My first webinar…

I suppose it is impolitic for me to admit to anything in my new career being “my first,” but perhaps you can think of this as a reminder that we are all learners, even the most expert of our disciplines. If we were not ourselves excited by learning – from our experiences, from our peers, from the world around us – why would we be educators?

So, my first webinar is coming up at the end of the month, assisted, sponsored, and hosted by the wonderful staff at the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement. Once we’d agreed on a date and time, I realized: I have no idea what I’m doing. And I’ve got an impossibly high model, as my first webinar experience was through the EdX program. Once I’d realized I needed more realistic models, I started poking around on line (where else?), first by looking for suggestions from “the pros.” What I found was dominated by the “25 steps to the perfect webinar” and other how-to-win-friends-and-get-them-to-buy-your-stuff kind of web sites.

In other words, not very useful.

So I fell back on the second strategy – asking people who’ve done them and who have attended them. Many of whom talked about frustrating things (useful!) but offered few hints of what worked well. Is the take home message that when things go well, the medium is not memorable? Interesting thought, and something to keep in my hip pocket. I also watched some webinars in my field (NCSCE has several posted for streaming), which gave me ideas about how to make the experience interactive.

In the end, however, it really came down to envisioning myself doing this. Starting with the waking up at 3 am knowing how to rework a set of slides to make it appealing on line.

Why am I sharing reflections about this? Because, in a nutshell, I think it sums up how we go about preparing a new course or a new class. We are, after all, all of us at least marginally more knowledgeable than the students in the room or the peers in the hall. We have at our finger tips (or know where to find) the content we need. But the step from that knowledge to conveying it meaningfully to the audience requires more than the content expertise or practice with the discipline. It requires opening ourselves up to ideas from experts in tangential fields (even those “perfect webinar in 25 minutes” folks) and talking to people who have taught within the discipline.

And probably, for those classes that really go beautifully, we need to be open to the insight that comes out of the blue, at 3 am or during our commute. In my case, I’m going to share the outcome of my imagination on March 29 at 2 pm Eastern. The price is right – it is free!




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.

Developing biology: What did students actually learn?

At the beginning this series of essays, I wrote of my three goals for introductory science classes: I must teach students basic content, I must teach them what science “is,” and I must convince them that they can, indeed, “do” science. Final grades from this 2011 course (average B-) indicate that I accomplished the first two goals. But what about that most challenging third goal? It is arguably the most important, but growing evidence indicates that such a sense of self-ability cannot be taught, at least not directly.

My goal of “convincing” students they can do science aligns with character traits associated with belonging, perseverance, and self-efficacy, variously nicknamed courage (Perry 1968 Forms of intellectual and ethical development chapter 3 footnote 5), growth mindset (Carol Dweck), and grit (Paul Tough). Importantly, there is growing evidence that such character traits are key to developing a sense of belonging and ability – self-efficacy – that in turn can lead to academic (and life) success. Critically for those of us who wish to engage students in this fashion, Tough argues convincingly that we cannot actually teach “grit.” These  character traits emerge in students experiencing learning within a particular classroom culture. What we can do is to provide the climate and conditions, curriculum and scaffolding, that help students grow in their sense of belonging, ability, and belief that what they are doing matters.

2_ADDA base
Francesca Fornasari, Architect.


Students come into our classrooms each with their own peculiar background of experiences and knowledge. Within the metaphor of knowledge as a landscape, as a teacher I must accept that students’ perspectives are real even though they may be unintelligible to me. Each student stands at a unique location, and carries a personal set of lenses she uses to interpret what she sees. When I require a student to use a scientific approach to understand what she is experiencing, I may be asking her to try new – perhaps unnerving – tools for understanding. Without the combination of a supporting climate and personal self-belief, pushing may be so unnerving as to cause her to revert to memorize and regurgitate strategies to pass the class. However, although I may be only able to teach the skills and content of science, I can work to provide the climate and conditions that produce a desire to try out these new skills. Then there is the chance she will  learn how to choose, among all the lenses and tools she carries, which lens is appropriate for understanding a particular aspect of the landscape. These are skills she can use to find her own paths through life.

