Biology Below The Gnat Line

Biy'allogy - (n) the scientific discipline otherwise known as biology, as taught below the Gnat Line. This blog is for educators who teach science in the deep south, where social and political conservatism reign supreme and "evolution" is a cuss word.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Why I Am Selfish With My Time

A fantastic graphic from EDvantage! This job is not easy, people! People in my life are always busting my chops for being selfish with my time. I want to eat lunch without interruption. I want to go home and not be hounded by 145 student e-mail messages. And you know what? That's okay. They get plenty of my time. If the graphic doesn't show up, the link is here

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When Flipping an Introvert, Bend at the Knees

Dr. Jackie Gerstein writes about education on her blog "User Generated Education". Without getting too "touch-y feel-y" again, I like this term because it implies that everyone has something valuable to contribute to the learning experience. I pulled this useful graphic on flipping the classroom from one of her blog entries:

Terms gleaned from distance education literature, "synchronous" and "asynchronous" learning activities, are synonymous with "group" and "individual" but add the component of time. Synchronous activities are those that allow students to work together in real time on creative projects, presentations, experiments, and discussions. Asynchronous activities are those that are done separately, even if the activity is technically a group effort (e.g. a discussion in which the participants are not physically or virtually together at the same time). I have taught exactly one online course, and it was such a spectacular failure that I told Dr. Brown I would never do it again. I could not get the students engaged, and I suspect part of the problem was that I didn't include any synchronous activities.

Synchronous activities build community, and while control freaks like myself may find them pure Hell (I used to forbid my group members from doing any of the work, then I resented them for not doing any of the work - don't you wish you went to school with me??), when managed effectively they can provide students of all learning types with a valuable experience. I like to give my students a job to do: scribes take notes, orators present information, builders create a product, etc. Having both individual and group activities also satisfies both social and solitary learners - those that learn best in groups and those that learn best alone.

Speaking of social and solitary learners, I'd like to take a minute to say that I do not believe that all social learners are extroverts and that all solitary learners are introverts. In fact, just the opposite may be true! Imagine an extrovert who just can't focus in a group setting, but given enough time alone can conquer complicated material. Similarly, imagine the introvert who is struggling with the material on their own and really needs the group dynamic to bring concepts to life. These individuals can both be served in a flipped classroom, as long as there are well-organized synchronous and asynchronous activities.

As an extrovert, I tend to understand my own kind best. However, one of the reasons I tried using i-clickers was to encourage introverts to participate in class. Terry Heick, a director at TeachThought, writes, "The simplest takeaway here is that for introverts, emotional security precedes learning. Being comfortable emotionally isn’t just helpful, but absolutely necessary." Because I don't lecture, I try to build community as quickly as possible, first with Think-Pair-Share exercises, and then with larger group activities. Introverts get swallowed up by large groups, but their chances at engagement increase in pairs. they build trust with their partner, and then with several partners, until they feel comfortable in the group. If two introverts are accidentally paired together (I've read that in the US extroverts outnumber introverts 3 to 1 but the number of introverts increases with academic advancement) they may struggle, but they struggle together. Struggling creates a bond, and those bonds allow introverts to build a community.

Do I know the best way to teach all the students? No. If there was a best way to teach all the students, the nerds who argue over pedagogy would need a new hobby. Can I serve the needs of all my students all the time? I don't know. I don't know if that's even possible. But I continue to evolve new methods to facilitate the material and encourage cognition. That is something I can do.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Flipping Out

It seemed like I'd tried everything to engage my students and get them to learn the material. Biology is difficult. Nobody denies that. But I thought if I could just get them interested, if I could inspire them, if I could engage them, they could master the subject. I'm inspiring! At the very least, I'm pretty to look at, right?

I showed video clips in class and uploaded the links to Vista (later D2L) - they never watched them. I tried assigning homework that involved computer simulations to increase their ability to apply the concepts to real world situations - they didn't finish it because, "[my] directions were too confusing." I let them set things on fire in lab to demonstrate energy transformations - apparently they had no idea why I did this, despite the clearly printed objectives on the lab sheets. I used i-clickers to "close the loop" during lecture and reading quizzes to force them to prepare for class - these were moderately successful efforts but seemed to slow things down.

