Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Assessment in the service of student learning - Biology

This essay was prepared for the 2002 PKAL Roundtable on the Future, Assessment in the Service of Student Learning.

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My interest in cell and molecular biology combined with my interest in education, lead me to research questions about how students learn biology and how faculty teach biology. My primary focus in science education has been developing, piloting, and evaluating educational biology modules that attract and maintain the interest of non-science majors. These modules teach basic scientific methods and principles in social context. I am particularly interested in determining whether biology curricula that incorporate issues of race, gender, and geopolitics are better able to increase student retention of the basic principles of biology than curricula devoid of these perspectives.

Upon joining the faculty of Eugene Lang College (ELC), I was charged with designing and implementing a science program for liberal arts students, many of who would go on to become secondary or primary school educators. In this non-science majors setting, science needs to be taught as one of the liberal arts, or "Science as a Liberal Art." This environment also forces me to address the needs of students who are accustomed to seminar-style courses that use an active learning format and cross disciplinary boundaries. By using case studies and scenarios to teach biology in this environment, I find that these students are capable of learning as much as traditional science majors but, perhaps, are better able to apply what they have learned to real-world problems. Given this success, I began to seek avenues in which I could learn and develop innovative teaching modules, paying close attention to assessment and evaluation tools tailored to these pedagogies.

My first formal educational project began while I was attending a Case Studies in Science workshop at SUNY Buffalo. This annual workshop seeks to train faculty to develop cases that are peer reviewed and showcased at the SUNY Buffalo Case Studies in Science web site; a national clearinghouse of cases that is freely available to science faculty.

My first case, "Ninos Desaparecidos," merges the scientific and mathematical principles of genetic identification with human rights (http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/cases/ninos/ninos and http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/cases/ninos/ninos_notes.html). I chose the subject of the disappeared children of Argentina and El Salvador because many students are interested in global politics and human rights violations, especially those against women. By demonstrating that science can solve a variety of social problems, I was hoping to reach Latino and Hispanic students who often consider science a purely academic discipline. The assessments and forms of evaluation that accompany this case include data analysis, decision-making projects, and role-playing. This case has received a great deal of attention due to its political nature and its focus on cutting edge genetic technologies and was selected as one of the cases to appear in the special issue of case studies in the Journal of College Science Teaching this past fall.

In conjunction with Garland Publishing, I am currently working on a collection of case studies in cell biology, titled Cell Biology for Life. This project will be completed this summer and will accompany the new editions of the textbooks Molecular Biology of the Cell and Essential Cell Biology in fall of 2003. Briefly, the project is composed of three modules, each of which asks students to integrate information from many textbook chapters using guided inquiry, and to apply what they have learned in designing and evaluating a variety of applications. The modules focus on the following topics: botulinum toxin; stem cells/cell differentiation; and HPV and cancer.

Each module contains five or six learning activities designed for different levels of scientific background and understanding, class size, and course goals. The learning exercises ask students to build on previous knowledge and to integrate knowledge across academic disciplines using the learning cycle (engagement, exploration, and application). Some of these exercises use information technology supplied by a variety of media: Internet, CD-ROM, video animation and microscopy, on-line discussions and 3-D modeling programs. Other methods encourage students to improve their communication skills, both oral and written. The activities can be used in sequence or individually. Assignments are tailored to each activity while general tools such as tutorials, self-assessments, and in-class assessments appear in the appendixes. A table of these activities appears below.

Table 1. Learning Experiences at a Glance

Learning Activity Pedagogical Value
Engagement Activity Stimulates and maintains interest by having students form questions about the ethical and social aspects of the topic.
Data Analysis Provide students with a sense of how scientific progress is made. Students use study guides to dissect primary literature and give coherent oral and written summaries of the research.
Technology Activities Teaches students how to use technology and to compare and model molecular interactions.
Decision-Based Activities Present students with situations or dilemmas that force them to formulate a solution that incorporates the needs of different parties through role-play and small group work or peer review. The solutions replace the traditional term paper or grant proposal.
Role-playing Kinesthetic Activity Encourages students to use individual and cooperative learning to understand the temporal and spatial relationships of molecular processes.

These learning experiences follow the recommendations put forth by the National Institute for Science Education (NISE), the National Academy of Sciences, and the Joint Committee on Standards (coalition of 16 institutions). The last of which will be published in the Standards for Evaluation of Students in 2002.

It is my hope that these learner-centered modules would complement or replace lecture-based teaching in classrooms around the nation. As Susan Brookhart comments in her monograph “The Art and Science of Classroom Assessment: The Missing Part of Pedagogy,” many innovative teaching methods have been appropriated and implemented in the college science curricula with very little information as to how effective these practices are. Since the natural sciences have leaned towards more traditional methods of teaching and assessment, which include lectures, exams, and lab reports, far fewer data exist for non-traditional pedagogies and corresponding assessments. Although traditional methods of teaching address student acquisition of knowledge and skills, progressive teaching considers a wider variety of learning outcomes: higher order thinking; the process of creating and developing products (papers, proposals, web pages); and overall student dispositions towards the discipline. I realize that in order to convince students and faculty to adopt learning methods presented in Cell Biology for Life, formal evaluation of this project must be undertaken. For this reason, assessment and evaluation methods are being developed alongside the cell biology content.

I administered an “Engagement Activity” from the stem cell module to students registered in a Developmental Biology course at San Francisco State University this past fall. These students completed extensive assessment forms and were evaluated on both individual and group work. More than 80% of the students indicated that the activity had a significant impact on their attitudes towards science and many demonstrated a greater understanding of factors that affect cell differentiation (please see the “grading and assessment” link http://members.home.net/akssp.).

Although I have successfully designed reflective assessment tools that measure student attitudes towards learning science, making connections to other academic disciplines and society, and using a collaborative approach to learning, I am struggling to design assessment ad evaluation tools that measure the degree to which the students are learning cell biology content. More specifically, without a set of standard learning outcomes for a cell biology course, designing an exam, or form of evaluation, that would work across all cell biology classrooms is the challenge I face now.

As the Cell Biology for Life project progresses, I plan to incorporate a set of evaluation and assessment tools that address content learning. To this end, I have designed guiding questions for primary cell biology literature that allow students to assess their understanding of the premise of the paper, experimental designs, the outcome, the ambiguities, and the next phase of research. I have started to develop guiding questions for formal research proposals and reviews of these proposals as well as rubrics for evaluating the proposals.

To determine whether Cell Biology for Life modules are more successful in teaching students basic scientific principles than traditional lectures and examinations, I will be writing an NSF grant that would allow me to accumulated both quantitative and qualitative data from students and instructors who are using the modules in a variety of classroom settings. I believe that the PKAL Roundtable on assessment would allow me to learn from experts in the field so that I may develop successful tools to measure student learning and progress as it pertains to this project and undergraduate biology education in general.