Conference season!

I haven’t written a blog post in a long time. Often, the regular academic year is pretty hectic, so I’m less likely in general to post here, but the past few months have been … unusual. (Like I have to point that out!) It’s been tough for me to justify taking the time and effort to write about teaching and learning stuff lately, as  these topics seem almost frivolous, given unfolding world events. (As a Canadian living in the US, I’m still concerned about the current political and societal situation, and I may talk about that more later, but that’s another post … maybe.) However, life goes on, and as we get into conference season, it’s time to think (and talk!) about things beyond day-to-day teaching (and other concerns).

The Windsor-Oakland Teaching and Learning conference is always a great start to conference season for me, running early in May. This year, I was particularly impressed by the keynote from Peter Felten (@pfeltenNC): “Valuing Teaching: What Matters Most“.  This led me to read the most recent book that he co-authored, The Undergraduate Experience (Jossey-Bass, 2016 – Indigo Chapters link). Like his keynote, the book is rich in providing clear information, backed up by evidence, with illustrative examples of positive change at various universities. I’ve read a few books centred on change in undergraduate education, which I’ve typically found to include advice that may not be realistic for my own school, or not feasible for someone to act upon who is not in upper administration. I actually felt like the Felten et al. book provided elements where I may be able to make a difference (beyond my regular goal of teaching and advising as well as I can, in my current position).

oCUBE 2016 group photo

oCUBE 2016 group photo – could you find a more friendly group?

The annual oCUBE May UnConference is coming up very soon! This is the eighth one, and I’m happy to see that our grass-roots community of practise is still going strong. We are a group of individuals across various institutions, in a number of different roles, all interested in improving Biology education. (It started as an Ontario group, but we now have members from other provinces, and even in the USA!) The UnConference format seems to work very well for the kinds of discussions our group has, and having some new and different members contributing, along with a mixture of original and new members means that we get different perspectives and a diversity of interests and experience in our sessions. Our meeting location at Shamrock Lodge (near Port Carling, ON) is a lovely retreat away from our respective cities … and I personally think that the blueberry pancakes promote creativity and well-being! (The Shamrock Lodge folks treat us  – and FEED us – very well.)

The annual conference for the Canadian Society of Microbiologists (CSM) is in June, in Waterloo, ON. The conference program looks great, and I’m excited to see Ed Yong (@EdYong209) and Jack Gilbert (@gilbertjacka) speak again. (Unabashed fangirl here!!!) Even more exciting, for me, is that we are holding our third pre-conference CSM FOME (Forum On Microbiology Education) workshop on June 20! Our keynote facilitator, Karen Smith (@DrMyth115), is a great microbiology educator and communicator, and our planning committee was faced with a challenge we had not faced in the previous two years – we have more workshop/presentation proposals than we can actually fit in our allotted time. CSM FOME co-chair Josie Libertucci (@Jos_Tucci) and I are thrilled to see how many people have registered for the workshop so far, and are looking forward to seeing this section grow in the CSM in future. (P.S. Is it rude to bring my copy of “I Contain Multitudes” to ask Ed Yong to sign it? What about getting a selfie with Ed and Jack?)

We also have the Western Conference on Science Education (WCSE) in July this summer (July 5-7). One of my favourite conferences, it runs every other year at Western University in London, ON, attracting high-quality workshops/presentations/posters, and opportunities to interact with highly engaged educators throughout the conference both in and out of conference activities. Early Registration for 2017 is still open at reduced rates until Friday, May 26th.  If you’ve been to WCSE before, you can once again save $50 on your registration if you find a Newb (WCSE newbie!) to bring along (and if you’ve never been to WCSE, being a “Newb” with a previous WCSE-attendee will save you $50, too!).

It’s going to be a busy summer, and that’s a good antidote to some of the other stuff going on in the world right now. What are you looking forward to over the next few months?

