Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
The target course is EBIO4800/5800 CT “DNA, Development, Diversity” a critical thinking class focused on reading and discussing primary literature in the field of Evolutionary Developmental Biology.
Target of improvement/evidence:
I wanted to find better ways to get students to the point where they could not only understand the primary literature, but critique it and begin to propose avenues for further research. The students taking the class have a very mixed background, some have never take an evolution class, or genetics/molecular biology. None have ever taken a developmental biology course. I wanted to better gauge what background I needed to cover and also how to bring the students to the point where they feel comfortable being critical and synthetic without a perfect knowledge of the techniques and background.
What did you do?: (
Pedagogically, I tried a variation on the clearest/muddiest minute papers. All my students did a presentation/discussion for most of a class period. After the presentation, the audience would write down clearest/muddiest points and submit them to the speaker who would take them home, read them and write a self-evaluation based on them. Then they would give a quick recap at the beginning of the following class period to fill in the gaps. The students loved this.
For assessment, I had the students do a one-page response for the writing for every class period. At the beginning of the semester I described how I would like to see their writing progress (basically Bloom’s Taxonomy) and the graded accordingly as the term progressed. The first level was a book-report level understanding of the primary literature they were reading. The second level was critique of the literature (pointing out holes in the experimental design, what conclusions were poorly supported). The third level was experimental thinking, (what further experiments would address the critiques/holes in the literature). Being explicit about where I wanted them to end up in their writing was very helpful for the students as far as knowing what to try and improve, and for myself as far as grading. I am currently analyzing the responses to quantitate how the proportions of these three kinds of responses changed over the term for a representative set of students.
I also gave the students a day-one questionnaire and a mid-term questionnaire. On the mid-term questionnaire I asked the students if they thought the class had the right balance of background v. discussion. On both the day-one and midterm questionnaires I asked the same question regarding how so much biological diversity is achieved with such a small number of genes. The answer to this is a threshold concept in Developmental Biology, the concept of combinatorial gene expression. They need to understand this to be able to understand the literature at its most basic level and then move beyond to critique and synthesis.
What difference did it make?
The last time I taught this class I did not use the same assessment criteria, thus it is hard to judge if the class moved further toward “experimental/synthetic” thinking faster than they would have without my changes. My impression is that they did do this much more quickly and frequently than last spring.
During the course of the term, I could definitely see the students becoming more comfortable with critiquing the papers and proposing avenues for further study. This is quantifiable as the proportion of their daily one-page assignments they allocated to asking new questions or proposing further experiments (see below). The students also nicely shifted from a little more than half understanding the gene expression threshold concept to 100% understanding of this concept mid-term. This makes sense, as I would not expect the students to be able to move toward critique/synthesis (as they almost all did) without grasping the threshold concept first.
Table 1. Lines of writing on daily one-page assignments allocated to “experimental/synthetic” comments at three time points during the term. Each “series” corresponds to an individual student.
How did the classroom assessment (feedback gathering) help you make adjustments mid-course?:
I made one main change mid-course in response to my mid-term survey that was to increase the amount and frequency of short background lectures. The students appreciated this, and again this change correlated with an increase in their experimental/synthetic writing, however I am not sure if there was a causal relationship.
What did you learn?
I learned the value of transparency. The students seemed to respond nicely to clear pedagogical goals. They were also always willing to give great feedback when asked. I think this had a very positive impact on their trajectory in the class. I also learned to better formalize my evaluation of their written responses .
Sharing with colleagues?
I have already discussed (informally) my implementations and results to faculty teaching similar courses in our department. We don’t have a formal venue for such communication, though it would be useful to establish some forum for EBIO4800/5800 CT faculty to discuss strategies for teaching at this level.
What did you learn from colleagues in the context of this Forum?
Several gems. 1) The minute paper (clearest/muddiest version), 2) the midterm survery 3) the threshold concept evaluation. A new technique I am excited to try next term is handing out examples of essays with various proportions of book-report/critical/experimental responses. I think this kind of modeling will further help move the students toward critique and experimental writing.