What I Learned?

By Dottie Engle, Associate Professor,
Department of Biology

This is the story of the transformation of BIOL 230 Genetics, a required course for Biology and Natural Science majors.  The typical enrollment is 60  80 students in two sections.  From the usual student perspective, the familiar lecture format was serving them well.   As juniors, most of them had already figured out how to get decent grades in biology classes, and those planning to apply to medical school needed only a superficial understanding of genetics for the Medical College Admission Test.  As far as I was concerned, however, something was wrong.

Genetics is different from most other areas of biology, because it is both a sub-discipline and a technology.  As a sub-discipline of biology, genetics focuses on inheritance and the means by which genes, the units of inheritance, cause organisms to display various characteristics.   In addition, genetics is also a tool kit comprised of strategies that are applicable to almost every area within biology, from biochemistry to physiology to ecology.  In this way it is similar to mathematics: once you understand how to approach and solve a certain type of problem, you can apply this knowledge to a wide variety of questions.  The power of genetics as an experimental approach, especially at the molecular level, has made it vitally important to every area of biology as well as to medicine and law enforcement.

For three years, I taught Genetics the "normal" way: lots of lecture, some modeling of problem-solving strategies, and a little in-class group work.  Students did most of the chapter problems on their own or in optional homework clubs.  Although they performed as expected, with the usual numbers of high and low test scores, I was continuously haunted by a vague sense of dissatisfaction.  Most students could re-cap classic experiments and discuss their significance, but few could apply this knowledge to propose experiments addressing a new situation.  They became proficient at simple calculation problems using small data sets, but could not string together and interpret results from a series of experiments to get a complete story.  I wanted geneticists, but I was getting genetic historians.  I knew that it was not their fault, but mine.  Naturally, the students were blissfully unaware of my growing discomfort.

Other shortcomings of the course exacerbated my uneasiness.  One issue was the limited variety of textbooks.  Until recently, the usual organization of genetics texts prevented students from seeing the information as a sensible whole.  Another issue was typical student behavior.  I teach the introductory course, so I know the foundation that they should already possess.  Although I gave frequent reminders to review old material prior to lecture, diagnostic quizzes showed that the majority of the class failed to do this, so I ended up re-covering the old material.  Why should they do the work when I was willing to do it for them?   In addition, there was the age-old habit of cramming the night before the test.

Two happy events provided the impetus and structure I needed to change.  One was the timely appearance of a new textbook, written and organized to reflect how real geneticists think and work.  The other was an on-campus workshop on group learning by Larry Michaelsen, University of Oklahoma.  The most profound lesson I learned was that by lecturing most of the time, I was wasting precious class hours doing what students could do on their own.  At the same time, I was sending them home with work that called for my help and guidance.   For example, in class I explained simple definitions that could have been easily comprehended from reading the text.  Likewise, I was reviewing old material that students should have managed independently.  Although I was modeling problem-solving techniques, they needed more help applying them than time allowed.  Most of their practice time was out of class.  Furthermore, most students lead busy lives, so making them work in groups outside of class was often unproductive and frustrating.  The only time during which their schedules were guaranteed to mesh was the class time.  Fortunately, the workshop included much how-to information that I could easily adapt to my particular course.  Armed with a new text and a model to follow, I bravely scrapped the entire course and started over.

The first question I asked was What do I really want the students to be able to do at the end of this course  Previously, they had been successful at learning about genetics.  Now I am more ambitious: I want them to be able to think like geneticists.  Accordingly, I put the following in the syllabus:

The goal of this course is to help students learn about genetic technology and learn to use genetics in a variety of biological situations. Given a biological phenomenon or problem, students should be able to:

  1. Identify which aspects of the phenomenon are amenable to study using genetics.
  2. Propose and outline appropriate experiments or procedures to study those aspects.
  3. This includes a basic knowledge of the various ?tools? at the geneticists? disposal.
  4. Be able to interpret data/results from genetics experiments.
  5. Be able to draw appropriate conclusions.

Genetics as a discipline consists of a limited number of concepts and tools which can be applied to an almost unlimited number of scenarios. Therefore the main focus of the course will be application of knowledge, including lots of practice, practice, practice!

To assess whether we are meeting these goals, we use individual tests, individual and group analysis of research papers, and a group research proposal, described below.

Next, I thought about how to distribute the work-load, keeping in mind what tasks would require my help vs. those that could be done independently.  I had learned from the workshop that the key to efficient use of time is making the students accountable for doing their part.  I laid it out explicitly in the syllabus:
Distribution of Work

As in every other class, there will be some work you will do on your own time and some work we will do in class. Because of our focus on application, the distribution of the work may be different than in your other biology classes.

Work you do on your own time:
  • Review old concepts and learn new concepts by reading textbook chapters.
  • Practice applying concepts by doing assigned chapter problems, and reading and analyzing one original research paper.
  • Prepare for group paper analysis by reading one original research paper.
  • (Total reading = textbook & 2 papers.)

