Vision and Change in a Reformed Biology Curriculum

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Title of Abstract: Vision and Change in a Reformed Biology Curriculum

Name of Author: Richard Cyr
Author Company or Institution: Penn State
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Cell Biology, Ecology and Environmental Biology, General Biology, Organismal Biology, Physiology & Anatomy
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Adding to the literature on how people learn, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Large Courses Pedagogy Training Learning Communities Post-doctoral Teaching Fellows Faculty Workshops

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Denise Woodward, Penn State

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Penn State Department of Biology considers Vision and Change (V&C) a roadmap for the future in education in the Life Sciences and our long-term goal is to fully integrate all Core Concepts and Competencies into Biology’s curriculum. Initially our efforts are and will continue to be focused on the freshman/sophomore curriculum, but there will be spillover into the junior/senior (and graduate) levels. The intended outcome is a reformed Biology curriculum that better retains students in their first two years, focusing on matriculating metacognitive undergraduates who have a solid grasp of how science is done and how this knowledge can help solve problems facing society.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: All V&C Core Concepts and Competencies have been adopted as Biology’s goals. Scaling learner-centered approaches in large classrooms is a challenge and our strategy involves experimenting with techniques in one course, then transferring effective techniques to others. Learning communities are essential to scaling and a ‘Peer Learning Corp’ has been created along with a pedagogy course that focuses on what the current research reveals about how students learn, along with applications of this knowledge to specific courses learning activities. A need for formal pedagogy training of graduate students was recognized and a graduate student-level pedagogy program was developed. In the first semester students participate in a discussion-based classroom, while in the second semester they help in a teaching lab and receive feedback that helps them improve their classroom effectiveness. A ‘V&C Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellows Program’ has been developed, which provides pedagogical training as well as a mentored teaching experience for post-docs. The pedagogy training consists of either the graduate-level pedagogy course and/or participation in workshops. Once pedagogy training is completed, they teach a small class, where a mentor reviews their course materials, attends classes and provides feedback. To better educate our faculty about the value of learner-centered instruction, a one-week workshop was developed. Freshman/sophomore labs have been reformed to a more inquiry-based format. With College of Education assistance, our labs have become more relevant to the problems that face society. Several faculty members now introduce their own research questions into the freshman/sophomore labs. In addition, our large courses are now used as test beds to gain insights into student learning, resulting in co-published papers with Education faculty.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Using V&C as a roadmap, a matrix was created of how our freshman and sophomore courses aligned. This process identified gaps, and steps have been taken to fill these curricular voids. We are currently developing a systematic approach to assess learning outcomes that are aligned with V&C. In the coming year, we plan to map each question from all freshman and sophomore course exams to the V&C Content and Competencies. Once done, student performance data on each question will be collected. This will allow us to track student exam performance in a categorical matrix. In future years, we also plan to assign some type of Bloom taxonomy scale to each question so that insight is gained into the depth of learning that is taking place. Student attitude surveys are being administered to reformed introductory labs, both at the beginning and at the conclusion of each course.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Using Learning Assistants, large lecture halls have been transformed into communities of 25 neighborhoods, with Learning Assistants helping students understand complicated worksheets and problems posed by their instructors. There has been an increase in the number of freshman/sophomore courses that are taking a deliberate, learner-centered approach. All four of Biology’s core courses plan to expand their learner-centered activities. The number of students in the Peer Learning Corp has similarly grown. Course material developed in Biology for pedagogy training is now in use around the College. In the coming years, we plan to engage more faculty members in learner-centered instruction and to make further improvements in Biology’s freshman/sophomore lab courses. Our Peer Learning Corp is essential for scaling, and next year we anticipate having 210 participants. Students taking our pedagogy courses say it helps them not only work more effectively with their own students, but it also reveals to them how their own learning works. Although envisioned as a program to help students enrolled in a biology course, evidence reveals that this peer-learning engagement helps the leaders too. We have found that students who participate in the Peer Learning Corp are retained in science majors at a higher frequency, compared to the general student population. The faculty workshop (sponsored by the College’s Center for Excellence in Science Education; CESE) was held for the first time this year. Five sessions were presented by 6 faculty members (from PSU and elsewhere), with 43 Penn State registrants.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Not all students welcome learner-centered instruction, which is exhibited in various ways. In the coming year, students’ resistance will be addressed by being more transparent as to why they are asked to engage in various activities. In addition, we will strive to take a more proactive position in identifying these resistant students early and, with the help of our experienced Learning Assistants, these students will be targeted for interventions.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: As mentioned, Biology’s pedagogy course material has been shared with faculty in the Eberly College of Science. In addition, faculty members at other institutions have been given access to the materials. The CESE webpages contain materials used in the workshop described earlier herein. Information on the Peer Learning Corp is being collected and will be posted on the Biology website. Penn State is a system that comprises 22 locations. (A total of about 50,000 student credit hours of biology instruction are delivered system-wide.) The Biology faculty members throughout the system meet annually and the activities described herein will be shared with them at our next meeting and via a discussion group that is available to Biology faculty throughout the system.

Acknowledgements: Howard Hughes Medical Institute Eberly College of Science