Is it time to ban studies of computers in classrooms?

“Is It Time To Ban Computers From Classrooms?” asks the title of an NPR blog post by Tania Lombrozo. Her post is a mostly accurate summary of a new working paper by Carter, Greenberg and Walker: “The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance: Evidence from a Randomized Trial at the United States Military Academy” reporting the results of a study conducted in Spring 2015 and Fall 2015 with 726 West Point students taking an introductory Economics course.

The punchline of the paper is that allowing laptop or tablet computers in the classroom lowered final exam scores by 0.18 standard deviation (1.7% – the mean was 72% with a standard deviation of 9%). The students were randomly assigned to sections, and each professor taught both a section that allowed computer use and a section that banned computer use. All sections took the same final exam, that included multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions. The authors could thus account for professor effect, GPA, and student self-selection, making this truly a randomized controlled study.

The authors argue that the size of the negative effect of computer use could be considerably larger in other college or university settings. The class size at West Point is capped at 18 students per section, and professors are expected to interact with all the students in a class session. West Point students may be more motivated because their overall grades and class rank affect their priority for post-graduation postings, and they are subject to discipline for inappropriate classroom behavior. At other colleges or universities, students in larger classes may may have less motivation to stay on task and experience greater temptation to engage in distracting computer use.

The study methodology and data analysis look really solid. These conclusions are in agreement with previous studies that all reported a negative effect of computer use on student performance. But I say these studies are misdirected.

I’ll start with key details of this study. The authors had 2 different “treatments” in the computer use category, in addition to the sections that completely banned computer use. Some sections had no restrictions on use of laptops or tablets. Other section allowed only tablets (iPads), that had to stay flat on the desktop during class. In lieu of measuring actual student computer use, the professors monitored and recorded student computer use during 3 class sessions over the course of the semester. In the sections that allowed unrestricted computer use, 80% of students used a laptop or tablet during at least 1 of the 3 class session. In the sections that restricted use to tablets that had to stay flat on the desk, only 40% of students used a tablet in at least 1 of the 3 class sessions. Despite the disparity in observed computer use in the two treatments, the supposed negative effect of computer use was indistinguishable (0.18 vs 0.17 standard deviations).

Another key detail is that the negative effect was observed only with the multiple-choice and short-answer questions that were machine-graded. The grades on the essay questions, graded by the professors, were the same between banned, restricted, and unrestricted computer use sections. Although the authors discount the essay question grades as being subjective, they do acknowledge that the essay questions addressed higher-order conceptual thinking than the multiple-choice and short answer questions.

If computer usage is detrimental, why doesn’t it scale with the amount of usage, and why does it not affect higher-order conceptual thinking?

Of the course, the biggest problem with this study and others like it, is that the course did not integrate computers into their classroom lessons. The authors themselves admonish in their concluding paragraph:

We want to be clear that we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction, as these exercises may boost a student’s ability to retain the material.

In other words, there was not a functional role for computers in these classrooms. Computers were irrelevant to learning – only 40% of students used a tablet in the tablet-restricted sections.

I argue that this and other such studies are tantamount to studying the effect of any potentially distracting, useless item in the classroom. The effect of pet rocks in the classroom. The effect of goldfish in the classroom. The effect of allowing eating candy in the classroom. There is no potential upside to having computers, or pet rocks, or goldfish, or candy in the classroom, if the lesson does not use any of these things. These studies are asking the wrong or irrelevant questions. What I’d really like to see are studies of how students using computers can enhance mastering of particular learning objectives, compared to other methods.

So by all means, if you are teaching in a way that has no use for computers, ban them. But in this information age, I prefer to challenge my students to explore, analyze, evaluate, create, and communicate with the universe of information and computing tools now available to them.

 

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Gardner Campbell’s “Apgar” test for student engagement

Thanks to a link from my Twitter feed, I clicked on Gardner Campbell’s UNFIS 2015 keynote talk on “A Taxonomy of Student Engagement” on Youtube. I was enraptured for over an hour – the video itself is an hour and 5 minutes, but I paused and took notes and wrote this post. His talk turned around my ideas about student engagement and course syllabi and student assessment, and among the many interesting ideas he presented was this: a simple 5-question test to assess the health of student engagement in a course.

