Have you ever gotten back a grade in college and been confused, because you put in more work than your grade shows?
This is a question Dr. Rachael Hannah (See Insert) from the University of Alaska at Anchorage has spent much of her career thinking about. Because grades are the currency for success both in and beyond academia and grade inflation continues to rise, understanding how to make grading and expectations equitable is important to help students navigate the education landscape of the 21st Century. In her seminar talk to the ROSE Network, she introduced the idea -- borrowed from the humanities-- of giving her science students what she calls "Contract Grading". Contract Grading functions like a semester-long rubric, where meeting certain assignments and expectations guarantees the students the corresponding grade on the contact. According to recent research (some of which is featured in the picture below), Grading Contracts in the sciences have shown promising affects on reducing DFW rates (DFW rates are the percent of students who receive D's, F's, or withdraw from a course -- it's often the metric of instructional success as DFW students cannot progress through their major). This, Dr. Hannah posits, is precisely why its such a useful tool for building an inclusive classroom environment -- it levels the academic playing field for those who may not know the unwritten expectations of doing well in college.
Aisha O'Connor, Michelle Curtis, and Sarah Shainker were biology graduate students who came out to support the ROSE Network seminar. "I was interested in the topic because I want to teach someday," Michelle Curtis said. Like many in the audience, Michelle, Aisha and Sarah didn't know about Contract Grading. Aisha reflected, "I didn't get the vibe in undergrad that people cared about how courses were graded. It's quite nice to see, really." As someone who sees teaching in her future, Sarah added, "Contract Grading seems better [than traditional grading] because clear expectations are important for students. Grades can be scary if you try hard but don't know what you will be graded. It really takes the mystery out." As for Dr. Hannah, she says there is one more benefit for contract grading: for the instructor-- it's less work.
Dr. Kimberly Tanner (left) with Dr. Sami Raut (right) following Dr. Tanner's talk.
What is that enthusiasm you can hear down the hall? What's that -- the Biology conference room is packed with so many people that folks were sitting on the floor! If you peer inside, you can see Dr. Kimberly Tanner, Professor of Biology from San Francisco State University, giving an impressive talk for the UAB Biology Departmental Seminar (co-sponsored by ROSE). Here's what it was about:
Small-scale change within departments can have large-scale impacts on student success in the science classroom. Dr. Tanner laid out 21 strategies in the classroom that include Think-Pair-Share, asking open-ended questions, and random cold calling, among others. But beyond her own instruction, Dr. Tanner uses a tool her SEPAL lab developed, DART (Decibel Analysis for Research in Teaching) to assess vocal patterns in the classroom. The decibel analysis can show how much class time is being afforded to teachers talking, student discussing, and quite time for student thinking. DART enables professors to have a really quick and dirty metric for how much of their class time is active and student-centered. Student researcher Joseph Jablonsky noted that, "it was pretty cool to see how much time some teachers spend lecturing through quantitative measurements."
In the audience was also Melissa Walker, PhD student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow. "I really liked how Dr. Tanner emphasized how all of these strategies tied back to inclusion." From the 21 teaching strategies to the DART, Dr. Tanner's work allows instructors to produce long-lasting classroom transformations that improve not only content understanding, but also foster a much needed sense of community for students.
With over 50 people in the audience, her message could not have been more well received.
How can we make STEM classes more equitable?
Dr. Cissy Ballen, PhD, assistant professor at Auburn University, is a discipline-based education researcher working hard to find answers to this question. Turns out, university education is all too familiar with the student-deficit model, which focuses on shortcomings of students coming into a classroom. Instead, Dr. Ballen's group uses the framework of the course-deficit model, which posits that class conditions favor certain student groups over others. Using the course-deficit model enables Dr. Ballen's team to study performance and participation gaps in order to increase equity across student groups across STEM.
Building off the work of Koester and colleagues (2016), Dr. Ballen's team found that in their student samples across two science colleges, female students only under-performed male students on exams in courses that had high-stakes examinations. But, why is this? Ballen and colleagues further explored mediating variables, such as ACT and text-anxiety, unveiling more gendered differences between outcomes. Importantly, these gender gaps are mitigated when educators minimize the risk associated with high stakes examinations (like exams worth 50% of final course grade being reduced to less than 40% of the final course grade). Ballen's work has also shown that class size can be another factor influencing gender dynamics in the classroom, where female students in larger classes are less likely to voluntarily interact with their professor in class. She implores us to consider the weight of these ideas beyond the university classroom.
Lindsay MacMillan, Biology TA and graduate student, came to Dr. Ballen's talk because she was interested in becoming a better educator. "I liked that [Dr. Ballen] talked about the student versus the course deficit. We need to be thinking about how to change course structure, not the student." Dr. Ballen's outlook asked the audience to consider that classroom experiences are consequential and that they shape perceptions of ability to complete coursework. MacMillan responded, "Equity in the classroom seems increasingly important. It's under out control as educators in the classroom, even if its not always present in society. So we should help make things right."
Dr. Cissy Ballen presents her work to the UAB ROSE community.
