Developing and using assessment tools
to promote student-centered teaching
The “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action” report, the final version of which was released last year, outlined a blueprint for undergraduate education in the biological sciences that focuses on student-centered learning of foundational concepts and skills necessary for their future success in science or whatever careers they choose. Despite the participation of the major funding agencies in the preparation and dissemination of the report, it is surprisingly clear that few outside the immediate participants have heard of “Vision and Change.”
Recognizing that widespread implementation of the concepts of “Vision and Change” would require much broader buy-in, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology applied for and won a Research Coordination Networks–Undergraduate Biology Education grant from the National Science Foundation to engage the biochemistry and molecular biology community not only in discussion but also in the development of assessment tools focused on the student-centered skills and the foundational concepts of our discipline (and the associated fields of chemistry, physics, math and computer science).
Going into the third year of a five-year project, the ASBMB has sponsored regional meetings across the country that have engaged faculty members from all types of institutions in the discussion of what are the foundational concepts and skills that our students should acquire from their degree programs. These meetings also have disseminated information about developing tools that can be used for both formative and summative assessment of student outcomes. The regional meetings were complemented by well-attended symposia at the annual meeting and a session at the ASBMB’s small education meeting in Richmond, Va., in 2012.
As we go into the third year of the grant, the project’s steering committee is working on three white papers summarizing the discussions on
- 1) the foundational concepts of the discipline
- 2) the necessary skills for biochemistry and molecular biology graduates
- 3) the underlying concepts of chemistry, physics, math and computer science necessary for our students in the increasingly quantitative and interdisciplinary world of modern biochemistry and molecular biology
These three white papers should be available on the ASBMB’s project website before the annual meeting in April in Boston. The outlines for developing appropriate assessment tools also will be available on the website.
The annual meeting also will highlight the transition to the development and use of validated assessment tools with the following presentations:
- • Jennifer Momsen, North Dakota State University: “Will this be on the test? Characterizing cognitive skills of undergraduate science assessments”
- • Cheryl Sensibaugh, University of New Mexico: “Problem solving in biochemistry: assessment, learning strategies and preconceptions”
- • Kim Linenberger, Iowa State University: “Biochemistry students’ misconceptions regarding enzyme-substrate interactions”
- • Karen Sirum, Bowling Green State University: “Assessing student development of scientific thinking skills using the experimental design and analysis of data ability tests.”
The national meeting presentations will be followed by two RCN–UBE-focused workshops and a steering committee meeting at the small education meeting to be held in Seattle in August 2013.
To lower the energy barrier for the development and use of these tools, a section of the website will be dedicated to illustrating best practices for faculty members using such approaches in their classrooms as well as making the tools themselves available as they are developed and validated.
Finally, just as the “Vision and Change” initiative was a community project, the ASBMB RCN–UBE project quickly has expanded from the original group of principal investigators to engage a wide segment of the biochemistry and molecular biology community, bringing together pedagogy and assessment experts with classroom faculty interested in engaging their students in the best possible learning environment.
Have we implemented “Vision and Change”? In some instances, yes, but communitywide there is a long way to go, and, as we move along the path, it is clear that “Vision and Change” will evolve, and must evolve, to engage more than just the biological science community and the four-year college student community if it is truly to transform life-science education. In particular, it is critical that the two-year college community is engaged in the discussion of how the first two years look and what concepts and skills are involved.
Given the emphasis of “Vision and Change” on engagement in research early in the curriculum, it is important that the biochemistry and molecular biology community seriously think about those first two years for all students. Perhaps as we develop assessment tools we should focus on a tiered assessment, asking, “What do we expect students to understand and be able to do as they enter their third year?” (which is when often they get their first exposure to a traditional biochemistry course) rather than just, “What do we expect a graduating student be able to do?”
The discussion of what the first two years of the curriculum should look like puts the allied fields of chemistry, physics, math and computer science into the spotlight. Combined with the emphasis on skills and early exposure to research, this suggests a need for a concerted implementation of the approaches envisioned in “Vision and Change” among the various disciplines and departments involved in educating students in the molecular life sciences.
This year and during the next two years of the project, there will be many more regional meetings, so look out for a meeting near you. If you are interested in getting more involved, don’t hesitate to contact me.
J. Ellis Bell (email@example.com) is professor of chemistry at the University of Richmond.