So to cut to the bottom line, how did I do in 2011?

I did teach students basic content and the foundational pieces of the scientific method, how to evaluate the science in a media report, and gave them practice interpreting real data. The average students did B/C work, and from here I can see that the exams were very challenging, so the majority did learn this content and skill set. Whether or not I convinced any students that they could “do” science is only hinted at from the bits of quantitative data I have, such as that the majority of students did participate in classroom “clicker” problems and on-line formative quizzes (which did improve performance on the summative exams).

In reality, though, I interacted individually with only a small number of students – those sitting at the front, those asking questions from the back, and those who came to my office to talk. Several joined my lab, most of them not pre-med or biology majors, so those students felt encouraged to try “doing” science. I cannot know if any other students felt a sense of empowerment, of growing competency in science. In hindsight, I am not certain that any instructor can empower students when delivering lectures from the front of a 200-seat lecture hall. I was still the person in power and the information moved primarily in one direction (clear from my knowing nothing about student learning that is not revealed in their grades). Very importantly, I doubt that students dismayed at being required to take a science class to meet distribution requirements lost their sense of doom within this setting. If “doing science” means using the process of science to make meaning and reach understanding, the course included few mechanisms for me to encourage students or to discover if they were growing in that direction.

So in summary, this course was (and remains) very traditional. The quizzes have been abandoned since I left the team and the efforts at further reform are, I gather, geared towards increasing the writing components (graded by graduate students) in labs and devoting more time to collaborative problem solving in the lectures. The degree to which the process of arriving at an answer is emphasized over giving the “right” answer will determine whether any of these reforms increase critical thinking skills and create a climate promoting the growth of “grit.” I moved on, away from the large lecture setting and into the wider landscape of STEM education. My next stop was a high school classroom….

Developing biology: Early points of light

Last time, I wrote of problems with my approach to teaching a large-lecture non-majors class, with the hind-sight of 5 years and much reading and conversation around active learning strategies. But not everything I did then was “traditional.” My goals for that 2011 course are repeated below, and although the first two reflect very traditional approaches to teaching biology, the third is a spot of light, a sign that I was looking down a new path.

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

The goal of students learning to evaluate scientific information grew from my experiences team-teaching with Jim Bull . However, asking students to analyze texts (or “problem solve”) in prior courses often frustrated them, because most students had only experienced biology as fact-driven memorization. To support development of this skill, I taught students to use templates and “sort” items from a narrative into categories. This was the beginning of my teaching procedures of analysis as a way of understanding – although I didn’t recognize it as such. For example, the template for the scientific process looked like this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 12.49.58 PM

These templates provide students with scaffold that they could use for any text claiming to present experimental evidence. Through the course of the semester, we wandered through many examples in texts or graphs. As much as possible, the content was presented through real problems studied by real biologists. This is the kind of question I wrote:


For a long time, doctors and diet specialists have believed that drinking more water would increase weight loss. To see if the timing of water consumption affected weight loss, researchers put more than 40 overweight and obese adults between the ages of 55 and 75 on a diet of no more than 1500 calories each day. Half the dieters were randomly assigned to drink 16 ounces of water before each meal, the others were told to drink 16 ounces of water three times a day, but not when to drink it. Twelve weeks later, the people drinking water before each meal had lost an average of 15.5 pounds while those drinking water when they pleased only lost an average of 11 pounds. The doctors concluded that for people in this age group, drinking a moderate amount of water before each meal increased the rate of weight loss.

Which component of the scientific method is absent?

a) Hypothesis

b) Protocol

c) Evaluation

d) Revision

e) All are present (none are absent)

Which of the following hypotheses is rejected by these results?

a) Eating more than 1500 calories each day can be countered by increased water consumption.

b) Among younger people, increased water consumption does not lead to increased weight loss.

c) Drinking 16 ounces of water before each meal causes increased weight loss among people who are dieting.

d) The timing of water consumption has no effect on its role in weight management in older people.

