Teaching and Evaluating Biology for Non-Majors

Jennifer M. Rhode, St. Mary's College of Maryland

My home institution, St. Mary's College of Maryland, is a public, liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 1800 undergraduates. In 1997, SMCM added biology to its general education requirement, and a non-majors course (BIOL 101, "Contemporary Bioscience") was created. This course differs from biology for majors (BIOL 105/6, "Principles of Biology") in three important ways. First, BIOL 101 is condensed into 4 credits and 1 semester, while BIOL 105/6 is an 8 credit class that spans 2 semesters. CBS enrolls 5 sections of 30 students, while POB enrolls 2 sections of 65 students per semester. Finally, BIOL 101 is a "W" (writing) course, while BIOL 105/6 fulfills a "Q" (quantitative) requirement.

Each difference impacts the way in which classes are taught and students are evaluated. In CBS, essential biological concepts must be distilled to fit into a limited amount of time, and depth of information is sacrificed in favor of breadth. Smaller class sizes allow students to do more interactive work and for socratic and experiential learning to be applied liberally. The BIOL 101 "W" requirement dictates that students spend classroom and homework time writing and revising two 5 - 7 page literature evaluations as well as laboratory reports.

I solved the challenge of time limits by choosing 9 important biological themes and devoting 4 - 5 class sessions to each of these themes. To encourage student interaction, I organized the course around the scientific method as a way of knowing. In lieu of fact memorization, students learned to 1) identify biological questions, 2) solve these questions, 3) evaluate solutions of themselves and others. Students were encouraged to think logically, work cooperatively, incorporate interdisciplinary themes so that the course dovetailed with other general education classes, and be creative. Finally, I used group brainstorming and editing to help students organize their writing. I also used warm-ups and unannounced quizzes as a forum for informal writing practice.

Unconventional course format requires a redesigned approach to testing. Since we discussed few concepts in detail, students focused on finding connections among themes and solving scenario-based problem sets. I encouraged an interactive classroom by emphasizing skills and their application rather than facts and their memorization. Students were then evaluated on group projects. In one exercise, groups designed artificial marshes to treat tertiary sewage. They were graded on their use of scientific concepts in designing their marsh, the creativity of their marsh, and the ability of their marsh to reduce nutrient levels in sewage effluent. The use of open-ended evaluations, including lab exercises, "what if" scenarios, and group problem solving encouraged students to actually think about science rather than parroting facts.

I am now teaching another section of CBS as well as an interdisciplinary environmental studies course and am eager to expand my teaching horizons.