 

 


Ancillary fee anxiety

AnxietyCat Ancillary

Anxiety cat is anxious about ancillary fees

I had originally planned to write (and actually wrote a draft of) a post to explore my questions and concerns about asking students to pay for access to a web-based classroom response system (WBCRS henceforth), like Lecture Tools (now integrated into Echo 360), Top Hat, or Learning Catalytics. My major concern? These tools are basically ways to teach huge classes better, to bring in the interactivity and communication aspects difficult to achieve in the large class setting – kind of a “large class tax” on students. (I’ve used Lecture Tools for several terms – see my previous posts here, here, and here.)

 

I’d hoped to gain some clarity,  maybe spark some conversation with colleagues about the issues relating to using a WBCRS at a cost to students. As part of my thinking, I considered some of the other ancillary items we routinely ask students to purchase (i.e., not usually included in their tuition, but required for a course). I was originally thinking that a teaching tool is really different from a required textbook, dissection kit, safety glasses, or a lab coat. Now I’m not only concerned about the ethics/fairness of asking students to purchase licenses for a WBCRS, but also requiring textbooks and disposable lab coats! Read the rest of this entry »


More evidence of benefits from increased course structure

Sarah L. Eddy and Kelly A. Hogan (2014) recently published a paper “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?”, a nice example of the next wave of discipline-based educational research (DBER) that goes beyond asking “Does active learning work?” to explore details of how active learning interventions actually work, and differential impacts on sub-populations of students. Here, Eddy and Hogan describe their results of a study based on the work led by Scott Freeman at the University of Washington (see Freeman et al. 2011, Haak et al. 2011).

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Pervasive, persistent, problematic “prokaryote”

There are reasons to avoid using “prokaryote” in biology teaching.  So, why are so many biologists resistant to the idea?

Why not use “prokaryote”?  Norman Pace published a one-page piece in Nature, “Time for a change” that raised concern about use of “prokaryote” (in education), and the common biology textbook paradigm of splitting organisms up into prokaryotes vs. eukaryotes. Pace highlighted many of the differences between archaea and bacteria, discussed evolutionary relationships/history, and made a case for avoiding use of the term prokaryote with students.  (Check out the 2005 article by Jan Sapp discussing the history behind the prokaryote-eukaryote dichotomy, too.) Pace expanded on this with a lengthier educational piece in 2008.

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Test question quandary: multiple-choice exams reduce higher-level thinking

Last fall, I read an article in CBE-Life Sciences Education by Kathrin F. Stanger-Hall Multiple-choice exams: an obstacle for higher-level thinking in introductory science classes. (CBE-Life Sciences Education, 2012, Vol 11(3), 294-306.) I was interested and disturbed by the findings … though not entirely surprised by them. When I got the opportunity to choose a paper for the oCUBE Journal Club, this was the one that first came to mind, as I’ve wanted to talk to other educators about it. I’m looking forward to talking to oCUBErs, but I suspect that there are many other educators who would also be interested in this paper, and some of the questions/concerns that it prompts.

The study:

Graph showing lower fairness in grading SET in MC+SA group

Figure 4. from Stanger-Hall (2012). “Student evaluations at the end of the semester. The average student evaluation scores from the MC + SA class are shown relative to the MC class (baseline).” Maybe reports of student evaluations of teaching should also include a breakdown of assessments used in each class?

Stanger-Hall conducted a study with two large sections of an introductory biology course, taught in the same term by the same instructor (herself), with differences in the types of questions used on tests for each section.  One section was tested on midterms by multiple-choice (MC) questions only, while midterms in the other section included a mixture of both MC questions and constructed-response (CR) questions (e.g., short answer, essay, fill-in-the blank), referred to as MC+SA in the article. She had a nice sample size: 282 students in the MC section, 231 in the MC+SA section. All students were introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy of thinking skills, informed that 25-30% of exam questions would test higher-level thinking*, and provided guidance regarding study strategies and time.  Although (self-reported) study time was similar across sections, students in the MC+SA section performed better on the portion of the final exam common to both groups, and reported use of more active study strategies vs. passive ones. Despite higher performance, the MC+SA students did not like the CR questions, and rated “fairness in grading” lower than those in the MC-only section. (I was particularly struck by Figure 4, illustrating this finding.)

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