Examining undergraduate attitudes towards the use of math in biology

Project No.
PI Name
Erin Dolan
University of Texas at Austin

Abstract 1

Examining undergraduate attitudes towards the use of math in biology

Presentation Type
Melissa L. Aikens, University of Texas at Austin Erin L. Dolan, University of Texas at Austin


National calls for undergraduate biology reform have highlighted the need for more quantitative training for biology students. Yet, biology students have traditionally been thought of as math-averse. According to expectancy-value theory, negative attitudes about how well students expect to do on a task and their value of a task (i.e., task-value) may diminish their performance on the task and reduce their likelihood of enrolling in courses related to that task. Therefore, it is important to consider studentsメ attitudes towards the use of math in biology courses when designing instructional practices aimed at developing studentsメ quantitative skills in biology and increasing their interest in quantitative biology courses and careers. In this study, we focus on task-value attitudes because this represents a significant gap in our understanding.


The goal of this project is to characterize the landscape of math-biology task-values among life science majors. Specifically, we ask: 1) what are the math-biology task-values of life science majors in introductory biology and upper-level biology courses, 2) to what extent do life science majorsメ math-biology task-values differ according to demographic characteristics, such as gender, race, or ethnicity, and 3) to what extent are institutional efforts to better integrate math and biology apparent in studentsメ math-biology task-values?


According to expectancy-value theory, task-value includes four different attitudes towards the personal value of a task: enjoyment of and interest in the task (intrinsic value), perceptions of the usefulness of the task (utility value), importance to oneメs identity of doing well on a task (attainment value), and cost of the task in terms of time taken away from other activities, the effort involved, and the emotional toll (cost). Since no instrument exists to measure task-values of math specifically within the context of biology, we are developing the Math-Biology Values Instrument (MBVI). We plan to use the MBVI to measure math-biology task-values at four different institutions with varying levels and methods of math-biology integration: 1) little math-biology integration, 2) a required math course taught within a biological context, and 3) introductory biology courses in which quantitative skills have been integrated.


A key outcome of this project is the MBVI. This instrument will position us to understand the math-biology task-values undergraduate biology majors bring into the classroom, and whether and how task-values vary among students of different backgrounds and among students at institutions with different levels of math-biology integration. The results will generate hypotheses to inform the direction of future research in quantitative biology education.

Broader Impacts

This project will create the MBVI, which will be useful to educators and researchers alike. Educators can use the MBVI to (1) measure student�s attitudes toward math-biology to tailor subsequent instructional methods, and (2) assess whether quantitative education reforms engender positive math-biology task-values. Researchers will be able to use the MBVI to identify factors that influence undergraduates� math-biology task-values and determine how students� math-biology task-values relate to their course performance and course choice.

Unexpected Challenges

One unexpected challenge was thinking about how undergraduates would think of 'math' in the context of biology: algebra? calculus? statistics? In considering this, we became concerned that students may view algebra and calculus differently than statistics, and may answer differently about the use of these two types of math in biology. Therefore, we have decided to use a limited definition of math that we will provide students before taking the survey: arithmetic, algebra, and calculus. Although this leaves out an important aspect of mathematical biology, we think this will improve reliability. We are beginning cognitive interviews with students to ensure this definition of math is appropriate.