Across California public institutions of higher education, Introductory Biology is often taught in large classes (50-500+ students) that emphasize traditional lecture-based pedagogies. To communicate complex concepts in biology, introductory courses often focus on transferring knowledge to build a body of information that students will later draw on in advanced courses. This lecture format has been shown to be ineffective, however, in part because it carries a high cognitive burden: the delivery of visual material requires students to mentally merge elements and sort essential information from non-essential information (Castro-Alonso & Kitt 2019). Furthermore, new concepts are often presented at an expert level (Johnstone 2010). As a result, learners see concepts as disconnected and can not develop a clear mental framework on which to anchor new information, resulting in poor academic performance in Introductory Biology and future classes.
Active learning pedagogies such as small group discussion, writing, predicting, recalling information, and asking questions shift away from the ineffectual lecture format to instead provide space for learners to externalize concepts and develop their mental framework (Ebert-May et al. 1997; Freeman et al. 2007). Although active learning is highly effective for helping students develop a deeper understanding of difficult concepts, many instructors are resistant to include active learning because of the perception that these activities take up too much time during class and reduce the amount of information that can be presented.
In addition, biology courses are socially complex, which can discourage students because of perceived competition for grades, cultural differences in participation, and impersonal interactions with peers and instructors, among other factors. Psychosocial and cultural factors are present in both in-person and online environments, resulting in stress and anxiety that reduce cognitive resources for learning. These factors include stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson 1995) and cultural norm framing, both of which can affect sense of belonging based on how assignments or activities are presented to students. Even with redesigned lectures that incorporate active learning, students still report a lack of a sense of belonging; this effect is especially pronounced for minoritized students (Haynes & Winters, unpublished report). Students who transfer from community colleges to 4-year institutions may further experience this lack of sense of belonging.
The goal of this project is to determine how online tools can be leveraged to provide a collaborative learning experience for students in Introductory Biology courses across the California public system of higher education, and to reduce existing achievement gaps for minoritized students. In this project, we develop a framework that instructors can use to provide a collaborative learning environment outside of the classroom for students to externalize new information, build knowledge, develop their sense of belonging, and build critical academic skills. We use a 5E framework to anchor the active learning activities while also designing guidelines and examples for the social interactions and collaborative tools necessary for online deployment.
The project has the following goals: (1) Characterize the current learning environment in terms of online elements and learning experiences for students in biology courses at 1 UC, 1 CSU, and 3 CC institutions; (2) identify existing curriculum to modify for deployment in an an online collaborative environment; (3) develop and pilot test social, collaborative curriculum interventions at intersegmental partner institutions; and (4) further develop and expand institutional partnerships to prepare to scale up the interventions. Data collected will include surveys of students, semi-structured interviews of participating faculty and assessments of the intervention.
At the current phase of the project, 10+ faculty have participated in deploying surveys to their students and 250 introductory biology students responded to a survey in December 2020. Students responded to questions about lecture attendance and behaviors, collaboration tools and group work experiences, engagement in material and concepts, hypothetical situations for group work in class, and demographic information. Responses to these questions are currently being used to guide design of curriculum interventions and the online environment for the interventions.