Teaching Goals, Strategies, and Student Assessment

To generate appreciation and understanding about plants and their role in the environment and society is my primary goal as a teacher.  Some students will go to graduate school or become professional biologists; they need to develop identities as scientists and have the background and skills to succeed.  Many students will go on into other professions, but should be connected with the world around them. A number of my goals as an educator have been discussed in my teaching philosophy.  Here I will go into more detail about the approaches I take to address some of my teaching goals.

Generating excitement about organisms:  Some students need a little coaxing to appreciate the wonder of mosses or vascular plants (hard to believe).  Developing a sense of discovery in the classroom through inquiry, imagery and microscopic examination often wows them, but the most powerful is when students see the organisms in nature and can relate them to their own lives.  Fieldtrips during and outside of the class time offer students opportunity to observe organisms in their habitats and consider their role in whatever ecosystem they occur, including their own neighbourhoods.

Effective use of technology and demonstration: For the courses for which I am solely responsible, I coordinate the lab, lecture, website, and fieldtrips. I take advantage of the tools that I feel will do the best job.  Materials in advance of lectures are posted (including learning objectives, readings, and PowerPoint presentationas).  I use PowerPoint during lecture to show pictures, videoclips, and clicker questions to illustrate points and test knowledge.  Other media such as overhead projector and chalkboard are also important and effective.  At the beginning of every lecture we review what we have been studying; this is often a “question and answer” about a fieldtrip we have been on, a lab we are doing, and/or lecture from the last day. Images of the activity are displayed Often student’s photos).  The objectives for the day are stated.    During the lecture I make a point of having at least one demonstration (or video).  They may be simple, such as models or living organisms, while others are more elaborate (such as the demonstration of cation exchange in Sphagnum, or a comparison between anthocyanins and betalains)…or exploding spores of Lycopodium. In most lectures there is a class discussion component, either in small groups (think pair share, minute paper), or the class as a whole. I try to incorporate hands-on activities for concepts students find difficult.  For example, in bryology when we study the three types of leaf insertions in liverworts I bring plasticine and have students demonstrate each type.  We take the models to lab and match them with living specimens.  At first I thought that students would find the diversity of my lecture format disjointed, but I have received only positive feedback.  They find it stimulating and a number of them have said that it makes them want to come to class….they want to see “what [I’ll] come up with next”.

Being clear with expectations: Being upfront with students at the beginning of the course, outlining everything required throughout the term is a great way of establishing expectations.  There are lots of activities involved in my classes and students have to be prepared to participate. Being clear is most important in summer session (Biology 343) because many students do not have a realistic idea of how heavy a summer session course is and that even though the course is called plants and people they are going to learn some science!

Developing research skills: All biology students should graduate with some research experience.  As a biology advisor I emphasize the value of Biology 448 (directed studies) and Biology 449 (honours thesis) and being involved in authentic scientific research.  There are also a number of courses that offer students experience in the lab and field.  In Biology 321, students have the opportunity to do lab and field research.  In the second lab they work in their lab groups and are taught semi-sterile technique.  They develop a protocol, and culture a selection of different types of propagules. Over the course of the term the progress of cultures is recorded and a final report submitted at the end of term.   Each lab period one or two cultures are presented to demonstrate features specific to that lab exercise (called the “culture du jour”). Field trips are an important component of Biology 321. There are three mandatory fieldtrips (Agroforestry Trail at UBC Farm, Camosun Bog, and Lynn Canyon) and a number of optional ones throughout the term (usually sites are selected based on student interest or project topic). There are vegetation survey projects associated with the Camosun Bog and the Agroforestry Trail.  Students collect data in their small groups and share it with the rest of the class.  As part of their course requirement students submit a collection as they would to an herbarium.  We also have an SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy) component to the course. Some students incorporated their images into their projects, others contributed to the course website, and others just want to gain experience. Students are required to do a project and presentation (oral or poster). They select their own project topics.  Projects include ecological studies and library research. Some students pursue a more in depth study of development using tissue culture. Others collaborate with the community.  A number of students developed pamphlets in cooperation with community groups such as the Ecological Society of Stanley Park, Camosun Bog Restoration Group, and the UBC Botanical Garden. Projects are being incorporated into the new Biology 321 public website.

