Magazine article Liberal Education

Leveraging Innovation in Science Education: Using Writing and Assessment to Decode the Class Size Conundrum

Magazine article Liberal Education

Leveraging Innovation in Science Education: Using Writing and Assessment to Decode the Class Size Conundrum

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTORY BIOLOGY courses are supposed to serve as gateways for many majors, but too often they serve instead as gatekeepers. Reliance on lectures, large classes, and multiplechoice tests results in high drop and failure rates. Critiques of undergraduate science education are clear about the problems with conventional introductory science courses, and yet the problems persist. As David Hanauer and Cynthia Bauerle explain, "Given the potential for science to address important problems, undergraduate programs ought to be functioning as busy portals for engaging students' innate fascination and I developing their understanding of the nature and practice of science. Instead, recent studies suggest, the opposite is true: over half of the students who enter college with an interest in science do not persist in their training beyond the first year or two of introductory coursework."1 Researchers and expert practitioners have long proposed using student-centered, active learning strategies to improve engagement, learning, and achievement.2 Others have documented the ways class size is important for student-centered pedagogy.3 Following Hanauer and Bauerle, who recommend using assessment reform to facilitate such curricular innovations, we contend here that the better the assessment and the more focused the guidance provided to the instmctor, the greater the leverage.

Our findings from the pilot study described below suggest that authentic assessment embedded in best teaching practices can show what kind of change is needed. Our study allowed us to observe the relative impacts of both class size and the use of writing as an assessment strategy, and thus to identify the sequence our reform efforts must take. The purposes of this article are, first, to report on our experience responding to Hanauer and Bauerle's call, and second, to identify the key components that gave that "reform lever" additional power: the careful selection and preliminary testing of essay questions requiring critical thinking, the reduced size of one section of an entry-level biology course, the support of a networked improvement community, and guidance for the instructor during the testing of new methods.

Background

At University of the Pacific, introductory biology courses have long relied on large lecture sections, an instructional model in which "learner success is based primarily on the instructor's ability to organize and present information in ways that enable students to learn it."4 Some at University of the Pacific, like Eileen Camfield, director of writing programs, and Eileen McFall, director of learning and academic assessment, champion adding writing and other active learning techniques to courses. But actually beginning a cultural shift from the prevailing teacher-centered, knowledge-transmission model to a learningfacilitation model requires a foot-in-the-door approach to change.

The opportunity arose when Associate Professor Kirk Land noticed deep engagement and improved learning in a small summer section of his introductory biology course. Enrollments in summer biology classes at University of the Pacific tend to be lower than during the regular academic year, when class sizes can reach eighty students. In the summer of 2014, Land's introductory biology section had just twenty-two students. He observed differences between that section and other, larger sections that went beyond having fewer bodies in the room, though that allowed him to include short in-class writing assignments-something he had long felt was missing from the biology curriculum and an issue he had begun to discuss with Camfield the previous spring. Believing that writing can provide a window into student thinking, Land had previously been thwarted by crushing class sizes and unmanageable grading loads. The small size of his summer class enabled him to act on his belief. Moreover, having the opportunity to interact with a small group made it possible for him to pay more attention to individual students and to gauge their abilities. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.