1. Did you read the material for today’s class meeting carefully?

No = 0, Yes, once = 1, Yes, more than once = 2

2. Did you come to class today with questions or items you’re eager to discuss?

No = 0, Yes, one = 1, Yes, more than one = 2

3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting?

No = 0, Yes, one person = 1, Yes, more than one person = 2

4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study?

No = 0, Yes, one item = 1, Yes, more than one item = 2

5. Since our last class meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings?

None to 29 minutes = 0, 30 minutes to an hour = 1, over an hours = 2

From Gardner Campbell, UNFIS 2015 keynote – a Taxonomy of Student Engagement

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaYie0guFmg

I’m afraid that many of my students will often score near zero, unless they’re studying for the upcoming midterm. Gardner’s point is that we have a tendency to over-prescribe what our students shall do, and we spend our energies monitoring and rewarding compliance, in ways that detract from student interest and engagement with the course topics. We may be constrained by large class sizes, our colleagues expectations, and the need to assess student learning outcomes, but can we think creatively about even small ways that we can truly engage our students?

 

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First ever Georgia Tech School of Biology teaching retreat

We had our first ever biennial teaching retreat this past Wednesday and Thursday for Biology faculty, at Callaway Gardens. I emailed a solicitation for agenda items, a number of faculty responded, and Linda Green put together a final agenda. Fourteen Biology faculty attended, including all of our teaching faculty (Academic Professionals).

We began Wednesday afternoon with a session featuring 2 interconnected ideas: student metacognition and breaking the lecture mold to deepen student learning. This session began with some slides and data from Saundra McGuire’s talks on metacognition at the Southeast Regional PULSE Institute last summer and at Georgia Tech this spring. Linda and I shared our survey data on students in Biol 1510/11 and Biol 1520 (our introductory biology sequence) from the past two years, on how much time they spend and the methods they use for studying and learning.

This discussion then segued into one way of encouraging metacognitive practices in our students: “flipped” or “inverted” classes. Linda and I showed data from our flipped intro classes, and from Meg Duffy’s blog post on her flipped intro bio class at the U. of Michigan. In all 3 classes, student exam grades either increased or stayed the same in the flipped model, even though the exam questions shifted to higher levels in Bloom’s taxonomy. Linda has also teased apart her Biol 1520 students according to major, and found that students of all majors performed well in the flipped format, except for computer science majors. This is a single observation with a small n (n = 6); more observations are needed to see whether a consistent pattern emerges.

Wednesday evening was an after-dinner social and poster session, featuring teaching projects that our faculty have engaged in. This was BYOB, as the state of Georgia does not permit its monies to be spent on alcoholic beverages. Maybe we can find a sponsor for the next retreat to spring for such lubrication.

Thursday morning began with Shana Kerr presenting results from her study of vertical integration of the learning objectives (LOs) from Biol 1510 Principles of Biology with our 2xxx/3xxx core courses: Ecology, Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology, and Evolution. Each core course has a corresponding module in Biol 1510. Shana surveyed faculty who teach the core courses to rate each Biol 1510 LO as to whether the LO was essential, important, or not relevant for students entering their core course. The results were largely as expected, and most Biol 1510 LOs were rated important for their follow-on core courses, with a few points worthy of note:

  • Photosynthesis LOs are not required or elaborated by any of the core courses; most students will not study photosynthesis after Biol 1510.
  • Origin of life is discussed in Biol 1510 and in Evolution with some instructors, but perhaps not consistently
  •  LOs that address the metabolic and structural diversity of prokaryotes are not germane to any of our required core courses, although they are important for our elective Intro Microbiology course.
  • Genetics LOs were rated as important or essential by both Genetics and Cell and Molecular Biology courses, indicating that these two courses have substantial overlap of these topics.
  • drift and other neutral evolutionary processes were lost (not sufficiently emphasized) in either the core Evolution course or Biol 1510 evolution module.
  • some topics of themes may be threaded across modules in Biol 1510 or across courses (e.g., cystic fibrosis)
  • may be interesting to map Bloom’s taxonomy levels to coverage of topics in Intro to core to senior elective courses

Linda Green and Mirjana Brockett then followed with how they use case studies in their classes. Linda handed out copies of Chemical Eric from the NCCSTS (U. Buffalo), and asked faculty to discern what LOs or topics this case study addresses. Mira presented results from her Class of 1969 Teaching Scholars work and a paper she authored on teaching the Evolution course. I concluded this session with 5 minutes of showing how I use Learning Catalytics for case study work in Biol 1510, and to ask students for metacognitive reflection at the end of the case study.

