Published: June 29, 2012

One of (but certainly not the only) interesting aspect of the Fall 2011 Teaching with Technology group was to see the various ways in which faculty approach teaching, the assessment of student learning (that is, the effectiveness of their teaching), and their various concerns and aspirations. Even though (I thought) I had thought a lot about this topic, I quickly realized that there were many tools, techniques, and overall approaches that I had not given serious consideration (if I had considered them at all). Here I will outline my own approaches and the plans I have to incorporate newly learned strategies into the design and delivery of the courses I will be teaching during 2012.

Making Biofundamentals more “deeply digital”: Over the decades I have been teaching, one of the issues that has always troubled me is the fact that students rarely read the assigned materials prior to class. This situation was not helped by the fact that the textbooks available for the topics I was called upon to teach rarely seemed (at least to me) to approached those topics in a logical and cogent manner. A particular example involves MCDB 1150 - Introduction to Molecular Biology. Its structure seemed “upside-down” to me, essentially ignoring an evolutionary perspective and mechanisms, and often introducing irrelevant facts, rather than concentrating on key ideas, and then applying those ideas to various scenarios. Since an understanding of evolutionary mechanisms (a difficult topic in its own right) seems essential to making sense of the structure and behavior of biological systems [1], the almost complete absence of evolutionary biology in MCDB 1150 was a serious concern (particularly since evolutionary mechanisms are not explicitly addressed anywhere else in the current MCDB curriculum). At the same time, I found myself deeply dissatisfied by the laboratory courses associated with the three introductory MCDB courses; in part because of their lack of justification in terms of learning outcomes and because they consumed resources that might be better used for more intensive upper division lab courses.

It was in this light that during a sabbatical year, I decided to address some of these issues by developing virtual labs (which I will not discuss further here) and a new Introductory course. This course (MCDB 1111: Biofundamentals) was approved as a replacement for the standard lecture/lab sequence. 

What was clear, however, was that it was no easier to get students to read the Biofundamentals materials before class than it was for a traditional textbook - students simply did not expect to have to read the materials before class, didn’t, and I did not have the energy or disposition to set up mechanisms to attempt to insure that they did the reading, e.g. reading quizzes, primarily because I knew I would not be able to respond to such quizzes in a timely manner. I adapted to non-reading.

As I was preparing to teach Biofundamentals again, now as a section of MCDB 1150, two factors led me to rethink how the course should be taught. The first was the experience of developing a new introductory chemistry curriculum with Melanie Cooper (Clemson University), Chemistry, LIfe, the Universe, and Everything, and the second was learning about new web-based approaches to driving student interactions with text. Two approaches appeared to be the most promising, nota bene developed at MIT and focussed on interactions with pdfs and, which initially worked with HTML pages, and has recently extended to pdfs through its HTML5 reader1. The Highlighter system (which is still very much in a beta-form) allows an instructor to divide a class into groups; students can comment on, and respond to the comments from other students. Comments are visible to both students and the instructor. The system has (at least in theory) the possibility of compelling students not only to read, but to engage with the text and each other students prior to class.

To further encourage engagement, the Biofundamentals materials have embedded within them “Questions to Answer” and “Questions to Ponder”, which each group needs to be sure it has answered before coming to class. Since I received email notification of each comment and response, I could quite easily get an impression of what concepts the students were having difficulty with, and which were deeply misunderstood. This enabled me to focus in-class discussion on the harder ideas.

Analysis of student interactions with the text and each other is something simply not possible with traditional texts, and offers the very real option of evolving the text over time, to more explicitly engage students. My current plan is to review these comments as part of editing the Biofundamentals website this summer.

Adding resources to Biofundamentals through web-casts. One idea that particularly attracted my attention was the use of webcasts to capture short presentations, which students could then review at their leisure. I am currently planning to make some of these for the next version of Biofundamentals, and plan to compare Camtasia and the web-based Screencast-o-matic ( in terms of ease of use and effectiveness.

