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Reading Reflections

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Emily (my research residency teammate) and I team-teach a biochemistry course that has ~400 undergraduates each year with diverse academic backgrounds and interests. During the past two years we have started to ask questions about the effectiveness of the teaching and learning that are similar to the type of questions described in the article by Randy Bass.  Our problem is the lack of a method to analyze how well students in our course are learning the material. We can compare exam scores, but because the exams and students are different every year, this is not an accurate or particularly meaningful measurement. It also does not allow us to easily evaluate mastery of specific topics.  As described in the Classroom Action Research article, we have realized that while our personal reflections are valuable, they are not quantitative enough to measure student learning or sufficiently document our findings to communicate with others.   

Our approach to address the problem is to develop a set of questions (based on the course learning goals) to use as a pre/post test to measure student learning during the course. One we have a validated tool to measure student learning, then we can start to answer the more specific questions about individual topics or teaching approaches. First, we want to identify how well our students learn different topics and identify which topics need improvement.  Therefore, our question and approach definitely fall into the “what is” category.  The test results will show what concepts students learn well and what concepts are most difficult. We also hope to carefully design the questions so that wrong answers will reveal something how students are thinking about a topic that will allow us to address these misconceptions or misunderstandings in the future. 

Second, we want to use the pre/post test to compare student learning between semesters as we make changes to the course and implement more best teaching practices. We recognize that we need to inform our educational design by evaluating the influence of particular teaching methods on our specific group of students as mentioned in the article about Classroom Action Research.  This part of the project would be considered a “what works” question.  We will use the pre/post test results over multiple semesters to determine which teaching techniques work best for the majority of our students.   

            As a trained research scientist, I know one of my challenges with the scholarship of teaching and learning is the fact that classroom experiments often can’t be designed, executed, and analyzed in the same rigorous way as in the lab.  Therefore, I was very interested in the description of Classroom Action Research as a middle ground between informal personal reflection and formal traditional education research.  I appreciated the discussion of using multiple sources of data to increase validity and focusing on the practical (rather than statistical) significance.  

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