After a short break, Chrissy Spencer and Patrick Bardill discussed how they train undergraduate and graduate student teaching assistants, in a CETL class and in weekly lab prep sessions. The training emphasizes how to lead students through active learning and inquiry-based learning. One important discussion arose from a question about plagiarism. Although the TAs are told about how to define and detect plagiarism, some of the TAs themselves may need a more in-depth understanding of the gray areas.

We also had two working group sessions, in the morning and in the afternoon. In the morning, faculty clustered in 4 main topic areas discussed possible active learning approaches for particular concepts or learning objectives. In the afternoon, faculty groups extended Shana’s vertical integration study by mapping the Biol 1510 LOs not only to their respective core courses, but to senior level capstone elective courses. This discussion was especially rich and productive, as this was possibly the first opportunity for faculty that taught intro, core, and senior electives to get together and examine the vertical flow of concepts and topics.

The concluding general discussion had reports of the different faculty groups and discussion of some salient curricular matters. The group reached consensus on some action items:

  • continue and deepen assessment activities, for metacognition, flipped instruction, case studies, and other pedagogical initiatives.
  • faculty teaching the Genetics and Cell and Molecular Biology core courses should discuss the substantial overlap between these courses, and possible alteration of course content. In particular, the Genetics course could make room for more quantitative genetics and genomics if most of the molecular genetics (central dogma and gene regulation) were left to Cell and Molecular Biology.
  • extend the vertical integration study to apply to lab skills
  • articulate LOs for the core courses (already done for Ecology; revisit with revised LOs for ecology module of Biol 1510)
  • bioethics, currently a 2 credit-hour course with a 1 credit-hour supplemental “readings in bioethics” addition, should become a 3 credit hour class, with an Institute-wide “ethics” designation.
  • identify faculty to “think about” Biology’s role in Georgia Tech’s Quality Enhancement Plan initiatives on service learning and sustainability, and to develop ideas of courses and curricula.
  • faculty who have flipped their classes will invite other faculty to their classes to observe how these class sessions actually work.

Overall, the retreat was productive, stimulating and time well-spent. We all learned from each other, from small tips and tricks to broader issues of how biology is changing, especially in genetics and genomics, and how to revise our curricula and teaching practices to deepen student learning. I look forward to doing this again in two years.

Slides and documents shared at the teaching retreat:

teachingretreat_plenary

Blooms Verb Table

Biology core curriculum vertical alignment Bio Vertical Alignment Analysis for Teaching Retreat Intro course LO evaluation Core course topic evaluation – Evolution Core course topic evaluation – Cell & Molecular Core course topic evaluation – Ecology Core course topic evaluation – Genetics

CETL Class of 1969 Teaching Scholars Additional material from the meeting talk

Biology Teaching Retreat 2015 – TA Training Worksheet Biology Teaching Retreat 2015 – TA Training Notes

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Jury finds Clark Atlanta U. breached contract and acted in bad faith in firing tenured faculty

I wrote a few posts about the mass faculty layoffs by Clark Atlanta University that occurred in early February, 2009. My wife was one of 54 faculty laid off, although she was tenured, in her 20th year, and had a current NSF grant, with both graduate and undergraduate students in her lab. Last year, several other tenured and tenure-track faculty who were laid off by CAU at the same time won their lawsuit, where the jury found that CAU breached their contract and acted in bad faith, entitling the plaintiffs to damages and to recover attorney’s fees.

My wife pursued a separate case, with potential discrimination based on race and gender. She filed a complaint with the EEOC, and the EEOC investigated and determined that CAU had most likely discriminated based on her race. However, CAU refused to participate in mediation by the EEOC, and a federal court declined to accept a Title VII discrimination case. My wife then filed a breach of contract suit, focusing on tenure.

