Thursday, 23 October 2014

ruminations from the 58th ACUBE meeting in Portland OR, Oct 16-17, 2014

I just returned from the annual meeting of ACUBE in Portland, OR. This is a great group of biological educators interested in providing the best learning environment for their students. ACUBE publishes the semi-annual journal Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching. You may contact their editor, James Clack, if you are interested in reviewing manuscripts for the journal.

I presented my survey of capstone courses in biology. It was at 8 am so we were a small but engaged group - we had an interesting discussion. I am preparing the manuscript for publication but if you can't wait you can view the PDF of my PowerPoint presentation here.

The following paragraphs are my summaries of the presentations I was able to attend.

Community Engagement in Undergraduate Biology: Opportunities and Challenges was presented by Amy Boyd from Warren Wilson College and presented her experience in developing a community service learning program for her students. She provided examples at all levels of college in which her students completed projects for community partners: middle school, community gardens, public gardens. She explained that there were pedagogical advantages of having direct contact between students and community partners: students consider alternative career tracks and it places students' learning in a larger social context.

James Clack from Indiana University-Purdue University presented Online Biology courses - Five Years In which was a reflection of his experiences with online learning in biology. There were a couple of take home messages for me. One was that online courses really benefit from being blended with a face-to-face component because his students didn't seem to make use of the online interaction opportunities he provided. In addition he found that far more students did not show up for the final exam compared to his in-class courses. Online students seemed to drop out of the course without officially dropping it resulting in an incomplete or failing grade. Some of the discussion mused about whether students simply forgot they were enrolled in the course or whether they were unclear about the need to take the initiative to drop or withdraw from a course before the deadline.

Matt Kropf & Denise Piechnik from the University of Pittsburgh presented An Approach to STEM Education in the Biology Classroom and Lab in which they suggested that it is not difficult for students to learn how to produce their own sensing instruments for their biology labs and projects. They acknowledged that the initial learning curve is steep but short - their students learned how to use the inexpensive kits within an afternoon (2-3 hrs) producing equipment that worked (e.g. moisture sensors). The kits were relatively inexpensive ($100 from Open Source Hardware & Open Source Software) and could be re-used. For those interested they are looking for collaborators for a grant in which they would complete a careful assessment of the impact of sensor development on student learning outcomes. Their argument and experience suggests that if students build their own equipment they have a better sense of the sensor's capabilities and limitations.

Lisa Felzien from Rockhurst University presented  Assessing the Impact of Integrated Research in a Molecular Biology Course in which she argued that embedding authentic research experience in courses produced increases in understanding experimental design, and improved critical thinking. A survey of her students' experiences indicated that they still perceived lectures to be the best teaching/learning method and that learning from their peers was not as valuable. However, they did highly rate their experiences in analysing their own data. Based on an analysis of student pre/post-tests she found that there were large learning increases for hypothesis making and testing but not as much for lecture based content/learning and that there was not much difference in students' ability to answer lower vs higher (Bloom's) order questions. She concluded that students appreciate working on research projects with a good perception of the learning involved but that there was little difference in their preference for lecture vs project-based learning and that students' perceptions of their learning do not always align with their performance and is more likely related to what they like.

Tom Davis did a great demonstration of flipping the classroom in Flippin' the A&P Classroom: Why Didn't I Do It Before? He had us complete an exercise very similar to TBL but without the IF AT cards. We used chalkboards (yes chalkboards!) on all walls of the classroom for students (us) to complete a relatively short assignment (similar to TBL Apps) on the material. His desired outcomes from flipping are: students are talking to each other and to the instructor rather than sitting passively in their seats; students prepare before class; the instructor is doing less telling with students instead more speaking to each other while they collaboratively engage with the course material. He provides a short interactive summary for each lecture section called Lecture Note Outlines (LNOs) that students have to complete while reading their pre-class assignment. This is very similar to TBL reading guides. A funny misunderstanding during the presentation was that a participant heard him describe his LNOs as lecture no outlines and couldn't figure out how this was an advantage for students.....

