Learning about Your Students’ Learning

Dear Education Committee, I teach an intro course and an upper division developmental biology course, so my student populations are very different. I’m interested in figuring out what works best for my students to learn. I’m not a biology education researcher and I don’t have the time or interest to become one. That said, I’m curious about what my students are learning and how I can be effective in my teaching. Where should I start?

Sincerely, Science Educator (not education researcher)

Dear Science Educator (not education researcher),

Members of the ASCB Education Committee understand your perspective: Training as a bench researcher does not necessarily prepare you to do biology education research (BER), and teaching biology does not necessarily mean you want to study teaching and learning. That said, you are clearly dedicated to improving student learning in your classroom, so the committee hopes it can help you find a happy medium to determine what works best for students to learn in your classes, without diving deeply into BER, the science of teaching and learning, or any other area of education research. Even if you don’t do this work, however, the call to be “scientific” about our teaching has been endorsed by many for some time.1 To get started, you need a clear goal. What specifically do you want to know about your students’ learning? Perhaps there is a particular module you have developed and you want to assess it. If you would like some quick assessment ideas to see what your students learned, you can find evidence-based strategies in our May 2017 column, “How to know what your students know before it’s too late.”2 This will help you think about methods for checking in with your students. If you want to dig a little deeper, you might consider the resources on teaching as research available through the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, which offers a list of steps to help you in the process of defining your learning goal, assessing students, and reflecting.3 Perhaps this all seems overwhelming, and you don’t have time to do this work yourself. Don’t worry, there are people who may be willing to partner with you. Does your institution have a Center for Teaching & Learning or STEM Education Center? If so, the staff there may be able to provide guidance and/or resources. Sometimes centers offer grants that you might apply for, which may include support from center staff for an academic year. Do you have colleagues in the Department or School of Education? They may be able to connect you with a student (graduate or undergraduate) who would be interested and motivated in helping you collect and analyze data about your student learning for a thesis or class project. Finally, consider science students you have currently or have worked with in the past. Many science students are interested in research and in developing their skills in data analysis and interpretation. A former student in your class may be particularly interested in how the class can be improved for future students. Now that you’ve put the work into better understanding how your students learn, consider sharing what you learned with the broader community. Perhaps you can share your results with peers who teach the same or similar courses as you. If you have a Center for Teaching & Learning on your campus, there may be opportunities to share a poster or give a talk through the center. You could even write something up for a regional conference. Before getting started, it is good practice to contact your Institutional Review Board if you have any interest in presenting or publishing your work. They can let you know if your analysis will require any sort of approvals.  

The Education Committee

References 1Handelsman J, Ebert-May D, Beichner R, Bruns P, Chang A, DeHaan R, et. al. (2004). Scientific teaching. Science, 304, 521. Retrieved from www.sciencemag.org/content/304/5670/521.short. 2EdComm (2017). How to know what your students know before it’s too late. ASCB Newsletter 40(3), 20–21; www.ascb.org/careers/office-hours-edcomm-may-2017. 3www.cirtl.net/about/core_ideas/teaching_as_research.

About the Author:

EdComm is the short name for ASCB’s Education Committee.