I’m glad to announce that today, my wife’s long legal journey concluded with a jury verdict in her favor. This jury, too, found that CAU breached her contract, and that CAU acted in bad faith by declaring an “enrollment emergency” to sidestep tenure. The jury essentially determined that the “enrollment emergency” was a contrived excuse to bypass normal procedures and enable the administration to fire tenured faculty. The jury awarded her $300,000 in damages, plus $104,000 in attorney’s fees. Academics will think that is too little compensation for a derailed career. Others may feel sorry for CAU.

For those that feel for CAU, I point out that CAU had numerous opportunities to make this right for far less cost. First, CAU should not have fired a tenured faculty member with 20 years of dedicated service, with an active NSF grant and graduate and undergraduate students in the lab. Second, CAU could have followed through when my wife filed an internal grievance. The CAU administration never responded. Third, when my wife filed an EEOC complaint because of the lack of action on her grievance, and the EEOC determined that she had indeed suffered discrimination in her firing, CAU refused to participate in any mediation to resolve the discrimination complaint. Fourth, when my wife engaged her attorney, Patrick McKee, he sent a demand letter to CAU asking for $150,000 in damages to settle her legal dispute. CAU failed to even respond. Fifth, the judge in the breach of contract suit strongly suggested mediation. CAU’s offer was so far from what my wife considered reasonable that the mediator decided that any further discussions would be fruitless (I can’t disclose CAU’s offer because the details of mediation are confidential). Finally, CAU could have made a reasonable offer to settle the case at any time, and chose not to. Instead, CAU now faces a payout of $400,000 plus their own attorney’s fees and litigation costs.

The case isn’t quite over. The judge has not yet entered the verdict into judgment. She could yet throw out the jury’s verdict. I’m hopeful that she will respect the jury’s verdict.

Added Monday, Feb 2 2015: The verdict was entered and filed later Friday, January 30, and the above paragraph struck through to reflect that.

Added Sunday, Jan 31 2015:

I decided to add an excerpt from the EEOC’s determination letter. What follows below is the 2nd page (the first page finds insufficient evidence for discrimination based on age and gender), with the name of a second individual redacted. The “conciliation” mentioned in the letter never took place, as CAU refused to participate.

EEOC Charge No: 410-2009-03026

The evidence does reveal however that the Charging Party and [name redacted] were paid less than non-White similarly situated employees. Examination of the evidence further reveals that the Respondent did not follow its own layoff policy and instead laid off Charging Party and [name redacted], two of the most senior and tenured faculty, because of their race, White. Evidence further reveals that the Respondent has posted for and hired non-White faculty in Charging Party’s department since the purported layoff.

Based on the above and the record as a whole, there is reasonable cause to conclude that the Charging Party was denied equal wages, laid off, and not rehired because of her race in violation of Title VII. Like and related and growing out of the investigation, there is also reasonable cause to believe that White employees as a class are discriminated against with respect to wages, layoff, and rehire in violation of Title VII.

Upon finding that there is reason to believe that violations have occurred, the Commission attempts to eliminate the alleged unlawful practices by informal methods of conciliation. Therefore, the Commission now invites the parties to join with it in reaching a just resolution of this matter. In this regard, conciliation of this matter has now begun. A conciliation agreement containing the type of relief necessary to remedy the violation of the statute is included for your review. When the Respondent declines to enter into settlement discussions, or when the Commissions representative for any other reason is unable to secure a settlement acceptable to the Office Director, the Director shall so inform the parties in writing and advise them of the court enforcement alternative available to the Charging Party, aggrieved persons, and the Commission. The confidentiality provision of the statutes and Commission Regulations apply to information obtained during conciliation.

You are reminded that Federal Law prohibits retaliation against persons who have exercised their right to inquire or complain about matters they believe may violate the law. Discrimination against persons who have cooperated in the Commissions investigations is also prohibited. These protections apply regardless of the Commissions determination on the merits of the charge.

Bernice Williams-Kimbrough

Director Atlanta District Office

August 30, 2011

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Genetics topics, videos and case studies

One of the first tasks for the genetics group at the Buffalo flipped case studies workshop was to agree upon a list of the essential and important genetics topics for an intro biology course, and then match the topics to the best freely available videos that address these topics, and to any relevant case studies. The purpose is to identify gaps, as targets for new videos and case studies. Here is the list we came up with. With agreement from the team, I am publicising this table for input from the wider community of intro biology instructors.

