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:


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

Posted in Teaching and learning biology | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Academia | 1 Comment

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 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


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

Posted in Teaching and learning biology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Teaching and learning biology | Leave a comment

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

The fallacy of evaluating “the flipped class”

In nearly 30 years of teaching, I can’t recall another teaching innovation that has aroused such interest and rapid adoption among college faculty as the “flipped” class. Somewhat belatedly, we are now seeing studies to test whether the flipped class is effective at the college level, and how it affects student learning. For advocates and early adopters of the flip, the early report on Slate from ongoing studies at Harvey Mudd are disappointing. The flipped class appears to have no significant effect, for better or worse, on student learning.

As someone who has actually flipped his class and assessed it, I think these studies are, and must be, meaningless and futile. Assessing the “flip” will be even less meaningful than assessing the “lecture” as a mode of instruction. You can well imagine that the efficacy of a lecture will depend on the subject, content, organization, size of the class, time of day, the style of delivery, the quality of the slides (if used), ambient noise, what the instructor is wearing, and so forth. A flipped class has even more significant variables, because class time can be used in so many different ways: case studies, problem-solving, peer discussion, data analysis, writing, peer-review, internet research, and still other activities. Given this variation, how could results from one study, at one or a few colleges, with one or several classes, apply to anyone else’s flipped class?

My advice to all those considering flipping their class:  flip only as needed, because you want students to do a great learning activity that is best done as a class, with students interacting with each other and with the instructor. Such learning activities and exercises may take time to find. Assess each activity – did students learn from it? For a given learning objective, did students learn more from a particular activity or exercise, than from a lecture? Which exercise benefited which group(s) of students? It’s this kind of fine-grained assessment that will be the most useful and transferable across campuses and instructors, rather than any attempt to assess a “flip” vs a “lecture.”

Logically, what students learn will depend on what they actually do. The power of the flip is that the instructor can choose among varied learning activities to engage students with each other and with the material, receive real-time feedback on student learning, and apply timely, corrective intervention when students are most receptive. It may take time and iterations for even experienced instructors to find their groove in the flipped classroom (I speak from personal experience). Make changes in your teaching with a specific objective or purpose in mind, not because someone says that the “flip” or MOOCs or badges or the next hot thing will or will not save/transform/disrupt your classroom.

I flipped my class because my own evidence convinced me that my interactive, active-learning-laced lectures were not as effective as I wanted them to be. I flipped my class because students had difficulty applying concepts to different problems. I flipped my class because students had trouble connecting and integrating concepts from different parts of the course. I flipped my class because I wanted students to see and talk about how biology applies to real-world problems like energy, food, health and the environment. I flipped my class because I had amassed a large amount of cool case study and problem-solving material that I wanted to try in class, and the flip was the best solution I could find.


Posted in Academia, Teaching and learning biology | 2 Comments

Failure of further learning: the limits of repeated study and retrieval practice

When students encounter new information, either in a textbook or on Powerpoint slides, how much of it do they learn? How much are they able to recall over time? Do repeated study help students retain more, or learn more?

Thanks to research from cognitive psychologists such as Bjork and McDaniels, we know that studying in shorter blocks of time distributed over days and weeks works better than cramming in one long study session, that alternating or interleaving study topics is better than focusing on just one subject at a time, and above all, testing (retrieval practice) dramatically improves long-term recall. These techniques are effective at countering forgetting.

What about further learning? Students rarely, if ever, absorb 100% of new content or concepts. Depending on how well the material is presented, students will recall only a fraction of the new concepts or facts presented to them, when tested immediately after. We teachers expect that student knowledge will deepen with repeated study of the same material. Now a new study by Fritz et al. describes an effect that the authors call “failure of further learning” (FOFL). FOFL refers to the observation that little further learning occurs beyond the first recall attempt, even after repeated study of a text. Students tested after repeated restudy of the same material continue to give the same correct answers, and the same wrong answers and omissions. One explanation for FOFL is that once students form a mental model of their understanding of the new material, that becomes stubbornly fixed and difficult to alter or expand.

Can elaborative (active) study techniques overcome FOFL?

In their first experiment, Fritz et al. explored whether elaborative study techniques may help students improve upon their first recall attempt. The control group of students read two texts of approximately 1000 words each (one from Dewdney’s (1993) 200% of Nothing and another from Asimov’s (1975) Eyes on the Universe), then recalled (wrote what they could remember) and reread during the same session (week 1). In weeks 2, 3 and 4, the control group recalled and then reread the same text after recall. The elaborative study group substituted re-reading with various elaborative study methods. In week 1, they underlined and annotated the text after recall. In week 2, they diagrammed or outlined after recall. In week 3, they wrote short essay questions. After both the diagramming/outlining and the question writing, they were given the text to correct or supplement their activities.

  • Week1 – read text, recall and reread (c) vs underline/annotate (x)
  • Week3 – recall and reread (c) vs diagram/outline from memory + correct from text (x)
  • Week3 – recall and reread (c) vs write Qs from memory + correct from text (x)
  • Week4 – final recall test

Annotation, diagramming or outlining, and writing test questions are study techniques that many of us recommend to our students. Did such techniques make a difference? In a word, no.

Both groups showed significant improvement in recall of both main ideas and details from week 1 to week 4; however, the magnitude of the improvement was discouragingly small. For main ideas, the scores improved from 39% to 52% in the control group, and from 47% to 53% in the experimental group. Moreover, the elaborative study techniques made no significant difference in recall of either main ideas or details.

In other experiments, Fritz et al. show that FOFL occurs even when ideas are presented as itemized lists on Powerpoint slides (why am I not surprised). They then test the hypothesis that FOFL results from students acquiring a mental “situation model” that represents their understanding of the text. They show that FOFL does not occur when the material is presented in a way that is initially confusing or difficult to understand. The initial recall results are much lower than controls where the material is more clearly presented, and restudy sessions improve the recall results to where they become comparable to the controls. The controls do exhibit FOFL. Their last experiment shows that FOFL does not apply to short-term verbatim memorization of words and phrases, where students are tested for recall immediately after restudy. In that case, each restudy session yields significant gains.

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows” – Epictetus

The authors propose that FOFL occurs because once students have constructed a “situation model,” they approach restudy sessions with the attitude that they already know what this is about, and do not actively process the information. They quote Epictetus (50–138 AD): “it is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows”. What disturbs me as a teacher is that FOFL is so stubbornly resistant to the types of active study that we think are most effective.

The big question then, is how can we overcome FOFL? Students do progress from novices to experts – over time (years), with many repetitions, practice, good coaching and learning from mistakes. Finding a way to overcome or mitigate FOFL would appear essential to make learning speedier and more efficient.

An idea for future research – can group study overcome FOFL?

I do have an idea based on an observation in the Fritz et al. paper. They stated that the lack of learning gains was unlikely to be due to any inherent difficulty in some of the concepts. Just about all the main points in that first experiment were correctly recalled by some of the students. Different students recalled different points. Can students overcome FOFL by working in groups? I would like to see a study where students first practice recall individually, then get together in groups of 3-5 students to compare notes and discuss. Repeat in subsequent weeks. Will such group work make a significant difference?


Fritz, CO, PE Morris, B Reid, R Aghdassi, CE Naven 2013. Failure of further learning: activities, structure, and meaning. Br. J. Psychol. DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12060

Posted in Teaching and learning biology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments