Developing biology: Seeds for change and a little bit about methods and lenses

About thirty years ago, I entered my first college classroom as an instructor. Using a committee-chosen textbook and a syllabus borrowed from a senior colleague, I struggled to stay one step ahead of the students, many of them less than a decade younger than I was. I was teaching these “non-majors” a watered-down version of the biology I had learned, as I had learned it. Perhaps needless to say, my student teaching evaluations were not favorable. I was crushed. I had taught them with great enthusiasm for the content, working hard to prepare beautiful lectures, preparing numerous overheads and handouts (these were the days before Power-Point slides, laptop computers were only in the hands of a few faculty, and no one had a “personal device”). And the students didn’t like me. With work, my evaluations improved. But my approach stayed the same: this was content I knew well, and could deliver with polish, aligned with exam questions that determined students had correctly identified what I expected them to memorize. It is not how I teach now.

So how did I start to change as a teacher? The process of change began by recognizing that the students in my class were not younger versions of myself in the college classroom. The seeds for this awakening  were planted long before I began to intentionally change the way I taught.

sowerIn the 1990s, I team-taught with Jim Bull at the University of Texas at Austin. Jim had already recognized that non-majors did not need to learn more than conceptual basics in science. More important was that they learn science as a mode of critical thinking. To make the content engaging, he had developed a course linking science to students’ own lives. He did this by focusing on the applicability of scientific thinking to “real life” problems such as interpreting cancer treatment data – “SENCERizing” a class decades before SENCER formed. He developed four techniques that I continue to use. He taught students problem-solving strategies through use of simple templates (what the authors of Women’s Ways of Knowing would term “procedural” knowing). His assessments asked students to implement these procedures through questions built around short vignettes describing real events (transfer). He asked students questions with multiple correct answers (getting away from the student strategy of eliminate-one and guess). Lastly, he made large numbers of problems and questions available to students to use as study guides and practice (no surprises).  Anyone curious can explore this class more in depth: Jim still teaches it, and here you can see its current incarnation.

When I taught this class with Jim, it was still a lecture class. And two decades later when we pick up my narrative, I was still lecturing to large classes of non-science students who were in the room primarily because they were required to take a natural sciences class in order to graduate. These were courses taught to meet obligatory “breadth” and “general education” requirements, enrolling students who were there only because they needed the course to graduate, who entered the hall unhappy and often convinced that they could not “do” science. These are classes most often taught by adjuncts because research tenure-track faculty often don’t want to work with these students or this content. Most of these students who had experienced other college-level non-majors science classes found them similar to their high school science classes: fact-driven lectures, with multiple choice tests requiring a lot of memorization.

My approach and my lens:

Before I start describing and analyzing individual classes, I should describe the lens and methods I used in this analysis. If you have poked around at all on my web site, you know that I am an adjunct research faculty member with a thirty year history as a contingent lecturer, trained in curriculum design, assessment, and professional development. Compiling “data” from my course syllabi from these four biology, I realized that I am still hooked by quantitative measures as indicators of reality. Yet those numbers – the relative weight I placed on exams when calculating grades, or the number of slides in a particular lecture – do not fully capture how I changed in the classroom. I will refer to those quantitative data, but I am also going to consider of what kind of content I included, and how I used it, my approach to laboratory exercises, and my assessments. Together with the quantitative data, these analyses form a scholarly narrative of my personal change and growth as a teacher of science at the college level.

I will use a simple framework to analyze these classes, the three things I think must be accomplished in a non-majors course:

  • students should learn basic content in biology,
  • they should learn what science “is,” and
  • they must learn that they can, indeed, “do” science.

I have come to recognize that the last, rarely explicitly discussed, is both the most important and the most difficult to manage. As developed over a life-time of research and reflection, Albert Bandura convincingly argues that if someone is not certain that they can learn and master content or skills, then they are unlikely to be successful (e.g. pp 1-45 1995 in Self -efficacy in changing societies). And while biology faculty frequently write of disabusing students of “existing misconceptions” about scientific content and processes (e.g. Coley and Tanner 2012 Cbe-Life Sciences Education 11: 209-215), they rarely write of working to convince students of the foundational misconception that only scientists really understand (or “do”) science. And that is what I set out to change.

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