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Teaching Responsibilities:

My teaching "load" varies a bit from semester to semester, but tends to focus on one-three lecture sections of General Biology I, which is a majors class (though often populated by mostly non-majors) that focusses on an introduction to cell and molecular biology. To balance things out (aka, fill up my work load), I've also been teaching from one to four sections of the lab for this class. Lectures are capped at 72 students, labs at 24.

In the Spring of 2012, I had the pleasure of teaching a graduate class on teaching to new graduate teaching assistants. That was a lot of fun.

I also occasionally (once in 4 years) teach an introduction to electron microscopy class. We don't tend to get a lot of students interested or capable of taking this class.

Research Focus:

I can still remember that first day of Introductory Biology class as a brand-new undergraduate student when the professor said to the class, “look to your left, look to your right, one of you will fail.” Whether his warning was based on statistics or on his own experience, it’s something that has become part of the common understanding of introductory science classes at the national and quite possibly at the international level; many students do not successfully navigate introductory or gateway science classes. These students then either turn away from the sciences or are forced to repeat the class until they succeed. Either of those options can have some serious consequences especially as budget cuts nationwide limit the hiring of faculty to accommodate extra course sections.

A recent review of the literature on this topic showed that my college professor’s estimated failure rate of 33% in an introductory biology class geared for majors may actually have been low. Failure rates (#s of Ds or Fs)  for introductory biology, chemistry, physics and computer science classes reportedly ranged from approximately 30% to 56% (Freeman et al. 2011), with the highest number associated with an introductory biology class designed for biology majors. Interestingly enough, the high numbers for the introductory biology course did reflect another measure that we in academia have become accustomed to keeping track of; the number of students who withdrew from the class prior to the assignment of grades.

The main focus of the research that I have begun to undertake and that I plan to continue revolves around finding some answers as to what is going on in the undergraduate introductory biology classroom and what we can do to bolster our students’ success without sacrificing rigor or the breadth of material that we need to cover in these challenging classes.  As part of this work, I am developing an assessment tool to determine what students know coming into my classroom compared to what they know when they leave. One of the things that this will allow me to do is measure gains within a classroom that may not be adequately reflected by just keeping track of DWF rates. Some of the preliminary data from this work have been a bit shocking. For instance, preliminary data from last semester indicate that more than 40% of the students in one of my classes did not know that human females have two X chromosomes. This is an idea that we would have most certainly expected a high school graduate to understand when coming to college and therefore not something on which I dwell when teaching the unit on genetics. By the end of the semester, over 85% of these same students answered this question correctly. An assessment tool like this can help us answer questions like, “Is it the students?” or more pointedly, “are they coming into college with an understanding of the concepts we expect them?”.

Assessing what students know prior to instruction in introductory biology can be used in many different ways. First, and maybe most obviously, if the results of the pre-instruction assessment are examined at the beginning of the semester, it allows the instructor to spend more time during the semester on the concepts about which the students have the least understanding and less time on concepts a majority have mastered. Second, as indicated above, it allows the instructor to demonstrate a gain in understanding in students who may have come to college woefully underprepared. A semester of instruction may very well have impressive positive gains in student understanding, but those gains may not be apparent in the DWF rate of the class. For instance, if the class scores a 26% on the pre-instruction assessment and then a 65% on the post-instruction assessment, we would say that the students’ understanding of the material has improved markedly. However, the DWF rate may remain unchanged because a 65% is still a D. An assessment tool like this one gives us a better understanding of what the students really are learning and also what misconceptions they continue to hold after a semester of instruction.

A third use of this assessment tool, and one on which my research will focus, allows the instructor to compare different approaches to teaching and learning to gauge what pedagogical approaches may be more effective in promoting learning in our particular classrooms. Recent studies in biology education have indicated that a more active, learner-centered approach improves student success in large introductory biology classes (for example Crossgrove & Curran, 2008; Freeman et al. 2007, 2011). Other studies show that active learning in the introductory biology classroom is not associated with increased student success (Andrews et al. 2011). The idea that small group work fosters better student understanding and retention of material is so pervasive that it’s incorporated into books targeted to first year faculty and teaching assistants (Lang, 2010). However, a new study indicates that small group work actually lowers individual’s performance, especially in people with lower social status (Kishida et al. 2012). What do these conflicting studies tell us and does it apply to our students at our University?  As Dr. Scott Freeman said at the conclusion of the first annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research in the summer of 2011, “show me the data.” In order to sort out what approaches work well with our students, we need to use assessment tools like the one I’m developing to compare gains in student understanding with these different pedagogical approaches.

The research project that I have begun at Frostburg State involves developing not only an assessment tool to measure student understanding pre- and post-instruction, but also constructing pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning that differ from classroom to classroom to allow comparison of the efficacy of these approaches. The over-arching goal is to pursue evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based teaching is not based on the latest trends in education, but on what can be shown to work with our students. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to teach three sections of introductory/general biology in the Fall of 2011, in which I began to compare three different approaches to teaching and learning: a section with traditional lecture and a low level of student-centered activity; a section with traditional lecture augmented with more structured student-centered, but not group-centered activity; and a section with far less lecture and more student-centered group activity such as work with case-studies and problem sets in class.  Students were given the pre-instruction assessment at the beginning of the semester and the same assessment post-instruction at the end of the semester. In addition, students in the upper level Cell Biology class were given the same assessment pre-instruction to begin to collect data on how well students are retaining what they learned in my general biology class which focuses on an introduction to cell and molecular biology. I’ve just begun to collect and analyze the data from that first semester and hope to be able to try the same set up again in the Fall of 2012, having learned quite a bit about the semantics of carrying out the study during the first run.

References:

Andrews T.M., Leonard M.J., Colgrove C.A. and S.T. Kalinowski. (2011). Active learning not associated with student learning in a random sample of college biology courses. CBE-Life Sci Educ. 10: 394-405.

Crossgrove, K. and K. Curran. (2008). Using clickers in nonmajors- and majors-level biology courses: student opinion, learning and long-term retention of course material. CBE-Life Sci Educ. 7: 146-154.

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

Freeman S., Haak D., and M.P. Wenderoth. (2011). Increased course structure improves performance in Introductory Biology. CBE- Life Sci. Educ. 10: 175-186.

Kishida K.T., Yang D., Hunter Quartz K., Quartz S.R. and P.R. Montague. (2012). Implicit signals in small group settings and their impact on the expression of cognitive capacity and associated brain responses. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 367: 704-716.

Lang J.M. (2008). On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Professional Development Goals: (what does one write for this one?)

I am a scientist and an educator and therefore seek experiences which help me to continue to do both those things better. In truth, professional development can be as large as attending a national or international meeting or as small as continuing to keep up with the current literature in one’s scientific field and/or in the teaching and learning of science and actively reflecting on how those advances impact one’s own “practice”. Because of this, professional development is a constant process, not something that we do in the summer when we can fit in time and travel for a conference.

The most fruitful and form of formal professional development that I have ever experienced came in the form of national and international meetings such as the Society for Advancement of Biology Education Research meeting that I attended in the summer of 2011. Experiences like this one inspire me in my research and teaching and give me the tools and network to continue to develop my career in this trajectory. It is my hope that the ASM Biology Scholars Program will be an even greater forum for this development.

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