February 2001

Major Curriculum Change in a
Multi-section, Multi-instructor Course

By Linda Heath and Phyllis Laine,
Department of Biology

Background.  In 1996 the Department of Education released the nation's first educational technology plan. Its goals include students and faculty access to information technology and the skills to use it to improve learning.

     In the same year the National Research Council introduced the National Science Education Standards.  These standards recommend science be taught by inquiry. Research shows that students retain more content information when they design and perform experiments, than when they do confirmation experiments.  In addition, studies show that teachers taught by the inquiry method teach more science to their own students.

     Each fall XU's department of biology teaches approximately 300 non-biology majors, including pre-service teachers, in 12 sections of Life Investigations Laboratory. After receiving funds from the National Science Foundation we began revising this course. In fall 1999 we taught one pilot section, spring 2000 two sections, and fall 2000 six instructors taught 13 sections.

     The two major changes were: (1) to make the laboratory experiences "inquiry-based" where the students, working in cooperative groups, become responsible for asking scientific questions, as well as designing and conducting experiments and (2) to introduce greater use of information technology to enhance background knowledge, analyze data, write science journal articles, and present findings.

     We?ll share with you some of the lessons learned during this exciting and sometimes frustrating experience.

"It takes a village". Xavier's support was essential for this major curricular change.  A Wheeler award in 1995 supported a workshop to introduce inquiry-based teaching to science faculty. Next the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences through normal travel funds, supported travel to Clemson University where investigation labs for over 1200 non-biology majors were being successfully employed.

     As we developed our NSF proposal, the grants services office and associate vice president provided editing, copying, budget guidelines, criticism, cheerleading, handholding and put the pieces together for the required matching funds.

     After receiving the NSF grant (DUE 9950373), the laboratory in Albers 303 had to be changed. Computers for six student teams, plus others for information searchers and student presentations were installed. The course materials were stored on the Local Area Network (LAN).

  • Information service and systems was involved in many ways. User support services helped in room planning, installing and purchasing equipment, plus on-going maintenance and troubleshooting. People on the HELP desk should be on our Christmas card list. Academic computing and telecommunications services set up network folders, assigned rights to them, wired and connected us.
  • Instructional media services advised us in room planning, equipment ordering, installation and maintenance of media equipment. When we considered new equipment purchases, they came to us with a sampling of options, so we could see how things work in our location.

Through physical plant, electricians, carpenters, and locksmiths all worked with us as we remodeled the room.

    Career Services coached us through hiring student technology helpers and accounting kept us honest. Library staff advised on how to document electronic resources and store materials on electronic reserve. An instructional technologist employed by X-CEED and the university taught us more about technology then we ever intended to know. Our department secretary worked with us through many rewrites of the grant and lab manual. Our lab technician tolerated many changes in the orders of materials and supplies and coordinated the logistics of 13 sections.

     Yes, it does "take a village" and XU has that village of many competent, cooperative people. You'll need them.

"You can teach an old dog new tricks." Of the six instructors teaching the lab this fall, five of us have over 150 years of combined teaching experience! How did we learn the "tech stuff"?

  • The instructional technologist met with us weekly and was in the lab with us during the first pilot.
  • During all the pilots a 'tech-helper' was in each of the labs. These were Xavier students who needed minimal training.
  • Summer 2000 we had a weeklong workshop for the instructors who were teaching the lab in fall 2000 to "practice." Many others in the department also attended to share what they were doing and to learn what new equipment was now available to our department.
  • Students taught their classmates and us. We found ourselves saying, "I've told you all I know about this...software, hardware, etc...if you know a better, a different way, please let us know". Then if you'll let them, they'll teach the rest of the class! Several times students ended up teaching Excel techniques, both informally to their own teams and to the entire class.
  • Additional informal ways included an ever evolving "Tech Tips" notebook in the lab, notes in faculty mailboxes, visits to each other's offices and instructions written on equipment. We also practiced during our weekly lab prep meetings.

     Lab scientists are used to teaching the use of equipment, so this wasn't a stretch. The frustrating part is not having the time to perfect your own skills before you have to teach it. Give up all thoughts of perfection!

"From sage on the stage to guide on the side." Inquiry is an approach that takes both content and process. It requires the student/teacher relationship to change. You have to become a facilitator, a role for which most of us have no training and little experience.

  • Students work in cooperative groups of 3-4. In traditional labs we normally work with individuals that may be in groups, but all are working on the same thing. In an inquiry lab the instructor interacts with up to six groups working on entirely different methods to answer a question.
  • A classroom must be created where both a student and instructor learn together. No longer can we refer students to the lab manual for the answers. It takes practice to become a resource along with textbooks,  Internet resources, and instruction manuals.
  • Some students will know more than you do. This of course happens in other classes, but when students are the experts on their experiment and organism, it is more obvious. This has to become 'ok'. As one of the instructors said, "I'm used to making my mistakes in my office, before I come to class." Our NSF evaluator said faculty might struggle with "teaching issues" more than with "student learning" issues.

How do you learn to teach in a way you've never been taught? Our strategies included:

  • Dr. Cindy Geer, science educator in XU's department of education, helped during the summer workshop. She explained the theory behind the new pedagogy, presented tips on teamwork in cooperative groups, and talked about how to assess group work, non-traditional assessment techniques , and the role of instructor as facilitator.
  • The workshop included "experiencing" inquiry. All participants did the first few labs, working in groups, designing their own experiments, and presenting them.
  • Weekly meetings of all instructors were a time to debrief from the previous week's lab, share ideas of what worked and didn't, and to prepare for the upcoming week.

During the pilot program we also learned:

  • The need to sit to the side of the room during team presentations so the students didn't talk to just the instructor.
  • Student misinformation is evident during oral presentations. When grading multiple-choice questions, you may know that Sally missed #17, but not that she thinks dextrose is a protein, not a sugar.
  • Students can often build a better oral argument than a written one, indicating a need to improve writing skills.
  • If you want students to ask higher level thinking questions, you need to model that in your own questioning.

     After using a new pedagogical technique in one class, you will think differently about how you teach all your classes. You'll have another skill, another weapon in your teaching arsenal. You will grow as an instructor.     

"Change continues." We've been through three semesters, but the course continues to evolve. Some of the things we're still working on/struggling with are:

  • How to provide ongoing training to faculty. Next fall, due to departmental retirements, we'll have two new instructors.
  • How to improve the quality of the student's questions.
  • How to strengthen faculty skills as facilitators.
  • How to make the technology more of a tool, so that we spend less time teaching Excel or how to save a Word file, and more time evaluating the tables, graphs and journal articles.

Final Lessons Learned. When the local network was slow or down, students had to save their work temporarily on disk or the computer's hard drive. We're thinking of using the web-based BlackBoard5 system fall 2001.

Involve only faculty who are interested.

     With a major curricular change the first time through, no matter how prepared you think you are, you'll be reacting. The second and third time, the ride seems less bumpy. And one you're on the roller coaster, strapped in, and climbing, try to enjoy the ride!


Linda Heath and Phyllis Laine are lab instructors in the department of biology.

Contributors to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.

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