Student Success in Integrative Introductory Biology

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Title of Abstract: Student Success in Integrative Introductory Biology

Name of Author: Michele Johnson
Author Company or Institution: Trinity University
Author Title: Assistant Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: module, inverted classroom, integrative biology, introductory biology, assessment

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Department of Biology at Trinity University has embraced the recommendations of the Vision and Change report. Extending on a curriculum initiative begun in the department in 2006, we revised our introductory course sequence from a more traditional set of three discipline-specific courses to a series of two integrative courses. The goal of this effort was to help students understand that biological phenomena are the result of the integration of processes at all levels of biological organization, from molecules to ecosystems. In line with Vision and Change, we attempt to teach the five core concepts in each of the four modules of our course series (described below), while explicitly working with students in the lecture courses (and the associated laboratories) to improve their performance in the six core competencies.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: We teach introductory-level content through modules focused on research-driven case studies, each of which embeds students in a narrative that spans multiple levels of biological organization. The modules we have implemented include The Evolution of Sex, Global Climate Change, The Evolution of Hemoglobin, The Biology of Aging, Stem Cells, Animal Communication, and the Natural History of Vitamin A. We are relatively flexible in determining which modules will be taught in a given semester, as the primary goal of the course sequence is to teach an integrative approach to the study of biology, and the particular content presented is secondary. Two modules are taught each semester, with each module presented by a single lecturer to two sections of 80-120 students. While many students are initially disconcerted by abandoning a lock-step march through a traditional textbook, we believe that presenting content to develop the narrative of a module is a pedagogical tool that emphasizes critical thinking. We frequently use inverted lectures in these courses, presenting lecture material before class (often via short videos), and then using a student response system (iclickers) to assess the students? understanding of this material at the beginning of the class period. If the students do not demonstrate a firm grasp of the pre-lecture material in this daily quiz, we then address any misconceptions before moving to new material. By using inverted lectures, we are able to focus less on the presentation of content in class, and spend more time on problem-solving and group activities during class time. The courses are also supported by a cadre of 4-5 upperclass Peer Tutors who assist with group activities during class and hold office hours outside of class.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: For the past two years, we have surveyed students in the first (fall semester) course to determine how our students' pre-course academic preparation is associated with their grades in the course. In this course, 75% are first year students, 40% are minorities, and 15% are first generation college students. We are aware that the demographics of our incoming students are changing, as each cohort is generally more diverse and less prepared for the rigors of college education than the previous one. We will thus continue to assess predictors of student success, working toward addressing the learning needs of each group of students. We also recognize the need to assess whether students who experience this two-semester integrative course sequence actually gain an appreciation and understanding of the integrative nature of biology. Because all students who take the introductory sequence experience the same courses, it is difficult to determine an appropriate control group to which our students could be compared. We are now exploring the use of longitudinal data on performance in upper division biology courses, and administering pre- and post-course questionnaires that would allow us to directly address whether the main goals of our courses are being met.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The Integrative Biology I and II courses have become watershed courses in our science curriculum at Trinity University. Students in our courses have self-reported a stronger grasp of the power of approaches that integrate across multiple biological fields. In our analysis of academic preparation and course grades over two years, we have found that students? plans to take future biology coursework and their post-graduation goals were not associated with grades. Year in college and college calculus experience were predictive of grades in only one year, and college chemistry and high school math experience were predictive of grades in both years. Students who passed the AP Biology exam (these students are not exempted from our introductory biology curriculum) had higher course grades than those who did not take AP Biology and those who took but did not pass the exam, although the ranges of final course grades across these three groups are almost completely overlapping.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The most substantial challenge we have faced is the revision of the introductory Chemistry curriculum. Science-oriented students now take a placement test in the fall and either place into an accelerated general chemistry course offered only in the fall, or a slower-paced general chemistry course offered only in the spring. This results in our introductory biology students having dramatically varied experiences in chemistry. We have had to adjust our teaching of biology content to assume that our students have no chemistry experience, which has added additional background content to our curriculum.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Individual faculty members from the department have presented descriptions of this new curriculum at meetings of disciplinary professional societies, but we have not yet published this work in the science education literature.

Acknowledgements: The Department of Biology at Trinity University (James Shinkle, Jonathan King, Kevin Livingstone, Troy Murphy, Mark Brodl, David Ribble, Kelly Lyons, Frank Healy, Bob Blystone, and Gabriela Rennebeck) contributed to the development of this curriculum.