Priming and Prioritizing Facilitated Discussions
My school is a small (around 1,000 students), primarily undergraduate liberal arts college where biology is one of the largest programs. While I mostly teach upper-division biology courses, I also offer an intro-level “Current Topics in Biology” course for nonmajors. Many of the students that enroll in this course are business, aviation, psychology, and sociology majors. Each year when I survey the class, I ask why they are taking the course; 100% of students reply “because it fulfills a core requirement.”
Course Goals and Format
My main goal in Current Topics in Biology is to promote scientific literacy and empower my students to make evidence-based decisions. I encourage them to form their own opinions based on evidence and focus on subjects important to their lives.
To achieve this, we use weeklong modules to dive into biology-related topics in the news (GMOs, climate change, vaccines, etc.). Each week, students work through a module disseminated through our learning management system (LMS) that integrates short excerpts from their textbook, videos, and other interactive elements, including many BioInteractive resources. The text for this course is the open educational resource (OER) Concepts of Biology by S. Fowler, R. Roush, and J. Wise.
I tie the specific content learning outcomes of this course into both the overarching learning outcomes of my program and the five core concepts of Vision and Change. Each module also involves at least one Vision and Change core competency. I find that weekly discussions are a way to both assess students’ understanding of content learning outcomes while having them practice core competencies, particularly their “ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines” and their “ability to understand the relationship between science and society.”
The course has a partially flipped format. Material is presented as resources embedded in the modules, allowing students to work through questions about each of the resources in class (rather than as homework). I encourage them to work together and receive guidance from me.
Prioritizing Class Discussions
In the past, students would reflect and discuss their opinions the day before handing in their module worksheets and taking a summative quiz of the material. I soon realized the error in my design: many students weren’t completing the assignments or studying for the quizzes until after our class discussions. The discussions therefore lacked nuance and were often not rooted in evidence. Students often expressed insightful opinions in their completed worksheets, but unfortunately these opinions hadn’t had a chance to form in time for the group discussions.
I have since scrapped the summative quiz and instead assess their guided discussions. The discussions were reframed as scientific conferences, where students were expected to support all opinions with scientific evidence they had gleaned from the week’s materials. I also added more structure to these discussions, focusing on establishing groupwork “norms” and expanding the prompts students addressed.
They work through a discussion worksheet that prompts them to express their individual opinions and then synthesize a group opinion based on evidence from the module. For example, instead of asking students to discuss a vague, overarching prompt like “What do you think about sex verification testing in athletes?” students read about two specific athletes and considered if and how testing could be fairly applied, and how they would feel if they were those athletes.
With these small changes, discussions became more lively and opinions better supported by evidence.
Priming Discussions with BioInteractive Resources
Prioritizing in-class discussions required a bit of a shift in my perception of flipped classrooms. Based on my previous understanding, I thought students should be completing worksheets in class instead of at home. However, I now believe that students should engage in the most challenging aspects of the course with the benefit of instructor guidance, and the least challenging aspects on their own.
For this course, I had students engage in discussions in class and complete BioInteractive resources, including worksheets, at home. My college students can easily navigate BioInteractive resources without instructor guidance. Since acquiring and understanding the material is not challenging (thanks to BioInteractive), my guidance is much more valuable during the discussions.
Furthermore, having students do BioInteractive resources on their own means that their exploration of the material can be nonlinear and take more or less time depending on their level of preparation. For example, one of the resources we use is the Sex Verification Testing of Athletes Click & Learn. Many of my psychology majors had already taken at least one course on human development, so they were able to spend less time on the sexual development aspects of the Click & Learn and focus more on the genetics. All they needed was the BioInteractive worksheet to focus them on the details pertinent to our class.
I also like assigning BioInteractive resources to my upper-division students to review background material before building upon it in class. For example, the Eukaryotic Cell Cycle and Cancer Click & Learn and the accompanying worksheet has helped prepare my cancer biology, immunology, and virology students to apply this material to new scenarios. For these courses, cell biology is a prerequisite. So, rather than devote class time for review (which some students may need and other students may not), students can engage in the material in a self-guided manner and arrive in class with a more predictable grasp of the content.
Advantages for Online Settings
If you’re teaching virtually, having students complete some work asynchronously also cuts down on the number of synchronous meetings necessary, increasing the accessibility of the course. This makes the course more equitable for students who have difficulties meeting synchronously, such as student parents or those with jobs.
BioInteractive provides a variety of resources that are well-suited for online settings. For example, the BioInteractive website now has many student handouts and worksheets available as Google Docs for easy editing, which students can fill out and submit electronically. I prefer to convert these assignments to Google Forms so students can get immediate feedback on nonessay questions (and to cut down on my grading). I link these forms in my LMS, though many LMSs have this functionality already built in.
This Approach in Action
I recently had the opportunity to lead a workshop at our state’s Future Health Professionals (HOSA) conference. High schoolers interested in health fields worked through the Sex Verification Testing of Athletes Click & Learn and completed a modified version of the online worksheet.
During the conference, I facilitated a discussion that involved students and teachers from around the state. Equipped with the basic biological knowledge, we were able to spend much of the discussion on state legislation involving transgender athletes. I felt like I was able to make a direct impact on these future healthcare workers and voters, because we were able to discuss a complex issue starting from a strong base in biological facts.
Here is some feedback I received from one of the high school teachers: “I was surprised at how much [students] took in and appreciated it. In particular, they mentioned how grateful they were to learn about it because no one else was ever teaching or talking about these things and that they learned a lot. They even mentioned going home and having really good discussions with their parents last night. Very cool. They also really liked that you tied it into a Montana [their home state] athlete and [Montana] legislation to bring it close to home.”
I’ve started to think of BioInteractive resources more as the journey to class discussions rather than the destination. They equip students with the biological knowledge they need to engage in an evidence-based discussion. They make time to move past the basic material and apply it to current topics that may affect students’ votes, health, etc.
I believe that, for my students, assigning guiding worksheets for online resources provides the best of both formats: it cuts down on the number of synchronous meetings necessary, making the course more equitable, while still building community through weekly synchronous discussions.
Holly Basta is an associate professor of biology at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. She researches fish retroviruses and teaches courses in anatomy and physiology, virology, immunology, and cancer biology. She has been busy adapting to a second child, born June 2021.
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