Journal: CBE life sciences education
Most American colleges and universities offer gateway biology courses to meet the needs of three undergraduate audiences: biology and related science majors, many of whom will become biomedical researchers; premedical students meeting medical school requirements and preparing for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT); and students completing general education (GE) graduation requirements. Biology textbooks for these three audiences present a topic scope and sequence that correlates with the topic scope and importance ratings of the biology content specifications for the MCAT regardless of the intended audience. Texts for “nonmajors,” GE courses appear derived directly from their publisher’s majors text. Topic scope and sequence of GE texts reflect those of “their” majors text and, indirectly, the MCAT. MCAT term density of GE texts equals or exceeds that of their corresponding majors text. Most American universities require a GE curriculum to promote a core level of academic understanding among their graduates. This includes civic scientific literacy, recognized as an essential competence for the development of public policies in an increasingly scientific and technological world. Deriving GE biology and related science texts from majors texts designed to meet very different learning objectives may defeat the scientific literacy goals of most schools' GE curricula.
The “flipped classroom” is a learning model in which content attainment is shifted forward to outside of class, then followed by instructor-facilitated concept application activities in class. Current studies on the flipped model are limited. Our goal was to provide quantitative and controlled data about the effectiveness of this model. Using a quasi-experimental design, we compared an active nonflipped classroom with an active flipped classroom, both using the 5-E learning cycle, in an effort to vary only the role of the instructor and control for as many of the other potentially influential variables as possible. Results showed that both low-level and deep conceptual learning were equivalent between the conditions. Attitudinal data revealed equal student satisfaction with the course. Interestingly, both treatments ranked their contact time with the instructor as more influential to their learning than what they did at home. We conclude that the flipped classroom does not result in higher learning gains or better attitudes compared with the nonflipped classroom when both utilize an active-learning, constructivist approach and propose that learning gains in either condition are most likely a result of the active-learning style of instruction rather than the order in which the instructor participated in the learning process.
Although gender gaps have been a major concern in male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines such as physics and engineering, the numerical dominance of female students in biology has supported the assumption that gender disparities do not exist at the undergraduate level in life sciences. Using data from 23 large introductory biology classes for majors, we examine two measures of gender disparity in biology: academic achievement and participation in whole-class discussions. We found that females consistently underperform on exams compared with males with similar overall college grade point averages. In addition, although females on average represent 60% of the students in these courses, their voices make up less than 40% of those heard responding to instructor-posed questions to the class, one of the most common ways of engaging students in large lectures. Based on these data, we propose that, despite numerical dominance of females, gender disparities remain an issue in introductory biology classrooms. For student retention and achievement in biology to be truly merit based, we need to develop strategies to equalize the opportunities for students of different genders to practice the skills they need to excel.
At the college level, the effectiveness of active-learning interventions is typically measured at the broadest scales: the achievement or retention of all students in a course. Coarse-grained measures like these cannot inform instructors about an intervention’s relative effectiveness for the different student populations in their classrooms or about the proximate factors responsible for the observed changes in student achievement. In this study, we disaggregate student data by racial/ethnic groups and first-generation status to identify whether a particular intervention-increased course structure-works better for particular populations of students. We also explore possible factors that may mediate the observed changes in student achievement. We found that a “moderate-structure” intervention increased course performance for all student populations, but worked disproportionately well for black students-halving the black-white achievement gap-and first-generation students-closing the achievement gap with continuing-generation students. We also found that students consistently reported completing the assigned readings more frequently, spending more time studying for class, and feeling an increased sense of community in the moderate-structure course. These changes imply that increased course structure improves student achievement at least partially through increasing student use of distributed learning and creating a more interdependent classroom community.
National efforts to transform undergraduate biology education call for research experiences to be an integral component of learning for all students. Course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CUREs, have been championed for engaging students in research at a scale that is not possible through apprenticeships in faculty research laboratories. Yet there are few if any studies that examine the long-term effects of participating in CUREs on desired student outcomes, such as graduating from college and completing a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) major. One CURE program, the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), has engaged thousands of first-year undergraduates over the past decade. Using propensity score-matching to control for student-level differences, we tested the effect of participating in FRI on students' probability of graduating with a STEM degree, probability of graduating within 6 yr, and grade point average (GPA) at graduation. Students who completed all three semesters of FRI were significantly more likely than their non-FRI peers to earn a STEM degree and graduate within 6 yr. FRI had no significant effect on students' GPAs at graduation. The effects were similar for diverse students. These results provide the most robust and best-controlled evidence to date to support calls for early involvement of undergraduates in research.