If you know of other videos that address any of these topics, and are 10 min or shorter, engaging, informative, freely available, and appropriate for an intro biology audience, please submit a comment with a brief description of the topic and a link. If you have been contemplating flipping your class, or are searching for good videos and case studies to use in your intro bio class, please feel free to use this table as a resource. You can download this table as an editable & printable file for your convenience here: genetics_topics_videos_casestudies_table.

Topic Concepts Video(Title and Link) Case Study(Title and Link)
Chromosome architecture and Replication DNA Structure

Chemical Structure of DNA

What is DNA?

Classical Experiments in Molecular Biology
Chromosome architecture and Replication Classical experiments

Great Discoveries in Science: Double Helix

The Secret of Life – Discovery of DNA Structure (Click on DNA to find)

Classical Experiments in Molecular Biology
Chromosome architecture and Replication Physical relationship of DNA/chromosomes/genes

DNA LC: How DNA is packaged

What is a Gene?

What is DNA?

What is a Chromosome?

 
Chromosome architecture and Replication Replication

Advanced: DNA LC: DNA replication

DNA Replication – Basic Detail

Classical Experiments in Molecular Biology
Meiosis   Meiosis (Intro)

Baby Doe v. The Prenatal Clinic – Prenatal genetic testingThe Case of the Dividing Cell

Crossing Over and Sex Linkage

Meiosis clicker case

Classical/Mendelian Genetics monohybrid crosses Bozeman Punnett square and monohybrid cross The Wolfman and the Chromosomal Basis of HeredityMendel Dreams
Classical/Mendelian Genetics dihybrid crosses Beginner’s Guide to Punnett Squares (Bozeman) Mendel Dreams
Classical/Mendelian Genetics Punnett squares

Beginner’s Guide to Punnett Squares (Bozeman)

Bozeman Punnett square and monohybrid cross

Genetics of cystic fibrosis
Exceptions to Mendelian Genetics codominance

Chromosomal Genetics (Bozeman)

Advanced Genetics (Bozeman)

Blood types and codominanceBloodline: A human genetics case
Exceptions to Mendelian Genetics incomplete dominance

Chromosomal Genetics (Bozeman)

Advanced Genetics (Bozeman)

Exceptions to Simple Dominance: Codominance and Incomplete Dominance

Filipek: Incomplete dominance

Those Old Kentucky Blues
Exceptions to Mendelian Genetics sex linkage

Chromosomal Genetics (Bozeman)

Advanced Genetics (Bozeman)

Crossing Over and Sex Linkage
Exceptions to Mendelian Genetics multiple alleles

Chromosomal Genetics (Bozeman)

Advanced Genetics (Bozeman)

Bloodline: A human genetics case
The Central Dogma/Flow of Genetic Information transcription

DNA and RNA structural comparison

DNA LC: Transcription (advanced)

Transcription and Translation (Introduction)

Transcription animation

Decoding the FluFoxp2 gene expression
The Central Dogma/Flow of Genetic Information translation

Translation

Translation animation

Decoding the FluFoxp2 gene expression
The Central Dogma/Flow of Genetic Information mutations Mutations (Bozeman)

Cancer genetics case studyPrenatal genetic testing

Not Exactly…

Genetics of cystic fibrosis

Genomics Content of Human Genome Richard Resnick’s TED talk: Welcome to the genome revolution Genetics of PTC sensitivity
Pedigree analysis   Pedigree Analysis in Human Genetics Cancer genetics case studyTo the Bitter End: A Case Study Examining the Genetics of PTC Sensitivity
Gene regulation Lac operon or prokaryoteseukaryotes

Gene Regulation (Bozeman)

The Operon (Bozeman)

 
Society and ethics GMOs

A Green Light for Biology – Making the Invisible, visible. (to view, open link and click on “Biotechnology”)

Rediscovering Biology – GMOs

Do You Really Know What You’re Eating?Golden Rice

Frakenfoods

All that Glitters May Not Be Gold

From Cow Juice to a Billion Dollar Drug, With Some Breakthroughs in Between

Society and ethics genetic testing & privacy   Maternity/paternity testing
DNA Technology PCR

best animation explaining PCR (interactive version here)

