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Program in Course Redesign

Fairfield University

The Traditional Course

General Biology, a two-semester introductory course, is required of all students majoring in biology, psychology, neuroscience, biochemistry, and allied health. Approximately 260 students enroll in the course annually, 15% of the typical first-year class. Almost one-tenth of all students major in biology, the second largest major at the university. The university offers four lecture sections of about 35 to 40 students in the fall term and three in the spring term. Each lecture section meets three times a week for 50 minutes. Seven lab sections of about 20 students are offered in the fall and six in the spring. Each lab section meets once a week for three hours. Four different faculty members teach the lecture sections, and five faculty members plus additional professional staff teach the labs.

In the traditional format, General Biology is taught in a lecture format using an historic approach, with all faculty using the same syllabus. In-class technology consists of an overhead projector and transparencies. Labs consist of a series of 12 modules, each of which is designed to be completed in the three-hour lab session. Students do "cookbook" type experiments in which they memorize information rather than apply specific scientific methodology to answer biological questions. Neither lectures nor labs use computer-based instructional materials or online databases, despite the integral use of computers in biological research today.

The traditional course faces a number of academic problems:

  • The lecture/lab format does not foster student-centered, inquiry-based, independent investigation using existing technological tools. Students have little opportunity to develop either higher-level cognitive skills or skills in using biological software and databases.
  • Faculty cannot teach complex topics effectively without using modern technology.
  • Students are dissatisfied with the course, and preliminary data indicate that students are not retaining material and the department is not retaining possible majors.
  • Students are not developing the foundation knowledge and skills required in later upper-division and capstone courses.
  • The traditional course is inefficient in the use of faculty time in lectures due to redundancy of faculty teaching.
  • Labs carry a high materials cost as well.

Faculty have started to address these problems through some initial redesign efforts: a course Web page with tutorials and links to biology Web sites, a textbook-related CD for homework assignments, and an investigative online laboratory. Students have found these tools useful, which suggests the need for further redesign.

The Redesigned Course

The prime objective of the course redesign is to use existing technology to foster active, inquiry-based student learning while reducing per-student costs. The new approach to General Biology will offer a more interactive and individualized learning environment to students, use faculty time more efficiently, and reduce costs associated with lab materials.

The learning goals for the redesigned course will require students to

  • better understand basic biological concepts;
  • acquire a better understanding of the scientific method and how it is applied;
  • appreciate the effectiveness of team collaboration to address problems;
  • develop higher-level cognitive skills and increased confidence in their knowledge;
  • learn about new fields of biology that rely almost exclusively on computer-based methodology (e.g., bioinformatics); and
  • appreciate the wealth of information and interconnectedness of knowledge in the life sciences.

In order to achieve these learning objectives, the General Biology syllabus will be redesigned around the BioQUEST software library, using inquiry-based instructional modules that focus on problem posing, problem solving, and peer collaboration. BioQUEST moves the syllabus away from lower-level cognitive skills (e.g., memorization) to higher-order thinking in a highly interactive learning environment.

In the large lecture sections, modules will be supplemented with other technologies (CDs, DVDs, Web resources). Lecture sessions themselves will be redesigned to support teams of students working at computer stations (iBooks), each connected to an instructor-controlled computer via wireless technology. Students will be expected to interact via computers, and they will be expected to peer-mentor each other during in-class discussions. By redesigning lectures to accommodate small group learning, multiple lecture sections can be consolidated from seven to one each semester, reducing faculty numbers by almost half. Faculty will use their time more efficiently, as the new lecture structure supports a division of teaching responsibilities so that each of the remaining faculty can teach from his/her area of expertise.

Labs will be redesigned to use online laboratory modules, reducing costs of lab materials and allowing for a broader range of examples and hypothesis testing. Students will also use iBooks in labs to conduct independent investigations using modern software packages and Web-based exercises, thus creating a dynamic, inquiry-based environment.

Lectures and labs in the redesigned course will foster active, inquiry-based learning. The redesign also fosters more personalized learning with the introduction of recitation periods. Students will be divided into smaller (35-student) breakout sessions that will provide a non-structured environment in which to ask questions. Faculty can assess student understanding and get feedback on the success of classroom activities through these smaller sessions. This additional interaction with students will be made possible by the time savings realized in the redesign.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 14-week term
  • 7 lecture sections per year of 35-40 students each
  • 13 lab sections per year of 20 students each
  • 6 contact hours per week: 3 (1-hour) lectures and 1 (3-hour) lab
  • Seven faculty members each teach one section of the course. They prepare and deliver weekly lectures, design and evaluate student assignments, design and evaluate exams, and hold one office hour per week.
  • Five faculty members and eight professional staff each teach one lab section. They develop and deliver small mini-lectures, monitor student activities, and evaluate student lab reports. Professional staff also set up all labs.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 14-week term
  • 2 large sections per year of 130-140 students each
  • 14 lab sections per year of 20 students each (one-half are wet labs; one-half are virtual labs)
  • 4 recitation sessions per week of 35 students each
  • 6 contact hours per week: 3 (1-hour) lectures, 1 (3-hour) lab, 1 optional (1-hour) recitation session
  • Two faculty members collaboratively teach one section per term. Each prepares and conducts one-half of the weekly class meetings, conducts two recitation sessions per week rather than holding office hours, and meets with students individually as needed.
  • Five faculty members and eight professional staff each teach one lab section. They develop and deliver small mini-lectures, monitor student activities, and evaluate student lab reports. Professional staff also set up all labs.

Summary

In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Focus on higher-level cognitive skills
  • Create both team-based and independent investigations, using interactive learning environments in lectures and labs
  • Base student investigations on BioQUEST and other existing technology resources
  • Restructure the lab experience, making half of the labs virtual
  • Restructure multiple lecture sections into a large-classroom format
  • Reduce the number of faculty teaching the course
  • Use question-and-answer recitation sessions to further support student learning

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