Distributing the Load: Designing instruction that engages learners in and out of the classroom.
Learner-centered pedagogies focus on creating an active classroom environment, and rely on students acquiring factual knowledge on their own. While it is widely recognized that class time is better spent doing learning activities than passively listening to lectures, it is less clear how biology students should spend their time outside of class. What should students do, on their own, to effectively prepare for active learning in the classroom? How can we distribute content and activities to engage students in meaningful learning both in the classroom setting and outside the classroom?
Our overarching goal is to develop a framework, based on theory and evidence, to design instruction that distributes learning about biological systems in a manner that (a) actively engages students in class and out of class, and (b) takes into account the cognitive challenges posed by complex biological systems.
Learning about biological systems is difficult because of their inherent complexity. For beginning learners, reasoning about systems poses a great burden on working memory, as it requires knowledge of a systemﾒs structure, and of the processes and mechanisms that accomplish the systemﾒs function. Compartmentalized science education, emphasizing fact memorization, often leads learners to view systems as collections of parts, with little or no understanding of how these parts work together. Model-based pedagogies are well suited for learning about systems because the practice of model building requires organizing and synthesizing structural and functional information about a system. We are using a theoretical framework about systems thinking and modeling (the Structure-Behavior-Function - SBF - theory, developed by Goel and colleagues) to guide instructional design in active, model-based, large-enrollment introductory biology courses.
We have developed, implemented and refined SBF-based instruction in introductory biology courses at two institutions. Instructional materials and frameworks will be packaged and made available through open-source sites and publications (such as CourseSource). Our research on learning explores the potential of modeling (intended as the iterative construction, revision and use of conceptual models of biological systems) as a learning tool for students, in class and outside of class. Initial results have been submitted as a manuscript to CBE-Life Sciences Education (accepted with minor revisions), and further research is ongoing. Current research is specifically focusing (a) on how students evaluate and revise their own models in response to feedback, and (b) on the relationship between students� self-regulated learning strategies and their achievement on course assessments.
Much of the professional development for faculty and research on biology teaching and learning have focused, so far, on active learning pedagogies and instructional approaches, with little emphasis on and what parts of content and what learning activities are best placed outside of class, and what should students do in class, to maximize their learning.
We anticipate the outcomes of this project to be broadly applicable in a variety of academic settings, from advanced high-school biology to college. Dissemination of our practices, curricular materials and research findings has the potential to impact students at multiple institutions and levels in the biology curriculum.
Reinagel, A. and Bray Speth, E. Beyond the central dogma: model-based learning of how genes determine phenotypes. CBE-Life Sciences Education. Accepted, In Revision.
1. Reinagel A, Bray Speth E (2014). Introductory biology studentsﾒ gene-to-phenotype models reveal difficulties articulating information flow within the central dogma of molecular genetics. Society for the Advancement of Biology
Education Research (SABER) 4th Annual Meeting. Minneapolis, MN.
2. Bray Speth E, Russell LK, Momsen JL (2014). More than flipping the classroom: a theory-driven approach to redistributing the cognitive load. Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) 4th Annual Meeting. Minneapolis, MN.
3. Russell LK, Bray Speth E (2014). Student engagement and learning outcomes in a flipped introductory biology course. Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) 4th Annual Meeting. Minneapolis, MN.
4. Russell LK, Sebesta A, Bray Speth E (2015). Shifting the focus: The impact of an active, learner-centered pedagogy on student perceptions of barriers to engagement and learning in introductory biology. Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) 5th Annual Meeting. Minneapolis, MN.
5. Sebesta A, Bray Speth E (2015). Patterns of self-regulated learning strategies in undergraduate introductory biology students. Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) 5th Annual Meeting. Minneapolis, MN.