PCR animation

King Tut DNA analysisPCR testing of pigs

DNA Analysis and Criminal Justice

DNA Technology Gel Electrophoresis

Gel Electrophoresis Lab (Learn Genetics-Utah)

Gel Electrophoresis (DNALC)

King Tut DNA analysisIn vitro fertilization and genetic testing
DNA Technology Recombinant DNA technology Experiments & techniques: basic recombination (cloning into plasmids) From Cow Juice to a Billion Dollar Drug, With Some Breakthroughs in Between
DNA Technology Forensics

Naming the Dead – Forensic Information

Justice DNA – Freeing the Innocent

A link for the Missing – DNA “Fingerprinting”

(For all three videos, open link and click on “Forensic Science”)

The Case of the Druid Dracula (DNA Forensic Analysis)DNA Analysis and Criminal Justice
DNA Technology DNA sequencing

Whole genome sequencing and you

The animated genome

 
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Flipped case studies workshop at Buffalo, 2014

Kipp Herreid and Nancy Schiller at the University at Buffalo have established the premier collection of case studies for teaching science, at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCST). The driving impetus is the belief, backed by evidence (e.g., Freeman et al. 2014), that active learning trumps lectures, and that case studies are perhaps the best form of active learning. The NCCST site has amassed over 500 case studies, peer reviewed, that are widely used by science teachers in high school and colleges all over the world.

However, many instructors worry that spending class time on case studies will short-change students with respect to coverage of the material. This concern is especially pronounced for freshman biology. Freshman biology encompasses a tremendous breadth and diversity of topics, attempting to survey the entirety of life! Freshman biology is also the only college science course that a majority of college students will ever take. The one or two semesters will be the culmination of science education for millions. What students learn in intro biology courses truly matters, for both the students and for the nation. How can we resolve the tension between breadth of topical coverage and depth of reasoning skills?

The recent emergence of the flipped class suggested to Kipp and other Biology instructors that we may have our cake and eat it, too. The flipped model, where students learn content outside of class, frees up class time for case studies, where students can explore topics in depth and develop critical reasoning skills.

I flipped my intro bio class in the fall of 2011, first with online lecture videos, then with supplementary web pages that covered all my former lecture content. I then used class time for various active learning activities, including a number of case studies that I developed or adapted from the NCCST site. I found that students in the flipped class showed significantly higher performance on exam questions with higher-order cognitive skills (Blooms taxonomy levels 3 or higher). Many of my colleagues who also teach intro biology, at Georgia Tech and at many other colleges and universities across the country and around the world, have also flipped, either in whole or in part.

Still, most faculty, even those practicing active learning, are hesitant to flip their classes. When I poll faculty at teaching seminars and conferences, the biggest barriers they cite are the lack of time and resources. Indeed, both recording my lecture videos and searching for or developing case studies and other in-class activities nearly consumed me that first semester I flipped. But what if faculty could get a list of the best available videos and case studies, for each topic they are likely to teach? Wouldn’t such a resource enable many more faculty to flip their classes?  Kipp Herreid and Nancy Schiller convinced the National Science Foundation to fund such an effort.

Therefore, over three years, faculty with case study experience and/or flipped class experience will gather here at Buffalo to develop case studies designed and intended for use in flipped introductory biology classes. Kipp has identified 12 major topic areas in introductory biology courses. Each year, the faculty will survey the available video resources and case studies in 4 of the 12 topic areas. The stated goal is that, at the end of the 3 years, all 12 major topic areas will have video resources and case studies that will address all essential or important subtopics within each major topic area.

In this first year, the four topics are cells, ecology, evolution, and genetics/heredity. All four of these topic areas are included in Georgia Tech’s Biol 1510, Principles of Biology course. I am in the genetics/heredity group, with four wonderful colleagues. Thus far we have worked through two exhausting days to define all the essential and important subtopics in genetics, identify any available quality videos (that we would use in our own classes) that address each of these topics, and identify any existing case studies for each subtopic. The five of us have each taken on the development of videos and case studies that fill in the gaps – where videos and case studies for essential or important subtopics are missing. We are learning about how to make and edit animations and videos, and about copyright and intellectual property issues and permissions. We will go back and develop, review, revise, and submit, videos and case studies in the next 6 months. I will blog about my efforts, so readers can learn from my mistakes and successes. I hope readers will also contribute their wisdom and knowledge. Stay tuned.