Why did I use real data? Several reasons, but most importantly because the unsanitized data presented students with a glimpse of the complexity found in the real world and how scientists work with, around, or through that complexity. It also gave me the opportunity to uncover and work with students’ misunderstandings about the nature of science as a human endeavor. Frankly, the sanitized experiments look prescient and self-fulfilling, lacking the sweat and frustration that are the hallmark of cutting edge research.

As an example of this, we can contrast the sanitized presentation and the real data from  Griffith’s classic experiment on transformation of bacteria. In this experiment, Griffith studied the impact of variation using two strains of a bacteria. One strain, called “smooth” because colonies in a Petri dish look smooth, causes deadly pneumonia; the other strain, called “rough” because colonies look rough, does not. (More about these two strains, the biology of their appearance, and their ability to cause disease can be found here ). The classic presentation of Griffith’s research into the dynamic relationship between these two strains of bacteria, found widely in introductory biology and genetics textbooks, looks like this:


Injecting a mouse with the rough strain does not cause disease, while injecting with the smooth strain does. Injecting dead smooth strain  does not cause disease, but injecting a mixture of living rough strain and dead smooth strain does. From Wikipedia


You can, however, read Griffith’s original  paper (1928 Journal of Hygiene 27 p 8-55), and it is fascinating – in no small part because Griffith’s personality and thought processes emerge in his writing. He describes everything, from his initial observations and pilot studies through  the classic experiment so succinctly summarized in that textbook figure.

Importantly, Griffith actually did many replicates of his experiment using different genetic strains of smooth and rough bacteria. For my class, I pooled data across several replicates to produce a table that looked like this:

Treatment Sample size Prediction Results
Inject living R 6 Mice survive; recover R 4 mice survive; recover R. 2 mice die; recover S
Inject dead S 26 Mice survive, no bacteria recovered 26 mice survive, no bacteria recovered
Inject living R and dead S 71 Mice die; recover S It’s complicated!

The actual results from injecting living R strain together with dead S strain was not 100% mortality and recovery of S strain bacteria from the dead, as reported in textbooks. Instead, it is complicated – Griffith’s data looked like this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 10.38.59 AM
The percent of mice producing each type of bacteria; S-infected mice died, R-infected and uninfected mice survived.


It took time to walk through the experiment with this level of detail. I started with the background observations and development of the original hypothesis of transformation. We talked about what variables should be manipulated, what should be measured, and what should be controlled for. We talked about the idea of distribution of outcomes, and possible causes of the variation.

What did we gain by talking about real research and real data? First, exposure to the role of variation in biology – something that arguably makes biology a very difficult science to understand. Some of the variation in Griffith’s results reflects my pooling across his many replicates, which were done with different strains of bacteria, some of it is actual variation for a single strain. Second, the appearance of probabilistic results prompted conversation around the need for replication (one prompt I used was “if he injected just one mouse with living R strain, what is the likelihood that mouse would die?”). Taken together, these two points created a starting point for conversations around why sometimes it seems that scientists “change their minds” in the media.

Why is this important? Recall, I was teaching non science majors in this class, where “working scientist” stories are often relegated to side boxes in textbooks and “if you are interested” extra readings and links. Moreover,  working-scientist stories are often already sanitized (no mistakes! no wrong turns! no variation!), may seem very tangential to student lives, or may not actually mention the scientists by name (for example Audesirk et al. 8th ed scientific inquiry stories).

These sanitized presentations of how science happens reinforce the perception of the scientist as the isolated genius, the hypothesis as somehow given, the protocol as perfect, and the results as inevitable. How could a “regular person” ever hope to achieve this, or understand how it happens? If our goal is to convince our students that they can understand and undertake inquiry, we need to show them that the process is messy – mistakes are made, protocols don’t work, hypotheses are rejected and need to be rethought. Exposure to real studies necessarily reduces the content coverage we achieve in introductory courses. But in my opinion, this is a small price to pay for increased understanding and self-efficacy in science.

