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The Evolution of Biology Education JMU Professor Alters Techniques, Empowers Students
By Dan Armstrong, JMU Public Affairs
Carol Hurney (left) gave students some say in what they wanted to study, but their choices did not diminish the rigor of the course.
Carol Hurney's most recent biological research has focused much on growth—axial elongation in the four-toed salamander, to be exact.
But it's the educational growth of her students, her teaching and that of her colleagues that's truly piqued her interest recently.
Hurney, an associate professor of biology at James Madison University, was one of 20 faculty members from institutions across the nation selected to study biology education reform and the scholarship of teaching and learning in the National Science Foundation's Biology Scholars Research Residency in 2008.
The program helps biology scholars evaluate and experiment with teaching methods and curriculum design in their biology classrooms, with the ultimate goal of determining best teaching practices to improve student learning across the field of biology.
"I think the reason that a group of people like biologists need something like this is because you sort of have to train your head in a different way to do a different kind of research from what we've traditionally been trained to do," Hurney said. "It's a different language. It's a different kind of data analysis, data collection, methodology."
A New Approach
Hurney has taught GBIO 103, a general education course for non-majors, since joining the JMU faculty 11 years ago. Since general education courses emphasize learning impacts and skills rather than specific content objectives, the GBIO classroom provided a fertile test ground to experiment with teaching strategies, Hurney said.
"The most significant change I made was to make the class learner-centered, giving some of the power over to the students. Not a lot, but some," Hurney said. "Almost immediately I started to notice that there were some things going on that I had not expected."
Specifically, two years ago, Hurney began allowing the students in her general biology course to pick the scientific topics they studied, the form of their assignments and the allotment of points over the semester.
Given a list of biology topics, the students got to vote on what most interested them, what assignments—tests, reports, research projects—they preferred and how much they were worth.
"I haven't changed the exams or the projects. The content, the rigor of the course is not different," Hurney said. "Just because I pick a different topic doesn't mean I completely abandon the goals of the general education program or the goals I have for what I want my students to be able to do. It's just a different topic."
Hurney compiled data from periodic class surveys and overall course grades. The results surprised her—and more than a few of her students.
The clearest indicator of the new approach's success was in the students' grades. The students in her learner-centered class in 2008 earned a group average of 84.8 for the semester, a significant improvement over the previous semester's course average of 78.5.
"When I finally did the statistics on the course averages, I really was completely shocked at how well they did," Hurney said. "I didn't expect the impact just those two little changes had."
Of course, it's not just about the grades. Hurney turned to qualitative student surveys to gauge their feelings toward the learner-centered approach.
"I was so much more motivated to learn when I was learning things I was interested in," one student responded.
"Being able to pick topics and have a say in how points were counted allowed me to be more engaged in learning the topic," wrote another.
More than 70 percent of the 127 students agreed that the units where they got to choose their topics helped them learn the material better. Some 89 percent agreed that allowing them to determine the allocation of points was a good idea. More than 70 percent reported that they found biological information more interesting than they previously had, and more than 80 percent reported that they are more confident in their ability to understand complicated scientific information.
Hurney is quick to note that some students still preferred a traditional, instructor-centered class, which allows them to plan for an entire semester's worth of studying using a predetermined syllabus. Others felt having to choose their own learning paths added stress to an already challenging environment, while others doubted that their cohort's choices made any significant difference in how the course played out.
Still, Hurney, who recently presented her research at a American Society of Microbiologists conference and is currently preparing a manuscript for publication, felt that her first forays into a more learner-centered teaching approach hold promise for the future teaching by her and her colleagues.
"In the grand scheme of learner-centered teaching, I've taken a very small baby step, but I think that faculty need just a little bit of nudging," she said. "If my paper can influence someone to just make some small changes that really aren't drastically changing my life in terms of workload, it can make a difference in the right kind of class."
Bringing It Home
The benefit of Hurney's study of teaching and learning is twofold—both informing her responsibilities as a professor and her duties as assistant director of the JMU Center for Faculty Innovation.
The CFI supports JMU faculty members, including full-time, part-time and administrative faculty as well as student affairs personnel and graduate teaching assistants in all aspects of their work—scholarship, teaching and service.
Much of Hurney's work includes arranging professional development workshops and seminars, and her experiences in the scholarship of teaching and learning are something she hopes to model for other faculty members.
"That was the other reason to send me, that we wanted to focus some of our programming efforts on increasing the scholarship of teaching and learning on campus," Hurney said. "I went there as a biologist with my own course in mind and trying to improve the way I teach my course, but also from the perspective of 'how do you run something like this effectively?' and if we could model that here on campus."
She said she has shared her experiences with a handful of other biology faculty members who have expressed interest in engaging the scholoarship of teaching and learning as a tenet of their research, and a few are looking toward implementing similar course designs for their students.
Shifting toward a learner-centered classroom is a process that requires constant nurturing, re-evaluation and study, Hurney said. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach.
"In the scholarship of teaching and learning, you can't control the whole environment. Not every SOTL paper is going to demonstrate that something actually worked," Hurney said. "But I think that's good for scientists to let go a little bit."