Self-guided Learning Modules for Animal Development

Project No.
PI Name
Susan Keen
University of California at Davis


Abstract 1

Self-guided Learning Modules for Animal Development

Presentation Type
Susan Keen, College of Bio Sci, University of California, Davis Robert Burnett, Academic Technology Services, UC Davis


An understanding of the events and mechanisms of animal development is central to many areas within biology (introductory biology, phylogeny, evolutionary biology, developmental biology, molecular biology, evolutionary development, invertebrate zoology, and human embryogenesis), but the way in which developmental information is used varies greatly among fields. For example, in developmental biology, morphological change is correlated with gene expression, whereas in phylogeny, shared features indicate shared ancestry. By surrounding state-of-the-art animations with sets of learning challenges, we ask students to analyze development in different contexts. Animation is essential because development is a complex 4D process where morphology changes over time; as such, it is difficult to absorb through static drawings or text.


We are creating a set of self-guided learning modules that will enable the user to understand the key elements of animal development from fertilization to early organ formation. Students who follow our learning script will be able to outline the morphological events within a developmental sequence for a range of organisms and will propose molecular mechanisms that produce the observed morphological changes. Users will also identify a phylogenetic signal in development.


We parse animal developmental into short sequences where users describe what they see in a particular animation, interpret events, propose mechanisms, and predict outcomes of animated experimental manipulations. We provide background information, frequent formative assessments, short auditory sections that give context or confirm understanding, along with summative assessments. The auditory sections were requested by student users to provide a human element to the modules. The hosting software, SoftChalk, includes access to a score center to record user responses to embedded questions for use in grading or evaluation.


The project is still under development, but it has been tested with community college students in general biology, STEM students from under-represented groups, and students in an upper-division developmental biology class. There is also a public website: Module use enhanced interest and enjoyment of the topics, and our users report a greater understanding of the material, but we have yet to demonstrate learning gains due to module use. More tests are planned and an improved testing methodology is needed. When the material was used to accompany a developmental biology class with a strong emphasis on developmental genetics, it became clear that more material on cell behavior and on genetic regulatory networks was needed; this is being developed at present.

Broader Impacts

This project created learning materials for biology students at community college, at a research university, and the general public (via our website). There is very little other animated material on animal development available and nothing of this quality. To date, dissemination has been local to California, but we are beginning to contact faculty teaching developmental biology across the US and Canada.

Unexpected Challenges

My challenges related to the self-guided nature of the learning modules. One was discovering the appropriate level of depth and background material to permit a range of users to work with modules; we solve this by finding large and diverse groups of testers (students with limited backgrounds, community college students, upper division students). We recently realized we needed more background on genetic regulatory networks and cell behavior for the upper division learners. Other challenges include finding opportunities for assessment; demonstrating learning gains; and large-scale dissemination. We are still working on these last items.


We do not have publications beyond the website listed above.

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