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Lowering fail rates and fostering student success in introductory biology

Integrative Biology and Botany and Plant Pathology faculty at Oregon State University have transformed instructional strategies to improve student learning and performance in the introductory Principles of Biology (BI21x) courses — a series characterized by both high enrollment and a high drop-fail-withdraw (DFW) rate.

The impact of their novel teaching stratgies has been measured over ten years, with impressive results. The DFW rate has continuously declined in the series. Typically numbering more than 1,000 students, DFW rates for the three BI 21 courses reduced from a high of 33.6% to a low of 7% during a 10-year period from 2009 to 2019.

This and other learning improvements in introductory science and mathematics classrooms have led OSU to the largest first-year retention and six-year graduations rates in OSU’s history.

The Principles of Biology series is a set of three non-sequential courses that are taken by all life science and pre-professional majors at Oregon State. They introduce students to major concepts and skills in biology, and prepare students for upper-division courses by giving a broad survey of topics ranging from the origin of life to cell metabolism and global ecology.

“It is important to recognize the fact that that making big impacts on student pass rates often involves a lot of people. It is hard to make big movements if you have one person teaching 500 students.” — Lori Kayes.

BI 21 draws students from nearly 57 majors that range from biology itself to psychology, environmental science, kinesiology, food science, microbiology, biochemistry and a variety of other majors.

The far-reaching reforms to the series were carried out by course coordinator Lori Kayes, senior instructor in the Department of Integrative Biology, and her large team, which numbers nearly 90 people. While that may seem like a large number, Kayes points out that for a course that enrolls nearly 1,000 students every term, a team of 90 is a “reasonable number of people to help you teach.” The team comprises faculty, course coordinators, graduate teaching assistants, undergraduate teaching interns and learning assistants.

Integrative Biology Instructor Lori Kayes with students.

“It is important to recognize the fact that that making big impacts on student pass rates often involves a lot of people. It is hard to make big movements if you have one person teaching 500 students,” Kayes explained.

Several faculty members in the College of Science and beyond were instrumental in implementing changes that have resulted in in lower DFW rates in BI 21x. They include integrative biology faculty Nathan Kirk, Carmen Harjoe, Meta Landys and Andrew Blaustein; and botany and plant pathology professors Jeff Chang, Jeff Anderson and John Fowler, who co-teach each class in the series.

Bob Mason, professor of integrative biology and associate head, and Virginia Weis, head of the Department of Integrative Biology, provided tremendous support administratively and otherwise. Integrative biology instructor Adam Chouinard teaches professional development to the graduate teaching assistants, who go on to ably support undergraduate learning in BI 21x associated libraries.

Kayes has received some of the most prestigious teaching awards at Oregon State in recognition of her efforts to render excellent teaching and learning a reality for large numbers of faculty and students. She won the 2019 OSU Faculty Teaching Excellence Award that honors unusually significant and meritorious achievement in teaching and scholarship which enhance effective instruction.

Improving student success with active learning

Kayes took up the position of course coordinator of BI21x in 2011. In the past decade, she has been at the helm of a shift from traditional lecturing practices to the adoption of active learning methods by colleagues and fellow teachers.

“A few years ago, we started co-designing material so that we could switch from the instructor doing most of the talking to students talking about the material with each other,” said integrative biology instructor Nathan Kirk, who teaches the BI21 course to Honors students.

Kayes and her colleagues wanted to refashion the identity of this “gatekeeper course” where low enthusiasm and multiple choice tests were having an adverse impact on student success. “When I started thinking about best teaching practices, I really wanted to create a course that our students wanted to be in,” Kayes observed.

Inspired by active learning conferences and training workshops, the team began by experimenting with different active learning pedagogies in the classroom and selecting the ones that worked best. The standard lecture and tests format were gradually replaced with forms of interactive, collaborative learning. From getting students to act out parts of a cell to the facilitation of more peer discussions, innovative and effective active learning strategies are now part and parcel of the lecture space.

Studies, such as this one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that undergraduate students in classes with instructor-focused lecturing as the predominant mode of instruction were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in class with active learning.

“In addition to enhancing a sense of belonging and inclusion in the classroom, the other goal was knowledge retention for all, even for students who do well in the course,” Kayes said. “This would also have an impact in other ways, and help save students save time, effort and money in the future.”

Thus, active learning in OSU’s Principles of Biology classrooms is geared towards improving students’ retention skills. Kayes often heard from upper-division faculty that students weren’t retaining enough information from their introductory biology courses, required for succeeding in advanced life science classes.

“In addition to enhancing a sense of belonging and inclusion in the classroom, the other goal was knowledge retention for all, even for students who do well in the course.”

