Developing biology: Departure from a very traditional location


So where was I when my journey began? In hind-sight, I stood in a very traditional location in the landscape of modern science teaching. The goals below suggest that the road-map I provided the students was slim, and the first two goals are, I now recognize, very weak. What did I mean “familiar with”? More importantly, what did my students think I meant?

Course Goals: By the end of this class, you should:

  • Be familiar with the basic biological and chemical processes that make life possible
  • Be familiar with the evolutionary processes that resulted in the biological world around us
  • Be able to critically evaluate scientific information presented in the press and on-line

Before moving forward, I need to describe who else was in the room.  Although unaware of a need to teach the individuals (except those seeking additional help), I was (as described last time) very aware of the need to teach the population in my class. This “non-majors” class was  very heterogeneous. In the largest lecture hall on campus, I faced about 150 students who were majors and non-majors, traditional 18-20 year olds and non-traditional “returning adults.” Most of the majors and the non-traditional students aspired to medical, dental, or veterinary school. They were in my class for a range of logistical and policy reasons. And their presence meant that although I intended to teach a course for the non-majors, their expectations for themselves and for the class would influence the climate and the content.

The two content-focused goals statements reinforced expectations of a fact-oriented course, and I delivered one traditionally organized in a building-blocks sequence. We started with a discussion of atoms and molecules, and “piece by piece” built up to cells and tissues, DNA and proteins, energy and photosynthesis, genetics and evolution. There was  no consideration of reverse design of the content, no consideration of what a non-science student really needed to know about biology as she moved onward in college and in life.

Why was that? I knew from my interactions with Jim Bull that students who are in a class simply because it was a requirement for graduation need “hooks” to help them engage with the material. Such engagement is a necessary step to helping them  recognize that familiarity with the scientific process and evidence-based logic is personally important. Proselytizing about the glories of science will not work. And I knew that.

What drove the traditional structure of the class were forces largely outside of my control as a contract lecturer: departmental expectations, parallel sections with shared textbook and mixed laboratory sections, and student evaluations as the measure of faculty teaching effectiveness. Each of these has a stifling impact on pedagogical innovation, particularly for contingent faculty.

The department expected this course to be fundamentally parallel to the majors course. Although classified as “non-majors,” Bio 1 was widely viewed as an on-ramp for students who were curious about biology but not yet convinced they wanted to major in science. In order to avoid requiring that students who switched majors retake introductory biology, the “non majors” sequence was expected to cover all of the same material as the majors classes, just “differently.” The fundamental interchangeability of the non-majors and majors courses is reflected in the spill-over of majors into this course when the majors sections were full. My course was a reservoir from which all students could rise to continue within a biological sciences track. So long as the majors courses were traditionally taught, the non-majors introductory biology must be as well.

Linked to the departmental expectations was the structure of the course. There were two classroom sections, and I was expected to teach synchronously with the other lecturer and align the classroom content as closely as possible with the lab content. The lab sections were mixed across the lecture sections and taught by graduate teaching fellows. The best way I know to allow students to “do” science, student-focused inquiry, was impossible. I had little pedagogical influence or content control of the labs. They  were largely cook-book exercises masquerading as “inquiry,” with exercises having a single outcome if students followed the instructions carefully. At best, students viewed these labs as an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with processes described in class; at worst, when an exercise failed to produce the expected outcomes, these labs reinforced students’ beliefs that they could not “do” science.

From Leslie Dorrough Smith

Another barrier to change in this course was how I would be evaluated. At the time I taught this class, contingent faculty were not evaluated on any standard other than traditional student evaluations; peer evaluation was reserved for full-time faculty. Nor were any other documents requested to support pedagogical innovations (no syllabi, exams, or student work). The evidence that this is a barrier to change comes from multiple sources. Students are often unhappy when first exposed to active learning, particularly in subjects that they expect to be tested on memorization. Active learning is “extra” work not just for the instructor but also for the student, and additional challenge is negatively correlated with student evaluations (something that has been tested experimentally). Indeed, in other settings I’ve had students tell me that classroom activities indicated that I didn’t know the content well enough to teach it. Recent analyses have shown a wide range of additional problems in the standard student evaluation, and I won’t go into any depth here but recommend an overview from Inside Higher Ed as a good starting place.

Truth be told, I was also constrained by my own conviction that factual content did form the essence of an introductory course in biology, particularly a course that might serve as a foundation for majors. And as a contract instructor laid off during the “great recession,” I didn’t want to create trouble for myself. Taken together, these factors meant that, at this institution and in this setting, I fell back into nearly straight delivery of factual content. There was one point of light in this landscape, and that was the effort I made to provide opportunities for students to think about how science ought to be done – the third goal for the class is what illuminated my path out of lecturing.

” Be able to critically evaluate scientific information presented in the press and on-line”


3 thoughts on “Developing biology: Departure from a very traditional location

  1. I so wish I had taken your classes. I feel like I would have gotten so much more out of undergrad if I had met you sooner!!


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