the question if the facilitating effects of prior knowledge could perhaps be due to differences in general student ability or aptitude.To answer this question they used pretest scores to predict exam performance in regressions that included measures of student aptitude as well as course-related influences on student achievement (American College Test ACT- scores were used as a part of aptitude evaluation).

They also set out to investigate if prior knowledge could also be a source of misconception and erroneous ideas that can undermine accurate understanding.To assess this point they created a second pretest that assessed students’ endorsement or rejection of ideas from the popular culture related to topics in psychology.Their findings showed that measures of prior knowledge as indexed by the pretest of psychological knowledge is the most significant predictor of course achievement even with measures of academic aptitude (i.e. ACT scores) and course involvement controlled.However, they also found out that ACT scores were strongly related to exam performance underscoring the importance of preexisting differences in student aptitude or ability.

2.Newell William H. (1992) Academic Disciplines and Undergraduate

Interdisciplinary Education: lessons from the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University, Ohio.European Journal of Education, Vol. 27, No.3

This article discusses in a much broader sense (since it reflects on the complete Interdisciplinary Studies program at Miami University) the relevance and/or importance of disciplinary background in student learning in interdisciplinary courses as well as if interdisciplinary courses could adequately prepare students for advanced work in specific disciplines.It is an exploration of different issues posed by advocates and critics of interdisciplinary programs about the relationship between disciplines and interdisciplinary education and a summary of how they are resolved in practice within the context of an exemplary interdisciplinary program.It details out many specifics within the program such as the description of the program, student preparation, staff preparation, visibility and roles of disciplines within the courses, and disciplinary outcomes of the courses.It also discusses different approaches employed for the assessment of disciplinary skills gained through interdisciplinary courses.It concludes that interdisciplinary courses promote the same intellectual rigor as traditional disciplinary courses since it utilizes concepts, theories and methods from various disciplines with exactly the same rigor.However since it is more than the pieces of disciplines from which they are constructed, they extract the perspective embedded in each of those pieces to produce a broader, more holistic perspective.It argues that the interdisciplinary process is ideally suited for the promotion of “strong sense critical thinking” while disciplinary courses often promote “weak sense of critical thinking”. I found this article very valuable in clearly laying out and comparing skills expected and gained in disciplinary versus interdisciplinary courses in what seemed to be a relatively objective and pretty inclusive point of view.

3.Lauer Thomas (2005) Teaching Critical-Thinking Skills Using Course

Content Material: A Reversal of Roles.Journal of College Science Teaching, May/Jun 2005; 34, 6 p.34

This article describes the challenges of successfully implementing the teaching of content material using Bloom’s six hierarchical levels of intellectual growth in the classroom and demonstrates a successful strategy to achieve this goal when critically thinking pedagogy is used to teach content as well as teach students how to think critically.The author evaluated if higher-order critical-thinking skills could be taught in a classroom using course content material, by using the concept of critical thinking without specifically identifying or labeling it in class.He presented the concept in three phases: introduction, mastery, and evaluation and used everyday examples to demonstrate each phase.He also detailed very specifically an in practical terms how he structured his classes to guide students along the way and assess their progress.

Finally, he summarized and analyzed his findings to conclude that thinking at a higher level can be taught in the classroom using course content material and placing less emphasis on teaching factual knowledge and more on conceptual-thinking skills should be a high priority for science instructors since it would provide students lifelong skills, rather than short term gains in learned information. Although this study was not directly related to an investigation of the effect of prior state of students for success in developing conceptual-thinking skills, it provided extremely valuable insight of how one can go about achieving it in class specifically during a course and helped to clarify for me how to separate pre-course parameters I wanted to test for my project from the in-course parameters that will certainly impact the outcome, by identifying specific elements I would work on (and keep constant) during the course I would like to use to perform my studies on and helping me decide on how I define my “successful outcome”.

4.Paul Richard, Elder Linda (2007) White Paper: Consequential Validity:

Using Assessment to Drive Instruction. September 2007. PDF accessed


This article outlines “The Critical Thinking Community ”’s definition of critical thinking and describes what the students are expected to learn about critical thinking during the teaching of discipline based thinking to better devise instruction that match that particular end view.The authors describe the main goal of conceptualization of critical thinking as getting every student in every class at every moment “intellectually engaged”.Then they go on defining intellectual engagement and describe what is required to teach for intellectual engagement.Then they talk about the importance of using assessment as the guiding force in instruction and discuss what typical standardized “critical thinking” tests actually test.Finally they compare holistic vs. componential assessment and conclude that substantial work needs to be done to work towards finding assessment strategies that test student’s ability to make the connections between the logic of the discipline they are studying and what is important in life.This, they claim, will ensure that the students to become self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinkers. I also found this article very useful in terms of helping me define very clearly what I would like to use as my success target for my interdisciplinary biochemistry course(s) I want to include in my project and think about different criteria to evaluate student performance.

5.Hirsh E. Donald. Jr. (2003) Not So Grand a Strategy. Education Next,

Spring 2003, Vol.3, no. 2

I valued this article a lot because it outlined some valid concerns about introducing the “higher-order (thinking) skills” too early on in the education system without giving students enough opportunities to learn basic content first.The author argued using some very specific examples that to successful demonstration of higher order thinking skills is strongly dependent on competence in the curricular content through which the skill is taught and hence cannot be taught and exercised as an independent abstract and general concept.He talked about the importance of “activating the knowledge bank” and expanding the “working memory” through the availability of relevant, previously acquired knowledge.He claims that for practical purposes there are no such things as transferable higher skills of problem solving.Student’s ability to perform well in problem solving depends on having the relevant information in his working memory and describes the results of emphasizing teaching “higher-order skills” in the expense of curricular content has been damaging to those students who have not gained broad academic knowledge outside of school.I found this article useful and relevant to my research project because it provides specific examples and evidence that argues for the importance of discipline based prior knowledge (one of the parameters I would like to test) for success in higher order skills that I would like to use as a criteria for success in an interdisciplinary course.

6.Harper-Marinick Maria (2001) Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking. Mcli Forum Teaching, Learning, and Technology in the Maricopa Community Colleges, Fall 2001, Volume 2

This article is one of the articles included in the mcli Forum as a part of their learning and instruction initiatives and describes the need to go beyond mastering the content knowledge and be proficient in critical thinking to be successful in today’s world.While acknowledging the importance of relevant knowledge and previous experience in developing critical thinking and problem solving skills however, it emphasizes the need to incorporate facts and concepts into evaluative thinking.What I liked about this short article was the fact that it nicely bulleted assumptions about critical thinking from previous research, providing additional references to look into if needed and providing its own definition about critical thinking, again giving me an opportunity to think about how to define student achievement for my project.

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