Collaboration and Reform at the University of Tennessee

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Title of Abstract: Collaboration and Reform at the University of Tennessee

Name of Author: Elisabeth Schussler
Author Company or Institution: University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Author Title: Assistant Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Cell Biology, Ecology and Environmental Biology, Evolutionary Biology
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: GTA professional development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: process of science, discussion sections, conceptual assessments, class observations, GTA professional development

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Anna Jo Auerbach, University of Tennessee

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: In spring 2010, the University of Tennessee – Knoxville’s Division of Biology embarked on a process to transform their core curriculum for biology majors to focus more explicitly on the process of science. A Task Force of faculty from three Biology Departments, led by the first author of this abstract and with the support of the three Department Heads, convened to consider how to integrate the principles set forth in Vision and Change into the curriculum. That process resulted in a plan to re-structure the first year biology majors’ sequence at UT, which was almost unanimously approved by the faculty of all three departments after a careful process of vetting ideas, gathering feedback, and modifying the plan over a period of two years. For UT, collaboration and compromise ultimately led to a consensus, but we relied heavily on Vision and Change to justify and direct our efforts.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The Division is now moving forward with a plan to integrate the Vision and Change concepts and competencies and active learning into a revised two semester cellular-organismal sequence, to integrate small group discussion sections into the courses, and re-focus the labs on the process of science. These changes are being monitored by the instructors of the courses, who are meeting regularly this year and next to create implementation strategies. Several instructors are piloting the changes this academic year, a process leading to the refinement of the learning outcomes and design of class assignments and activities that help students reach those outcomes. All classes will use these concepts, competencies, and associated activities in the 2013-2014 academic year. Planning will soon begin for the larger change in course structure: adding the discussion sections and creating the independent lab (lab activities were transformed from cookbook to inquiry-based experiences based on research being done at UT in 2011-2012). These changes will occur in the 2014-2015 school year; we will soon incorporate graduate students into the planning meetings to foster ideas that align with their perspectives as teachers of those sections.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Student understanding of the five conceptual learning outcomes are being monitored by the creation and implementation of on-line short answer questions that ask students to explain a cellular / molecular aspect of each of the five concepts, and an organismal / ecological aspect of each of the five concepts. These questions have been tested over the last year and appear to be reliably assessed via a 3 point scoring rubric. Competency outcomes are currently being assessed in the laboratory by student self-reports, but will soon be joined by common questions on the laboratory final exam. We are also monitoring student responses of the ‘most important thing’ they learned in the courses to see whether piloting sections differ from non-piloting sections in documentable ways. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have begun to document the process of change at the level of the faculty and course. We started class observations last fall and plan to monitor changes in individual faculty members’ courses over the transition from the old to the new curriculum. Observations are recording measures such as the number of questions asked by faculty and students, number of clicker questions, student discussion, and time spent on lecture. Faculty are also volunteering to be interviewed each semester, and are providing course materials for analysis. We are encouraging open discussion of the findings of these observations among the faculty as a mechanism for reform.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The changes to the curriculum in the Division have been used at the institutional level as an exemplar of curricular transformation, and the first author of this abstract won a college-wide teaching award for these efforts. The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences seems particularly interested in these changes, and asked the first author to participate in an active learning training session presented at the Department Head’s retreat in August. A recent meeting among the faculty who teach the non-biology majors’ courses resulted in them adopting the majors’ courses conceptual outcomes as their overall course themes as well, and the Vision and Change concepts and competencies have also been adopted as the learning outcomes for the entire Division for the purposes of SACS assessment. The changes to courses taught primarily by graduate students also inspired the submission of an NSF research coordination network incubator to focus on developing instructional skills for GTAs teaching reformed courses. This proposal (BioTAP) was funded and will inspire UT - and we hope other institutions - to consider how professional development can be provided to both faculty and GTAs to best foster introductory curriculum reform efforts.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Sharing of course materials has been an unexpected challenge. Everyone who teaches the introductory courses expressed a desire to share materials such as powerpoints and assignments and clicker questions, but finding a virtual location to gather those materials and then actually getting the materials placed into that location has been difficult. We have now assigned one person to be the point person to collect the materials, and will be sending them to physically meet with faculty in their offices with a memory stick to transfer materials. Another challenge has been fear of trying new things in the classroom. As we seek to integrate active learning into classrooms, we are finding that faculty need very specific models of strategies they can use. We think this is because many faculty who have not tried active learning have a fear of trying something and 'failing', so they are reluctant to create their own materials. We have been sharing existing assignments and active learning activities with each other and encouraging faculty to use them or modify them for their own classes. We are also encouraging more cross-visitation of classrooms to see the materials in action. Finally, we are also meeting some resistance about reducing course content, but this was not unexpected.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have not reached the dissemination phase of our curriculum reform process, but plan to disseminate our evaluation strategies and report on the evolution of the course changes over time, as well as faculty reaction and thoughts about the changes. For the GTA professional development project we have just begun (BioTAP), we have a website ( which reports on the first meeting of the Steering Committee, and are gathering the names of faculty who want to join the network.

Acknowledgements: The faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates of the Division of Biology at the University of Tennessee. The National Science Foundation for a TUES grant (DUE-1245215) in support of the introductory biology curriculum reform and an RCN-UBE Incubator (DBI-1247938) in support of building a network for GTA professional development.