Sirum Group BERD Research Projects

Assessing Students' Comprehension of How Evolution Works: Do they really UNDERSTAND?

black_box_big_2.jpgMany have investigated students’ understanding and acceptance of evolution but have not found a robust relationship between the two. We argue that before a relationship between understanding and acceptance of evolution can be assessed, we must have a clear definition of what we mean by “understanding.” Most measures of evolutionary understanding have largely ignored the molecular components of evolution while concentrating primarily on natural selection. We hypothesize that these molecular understandings are integral to alleviating student misconceptions, to aiding overall understanding of evolution, and to acceptance. Without an understanding of the basic molecular mechanisms underlying evolution, how evolution occurs may be reduced to a “black box” in students’ understanding, and because the contents inside of this “black box” may be unknown to students, they may view evolution as an idea that is to be believed or not believed instead of known. To test this idea, we have developed a strategy that is capable of assessing students’ ability to explain evolutionary concepts that span from the DNA-level to the level of speciation. We designed two new open-ended questions to assess students’ abilities to make the conceptual connection betweenthe molecular biology of DNA, protein shape, and protein function. At the beginning and end of the Fall 2011 semester, we administered our new questions alongside an instrument that measures acceptance of the theory of evolution (MATE, Rutledge and Warden, 1999) and we collected student responses to a natural selection question that prompts students to describe how cheetahs evolved to run fast (Bishop and Anderson, 1990). Our subjects consisted of a variety of biology students ranging from undergraduate non-majors to biology graduate students. Using a scoring rubric we developed for the molecular biology questions along with a previously existing rubric developed by Nehm (2010) for the question regarding natural selection, we scored student responses with regard to the number of key concepts and alternative conceptions that were present. So far, our data have revealed that there is a significant gap in student understanding regarding the connections between DNA, genes, and proteins and the roles they play in evolution. Additionally, alternative conceptions were widespread among students with regard to the molecular concepts as well as natural selection. The data collected from this research will provide further information about how understanding of evolution may relate to acceptance.

Assessing Patterns of Scientific Thinking Skills Using the Experimental Design and Analysis of Data Ability Tests

venn.jpgA significant challenge to measuring undergraduate student science thinking skills is defining science reasoning and specifically isolating the various overlapping skills. These include quantitative literacy/numeracy, visual literacy, and the sub skills required for experimental design and data analysis. To this end, we have designed and used the Experimental Design Ability Test (EDAT) and are developing a companion Analysis of Data Ability Test (ADAT). The EDAT is an open-ended prompt used to reveal students’ ability to design a simple experiment to test a product claim (Sirum and Humburg, 2011). Student responses are scored by looking for the presence or absence of ten basic elements of experimental design. We have recently expanded the scoring rubric of the EDAT to begin to describe the different ways an expert might include these basic experimental design elements versus a novice’s approach. The expert EDAT scoring addendum is most effective in revealing differences in responses when basic EDAT scores are in the higher range. The ADAT is a new open-ended response instrument designed to minimize the threshold requirement for quantitative and visual literacy skills, while specifically assessing students’ reasoning with data. The ADAT is comprised of three scenarios for students to compare in the form of relatively simple numerical data in a table. Students were prompted to describe their hypothesis and reasoning to explain the observations presented in the table. They were also asked to describe what additional data they would like to see to test their hypothesis. Preliminary coding of responses from biology students at all levels indicates that while some students rely only on previous knowledge while completely ignoring the provided data, in general students reveal “information seeking behavior” and are inclined to use data in the table in response to the prompt, even while revealing misconceptions about how to use the data. Similar to the observation of others, we find that students are more adept at identifying positive correlations versus negative correlations between variables, and most students struggle when it comes to controlling variables. We are mapping student’s correct and incorrect patterns of reasoning as they give explanations based on the ADAT data table, and we are investigating how elements of the prompt and data table, such as the magnitude of and differences between numbers, influence students’ reasoning patterns. Using the ADAT in conjunction with the EDAT will provide diagnostic insights into students’ science reasoning skills and learning needs.

Factors Influencing Student Performance and Attitudes Towards Group Work in an Introductory Biology Course for Non-Majors

teams_2.jpgOne way to improve student learning is to create an environment where students are using course material to solve problems by working with each other. The guidelines for implementing group work in the university classroom have been described in detail with regard to the type of assignments, grading, peer feedback, and the importance of forming diverse teams. However, there are many considerations that are not well understood when it comes to team dynamics and the impact of situational as well as student developmental factors. For example, what exactly constitutes a diverse team? What factors should be considered when assigning students to work together? How do these factors impact student satisfaction with their group, student learning, and student attitudes towards biology? We are comparing two differing strategies for implementing teamwork in the introductory non-majors biology classroom. For both approaches, students were assigned to permanent teams, there was minimal formal lecturing during class, and individual assignments include graded pre-class reading quizzes and in-class concept quizzes. The main way the two approaches varied was in how “points” towards the course grade were earned. One approach, more heavily emphasizing the role of extrinsic motivation for engaging and participating with teammates, was based on the Team-Based Learning strategy of Michaelsen (1983). This involved grading a student based not only on their individual performance but also on their team’s performance as measured by graded in-class group quizzes and problem solving activities, and on the peer feedback a student received from and gave to their teammates (Michaelsen and Sweet, 2008). The second approach placed a greater emphasis on intrinsic motivation in that an individual’s grade was not dependent on the quality of work produced in groups: the group learning activities were essentially the same as in the first approach, and were designed to aid the individual’s comprehension of the material, but students only earned points towards the grade from individual work. We are comparing these two approaches in terms of the impact on individual student learning, students’ subjective description of “how good” their team was (team dynamics), and student satisfaction with the team experience. We are using individual performance on quizzes, student responses to the Value of Team Survey (Espey, 2008), Student Assessment of their Learning Gains survey results, and student ratings of instruction data to get a picture of a student’s impression of the team experience versus their learning.

Promoting Sustainable STEM Education Change through Faculty Learning Communities


Faculty instructional development is a critical component of STEM education reform efforts. The design and implementation of these programs should be based on research regarding strategies that best promote engaged teaching attitudes and behaviors, and, significantly, help faculty sustain these changes. In contrast to short-term workshops, Scientific Teaching faculty Learning Communities (STLCs) provide STEM faculty with a one-year, structured forum for learning about high-impact teaching practices. Sustained support from disciplinary colleagues facilitates a cultural change within STEM departments, enabling institutionalization of STEM education reforms and creating more positive student learning environments. The STLC theoretical model, format, and strategy for the assessment of its impact are described in the context of research on STEM faculty instructional development programs.

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