How can colleges help students better comprehend biology? That's the task Hampshire Professor of Ecology Charlene D'Avanzo plans to tackle with the support of a National Science Foundation grant aimed at improving the way introductory biology classes are taught nationwide.
"Biology has just exploded in terms of discoveries in the last 20 years. There is more and more information to teach. Faculty are becoming overwhelmed, many students are unhappy, textbooks are over 1,000 pages long—and that's not including glossaries," says D'Avanzo.
The $340,830 NSF grant is a collaborative research project between Hampshire College and Michigan State University entitled "Improving General Biology Teaching with Diagnostic Question Clusters and Active Teaching." It will allow D'Avanzo to expand on related work she began with a prior NSF-funded study focused on introductory ecology teaching.
Much of the research is based on diagnostic question clusters developed by co-principal investigator Charles W. Anderson of Michigan State University and his team of researchers. The question clusters, targeting key concepts and thinking about biology (and ecology in the first study), will be used by 15 collaborating professors from universities, four-year colleges, and community colleges across the country. Questions are developed through an extensive process that involves interviewing hundreds of students and asking them to explain their reasoning about biological phenomena.
"Faculty use these questions to try and understand what students don't understand about biology and why. It's a way to help faculty slow down and focus on fewer concepts, because the data comes from their own students. The questions give teachers well researched materials they trust so they can assess the effectiveness of their teaching," says Professor D'Avanzo. "I'm interested in how we can help faculty use these tools to change fundamentally how they teach introductory biology."
Yearly workshops, an extensive website, conference calls, emails, and other methods of communication allow for the steady exchange of information. Anderson and his graduate student researchers update the questions based on the contributing faculty's input, which, ideally, will allow them to quickly begin making inroads on curriculum changes.
"We're trying to get inside the heads of the students, and to do that you've got to stand back from your automatic ways of thinking about teaching, and try to see how those students reason about biology," says D'Avanzo.
Similar research that has captured more and more of the ecology professor's attention over the years: "I was trained as a marine ecologist, but about fifteen years ago I shifted my focus to ecology education reform. I've been able to take what I've learned at Hampshire and put it into proposals for these national projects," says D'Avanzo of her desire to better reach students. "This fits in with the Hampshire tradition. I wouldn't be doing this if I were at another school, I'm sure."