To be honest, I spent most of my time lecturing. I enjoy lecturing, and I consider myself an engaging and entertaining speaker. For 75 minutes twice a week (or 50 minutes three times a week) I stood in front of a group of bored, sleepy, frustrated or otherwise disinterested adults and tried to prove to them that biology is cool. Biology is AWESOME, you guys! Biology, is LIFE. I could talk about Biology all day because it's so dynamic and interesting! If they would just listen, take better notes, study harder, I was sure that I could get them through the material in the time allotted. I resorted to verbal tricks, "I'm going to say this again because it's important and might be on a test, hint hint!" It rarely worked. In a good semester, only half of my students failed. It was time to try something new.

Last year, I transitioned to fully “flipped” courses in BIOL 2611 (Microbiology) and BIOL 1108 (Introductory Biology II). This resulted in:

  • increased overall student success rates (proportion of students getting a C or better)
  • increased student productivity (% completed assignments)
  • increased concept comprehension (exam scores)
  • increased critical thinking skills (case studies)
  • increased student engagement (think-pair-share exercises)
  • facilitated the adoption of successful study skills (preparatory quiz scores)
  • exceeded benchmark for combined SLOs (final project scores)

At its most basic, flipped classrooms rely on tech-savvy students to watch an instructional video on their own time, at their own pace, and be prepared to participate in an activity during class. The activity should be designed to facilitate and reinforce student learning objectives. The following graphic provides a summary of the use of flipped classrooms in secondary education.

Flipped Classroom

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

The technology required for flipping the classroom is no longer new (e.g. Khan Academy was created in 2006), and unlike their professors, most undergraduate students are "digital natives" who had computers in their kindergarten rooms, speak a language specifically designed for use on a mobile device, have their own blogs or Facebook or YouTube or Twitter feeds, and diagnose their medical maladies on Google before visiting the doctor. They don't want to sit and listen to me. It's boring. And while I don't indulge my students in their every whim, there is definitely value in meeting them where they are. And where they are is online.

There is no right way to do this - you will integrate new technologies and new programs into your teaching as you learn about them. I use D2L as an interactive platform because it's what EGSC uses. I use Khan Academy videos, YouTube videos, and record my own videos using Windows Media Capture, Camtasia, and Screencast-o-matic. I use case studies and worksheets provided by the textbook, and some from the NCCST or my own library. I design laboratory activities that reinforce the classroom activities and are applicable to the discipline (e.g. how to diagnose a staph infection in microbiology).

What I do NOT do is upload 75 minute videos of me, lecturing. Who wants to watch that?? Short videos are viewed more often, and videos that can be viewed on a mobile device are even more popular. Also, keep in mind that the textbook is often dense and hard for most students to read. If the reading assignment is difficult, the video is that much more important. Your auditory learners will be relying heavily on the video for information they cannot get from the textbook.

Sal Khan discusses a type of flipped classroom in his March 2011 Ted Talk

When creating classroom activities, consider your learning objectives and what kinds of students you may have in the room. As I mentioned, auditory learners have to hear or say something rather than read or write it. For this reason, oral presentations or discussions work well for them. Some students are tactile learners, and they must DO something. Experiments, games and building activities are most beneficial for these students. Typically, those who learn by reading or writing have always done best in academia, but recent changes in the K-12 curriculum reward memorization and filling in bubbles, rather than comprehension and analysis.

Some of the benefits of flipping the classroom have been unexpected. I am able to spend more time helping students navigate the experience of learning itself. I talk about learning styles and study techniques. We share stories and experiences related to the material. We create assignments together, we evaluate results together, and it feels much more collaborative. What right did I have to think I knew the best way to learn the material? What qualified me to know how fast or slow everyone should learn? My students know I'm not just on their side, but at their side. And it's better this way.

Lest you think I've gone soft in my old age, I still have fairly high expectations. Many of my students students go to nursing school, pharmacy school, or dental programs. We have begun to offer a B.S. in Biology with a rigorous curriculum, and those that transfer to other schools to finish their degree must make me proud and reflect my high standards. We don't hold hands and sing Kumbayah; this is biology class! But it's not your mama's biology class.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Don't Lecture Me!

From the Tomorrow's College series at American Radio Works, Don't Lecture Me is a documentary by Emily Hanford about changing the way professors teach and students learn in higher education.

"College students spend a lot of time listening to lectures. But research shows there are better ways to learn. And experts say students need to learn better because the 21st century economy demands more well-educated workers."

Dr. Eric Mazur, the Harvard professor heard in the podcast, also gave a presentation on student learning at Penn State last year. The media player opens in a browser window, and to view the lecture instead of the PSU-Hershey placeholder, you (weirdly) have to click what looks like a "refresh" icon on the right-hand side of the screen. Dr. Mazur is given a lengthy introduction, but starts his talk at 3:45.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Kung Fu Fighting

My microbiology students get into really loud arguments with each other over vaccine safety. I just sit back and watch them verbally disembowel one another. But sometimes I drop triggers on purpose, to get them going. Hey, it's fun for me.