Enhancing learning retention involved rethinking the traditional approach to exams. Education researchers have found that interactive learning increases retention of content. Inspired by this, Kayes and her colleagues instituted a few key changes, one of them being the opportunity to revisit a portion of an exam and answer questions as a group. According to Kayes, this exercise helps students to better understand questions. “We have some positive evidence that it also helps students retain material for an upper-division class.”

Additionally, continual active and interactive learning in class through clicker questions (an interactive technology that helps instructors pose questions and view all the responses in class), worksheets and discussions ensure that students “don’t get big opportunities to forget the material,” added Nathan Kirk.

Learning with learning assistants

Junior biology major Maggie Cote is a former BI21x student and a current learning assistant for the class. She attests to the impact of these pedagogical innovations. Cote found herself very well prepared for her upper-level genetics class, with a sound grasp of the fundamentals that were covered in the first four weeks of class, leaving her free to rapidly advance in the subject. “I think BI21x helped me seamlessly transition to the more complex biology classes,” she said.

Left to right: Maggie Cote, Nathan Kirk, Carmen Harjoe, Lori Kayes.

Haunted by the question of how a single instructor can reach out to more than 500 students in a class, OSU’s science faculty put together the Learning Assistant (LA) Program, which puts advanced undergraduate students in the introductory classrooms to facilitate peer-to-peer learning. The LA program was founded by Kayes, Senior Biology Instructor Devon Quick and Dennis Bennett, director of OSU’s Writing Center.

Originating in integrative biology, the program has spread to other units, including physics, engineering, mathematics and more. In Fall 2017, the OSU LA Program had more than 100 LAs working with 19 different faculty, impacting more than 4,582 STEM students per term.

“We have gotten a lot better because of a really nice feedback support system from the learning assistants. Having that perspective and realizing that there’s another way of asking questions has made our classes a lot better.” — Nathan Kirk

Implementing interactive, peer-assisted learning, research has shown, bolsters student success in a large classroom — one of the reasons being students are more comfortable asking a question of a peer rather than the instructor.

“It became evident that we needed help to get students feedback and give them greater opportunities to ask questions,” noted Kayes.

Learning assistants became a part of the undergraduate biology classroom in 2014. Ten learning assistants roam in the arena-size classroom in the Learning Innovation Center building, helping students troubleshoot questions and discuss solutions. Maggie Cote has been on both sides of the learning experience, and she uses her experiences as a former BI 21x student to guide her approach as a learning assistant.

“I engage with students who are struggling to understand the material. After going over one or two things, I can see things clicking for them,” said Cote. “I guide their learning and thinking process, without giving them the answer. This can help build up students’ scientific thinking, which can be applied to other scenarios and questions.”

Learning assistants go through a pedagogy training class taught by Kayes and her colleagues, which deepens their content knowledge, and helps them develop teaching strategies and interpersonal skills. The feedback from LAs about where students encounter difficulties in the classroom has been invaluable for instructors in the BI 21x series.

“We have gotten a lot better because of a really nice feedback support system from the LAs,” said Nathan Kirk. “When we first got feedback from the LAs, we learned that often students didn’t have any clue what we were asking. Having that perspective and realizing that there’s a better way of asking questions has made our classes a lot better.”

Additionally, the professional development training that prepares graduate teaching assistants (GTA) to guide BI 21x students in the labs has also contributed to overall student success.

“As a GTA, I felt incredibly prepared to work with our students. That professional development training makes a big impact on how we teach and respond to undergraduate students in the lab and during office hours,” said alumna Carmen Harjoe (Ph.D. ’18), an integrative biology instructor and co-coordinator of BI21x.

A class not resting on its laurels

Successfully overcoming obstacles to STEM learning and teaching has become a matter of practice for Kayes and her colleagues. When she found the published lab manual for student experiments unsatisfactory and uninspiring, Kayes marshalled a team to redesign the entire lab sequence, transforming it into inquiry-based labs and adding real-world biology contexts.

“Our students now perform incredibly well in labs, which contributes to the lower DFW rate,” remarked Kayes. “We tend to think of the lecture and lab as separate components, but we have tried to integrate them and that helps our students.”

Despite multiple achievements, Kayes and her colleagues have not stopped in their quest for excellence in the BI 21 series, and they continually pursue up-to-date practices to enhance student learning. In fall 2020, they will re-sequence and re-design the entire BI 21 series to better serve a diverse range of students, including transfer students, and to further improve active learning for all.

“We have had a lot of success and done a lot of work, but we want to keep moving things around until we feel like we’ve got it where we want it. And my guess is we won’t be done then either,” said Kayes.

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