Course Evaluation and Grad Publication: Hannah Jordt

Filling in that bubble sheet: An evaluation of a course you should have taken

Evaluator’s note to her fellow biograds:  Just as twelve of us were taught to do in Bio 505B this past quarter, I’m going to start off by stating my educational objectives up front. The goals of this blog post are 1) to inform N-12 of you that you missed out on a great class last quarter, 2) to convince you to accommodate it in your schedule next spring when it’s offered again, and 3) to fit in a slightly retroactive grad publication post.

Course: Bio 505B: Problems in Biological Instruction

Instructors: Scott Freeman, also featuring Mary Pat Wenderoth

Q1: What aspects of the course contributed most to your learning?

Short Answer: Active learning and peer instruction (take this course so you can role your eyes at the obviousness of this statement).

Longer answer: I admit that I’m fairly biased in how much importance I give to teaching and to having an understanding of evidence based teaching practices.  But we’re biologists. We all like evidence and critiquing design flaws for not flushing out those alternative hypotheses. We like admiring a well-designed experiment that gives us information about something relevant to our lives. In Bio 505B we spent one morning a week gathered around a table over coffee and scones, doing just this. We read papers regarding student demographics and mindsets, the best way to design a course or classroom, and various teaching techniques. We shared them with our peers in groups and then had lively debates about the merits of each, and about how we could use the results to shape our own teaching practices. There is evidence out there about what works and what doesn’t. Being exposed to this evidence through these discussions, and realizing that this knowledge will actually help you become a better teacher are the best parts of this class.

Q2: Did the instructor(s) seem knowledgeable about the material presented?

While I know we’re all pretty well aware of how great of a scientific research department UW Biology is, we’re also at the forefront of cutting-edge biology education research.  Members of the department’s Biology Education Research Group (BERG) regularly publish research articles, some of which include the #2 and #3 most cited papers in Life Sciences Education and publications in Science and PNAS. Scott and Mary Pat are two of the pillars of this group and being able to discuss biology education with them for a quarter is an opportunity you don’t want to miss out on. They are great guides to the current literature, and as you would expect from two people who have devoted their lives to improving biology education, excellent instructors. 

Q3: Do you have any recommendations for improving the course?

Advertise it more. Convince everyone to take it. Make it a mandatory graduate student requirement. Any or all of the above. As biologists and graduate students, teaching is relevant to all of us, and we can become so much better at it simply by being aware of the best ways (backed up with evidence!) to teach and communicate science. Plus, it’s fun! Trust me, grads, you want to take this class.

Q4: Do you have any additional comments?

Here’s the part where I subtly slip in a grad publication post and hope you all don’t realize it’s several weeks late. However, we were so excited about the results I wanted to encourage you all to take a look at it anyway. In our paper, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics” (Freeman et al. 2014), we meta-analyzed 225 studies that compared active learning to traditional lecturing and found that active learning reduces failure rates and increases student performance on exams. We’re hoping this paper helps put to rest the long-held debate on whether active learning or traditional lecturing is more effective, so that education researchers can turn their focus to 2nd generation research, i.e., exploring which forms of active learning are best, and how to optimally incorporate them in the classroom.

The paper can be found here!

A follow up commentary published in PNAS is here.

And UW Today’s take on it is here. 



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