Do students learn more if they have pre, in-class, and post assessments? The answer is yes according to the latest work led by Dr. Shaffer, a teaching professor in the Department of Chemical and Biology Engineering Colorado School of Mines (click here for his faculty website). Dr. Shaffer's educational research highlights the importance of course-structure in large-enrollment Biology and Engineering courses. This follows-- when students interact with course material more and more, they do better in the course. Dr. Shaffer came all the way from Colorado to give a seminar to ROSE about this research. But that's not all his team has found. Specifically, when they investigated the use of optional reading guides, which are designed to supplement textbook readings, they noticed the more often students used reading guides the better they did in the course. (In fact-- this research has led our own Dr. Sami Raut to implement optional reading guides in her courses at UAB!) Dr. Shaffer went on to talk about his recent work that contrasts engineering and biology perceptions about math. Turns out, in his student population, engineering majors were more likely to have negative attitudes about biology but positive attitudes about math and biology majors were more likely to have negative views on math. These insights about course-structure and other student attitudes were a big hit by the 40 or so attendees.
"After teaching many years, improvements are harder to come by from your own mind. You get tapped out. Going to [ROSE] meetings gives me new ideas about what works that I can use in my classes to continue to improve. These short [ROSE] meetings are perfect for a busy professor, " said Dr. Robin Foley, UAB Associate professor in Engineering, who attended Dr. Shaffer's talk. In response to Dr. Shaffer's results, Dr. Foley noted, "Got several ideas to try in my class with too many students!"
Dr. Shaffer presents his work to the UAB ROSE community.
Colonizing Mars through space exploration is no easy feat. Tackling contemporary issues to space exploration requires huge multi-disciplinary teams of computer scientists, biologists, engineers, over years and years of research. Who do you picture doing this work? Are they in grandeous high-tech NASA labs? This week, Dr. Melanie Moses, from the University of New Mexico Department of Computer Science, showed us how she is changing these conceptions by inviting thousands of high school students, most of whom are women and students of color, to participate in "Swarmathon" competitions in large parking lots. Students program algorithms for biomimetic robots (initially modeled after ants and other swarming biological creatures), for the robots to efficiently collect resources, modeling Mars exploration in ways that could prove beneficial to NASA. Importantly, Dr. Moses' research has shown over 90% of participants were interested in pursuing degrees in Computer Science. Taken together, this outreach program can not only provide important algorithms for NASA, but can diversify our conceptions of what it means to be a space explorer.
Students often struggle to develop an intuitive understanding of the core ideas underlying evolutionary biology. For instance, the concept of "randomness" and how it impacts evolution are not as obvious as we might think. Wouldn't it be cool if there was a way for students to watch evolution happening in real time experiments where they could get a first-hand appreciation for how these things work?
Enter AVIDA, a computer platform where virtual computers -- basically domesticated computer viruses -- compete with each other for access to the computer's processor and memory. AVIDA 'organisms' have 'genomes' -- strings of computer code that let them copy themselves as well as do math operations that get them 'energy'. These genomes mutate randomly during copying, allowing the 'Avidians' to evolve. Importantly, AVIDA isn't a simulation of evolution, but rather a different kind of 'life' that obeys the same laws of selection and drift as the biological world.
AVIDA-ED is a platform developed for using AVIDA in the classroom. It's a simple desktop or browser interface where the user has lots of options for how to set up the 'world' the Avidians will compete in. For our ROSE November Lunch Meeting, Dr. Mickie Powell (UAB Biology) will give us a workshop on how to use AVIDA-ED in an introductory biology classroom. Prior to attending the meeting, please download and read the two files below. Also, go ahead and take a look at the web-based version of AVIDA-ED.
Dr. Rosianna Gray, PhD, from the University of Alabama at Birmimgham led a thoughtful in person and virtual live conversation called "Get Students to Focus on Learning Instead of Grades: Metacognition is the Key" with ROSE members Wednesday, October, 3 2018. Dr. Gray discussed how she helps her introductory students think about their own learning behaviors instead of focusing on just getting good grades. Her insight included telling students to understand material covered in class as though they were needing to teach it and not just taking a test. She also recommends students gradually go through the material in small chunks using variant approaches while self assessing over a longer period of time instead of becoming intimated by large spreads of content. In this way, students can meaningfully engage with the fascinating topics covered in STEM courses and become as passionate as they are smart. In her words "All students are smart. Some just need to adjust their learning behaviors to reach their full potential in class."
Materials from Dr. Gray's Metacognition workshop can be found below:
THE ROSE NETWORK IS NOW FUNDED!
Congratulations to Dr. Jeff Morris, Dr. Trent Sutton, Dr. Jeff Olimpo, and Dr. Sami Raut
In the first back to school meeting of the 2018-19 school year, new and old ROSE members were introduced to the updated direction of the network following NSF funding. Jeff Morris provided a brief history of the network from his end and Jeff Olimpo (UTEP) and Trent Sutton (UA Fairbanks) discussed their new roles in the network. It was discussed that each hub university (UAB, UTEP, and UAF) would intend on assisting a network of community college partners in biology education to enhance the experience of incoming transfer students. Members discussed future directions, including: