vision & change in undergraduate biology education

By Alison Campbell 25/04/2011

Last week our department began to review its biology curriculum. I have a sneaking suspicion that some folks were hoping that one day was pretty much ‘it’, but realistically we’ll be continuing the process for some time. Which is just as well, because Grant has pointed me at a document that I would have liked to have had my hands on last Wednesday: Vision and change in undergraduate biology education, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the AAAS). (You need to sign up to view the document.)

It’s a 100-page document, & this being Easter I am torn between reading (& blogging) it, consuming the inevitable chocolate (although I have to say that Peter Gordon’s dessert risotto recipe has provided considerable competition!), & the considerable pile of undergraduate essays looming on my desk. So I will save the measured commentary for the next day or so, as otherwise my students won’t get their essays back next week, but offer a taster tonight.

The report kicks off with a 2008 quote from the US National Science Foundation that’s directly relevant to so many aspects of science literacy: my colleagues’ deliberations on our own curriculum; the new Science curriculum for primary and secondary schools; Sir Peter Gluckman’s recent report on the direction of science education in New Zealand.

Appreciating the scientific process can be even more important than knowing scientific facts. People often encounter claims that something is scientifically known. If they understand how science generates and assesses evidence bearing on these claims, they possess analytical methods and critical thinking skills that are relevant to a wide variety of facts and concepts and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.

For me, this quote highlights a key part of my own educational philosophy, & something that I think my colleagues & I should always bear in mind. Particularly because in our first-year biology classes there is always going to be a certain proportion of students who aren’t going to major in biology & in fact aren’t majoring in any science discipline. They’re doing the subject out of interest, perhaps, or because it’s required for (say) a planning degree. So, do we want them to leave our classes with a head full of facts & concepts that they may well shed soon after the final exam, or do we want them to gain the tools for analysing and interrogating the information they receive in their encounters with scientific claims? (Actually, it needn’t be – & shouldn’t be – an either/or statement as we all need some basic, key concepts on which to base that critical thinking. The devil, as always, is in the detail – how do you decide what is ‘key’ and what can usefully be added later? We certainly can’t cover it all!) And, surely, this is just as important for those who are going on to major in a science discipline, because a part of that should certainly involve learning to think like a scientist.

Unfortunately, getting to that end-point doesn’t stop with simply (haha!) identifying those things that we consider our students should know & be capable of doing, by the time they complete an undergraduate degree. It really does need us to look afresh at how we teach biology (but you could equally well substitute the name of any other discipline there) – including giving students a proper feel for what science research is like. Alongside that comes a review of what & how we assess, for assessment is a powerful driver of student learning & they quickly learn what we value (or appear to value) from the nature of assessment tasks. And all of that implies a need for professional development for staff plus some serious changes at the level of the institution: as long as research outputs are perceived as attracting more substantial rewards than teaching, who can blame people for leaning more to the research side? (As I said, assessment is a powerful driver…)

The report identifies four recommendations for bringing about the desired changes in undergraduate biology education, and devotes a chapter to each. The AAAS recommends that biology educators should:

  • integrate core concepts and competencies throughout the curriculum;
  • focus on student-centred learning;
  • promote a campus-wide commitment to change;
  • engage the biology community in the implementation of change.

I’ll be coming back to these over the next few days – otherwise this post would balloon out to unreadable proportions! What I’ve read so far has really struck a chord & there is so much that I could say on each of those points. Please do join in, as it would be really great to get a conversation going around the findings of the report: one that is definitely not restricted to biolology educators 🙂

C.A.Brewer & D.Smith (eds) (2011) Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. Final report of a national conference organised by the AAAS, July 15-17 2009, Washington DC. ISBN 978-0-87168-741-8