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2a. Mapping students' collaborative learning online: Context, problem

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This project aligns science teaching and learning to the scientific research method using an approach that enhances student engagement and aligns desired learning outcomes with professional practice.  My goal was to shift the assessment-driven motivation of students toward intrinsic motivation through collaborative inquiry, and encourage them to reflect on their own learning as they integrate theory with practice. The approach centers on the creation of learning communities structured to facilitate students’ metacognitive awareness of both individual and collaborative learning processes. The integration of reflection, analysis and critique of process (as opposed to outcome) into a research-based e-poster project enhances student learning by reinforcing the iterative process of the scientific method. The strategic structure of the online and face-to-face components of the collaborative inquiry process acknowledges and builds upon the disciplinary, cultural, and social diversity of the class.


The context and setting

The second year undergraduate course, Fundamentals in Microbiology & Immunology (MICR2201) has a large enrolment of 280 students.The students represent a diverse range of backgrounds, including majors in Microbiology, Medical Microbiology and Immunology, Molecular Biology, Food Science and Nutrition, Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Bioinformatics, Biochemistry, Genetics, and Marine Science.  The course forms a cornerstone of the foundational theoretical and practical training for many life science majors at the University of New South Wales, and it is a prerequisite for many higher level courses in the life sciences.The course is comprised of 2 x 1 h lectures, 1 x 1 h recitation, and a 1 x 3 h laboratory per week.The recitations (10 - 15 students) and laboratory practicals are taught by experienced graduate TAs, many of whom have taken this course in the past.Each group of students remains with the same TA for the tutorials and labs.  


Integration of theory and practice

Significant changes have been implemented in the course curriculum since 2003 to facilitate conceptual understanding and deep learning.This includes the creation of a WebCT component that reinforces foundational understanding, and facilitates laboratory investigations by linking theory to practice.  As this is the first exposure to the microbiology laboratory for most students, basic microbiological skills are progressively taught in synchrony with the fundamental concepts of the lectures.A significant portion of the formative assessment includes an individual research project conducted in parallel with the basic laboratory component.The aim of the students’ research project is to isolate and identify a single bacterial genus (fondly referred to as their “bug”) from an environmental sample through the practical application of students’ conceptual understanding of bacterial metabolism, morphology and physiology.  The application of their theoretical understanding is central to the development of their rationale for determining experimental process at each stage of their research project, and the interpretation of these processes. The formative assessment for the research project has, in years past, followed a traditional approach that included a formal scientific paper for the bug research project, lab quizzes, and evaluation of laboratory notebooks. 



Fostering collaborative learning communities

A hallmark of scientific research is the collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of research inherent to the process.Emphasis on the process of inquiry engages students in an authentic learning experience.  While I was aware of the challenges in fostering authentic inquiry through group work in a large class setting, my goal was to develop a truly collaborative learning experience in the context of the bacterial isolation project.  I developed a framework for collaborative learning within a large class that integrated reflection, evaluation and critique of both scientific process and learning experience within the assessment.The framework was strategically designed to provide relevance and application, key criteria for authentic learning experiences (Chinn & Malhotra, 2002; Herrington & Herrington, 1998; Kolb, 1984; Meyer, 1992).In so doing, my goal was to achieve constructive alignment between the goal (to make “scientific thinking visible”) and learning outcomes within the context of a team inquiry project.


The traditional model that is used to teach the scientific method invariably follows a linear approach:




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