This semester (Spring 2012), I am teaching MCDB 4811/5811 Teaching and Learning Biology (which serves as an elective in MCDB and a requirement for the CU Teach science and mathematics teacher certification program). After a very interesting conversation with Lorrie Shepard, Dean of the School of Education, on using teaching as a means to assess student understanding, I am planning to have students use Screencast-o-matic to develop 10 to 15 minute webcasts of specific "key concept" lessons. We will then analyze these lessons in class in order to better understand how various topics might best be approached (and as a way of revealing the presenters’ own understanding of those topics).

Adding formative (BeSocratic) assessments to Biofundamentals. Working with Melanie Cooper, Sam Bryfczynski, and Josiah Hester at Clemson University, we have developed a novel web/tablet-based graphics-centered formative assessment system, BeSocratic ( The system allows instructors to develop activities in which students respond to questions graphically (and textually). For example, students can be asked to graph the behavior of a gene network [2], the progression of an epidemic, the distribution of kinetic energies in a system, or the potential energy between atoms or molecules. Rules can be set, and linked to specific feed-back prompts, in the form of questions (e.g. What were you assuming when drawing your graph). The system is flexible, in addition to graphs, students can work with molecules and various types of drawings and schematics to illustrate their ideas. In addition, the system captures all of the students’ inputs which allows for post-instructional analyzes to determine how well various activities worked, in the context of students assumptions.

When teaching Biofundamentals last semester, I introduced a number of graphics-based assignments, through which students could be asked to reveal, and then reflect upon their assumptions (and their implications). This Socratic (metacognitive) approach revealed some interesting student assumptions which I would never have appreciated. As an example, it became clear that many students assumed that when a transcription factor bound to the regulatory region of a gene, it was “used up”. One of my goals during the spring and summer is to generate and test a number of BeSocratic activities that address key ideas associated with Biofundamentals. This is part of a larger NSF-funded project to develop and test beSocratic activities in chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics. In particular, I am collaborating with Eric Stade (Mathematics) to develop beSocratic activities for MATH 1310: Calculus, Stochastics and Modeling, a course that we hope will eventually replace Math 1300: Calculus I, for most chemistry and biology students.

Designing an assessment for the efficacy of the Biofundamentals course. While including technological innovations into one’s teaching may well be valuable, this is certainly not a given. Assuming that the goal of courses and instruction is student learning, the process of evaluating the value of technological innovations must be whether they help students learn more and better. This, of course, requires that we specify what we expect students to learn, and what we expect them to be able to do with that new understanding. Assessing student learning (and course and curricular effectiveness) is certainly not easy. There is no University requirement that courses (or perhaps more surprisingly, the overall curriculum) specify their learning goals in a way that makes independent, objective assessment possible (I take it as a given that the instructor is not in a position to provide some objective assessment, since they are (hopefully) emotionally engaged in the course).

In the context of Biofundamentals, there are some factors that favor at least a comparative evaluation of course effectiveness. As currently presented, Biofundamentals is a distinct version of the introductory course in MCDB (MCDB 1150). All MCDB students currently have to take the associated laboratory course (MCDB 1151), no matter which flavor of the “lecture” course they take. By working with the instructors of the other sections of MCDB 1150, my intention is to develop a common assessment that can be administered in the laboratory course. The style of the assessment will be questions requiring short essay responses; these will be evaluated using a rubric, described in Henson et al [3] in which correct, incorrect, and irrelevant responses are tallied, so as to provide a clearer picture of student thinking.

Literature cited:
1. Dobzhansky, T., Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. Amer. Bio. Teach, 1973. 35: p. 125-129,.
2. Trujillo, C., M.M. Cooper, and M.W. Klymkowsky, Graph-based assessments, Socratic tutorials & students' thinking about molecular networks. BAMBED, 2012. in press.
3. Henson, K., M.M. Cooper, and M.W. Klymkowsky, Turning randomness into meaning at the molecular level using Muller’s morphs. Biology Open, 2012. in press.