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”

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.

Developing biology: My journey from lecture to now

In his 2012 book, Bok (Higher Education in America p 194) describes scientific disciplines as those that have “definite answers:” and therefore easily scale up to large lectures with on-line exams. That someone of his stature can misunderstand science as a way of knowing continues to bother me years after reading that passage. It places “science” outside of any cultural context, as a mass of facts that, if properly reconstituted, will enable students to miraculously arrive at the correct answers to any problem. There is an increasing population of faculty who recognize that this is not a fair representation and are changing how they teach to allow more personalized learning through activities aligned with documents like the Next Generation Science Standards. They are joining national and international organizations that range from focused on single disciplines to broadly cross-disciplinary.

But the majority of science faculty teach they way they were taught, although they may not be aware of it. In the FSSE survey of 2012, faculty self-report as spending about half of their teaching time lecturing. Such self-reporting likely under-estimates the actual time spent lecturing: Diane Ebert-May and her colleagues found that although 89% of faculty reported that they were using active learning strategies, videos revealed that 75% were mostly lecturing. Delivering content is what we are accustomed to, what we are comfortable with, and what is often expected of us by our students. If we would rather see students using content logically and insightfully to interpret media reports, web sites, and pundits – to think critically – then we need to reward them not for arriving at the “right” answer but for exhibiting careful and logical reasoning supported by facts (which they may or may not have memorized) and consensus models. Accomplishing this requires that we move ourselves beyond teaching facts to enabling thinking.

Aquinas College lecture
“Aquinas College students listening to a lecture during a human biology class”

I, too, started by teaching as I had been taught. I no longer do. What I hope to do with this series of blogs is not commune with like-minded faculty, but offer a model of how my transition happened for those who are curious but intimidated by the prospect of changing how they teach. I know I’m not the only person on this path, but at the time I chose to move in this direction I knew no one else exploring these ideas in science education, so these were, for me, solitary decisions. I write to share my map with others who are stymied in how to move forward, who know that active learning is a better teaching mode than lecturing but do not know where to begin.

A great journey requires knowing where you are starting, and having maps for guidance. Below, I describe my original location. The maps I found to guide my journey were two older books describing young adult cognitive development: William Perry’s Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme (1968/1970) and Blenky et al. Women’s Ways of Knowing (hereafter WWK, 1986 / 1997). These two can be summarized in a very simple diagram – a four step map for my journey.


Perry and WWK present stages in the development of young adults’ understanding of what “knowledge” is and where it comes from, their “epistemology.” Dependent on where you are teaching, students may enter your room as received knowers or multiplistic knowers. With luck or skill, they leave knowing the procedures of creating knowledge in your discipline. This, then, is the map I found.

My journey starts at the University of Vermont, where I was hired to join a team-taught non-majors class in a large-lecture format with graduate teaching assistants running labs. The long-term adjunct teaching with me was a funny, cheerful man hugely popular with the students who taught conservatively: factual content, amusingly delivered, easily memorized. I felt I had little choice but to fall in line: anyone teaching differently received horrible student evaluations. Finally, in 2011, I got what I had been waiting for: the opportunity to teach the class independently. Fall 2011 was before I met Perry or Belenky and colleagues, and this course will be the base camp from which we depart. The map of my journey is retrospective, built from evidence from my syllabi – in particular course organization, goal statements, and classroom strategies – that chart the changes I made as I grew from a stand-and-deliver lecturer to a facilitator of learning. Next time, I’ll describe this class, because we need to identify our location in the landscape before we can choose a route.

I close with my guiding principles for teaching, the parameters against which I will be measuring the classes I discuss: I must teach students basic content, I must teach them what science “is,” and I must convince them that they can, indeed, “do” science. That last point is the most challenging and, arguably, the most important.