“Genetically modified” vaccines and GMOs: Sapping and impurifying all our precious bodily fluids?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Critical Thinking Through Writing

I teach biology and microbiology but I make my students write essays. I'm so MEAN. I think writing is important. Deal with it.

I recently asked them to write an essay comparing an animal cell to an analogous structure. They tend to have fun with these, and I get to read all about how the cell is like a prison or grandma's house or an amoeba (note to students, an amoeba IS a cell). Some students get a bit carried away and build a cell to go with their essays. I highly encourage this, especially if it's edible.

I bring you the cell as JELL-O(R). CELL-O(R).

Go ahead! Eat it! It's tasty, I promise! That's a plum for a nucleus, some licorice for ER, Mike and Ikes(R) as mitochondria, cake sprinkles for ribosomes, and ribbon gum for the golgi apparatus. This is one of my best students, and she made this with her little brother. They got a bit too excited and put in the organelles before the gelatin was firm enough, and so they lost color and structure. I suspect this will simply encourage them to do it again.

Anybody need a fancy dessert for a party? Consider CELL-O(R), a fun and educational treat!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Multiple Choice, True or False?

I do realize that multiple choice exams are tantamount to professorial cheating, but they're just so much easier that sometimes it's hard to motivate myself to other assessment techniques. Essays are time-consuming to evaluate. Short answer exams lend themselves to subjective grading because I'm searching for key words or phrases. With large class loads, zipping a SCANTRON through the machine is just so much simpler than my other options. And they can be rigorous! Just ask the 50% of my students that failed their last exam!

But this morning I wondered, do multiple choice tests accurately reflect student learning?

I give my students access to a test bank as a study tool. Most textbooks now come with electronic files: instructional materials, lecture slides, movies, test generators, animations, etc. I make some of these available to my students, because the main resource they have at their disposal when studying is their textbook. I call the test bank "Chapter Preps" and encourage them to use them to prepare for upcoming lectures. Students who use these score higher on their daily reading quizzes and higher on their exams. It's practice, and practice makes perfect.

This year we changed editions of our biology textbook, and the test bank has changed, but not in the way you would expect. It's still multiple choice, but the number of potential answers has decreased from five (A-E) to four (A-D). This increases the probability of randomly selecting a correct answer by 25% (from 1/5 to 1/4). I've yet to find justification for this by the publisher, and can only assume it is meant to increase student success. Is it appropriate to increase a student's chances of getting it right by decreasing the number of ways they could get it wrong?

When I create a multiple choice test I try to ensure that answers require critical thinking, not just rote memorization. Anybody can memorize a list of names; nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria - but the most successful students will understand how those organelles function in context. A student may know that the mitochondria is for energy, but a better student will know why the shape of the mitochondria is critical to the production of ATP, a molecule that is essential for proper cell function. Assessing this difference on a multiple choice test is tricky, and I don't always get it right.

When I was an undergraduate I relished the opportunity to show off on an exam. I know, I know, it's obnoxious, but it's true. I hated multiple choice tests. They were boring and too easy and I often pretentiously considered the choices to be substandard to the answer I would have given if I had the freedom to do so. I know, I know, I was an arrogant jerk. If I had to teach College Breana I'd relish the chance to flunk her, mostly because I still am an arrogant jerk.

None of my students have the kind of confidence that I remember from college. I wasn't the only one who looked forward to exams with a nervous excitement - there were others. Many of us have gone on to be professors, and are in no way representative of "normal" college students. We were nerds. NERDS. And proud of it. I don't expect a classroom full of nerds, but I would like it if at least some of my students were interested in more than just the bottom line. They want to know exactly what they have to do to get a passing grade, and they invariably think the standards are set much too high. They like multiple choice, they rely on multiple choice, because they wouldn't be able to craft an answer in their own words.

How do I know? Because I've asked them to, and they can't. Student failure rates increase exponentially when I administer a short answer exam. It's more work for me and worse grades for them. I often look on this as a failure on my part, but I can try teaching the material six ways from Sunday and they still do better on multiple choice exams than on written ones. It's frustrating, and it makes a multiple choice test seem even more inviting. But it is fair? Is it rigorous enough? Is it appropriate for college? I'd love to know how other educators make this decision.