Developing Biology: Active learning in a dual-enrollment classroom

One of the more fruitful efforts to improve educational opportunities for high school students, as well as ameliorate college costs, is to offer “dual-enrollment” (DE) courses. A strategy parallel but not identical to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, DE classes have impact that goes beyond the “high fliers” that tend to enroll in AP because they are open to a much wider range of students (Columbia Teachers College has several studies documenting the impacts of DE).

Dual enrollment became very accessible in Vermont with the passage of legislation that made all public high school students eligible for vouchers covering tuition for two college courses. A way to get public school funding into college budgets in Vermont and elsewhere, universities were keenly interested in developing courses attractive to high school students. At my university, the office of Continuing Education was responsible for facilitating these courses, and in spring of 2013 they asked if I would teach a course at a high school in a small town outside of Burlington. The goal, in part, was to provide a DE course to students living too far away to attend classes at one of the colleges or the university. With the hope of experimenting with blended teaching (on-line and face-to-face) and with the pedagogical models I had experienced in my education program, I leapt at the opportunity.

A small town in the Mad River Valley. from Ted King

My goals for this class included both the explicit learning outcomes for the students (below), and developmental goals. Since the latter provide a better view of where I stood when I taught this class, I will describe them first. My developmental goals were driven by two observations from prior teaching experiences: students’ lack of personal engagement with science, and students’ discomfort with on-line learning environments.

As I’ve discussed before, I find that most college students are convinced that science is something that only experts engage with and understand. As with earlier classes, I wanted to help these students become more comfortable as independent consumers of science, what I think of as learning that they can “do” science. This I pursued through a flipped-class structure: students were given on-line general-public readings each week (such as articles from the New York Times, New Yorker, or National Geographic), with on-line homework questions to guide reading, done as text files they could download, type in, and upload when finished. I diligently reviewed the homework before every face-to-face session. They received credit for doing the homework, rather than for getting the correct answers: my goal was encouraging reflection and personal meaning making. The flipped structure combined with reading their work before each class allowed me to give them more power to focus our face-to-face time on points of interest or confusion.

My prior teaching with on-line tools had shown that many students were very uncomfortable learning in virtual settings. To help students become comfortable (and to limit my commute), I designed this as a hybrid course. I had hoped to enroll students from several small-town high schools; we would come to a central location once a week for the face-to-face meetings, and  would work asynchronously on-line the remainder of the time. However, only students from the hosting school enrolled, and internet connectivity was often spotty and low speed. These two unexpected features of the learning landscape combined with other impediments to narrow the options and limit the outcomes of the class.

The content goals were similar to those of my large lecture class described earlier. However, I also shared with the students the skills I sought to teach, using wording that aligned with means of assessment, reflecting my exposure to models of cognitive development (Perry and Belenky, Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s Women’s ways of knowing) and learning, particularly Kolb‘s cycle of learning.

Content goals:  By the end of this course, students should understand:

  1. The process of science as a way of understanding our world
  2. How genetic information is structured, transmitted, and expressed
  3. How energy is captured and moved within and among organisms
  4. The role of natural selection in shaping how organisms capture and utilize resources

Learning outcomes:  By the end of this course, students will be able to

  1. Recognize testable hypotheses
  2. Imagine processes to collect data that would test an hypothesis
  3. Dissect texts from the popular media to evaluate the quality of science presented
  4. Describe common molecular processes in living organisms

Assessment:  Importantly, my description of the grading included this sentence: “My goal is to help you not only acquire factual knowledge about biology, but to become comfortable engaging in critical discussion of science and media reports about science. To help you overcome any fears, I have designed the class to allow you many opportunities to work individually and with your classmates.” To this end, I intentionally increased the number and diversity of assessments, and  reduced the weight of exams and other summative assessments. Journals, homework, and class participation were 40% of the grade.

Formative assessment was accomplished by being aware of class participation, requiring weekly journal entries on questions about understanding of content (i.e. no one right answer), and the homework questions described above. The journals in particular accomplished more than I had hoped: not only did students spent some time working in their own words and thoughts on difficult concepts, the journals gave me a “window” into student comprehension and meaning making. This enabled me to jump in with comments to them individually, and shift the focus of our weekly meetings to address  general problems and challenges. This was the first time that I included journals as a component of the grade, and I was very pleased with the outcome.