Work we do in class:

  • assess individual readiness for group work with Individual Readiness Assessment Quizzes for each chapter.
  • assess group readiness for applications with group Readiness Assessment Quizzes for each chapter.
  • assess individual application skills with four problem-based Tests.

  • address new or overly-challenging concepts in lecture.
  • model problem-solving approaches in lecture.

  • apply concepts by solving a multitude of problems from the textbook, doing other types of group exercises, a group paper analysis, and one group research proposal (see goals).

The usual pattern followed by students in the past was to hear a lecture first, then use it as a guide for delving into the chapter.  Thus the first behavior I wanted to reinforce was reading ahead of time to prepare for class.  At first I just assigned the chapter and then started each topic with a quiz.  However, it soon became clear that the students needed help determining how deep to go with the reading. Without a prior lecture as a gauge, some were just skimming and others were trying to memorize every detail.  To combat this problem, I produced Reading Guides that helped them to focus on the important material in each chapter.  The Reading Guides also pointed out what material was old (and should have been very familiar) as well as what concepts I planned to explain more fully in lecture.

In the new genetics class, students are held accountable for the reading by Readiness Assessment Quizzes (RAQ).  These are short quizzes (5 - 10 multiple choice questions) on the assigned chapter.  They cover relevant old material and any new information that is straightforward.   (New concepts requiring explanation and/or new ways of problem solving are not fair game for RAQs).  Each person takes the RAQ individually in class, using a Scantron form.  Next, the group takes the same test for a group score; this provides instant feedback as well as possible examples of good performance.  Lastly, the group may appeal any question, in writing only.  RAQs ensure that everyone comes to class ready to work.  For the final grade, we drop the lowest individual and group RAQ score.

The second behavior I wanted to reinforce was keeping current with the out-of-class work and not waiting until just before the test.  The only solution I could devise was to assign and collect homework problems.  Although this seemed high-schoolish to me, it seemed to be critical for the success of in-class group work as well as for overall student success.  For most chapters I assign a few problems to be done ahead of time in preparation for group work.  At the beginning of class, each group collects the individual problem sets and places them in the group folder for handing in.  The actual purpose of collecting problems for a grade is to reward students for doing them in a timely fashion, when the work will be most useful to their learning, and while there is still plenty of time to ask questions (i.e. not doing several chapter's worth of problems the night before the test!).

Although I model problem-solving approaches for the entire class, much of our in-class work takes place within groups, or Learning Teams. A portion of the final grade is a ?helping score?, points given in peer evaluations within the group. The general advantages of group work have been amply described elsewhere.  Some of the specific advantages in this course relate to the problem-solving nature of genetics material: students hear explanations in different words, work through calculations together for improved confidence, and reinforce their learning by helping others.  They can do informal self-assessment.  (?It looks like I?m the only one who doesn?t understand this!  I guess I need help.?)  I circulate around the room, eavesdropping in order catch misconceptions and answer questions.  In my experience, students were much more likely to ask questions as a group than as individuals.

To assess whether we are meeting the goals stated in the syllabus, we use individual tests, individual and group analysis of research papers, and a group research proposal.   The tests are very challenging compared to my former tests (more open-ended questions).  The questions present data sets with the purposefully vague instructions ?Draw appropriate conclusions?.  The students must be able to determine why the experiment was done, then interpret the results accordingly.  Having had ample in-class practice, most students are reasonably successful, although there is certainly a range of scores on each test.  The students also do two paper analyses, one as a team and one individually. These involve reading a research article and answering a series of questions about the methods used and the interpretation of data. (I assign the papers.) We do the group one earlier in the semester, then the individual one later.  Finally, the final exam is in the form of a Research Proposal.  During the final exam time, each group produces an outline of a research plan on a specific biological scenario. The plans include: the question being addressed, several specific aims, a list of experiments, some possible results and possible interpretation.  The outlines are recorded on overhead transparencies and presented to the class.

There remain two issues that make this course arrangement a challenge.  One is book-keeping; the large number of graded assignments means that I spend a lot of time grading and that I must maintain an enormous spread sheet to manage all of the scores.  The second issue is grading itself: what proportion comes from group work and what proportion comes from individual work?  I struggle with this every year, changing the relative proportions in an effort to be fair but without contributing to grade inflation.  Currently, 75% is based on individual components, with 25% based on group work.
So what are the results?  Students were suspicious in the beginning, but they ended up enjoying the class and commenting positively on evaluations.  Even at 8:30, no one falls asleep.  Several students admitted that they finally learned how to study, having been forced into it by the regular quizzes and graded assignments. Based on the types of test questions that were dismal failures in the past, I have seen a dramatic improvement in thinking and application skills.   Finally, the final exam/research proposal confirms that most of the students have met the goals.  Although this is a group assignment and is part of the group grade, last year I experimented with having the students write individual responses first.  To my delight more than half of the students made reasonable proposals on their own.  With the input of team members, all of the group proposals passed muster.


Dr. Dottie Engle is an associate professor 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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