Marlee Marsh from Columbia College presented Improving Lab Report Writing & Student Confidence. In her freshman introductory biology course she found that students' lab reports were poorly prepared and that even a guide to lab reports did not improve them. She developed a plan of attack which involved scaffolding the assignments and partnering freshman biologists with senior students. Meetings between the upper classmen and freshmen were part of the grade. The classroom partners (CP) attended the labs and lectures and provided feedback but did not edit freshman's writing (lab reports). CP were paid, trained and recruited (strong biology student with good writing skills). She found that it was important to be intentional in her writing instructions to students (e.g. writing M&M in past tense and third person). She has noticed improved results over the last three years. A third of her freshman met more than the required three times with their CP. Most (> 80%) of her students thought they had improved their writing and learning. Students' comments reflected a positive change in attitude toward their assignment. Going forward she will continue to communicate clear expectations of writing to her students and ensure communication among instructors, students, CP. She also found that timely feedback was important and that time is easier to secure than funds. She hopes to follow up on this program in upper level courses.

Finally Christopher Price presented the keynote entitled Promoting Academic Integrity in the 21st C. He is a Political Scientist at SUNY, but on this day he was presenting in his role as Academic Programs Manager of the SUNY Center for Professional Development, and Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching at the College at Brockport, SUNY. He discussed a couple of questions from Lang's 2013 book Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty

1. what does it mean for biology students to do their own work?
2. why does it matter?

Some of the answers we generated were:

  • students need to practice their discipline - copying doesn't enable that.
  • students need to engage in the construction of their own knowledge structure - again copying someone else doesn't enable that
  • if assignments are plagiarized then instructors can't assess students' understanding of the material
  • difficult for students and instructors to sometimes distinguish between what is collaborative vs copied work
Christopher presented the alarming statistic that 65% students have engaged in some form of cheating (this has been reported previously elsewhere), but that students don't consider cheating to be a problem - they don't value academic integrity. I have had this discussion with my colleagues at Augustana and concluded, similar to Dr. Price, that we need to teach our students why it is important: the academic enterprise rests on trust and honesty. For example, in the sciences imagine the problems of advancing our knowledge if data are fabricated. Thus plagiarizing is not as serious as fabricating data but plagiarism does indicate their trustworthiness. In the sciences attribution is less important than accuracy but there are the sociocultural issues that if we don't properly acknowledge each other's contribution, there will be much less collaboration on the issues that can't be solved by one person alone.

One of the problems unique to the 21st C  that Christopher presented was that our current ability to socially engage through the internet of things makes it difficult to determine unique authorship - intertextuality & collaboration are much more common now than a couple of decades ago due to social media. In undergraduate courses, this problem can be addressed by assigning team assignments which includes peer assessment.

Another problem of the 21st C is the corporatization of higher ed: the professional pressure on faculty produces a careerism at the expense of focusing on the needs of the students. From the student side they assume that with their tuition dollars they are purchasing a degree that will lead to a career and monetary success. Thus weak performance in college has real potential of impacting people's lives resulting in the perceive necessity by students to sometimes cheat. Other issues include greater diversity of the student body making some traditional approaches less effective (e.g. honor code) and the hidden curriculum (norms, values, beliefs) unreliable.

Dr Price suggested some strategies including enforcing existing rules but its reliance on fear produces questionable results. Here he cited Parker Palmer and his assertion in The Courage to Teach that a culture of fear is antithetical to learning. Another possibility is to develop ethical orientation & behaviour in our students but this typically become a delegated responsibility to someone or some dept and thus becomes marginalized. A better approach that Christopher suggested is to develop a mastery rather than performance orientation in our students by changing the nature of how our courses are designed. This might include multiple attempts at assignments or the possibility of permitting students to design/suggest alternative assessments. Similar to Mazur, Price advocated for authentic assessments. These are assessments that are not in and of themselves the learning objective but rather are opportunities for students to show what they have learned. This may involve a change in practice moving from few high to many low stakes assessments and to provide students with practice to prepare them for assessments . This altered learning orientation from performance to mastery emphasizes intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation for students and thus promotes the development of self-regulated learners. Similar to Maryellen Weimer in her book Student-Centered Teaching, Price advocated for approaching course content as a means to the learning goal not an end in itself leading to grounded assessments - something students will do in the work or research world rather than a content dump. Similar to what I have been thinking, Price suggested that the incorporation of metacognitive activities into course work will promote student self-efficacy and may help to develop students' ability to assess themselves by asking the metacognitive question "have I mastered this material?" This approach can be facilitated by how instructors approach their teaching. As educators we need to express that we have something great to teach our students, that we will challenge them, and that they are capable of meeting that challenge.

For those of you interested, the next ACUBE annual meeting will take place Oct 23-24, 2015 at
Missouri Western State University in St Joseph, MO.