Summative assessments were two exams and two projects. Class discussions  following the first exam confirmed something I had long suspected: post-exam amnesia. Students treated each section of the class as independent, without any carry-over of processes or concept. I explicitly address this by including questions requiring understanding of prior material in post-exam homework and subsequent exams. The student projects consisted of a group project and an individual project. Seeking to make the projects authentic, both were geared to communicating what they were learning with “general audiences.” The group assignment required creating a “wiki” exploring a controversial topic in biology. The on-line format permitted me to produce both group grades and individual participation grades as the wiki function tracked individual work. The individual project resulted in educational documents in a format of their choosing (video, powerpoint, report) about some aspect of biology they found interesting. I invited school staff and students invited their families to attend the final class where they presented these  projects.

Into the classroom

As part of the “flipping” of the class, I decided to not use any powerpoints, included only occasional short videos, and instead delivered content through discussion and question and answer sessions. While I have always used a white- or black-board to lecture (it forces me to slow down, and the students usually write and draw what I write and draw), this time I did everything at the board. Without lectures, the volume of factual material conveyed to the students was much lower. I posted class outlines to start each session, and these  were discussed and modified by students before moving into the content for the day. For the first time, I was designing classes with the intention of stimulating collaborative learning. The outlines contrast starkly with the power-point lectures of prior classes, where I would simply list “key terms and concepts” on the first Powerpoint slide as an indication of the being covered, not an opportunity for collaboration.

Reality strikes…

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but my idealized pedagogical strategies soon met with the realities of student expectations and my careful calendar crashed against the realities of how much less content is covered when a course is flipped and guided by student needs.  Many topics could not be student lead after-all, as they had not sufficiently understood the readings. In general, I found students really benefited from my providing some overview of the content, despite their having read articles before class. Thankfully, although I was still a “fount of knowledge,” I was not separated from them as I had in the lecture hall: we sat together at a table except when at the board. My role had subtly changed, and even though I did deliver some mini-lectures, the climate of this class was much more collaborative than any I’d taught before. These students asked frequent questions, not hesitating to stop me or back up the discussion if they missed something. This may be in part because they were previously acquainted and not afraid of appearing stupid. It may also be because they were all women; in any case none of them seemed to feel a need to rise above any other students.

Several other problems surfaced during the course of the semester, only one of them within my control. As the semester progressed I became aware that I was still attempting to cover too much content. Students had insufficient time to understand the underlying processes in their efforts to keep up, and we decided to cut two modules. While we covered much less factual content in this class compared to traditional cell and molecular biology introductory classes, what we did cover was better understood. Giving myself the freedom to change the syllabus and calendar in response to student needs was a major change in my own attitude towards content and teaching: no longer did I view the syllabus as a set-in-stone contract. Moreover, I learned that the process of revision empowers students when they are involved in making the choices of content to be covered.

My goal of acclimating these students to an on-line learning environment was not completely successful. As designed, most of the assignments were available on-line. However, connectivity from many homes was spotty and low speed: some of the students were only able to work on the material from within school itself, and larger files needed to be emailed to school staff, who printed hard copies. The small enrollment and connectivity problems had greatest impact on the group wiki project. As originally conceived, mixed groups of students from different schools would mimic”real world” experiences of distance collaboration. However, these students were all at the same school and the on-line project became very artificial – they actually worked face-to-face in school on their wikis. Interestingly, the quality of the work produced was very much higher than that produced by college classes where I have used this assignment: the parts were integrated, and the writing and presentation of an overall higher quality.

Student stress was increased by two issues beyond my ability to ameliorate. First, all of them were carrying this class in addition to a regular HS load and extracurricular activities. The HS guidance department did not comprehend that these students were taking a college course. Two students had part time jobs. These students were often stressed, and in retrospect it is remarkable that only one dropped the class. Another problem was calendar conflict: because my contract was with the university, my class followed the university calendar. This resulted in a lot of absenteeism during the HS breaks, generating problems with the projects. Only three students actually attended the final class and presented their projects to their classmates, parents, and school principal. It was a disappointing end to what had been otherwise a good semester.

Overall, I came closer to achieving my three goals in this class than I had any time previously. These students learned some core content, they became adept at evaluating media reports of scientific findings, and they gained confidence with scientific reasoning. However, meaning-making was limited by the absence of a laboratory. The students remarked that they really felt that lack of a laboratory limited their ability to come to personal understanding of the practices of science and of the processes we talked about. Despite these limitations, I do think that these young women learned that they could “do” science, or at least have a personal knowledge of, and opinion about, scientific content. But I was in a seminar-style setting with only six students. Can this be scaled up to a regular class? That became my goal in my next teaching assignment, at an open enrollment state college.

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