Evolution across the Biology Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse

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Title of Abstract: Evolution across the Biology Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse

Name of Author: Kathryn Perez
Author Company or Institution: University of Wisconsin at La Crosse
Author Title: Assistant Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum
Approaches: Adding to the literature on how people learn, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: assessment, concept inventories, student-centered learning, learning modules

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Mike Abler, University of Wisconsin La Crosse Anita Baines, University of Wisconsin La Crosse Lee Baines, University of Wisconsin La Crosse Gretchen A. Gerrish, University of Wisconsin La Crosse Tisha King Heiden, University of Wisconsin La Crosse Anton Sanderfoot, University of Wisconsin La Crosse

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Evolution is the unifying theme of biology. In response to the call for integrated evolution education in the Vision and Change document we sought to implement a concerted effort towards teaching evolutionary content across biology department’s core (required) curriculum. The members of the biology department at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse (UWL) unanimously agreed that evolution should be a centralized theme across our biology curriculum. In 2011, a committee composed of individuals who teach in each core class in the biology department (the authors of this abstract) administered a survey to faculty and staff intended to determine in which classes critical evolutionary concepts were covered in our curriculum. This survey identified key evolutionary topics that receive little or no attention in our required curriculum (e.g., evo-devo, molecular evolution). Furthermore, evolutionary content was more apparent in introductory level courses, with limited reinforcement in advanced courses. In that same year, we also assessed our graduating seniors with a battery of assessment questions. This summative assessment of our curriculum revealed that our students fail to retain some key evolutionary concepts and retain some common evolution misconceptions.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: To address this challenge, we set out to transform our coverage of evolution content. Our goal is to integrate evolutionary content in a systematic way across our core courses. This will emphasize the foundational nature of evolution to the study of biology and ensure that all biology majors are taught the key concepts in evolutionary biology. To ensure we were pursuing Vision & Change teaching method goals as well as content goals, the effort began with a workshop to ensure we were all trained in the development of student-centered content and valid assessments as well as common student misconceptions of evolution. At this same time, we developed evolution-learning objectives for each content module, class, and the entire biology curriculum. Using these learning objectives as our guide, we developed content modules for each core class (3-4 per class for 9 core classes) while meeting every two weeks to receive feedback and suggestions from the other members of the committee. Each module was designed to follow a student-centered learning cycle by beginning with student exploration followed by instructor content presentation and finally requiring the students to interact with data that reinforced the concepts and with each other via peer discussions.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Our first test of these modules was carried out in the Fall semester 2012. In each core biology class, half the lecture sections were assigned to an experimental group that were taught the new evolution content modules, and half the sections provided control groups that received our typical instruction. To assess the efficacy of these new evolution modules in each class, we developed pre and post assessments, composed of isomorphic multiple-choice items, which targeted the learning objectives of that class. These were administered to both control and experimental groups so that we obtained pre/post as well as experimental/control data. A portion of the assessment given to the students in introductory biology included questions identical to those given to the graduating seniors, to allow a ‘pre/post’ assessment of the entire biology curriculum. All the assessments contained a mix of items from pre-existing evolution concept inventories and new questions written by the committee if concept inventories did not exist for the targeted concept. These studies were all approved by the UWL IRB and informed consent was obtained from all participating students.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: We have observed several unanticipated benefits of this effort. Over the course of this entire project, we have worked towards the education of our fellow faculty on evolution content by developing an evolution glossary so we are all using terms similarly and by constant discussion of the new content modules. The result is that most biology faculty have been incorporating additional evolution content in their courses. This could be the result of increased awareness of evolution teaching and their increased knowledge about these ideas. In this way, evolution content is moving beyond the core classes into all the courses offered by the biology department. The integration of evolution content across the core classes has engaged the biology faculty in discussions about how to assess learning across the curriculum, what core student gains are essential, and has reinvigorated the debate of breadth vs. depth in curriculum planning. There is also heightened awareness among department members of the use of student-centered teaching materials and techniques. This effort has spawned additional departmental efforts to integrate other Vision and Change content objectives across the core classes, such as quantitative and reasoning skills. In these ways and others, we are seeking to improve the quality of biology education at our institution.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Following the initial testing semester, analysis of these modules in the core classes revealed mixed results. Some modules performed as desired and resulted in significant student learning gains both in the post compared to pre assessment and in the experimental group when compared to the control. These modules have been made available to the faculty who teach each core class for incorporation into their classes. A few modules did not perform as desired and were redesigned before undergoing another trial semester (Spring 2013). At this time, we also examined the new assessment items we had developed, as some of these had not been previously tested. We examined each item for difficulty and discrimination as well as the percentage of students choosing each distractor. Several of these assessment items also required revision. The final trial of these assessment items is also underway. Following these final performance tests, successful modules and assessments will be distributed to the faculty of the department. Pre/post curriculum testing will continue on a smaller number (~100) of students in introductory biology and graduating seniors for the next 4-5 years to gather data on the effect of an integrated approach to teaching evolution on several cohorts of students.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The project will be presented as an example of integrated assessment to the UWL College of Science and Allied Health at the Fall meeting of the college. We will present our results at the UWL and UW System teaching and learning conferences. In addition the results will be presented at the Society for Biology Education Research and Evolution meetings.

Acknowledgements: The project was funded by a UW System Curriculum Improvement Grant. We used some materials from the Michigan State University Evo-Ed project. Some assessments used materials in press by the EvoCI Toolkit Working group funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. The entire UWL Biology department, particularly the department chair, David Howard, has been very supportive of this process.