Promote knowledge retention: In my third year classes I get a number of students who have taken a second year course with me.  I have been shocked at how little knowledge is transferred from one year to the next, in not just details, but main concepts. A number of my teaching strategies and practices are geared toward addressing knowledge retention. There is an abundance of research in education and cognitive psychology that helps to shape my activities.   The main thing is that there needs to be repeated interaction or retrieval of information. This is not by repetition; reading over notes 20 times is not very effective and very disappointing for the student who feels they are putting the time in and getting poor grades.  The students need to interact with the information and put it into a structure that makes sense to them. By providing clear organizational format in lecture (or lab) as well as defined overarching principles, the student can develop a more accurate and sophisticated framework of understanding on which they can incorporate details.  I try to present concise learning objectives and clear lesson organization to help students scaffold information.  Active learning strategies increase student engagement, which help students process course information.  Discussion, problem solving, and peer review enhance deeper learning and long-term memory.  The process of being tested also has a positive impact on memory (testing effect) so frequent student assessments not only keeps the student up to date, but it enhances long-term memory as well.  In classes with lab and field components material is re-enforced and presented in different contexts, which also promotes deeper understanding.

Higher order thinking skills: Higher order thinking skills include synthesis, analysis, application, judgment, critical thinking and problem-solving.  These categories are high up on Bloom’s taxonomy.  Foundational knowledge and understanding concepts are required to apply these skills in a meaningful way.  In lecture, activities such as case studies, summarizing, evaluating phylogenetic trees, and making predictions promote thinking at a high level.  In lab and field activities students collecting and then evaluate data.  In Biology 321 lab students first design a protocol for the tissue culture experiment and then evaluate the results.  There are often major differences in germination patterns and they must discuss possible explanations.  Field studies as well, provide an excellent opportunity for students to apply what they are learning in lab and lecture.  These kinds of activities, while most challenging for the students, are the most rewarding.  Students recognize the accomplishment of applying what they are learning to real situations.

Communication skills development: Students identify communication skills as an area that is not well developed in their undergraduate studies.  Having students write as much as possible, even in the form of discussion boards, helps to enhance writing skills as long as it is accompanied by feedback on both content and composition.  Presentation skills are more challenging to orchestrate.  Providing students with the opportunity to develop these skills within a course is possible in a small class setting or in larger classes with breakout components such as labs or tutorials.  In most of my course there is at least one opportunity for presentations.  In Biology 210, for example, there is a student led fieldtrip in which lab partners introduce the rest of their lab section to interesting aspects of a conifer.  Writing is also required, as each student is required to submit a report.  Students also benefit by evaluating their peers.  Drawing is another type of communication skill that is developed in organismal biology courses (as well as observational skills).

Effective and constructive student assessment: To attain teaching goals there must be cooperation from students.  The biggest motivator is grades.  Students have many courses competing for their time and grades associated with activities are an excellent stimulus. I use learning objectives to guide my exam composition; what students learn depends on what you are testing. Like my lecture style I like to present an exam with questions in a variety of formats.  Multiple choice, matching, short answer and essay questions are included in my Biology 321 lecture exam.  The students develop study questions with each unit and submit them to the discussion board. I make a selection of students’ questions and post them.  The questions are graded on whether or not they are higher on Bloom’s taxonomy and integrate different aspects within and between the units.  Often the selected questions make the student think about the content in a different way that presented in lecture.  These questions are used in the short answer component of the lecture exam.  The final lab exam for Biology 321 includes both station and keying (identification) components.  In Biology 343 there is a station component and a problem.  I like to make an exam interesting, not only by interjecting a little humour, but also by making it a learning experience.  In a Biology 210 exam, the question included background information about the pine beetle.   A number of students thought the question was very interesting and even more did after I brought a section of damaged tree for demonstration.   The exams I have just discussed are the main exams in the courses worth 25% to 30% of the total mark.  I include a number of other activities that are graded. Quizzes, clicker questions, assignments, presentations, projects, term papers, study question development, and course processing pages are activities used to assess student learning.

As already discussed, repeated information processing promotes long-term memory.  That means that assessments should be done frequently.  In Biology 324, we require students to build on content throughout the course so in lab quizzes are held weekly.  Quizzes and self-tests provide students with practice with exam question format as well as engagement with the course material.  Students should have practice in the format exams are given. I want to test their knowledge and how they apply it, not their mastery of addressing the exam format. The other benefit to providing guidelines for exams is that you can demonstrate your expectations.  Students will prepare to that level.  Feedback for assignments and exams should be timely and detailed.  Rubrics are not only make grading more efficient, but they also provide students with guidelines.

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