Biostatistics courses are integral to many undergraduate biology programs. Such courses have often been taught using point-and-click software, but these programs are now seldom used by researchers or professional biologists. Instead, biology professionals typically use programming languages, such as R, which are better suited to analyzing complex data sets. However, teaching biostatistics and programming simultaneously has the potential to overload the students and hinder their learning. We sought to mitigate this overload by using cognitive load theory (CLT) to develop assignments for two biostatistics courses. We evaluated the effectiveness of these assignments by comparing student cohorts who were taught R using these assignments (n = 146) with those who were taught R through example scripts or were instructed on a point-and-click software program (control, n = 181). We surveyed all cohorts and analyzed statistical and programming ability through students' lab reports or final exams. Students who learned R through our assignments rated their programming ability higher and were more likely to put the usage of R as a skill in their curricula vitae. We also found that the treatment students were more motivated, less frustrated, and less stressed when using R. These results suggest that we can use CLT to teach challenging material.
Many efforts to improve science teaching in higher education focus on a few faculty members at an institution at a time, with limited published evidence on attempts to engage faculty across entire departments. We created a long-term, department-wide collaborative professional development program, Biology Faculty Explorations in Scientific Teaching (Biology FEST). Across 3 years of Biology FEST, 89% of the department’s faculty completed a weeklong scientific teaching institute, and 83% of eligible instructors participated in additional semester-long follow-up programs. A semester after institute completion, the majority of Biology FEST alumni reported adding active learning to their courses. These instructor self-reports were corroborated by audio analysis of classroom noise and surveys of students in biology courses on the frequency of active-learning techniques used in classes taught by Biology FEST alumni and nonalumni. Three years after Biology FEST launched, faculty participants overwhelmingly reported that their teaching was positively affected. Unexpectedly, most respondents also believed that they had improved relationships with departmental colleagues and felt a greater sense of belonging to the department. Overall, our results indicate that biology department-wide collaborative efforts to develop scientific teaching skills can indeed attract large numbers of faculty, spark widespread change in teaching practices, and improve departmental relations.
As we transition our undergraduate biology classrooms from traditional lectures to active learning, the dynamics among students become more important. These dynamics can be influenced by student social identities. One social identity that has been unexamined in the context of undergraduate biology is the spectrum of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) identities. In this exploratory interview study, we probed the experiences and perceptions of seven students who identify as part of the LGBTQIA community. We found that students do not always experience the undergraduate biology classroom to be a welcoming or accepting place for their identities. In contrast to traditional lectures, active-learning classes increase the relevance of their LGBTQIA identities due to the increased interactions among students during group work. Finally, working with other students in active-learning classrooms can present challenges and opportunities for students considering their LGBTQIA identity. These findings indicate that these students' LGBTQIA identities are affecting their experience in the classroom and that there may be specific instructional practices that can mitigate some of the possible obstacles. We hope that this work can stimulate discussions about how to broadly make our active-learning biology classes more inclusive of this specific population of students.
Undergraduate research experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields are championed for promoting students' personal and professional development. Mentorship is an integral part of undergraduate research, as effective mentorship maximizes the benefits undergraduates realize from participating in research. Yet almost no research examines instances in which mentoring is less effective or even problematic, even though prior research on mentoring in workplace settings suggests negative mentoring experiences are common. Here, we report the results of a qualitative study to define and characterize negative mentoring experiences of undergraduate life science researchers. Undergraduate researchers in our study reported seven major ways they experienced negative mentoring: absenteeism, abuse of power, interpersonal mismatch, lack of career support, lack of psychosocial support, misaligned expectations, and unequal treatment. They described some of these experiences as the result of absence of positive mentoring behavior and others as actively harmful behavior, both of which they perceive as detrimental to their psychosocial and career development. Our results are useful to mentors for reflecting on ways their behaviors might be perceived as harmful or unhelpful. These findings can also serve as a foundation for future research aimed at examining the prevalence and impact of negative mentoring experiences in undergraduate research.
We report the outcomes of a survey of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in life science academic (e.g., faculty) and nonacademic (e.g., research-related) positions seeking to ascertain variables that contribute to their success (e.g., favorable or desired outcome). Given that they had positions in research careers, all respondents were presumed to be successful, and we sought to identify shared factors that were associated with this success. As in previous studies, respondents reported that undergraduate research opportunities, performing research in small- to medium-sized laboratories, and access to mentors throughout all stages of training were important factors for success in their careers. Surprisingly, analysis of the survey results suggests that a record of publications in high-impact factor journals was not essential for their success. There were fundamental differences in the experiences and needs of URMs in academic and nonacademic careers. For example, academic URMs ranked having mentorship as their first choice in order of importance compared with the nonacademic respondents, who ranked this category as their fifth selection. These findings suggest that taking diverse approaches toward these groups is critical for ensuring that all of the most creative minds have an equal opportunity to contribute to realizing our national research goals and diversified workforce.