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Bridging the gaps

Online resources integrate active learning in large-size classes

special feature: Innovation

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s innovation ecosystem, a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador.  


By Courtenay Alcock

Memorial’s biology department is tackling a big issue for students taking its introductory course.

Each semester, approximately 700 students enrol in Biology 1001. That means, on average, there are about 200 students in each section sitting in a fixed-seat lecture theatre with one professor to teach them.

Four of the project team members stand together in a biology lab.
From left are project team members Drs. Piotr Trela, Sally Goddard, Margaret Caldwell and Jane Costello. (Absent: Dr. Anna Rissanen)
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

As such, it is difficult for instructors to engage students and provide them with additional help to learn the course content. It is also difficult to identify and address common challenges that students have with tough concepts.

The result? Poor class attendance, attrition and concerning failure rates. Currently at Memorial, the average failure rate for the first semester large enrolment science courses is almost 18 per cent.

In classes such as these, course content is largely delivered by lecturing.

This can create knowledge gaps that contribute to reported decreases in the number of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

” . . . in lecturing, you have no way to assess whether you’ve gotten through to the students in your delivery.” — Dr. Sally Goddard

Dr. Sally Goddard, a lecturer in the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, has been teaching since 2005 and has experienced this challenge first hand.

“You really want to reach the students, but it’s difficult with so many in a class and you also have a lot of material that you’re required to communicate to them,” she explained. “In courses like Biology 1001, you get a broad range of student abilities, including those that breeze through and others that don’t.

“In order to make sure all students have been exposed to the material you have to talk to them about it,” she continued. “But in lecturing, you have no way to assess whether you’ve gotten through to the students in your delivery.”

Collaborative idea

In 2016, Dr. Anna Rissanen, an instructor in the Faculty of Science, and Dr. Jane Costello, senior instructional designer with CITL, conceived an idea for a project which proved to be of great interest to Dr. Goddard and her fellow biology lecturers, Drs. Margaret Caldwell and Piotr Trela.

The idea was to develop open personalized resources to address the challenges in the first-year biology course, and so, a collaboration began to take place among the first-year biology lecturers and a team in CITL.

While teaching in the Faculty of Science, Dr. Rissanen, who formerly held a teaching consultant role with CITL, conducted a classroom research study in 2013 of a large class, first-year biology course at Memorial.

“We’re hoping the tutorials are fun and interesting to the students, but also teach them about concepts that can be difficult to grasp.” — Dr. Sally Goddard

The study showed that by increasing active learning in a large classroom, student attendance increased and so did students’ understanding of course concepts. Encouraged by these results, the team incorporated aspects of the work into their idea.

Identify and focus

Together they wrote a proposal to develop open, personalized, self-paced learning resources for students in introductory biology, and were awarded funding through Memorial’s Teaching and Learning Framework St. John’s Funding Competition.

“We know from teaching this course year after year that students have trouble grasping certain topics, so we had to identify those troubling concepts and focus the resources on those,” said Dr. Goddard.

In fall 2016 the team administered a pre-test to students in class before they covered any course material to identify their baseline of knowledge.

Then, at the end of the semester, they administered the test again and found five topics where students’ knowledge did not significantly improve.

Graduate student, Marshal Rodrigues, stands in front of a tree in a cap and gown following her convocation ceremony.
Marshal Rodrigues
Photo: Submitted

Over the next several months, the biology professors collaborated with CITL to develop active learning resources for those topics, pairing their course content and knowledge with CITL’s expertise.

The team also recruited a psychology graduate student, Marshal Rodrigues, to add the resources to Brightspace as well as develop assessment tools and badges to signify completion of a topic.

Action required

By September 2017 the group was ready to deploy a series of videos, games, reflection questions and quizzes aimed at providing a flexible learning environment and bridging the knowledge gap for students.

“Unlike lectures, the tutorials require action from the students,” Dr. Goddard said.

“Students have to move things around, drag and drop, and then they have to answer questions at the end of it. We just don’t have the time to do this type of active learning in the classroom.”

As in the previous year, prior to covering any course content the professors administered a pre-test for students.

A screen shot of a drag and drop game students can complete to learn differences between plant and animal cells.
Screen shot of an active learning tutorial to help distinguish differences between plant and animal cells.
Photo: Submitted

Throughout the semester, students were encouraged to access the tutorials as needed, either as an introduction to a topic or to supplement existing materials.

“Students have been using the resources all semester and we’ve received a lot of anecdotal feedback, all of which has been positive,” Dr. Goddard said.

“We’re hoping the tutorials are fun and interesting to the students, but also teach them about concepts that can be difficult to grasp.”

At the end of the term the team administered the post-test again, conducted surveys and focus groups with students and will analyze the results of the data to determine whether the tutorials made a difference to students’ learning.

Following the analysis, the group will disseminate a report and communicate the results of the project. They will also share the resources they developed by making them available in an open format for others to use or repurpose.

Larger implications

Beyond addressing challenges in introductory biology, the outcome of this project has larger implications by informing other potential initiatives in chemistry, mathematics, physics and earth sciences, which struggle with similar problems.

In addition to benefiting students’ learning, the online resources benefit instructors in large classes, as well.

“As one professor supporting 200 students, these resources give me something to point the students toward for help. It gives you a backup,” Dr. Goddard said. “Students can use the tutorials for these challenging concepts as much as they need to, then if they’re still having difficulty they can come talk to us about it.”

While the project took much work and collaboration, Dr. Goddard enjoyed the experience.

“To me, this was something quite new and it was exciting to work with CITL and see it all taking shape,” she said.

“It didn’t seem like a lot of work, it was very organic and we enjoyed the exercise. It was an intellectual challenge that got us thinking about how to visually represent the material in ways that help the students so they’ll retain what they’ve learned as they progress through their academic career.”


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