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Learning Catalytics and the Flipped Class

One of the greatest challenges for a teacher or instructor is to discern what students are actually learning and thinking. All teachers have the experience of expounding on a key topic, with wonderful images, diagrams, and examples, only to find out on the subsequent test that half the class completely missed the point (see “Our expert advice remains unheeded” by Terry McGlynn). With classroom response systems, such as clickers and web-based bring-your-own-device systems, teachers don’t have to wait until the exam; they can find out within minutes, and try other ways of getting the point across.

Classroom response systems first came to national attention among college instructors via Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction. Many instructors began to apply clickers in a variety of ways, as described by Derek Bruff in Teaching with Classroom Response Systems. These clickers allowed instructors to pose multiple-choice or true/false questions (some also allowed numeric or short alpha-numeric responses). Especially in large classes, clickers encourage all students to engage and answer the questions, and can lead to productive peer discussion (Smith et. al 2009).

We began using clickers several years ago in our large Intro Biology classes. I sprinkled several clicker questions through each of my lectures, and found them particularly useful in pre- and post-instruction assessment (see my Lac Operetta post as one example), and for exposing student misconceptions.

As with any technology, we did run into a few issues. Infra-red clickers had limited range and capacity, and we were restricted to lecture halls that were outfitted with the receivers. A switch to RF technology with USB receivers allowed us to use them in any classroom, but we still had occasional issues with dead spots in large lecture halls, and making sure that the receiver was placed in a suitable location. We also found some students who had multiple clickers, so their friends who skipped class would be counted in attendance and get credit for class participation. As we began to incorporate case studies, and especially after I adopted the flipped class model, the restriction to multiple-choice questions began to seem confining. If we want students to engage in a variety of activities during class, surely they should be answering a variety of question types.

This past year, in the 200-student Intro Biological Principles class in the fall and in the 30-student Developmental Biology class in the spring, I used Learning Catalytics (LC) as the classroom response system. LC is a web-based, bring-your-own-device system where students can use a laptop, tablet or smartphone to solve problems and answer questions either during or outside class. Developed by Eric Mazur, LC was sold to Pearson, who now packages it with their Mastering series of online homework and tutoring solutions that accompany their textbooks. Unlike Mastering, however, LC is available as a stand-alone product (no Pearson textbook required), for $12/semester per student (as of May 2014).

I and essentially all of my colleagues who had been using clickers switched to LC because we thought the added benefits were well worth the extra work. I’ll list the primary benefits from my own point of view, with some explanation:

1. Learning Catalytics is a step towards open education. Yes, it is a commercial product and costs money. However, instructors who write questions can make them available to other instructors anywhere in the world via the LC question database. All of the questions I have written are in the database. Instructors can search the question database by field (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, engineering) and by instructor or meta tag. I have found a number of wonderful questions, and found inspiration for other questions, in the database. Multiple instructors can share a course and access each other’s modules (class lessons). A module of questions can be saved as a pdf and shared or printed.

2. LC enables student sketches, drawing, and graphing. Student sketches or drawings can be viewed individually or as composite sketches. You can ask students to graph onto axes that you provide, or finish incomplete illustrations. I found this a truly powerful tool, that I need to exploit more. A framework allows comparisons among the student drawings and identifying common patterns. Students can engage with diagrams and illustrations in other ways, by identifying a correct region of a figure, or drawing a directional vector arrow.

3. A non-synchronous mode for group work on problem sets, case studies. In the non-synchronous mode, students can access all of the questions and answer them in any order. This is useful for homework, but also for flipped class sessions where groups of students can work through a case study or a set of problems at their own pace. The instructor can see student progress in real-time, and see what questions are posing the greatest difficulties. For short-answer or long-answer questions, I could see when students were misinterpreting a question or when they needed more information, and I could intervene. I could also see on the seat map which groups of students were struggling, and wander around the classroom to provide help.

4. A seat map facilitates group formation for peer discussion, and for identifying groups of students who need help. Students indicate at the start of each session where in the classroom they are sitting. LC uses this information to pair students who had same or different answers for peer discussion. With one click on the instructor screen, student receive information as to whom they should pair with to discuss the question and respond again. The instructor can also view the seat map to see which students got a question right or wrong.

