challenges in learning biology

I spent Monday & Tuesday of this week down in Wellington, attending the 2nd First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium. (Yes, that’s a mouthful! We usually just say FYBEC to those in the know.) It was really refreshing to spend time focusing on how we teach first-year biology at university, and on research into ways to enhance that teaching.

The first keynote was by Pauline Ross, who’s at the School of Natural Sciences, University of Western Sydney. Pauline’s won a large number of teaching excellence awards & it was a real privilege – & a pleasure! – to learn from her. She started her talk by identifying a number of things (aka the ‘7 deadly ways to see’) that can offer significant challenges to students beginning their uni-level studies in biology. But before I get onto those, I’m going to quote Pauline’s own words on receiving an Australian national teaching excellence award:

Although biology is supposedly the "easiest" of the science disciplines, research on student learning has shown that even high calibre, high achieving biology students at elite institutions taught by universally admired academics, fail to build a scientifically conceptual and contextual foundation in biology, perhaps because learning, teaching and assessment strategies in the discipline of biology have become ritualised. [However, a Kuhnian] paradigm shift allows me to communicate a deep conceptual and contextual understanding of biology to students. At the cornerstone of this paradigm shift is creativity; requiring students and staff to relearn their capacity for creativity and self-belief; inquiring, uncovering and overcoming barriers in their conceptual understanding, so that they think and practice as biologists.

Which pretty much sets the stage for the idea of the 7 deadly ideas (actually there were only 6, but the ‘7 deadly sins’ thing has a certain resonance!).

(1) First up was content, something that we have an awful lot of – and of course this is as much an issue for secondary school teachers as it is for those of us at university. The textbook I use with my classes, Campbell Biology, seems to get thicker with each new edition as the frontiers of our knowledge continue to expand. Ross asks, can we decrease our coverage of content? How do we decide just which are the key content areas for students to learn about? She suggests that we should pay more attention to the research on threshold concepts, something that my colleague Michael Edmonds has previously written about over on Sciblogs.

Mastery of a threshold concept is sort of an ‘aha!’ moment, says Ross, because it opens your eyes to new ways of exploring a topic. (As Michael says, they’re sometimes called ‘troublesome knowledge’, because they can clash with existing worldviews and (mis)conceptions. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as it can – should? – lead to a re-examination of those views & conceptions in the light of this new knowledge.) Placing more weight on threshold concepts may mean there’s a reduction of content overall, but it should also lead to a much deeper conceptual and contextual understanding. And that is definitely a Good Thing, as when students don’t understand they are stuck, unable to really move on in their learning. While they may be quite active in trying to gain understanding, they can also be quite confused and anxious – & they can stay that way, says Ross, for months.

So, considering threshold concepts rather than simply focusing on content knowledge can provide us with a new tool for revisiting and reviewing our teaching curricula.

(2) Next in the list was process. This is something I believe all tertiary science educators should ask themselves: do our students really graduate with all the science process skills that we fondly imagine they do? After all, our graduate profile probably says that they can do x, y, & z – but what opportunities do we give them to actually practise thinking like a scientist, for example? (Hint: they won’t learn it by osmosis.) We really do need to teach science as a fluid process, not as a fixed body of knowledge (all that content again!) – and to give students plenty of opportunity to experience that fluid process that is the essential nature of science. Similarly, the writing and literacy skills that we’d like them to have – are we providing sufficient opportunities to practice and learn those skills? Here Ross gave the example of meiosis & mitosis: we tend to teach about these forms of cell division as a series of steps (interphase, prophase etc) but we don’t teach their significance in context. She argues that if we want students to do more in (say) exams than simply parrot the names and chromosome states of those steps, then we need to give relevant, everyday examples to which they can anchor their knowledge. Her example was a question about a grazed knee that needed some pretty deep knowledge and writing about cell division to answer – & which couldn’t be answered but just listing those steps.

Of course, that would require some reasonably large changes in assessment (see # 5)…

This is getting a bit long 🙂

(3) Inquiry ie inquiry-based learning, something that’s intimately linked to process. This is gaining in emphasis in schools & it’s worried me for some time that students who’ve gained by learning using this approach in school must find ‘traditional’ university teaching rather a rude shock. It’s why Brydget (our wonderful first-year tutor) & I are always looking for ways to include more possibilties for genuine inquiry-based learning in our lab classes, for example, & it’s possible to do the same in lectures using opportunities for group problem-solving sessions. As Carl Wieman & his team (among others) have shown, this sort of approach enhances engagement & improves learning outcomes, while also giving the opportunity to practice thinking like a scientist. What’s not to like?

(4) Language ie jargon. There’s an awful lot of it. Yes, of course there are technical terms that students must master, but we need to ensure that mastery is properly scaffolded. I had an ‘aha!’ moment at this point, because Ross commented even saying a word correctly can help with learning it, but we seldom give them the chance to practice. (Phil Bishop picked up on this in his own presentation, noting that very few of his students could say ‘coelom’ correctly.)

(5) Assessment. Ah, I could write a whole post, in fact several of them, about assessment. Probably will, at some point. (At which point the audience might step away from the computer & walk, not run, from the room, lol.) Suffice it for now to say that how we assess has a very significant impact on how, and what, students learn – and that we may use too much of the type of assessment that encourages shallow, not deep, thinking and learning and which works against deep conceptual and contextual understanding.

(6) And innovation – how much do we really value and encourage it, Ross asks. Not innovation for innovation’s sake, but innovation for good pedagogical, research-based reasons, that changes how we teach (including assessment) in ways that should have a positive impact on how students learn. Things like the ‘flip teaching’ described by Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman (2011), for example, and which Kevin Gould has trialled with his first-year botany students at Victoria University: they’re given a handout of information on all sorts of things (shade/sun leaves, controlling gas exchange/water loss, etc), tasked with designing a plant for a particular environment – & then asked to present their design to the rest of the class.

I am so going to steal that one, Kevin!

2 thoughts on “challenges in learning biology”

  • I had to laugh at the “This is getting a bit long :-)” stuck in the middle of it all 🙂
    Great post.
    So now we should expect a series on assessment?
    I suspect quite a few people would read it – not just from the perspective of doing the assessment, but also their personal experience of being on the butt-end of it! (As we all have…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *