Transforming Rutgers: Large (n>2100) General Biology Course

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Title of Abstract: Transforming Rutgers: Large (n>2100) General Biology Course

Name of Author: Gregg Transue
Author Company or Institution: Rutgers University - Piscataway/New Brunswick
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.), Changes in student laboratory approach, Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: General Biology workshops SOLO taxonomy scientific process student-centered

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: With the support of an NSF grant, Rutgers University (RU) and Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) collaborated on transforming their 2-semester General Biology (GB) courses. The recommendations of the 2011 Vision and Change (V&C) report were central to the design of a new curriculum that provides students with new laboratory opportunities and a Workshop. In particular, the new curriculum addresses the following V&C action items: (#1) the integration of Core Concepts and Competencies throughout the curriculum and (#2) provision of Student-Centered Learning opportunities. The scientific process, the development of lifelong learning competencies, and active learning environments are particularly emphasized. Action item #4, Engaging the Biology Community in the Implementation of Change, has been addressed as well. The V&C report was both provided to and specifically used in discussions with Administration and Faculty to explain the changes to be made to the GB curriculum. Active-learning is emphasized in all aspects of the curriculum; time for the inclusion of formal active learning opportunities was often made by reducing content so that, as the report recommends, less can be more for the students.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The General Biology course was changed to have two 80 minute lectures and an 80 minute Workshop each week for two semesters. A new, single semester 2-credit laboratory course with a weekly 80 minute lecture and 4 hour lab emphasizing the process of science was added to the curriculum. The Workshop provides a student-centered learning environment where active and cooperative learning are emphasized. Learning strategies are emphasized early in the Workshop and then iteratively practiced and expanded as the semester progresses. SOLO taxonomy ( is used to design Workshop activities, enabling students to recognize structure in course content. Through SOLO, students can better recognize the emergent nature of biology and perform better on upper-level (SOLO - relational, extended abstract) questions. The new lab is designed so that students experience the scientific process through two conceptual themes: aquatic ecology and DNA bar-coding. Using Vernier equipment and protocols, students develop and test their own aquatic ecology-related hypotheses. Using a sample from a field trip to a water body, student prepare DNA, perform PCR and analyze the products by gel electrophoresis, sequence the DNA, and conduct BLAST and CLUSTL analyses. Students gain an appreciation of how one experiment informs another and how one step in a process affects their results and interpretations in later steps. Rather than merely testing their knowledge and comprehension of facts, the redesigned lab requires students to use higher order thinking to analyze data, synthesize new hypotheses and experiments, and interpret and evaluate their findings. At the end of the semester, students have a capstone experience in which they synthesize and integrate the data they have collected over the semester, present their findings to the rest of the class, and defend their conclusions.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: At RU, the new curriculum was piloted during the 11/12 and 12/13 academic years and thus some comparative data is available. At the programmatic level, the proportion of students who successfully completed the first semester, the proportion of students who successfully completed the second semester, exam performance, performance on low and high level exam questions, retention rates from first to second semester, and proportion of students who continued in science courses the subsequent academic year have been compared for the 11/12 pilot. In addition to formal grades, study habit surveys , course evaluations, and focus groups have utilized to assess the effect of the new curriculum.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Our preliminary analysis indicates that the proportion of students who successfully completed GB1 (grade of C or better) was significantly greater in the pilot group (83.21% vs. 75.55%, p=0.038). Although the sample was small, the increase in student achievement in the pilot section was particularly striking in our underrepresented students (72% vs. 44%, p=0.008). In the Spring 2012 semester, 95% of the students in the pilot section successfully completed the course versus 81% in the traditional group (p<0.01). The students in the pilot on average earned higher scores on all three exams administered during the fall semester. Question analysis demonstrates they also did better on both lower-level questions (p=0.001) and upper-level questions (p=0.017). Retention was similarly positively improved in the pilot; 82% of the students in the pilot were retained from the fall to the spring whereas only 76% of the students from traditional sections continued to pursue biology in their spring semester. Moreover, 78% of students in the Fall 2011 pilot course continued to take science courses during the Fall of 2012 versus 69% of the students in the traditional GB course (p=0.039). Given the success of the pilot, the supervising RU Deans Office approved the conversion of the approximately 2200 student GB course to the new curriculum for the 13/14 academic year. In academic year 11/12, the first year of the pilot at RU, 143 students enrolled in the pilot version of GB. In 12/13, 278 students enrolled in the pilot; at least 2200 are anticipated to enroll in the new version of GB in the 13/14 academic year.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: An unexpected increase in demand for seats in GB due to increased enrollment at RU required an unplanned expansion of the pilot in the 12/13 academic year. The size of the pilot was doubled to accommodate demand. This expansion accelerated the offering of the new lab course to both the fall and spring semesters when the pilot had only planned for the spring semester. Moreover, the increase in needed number of workshops required an increase in teaching assistants assigned to the course. The appropriate Deans office recognized the need and provided the additional lines.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: When the V&C report became available in 2011, RU requested and received over 100 additional copies for use within the University. As our new pilot curriculum came to fruition, the V&C report was distributed among faculty and staff of the 20+ undergraduate major programs that require GB and used to explain the goals and reasoning behind the changes envisioned to the GB curriculum. Similarly, the report was also provided to and used in discussion with academic Deans, undergraduate chairs, and academic support personnel. All teaching assistants new to the program receive a copy of the report as part of their initial training. Presentations reviewing our practices and initial findings were given at CUNY-College of Staten Island and Bergen County Community College. We plan to continue our relationship with RVCC and will be introducing our new curriculum and the reasoning behind it to all New Jersey Community Colleges at a statewide meeting in October 2013.

Acknowledgements: This project was supported by a 2012 NSF TUES Award #1044699-Transforming the General Biology Laboratory for Undergraduate Students. Significant financial support for renovations and personnel was provided by the School of Arts and Sciences of Rutgers University.