5. The team mode provides IF-AT (immediate feedback assessment technique) capability. I have tried this a few times, and this provokes intense discussion. The team mode is restricted to questions that have correct answers (no sketches, or open-ended response questions). At the start of the session, students form teams (they register a team name). Then they answer questions individually. The instructor can end the individual round at a set time, or when most students have finished, and start the team round. During the team round, only one member of each team answers the questions. If the team gets the correct answer in the first try, the team gets maximum credit. If the first answer is wrong, they have to try again until they get to the correct answer. Each attempt reduces the credit for the team. At the conclusion of the team round, everyone knows the correct answers. Scores are tabulated as sums of the individual and team scores. The weighting of the individual and team round scores is adjustable from 0 to 100%.

6. Many choice question type for multiple true-false. This quickly became one of my favorite question types. Structured like a multiple-choice question, zero to all of the answer choices may be designated correct. Students have to evaluate each answer choice. Very useful for exposing common misconceptions.

7. Open-ended short and long-answer questions. Even in a class with 200 students, we found these questions quite useful. Think of this as a minute paper, with no time spent to distribute or collect the papers. The instructor sees the responses in real-time, as some students respond more quickly than others. Since the students cannot see names associated with any of these responses, the instructor can point to and discuss aspects of individual responses.

8. Multiple other question types provide variety and engage higher order Bloom’s taxonomy skills. LC has a total of 18 different question types. Others I have used are: matching, ranking, highlighting, numerical, confidence, and priority.

What’s the downside? What can (and does) go wrong? I’ve talked with my colleagues on campus and other faculty at other universities who have used LC. With very large classes (over 500 students), the lecture hall (or auditorium) may have limited wifi bandwidth. One instructor at another university told me that they have to have students choose just one device (laptop or phone) and turn off their other devices. I have run into wifi deadspots where I or a student had a troublesome wifi connection. The one thing I miss about clickers is that we used them for our multiple-choice exams. With LC, we had to revert to Scantron forms, as we had no way to prevent students from using their laptops to exchange emails or look up information during the exam.

Some instructors will worry that students will be use their laptops or cell phones for web surfing, texting or other off-task purposes during class. I think it’s up to the instructor to keep the students engaged and on task. Even without laptops or cell phones, students found ways to disengage, whether it’s exchanging notes, talking to each other, doing homework for another class, playing cards, or reading the newspaper (all things I found students doing in the back of the class while the instructor lectured). My own experience is that I can see what percentage of students have responded to each question and can pace the class appropriately to keep students engaged. Wandering around the class, I saw that laptop screens were on Learning Catalytics, with very few exceptions.

I have NOT had any issues with students not having a device. Georgia Tech does have a laptop requirement. But it’s also rare that a student does not have a smartphone. The situation may be different at other colleges or universities, but with cell phone providers increasingly pushing smartphones, and the availability of cheap laptops and tablets for less than the cost of a textbook (or a new clicker), this issue will disappear entirely. In fact, I previously experienced almost daily issues with one or two students forgetting to bring their clickers. I had not one student come to me this past year about forgetting to bring a device for LC. Just one student had a low battery charge on her cell, but she was able to answer at least a couple of questions to record her presence in class.

I think that LC and similar web-enabled, BYOD systems like Top Hat and LectureTools are the logical next wave of classroom response technology. Even if all you want to do is ask multiple-choice questions, allowing students to use devices they already have is quite attractive. My own experience has been that LC involved less effort (no software to download and install, no additional infrastructure, no clicker registration) and was an easier transition than first adopting clickers, or transitioning from one clicker brand to another.

Student response to Learning Catalytics has been overwhelmingly positive. Seniors and even a graduate student in my Developmental Biology class saw the value and thought LC absolutely rocked compared to clickers. My favorite comment is from a freshman in the Intro class:

I like the way the professors let us engage in the class by solving learning catalytics questions. I wonder if other biology professors are using this methods too. If not I will be disappointed.

Now we just have to assess whether the greater variety of questions leads to any significant gains in student learning.

 

Posted in Academia, Teaching and learning biology | 2 Comments