On how students learn to do problem solving in cell biology

Name: Miranda Meents
Year level: PhD candidate, 5th year
Department: Botany
Faculty: Science

How did you become involved?

I first heard about CIRTL from my supervisor, who is very involved with getting CIRTL set up at UBC. It sounded like a really amazing opportunity to get more experience in teaching as a grad student. I liked that it was focused on STEM education, which is really important if you’re trying to do discipline-based education research.

What is your project?

My project is actually developed from a course that I was TA-ing, which was a third-year cell biology course. I volunteered my time to do a SoTL study, looking at data that had been collected over three years on students’ perceptions of a set of assignments. In each of the three years [the instructor] had modified slightly how the students were supported, and she was really interested in seeing if we could see any differences in how the students did in the assignments and how they felt about them.

We were learning things about how students learn how to do problem solving in cell biology that we thought could help us teach those skills to a broader audience, which is how my project shifted to focusing a second-year cell biology course, BIOL 200. We went from a course of 50 to 100 students to one that has 1,200. From having one instructor to having five different instructors. From having one TA to having about 20 TAs. The potential to change teaching for the better is so much higher in BIOL 200.

One of the things from the second-year course is that the instructors felt there was a lot of frustration from the students about not having enough support in solving problems. In that course they have a set of over 200 exam-style practice problems. Some of them are covered in lecture, some of them are covered in the tutorials, but the major point of the problem sets is to give students practice in problem solving. But the instructors were very firm about not providing answer keys for the problems in the problem sets because there’s this perception that if students are given answer keys they will just look for the answer. They won’t engage with the problem in a realistic way, in a natural way.

The question was: How can you provide better support for the students without compromising and providing answer keys for all of the problems? The answer came partly from the work that I did in the third-year cell biology course and partly from the education literature. We found that providing examples of answers was the most powerful of the three techniques that we tried. It maintained the high level of performance on assignments, but also improved the students’ perception of the assignments. They felt more supported.

We wanted to take that idea, and apply it to these BIO 200 problem sets so I wrote problem walk-throughs. They are not answer keys but they provide an example answer and have a lot of commentary about why an answer is correct and how you might approach a problem. The idea is that hopefully the students can take those walk-throughs and apply what they are learning there to other problems in the problem set, even though there aren’t answer keys to all of the problems.

What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

The biggest challenge so far was getting the ethics approval, because it’s not my area of expertise. In my lab research I am a botanist. I study plants. You don’t need ethics approval for that, but when you’re studying real human beings, you need to make sure you’re treating them fairly, so that was really challenging — just to make sure that everything that you’re doing has been checked and double checked so that you’re not inadvertently coercing people or treating them unfairly.

What is the impact of your project on teaching?

With BIOL 200, I am working with five instructors, which can be really challenging, because you have a bunch of different personalities and people with different perspectives. A lot of the time what an instructor is working off of is their perspective, their impression of how things have gone previously, but often that’s not representative of what actually happens in the class. It might be they only talk to the students that are having a really hard time, and so they feel like things are worse than they are. Or one instructor has one experience and a different instructor has a different experience and they don’t see eye to eye on it because they saw different things. So when I can come in and give the instructors real data I say, “This is a more representative sampling of what your student said about these different topics.” Then I can take that and give it to them in a way that lets them make more informed decisions about their teaching practices. Then when I share my results outside of the specific class that I’m looking at it will inform how teachers and instructors might teach their materials as well.

How about the impact on research?

With all SoTL research, you are building on and depending on the research that has come before even more because it’s so based in the humanities and social sciences. It’s not like when you’re doing a science experiment and you can control so many variables, that you have much greater confidence that the results that you’re seeing are representing a true phenomenon. I think you have to build up a more substantial body of literature and do more studies in lots of different situations and different disciplines in order to be able to make claims in general about how teaching and how learning works. The benefit of doing a study like mine is that I’m taking primarily the studies on the worked example effect, (where providing an example generates better learning) mainly from math, physics and computer science literature. There’s not that much evidence for it in a biology classroom. So when you take that sort of body of literature and you’re applying it to different situations, you’re testing the limits of our understanding of how learning works, and so I think in that respect it furthers the SoTL field in general.