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


About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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1 Response to First ever Georgia Tech School of Biology teaching retreat

  1. This retreat was an amazing experience. I cannot emphasize enough how collegial, intelligent, and pedagogically savvy my colleagues in the School of Biology are. What a privilege to work with each of these folks.

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