Students' Behaviors, Grades & Perceptions in an Introductory Biology Course

Article excerpt

Students enter college exceedingly confident that they will earn high grades and engage themselves fully in their courses (e.g., attend all of their classes and help-sessions, submit extra-credit work). However, students' grades and academic behaviors often do not match their expectations (Jensen & Moore, 2008; Moore, 2006b; Moore & Jensen, 2007a). This is especially true in introductory science courses, where grades and academic engagement are often low, even in courses taught by award-winning instructors (Congas et al., 1997; Friedman et al., 2001). Students' poor academic behaviors (e.g., skipping class, ignoring opportunities to improve their grades) often bewilder instructors, who understand that academic success depends largely on students' levels of academic engagement.

In this study, we tried to understand what underlies students' academic behaviors and overconfidence. To do this, we analyzed the grades, academic behaviors, and academic predictions of students who earned differing final grades in a large introductory biology course. We asked three sets of questions, the first of which involved grades earned by students on exams throughout the course. How, on average, do students' grades fluctuate throughout the semester? Do students predict high grades late into the semester because their grades are high until late into the semester?

The second set of questions involved students' beliefs about the academic behaviors that are important for success, such as class attendance, submission of extra-credit assignments, and attendance at help-sessions (Moore, 2006b; Moore & Jensen, 2007b). Students know that these behaviors are important for their academic success (Jensen & Moore, in press; Moore, 2003, 2006a). However, do students who earn different final grades actually exhibit different academic behaviors?

Finally, we wondered how students' scores on exams throughout the semester affect students' confidence about their final grades. How accurately do students predict their grades throughout the semester? That is, how is students' confidence about their final grades affected by feedback (i.e., their grades on exams) that they receive during the semester?

Methods

Site of the Study & Its Students

This study included 278 students enrolled in an introductory "mixed-majors" biology course at the University of Minnesota. The course covered topics typical of an introductory biology course, including evolution, cellular structure and function, molecular biology, genetics, and ecology. The population was 51% male and 49% female, averaged a 19.8 on the ACT, had a mean age of 19 years, and on average ranked in the 57th percentile of their high school classes. All students were taught in the same classroom by the same instructor who used identical syllabi, textbooks, grading rubrics, and pedagogical approaches.

Grade Groups, Grade Cut-Offs & Determinations of Final Grades

Students were grouped according to their final grades in the course, which were determined as follows: A= 90% and above, B= 80-89%, C= 70-79%, D= 60-69%, F= 59% and below. Course grades were calculated by averaging two equal scores: the exam score and the lab/homework score. The exam score (50%) included each of the three equally-weighted midterm exams (10% each) and a cumulative final exam (20%). The lab/homework score (50%) included the grade earned in the laboratory portion of the course (30%) and the homework component of the grade (20%), which was based on the completion of 15 assignments (some of which were done in class) throughout the semester. Class attendance was recorded every day with the submission of short, in-class writing assignments.

Help Sessions

An optional help-session was offered before each exam. These sessions were administered by a teaching assistant who had no knowledge of, or input to, the upcoming exams (i.e., students who attended the help-sessions got no "inside information" about that exam). …