Biology of the 21st century is the study of complexity – from complex systems to complex data sets. Successful scientists must integrate knowledge across disciplines to evaluate problems and synthesize solutions. Introductory biology courses are widely criticized for overemphasizing details and rote memorization of facts. Indeed, numerous calls for reform of STEM education reflect a wide disjunction between what is taught in the undergraduate biology classroom and the skills needed by scientists, science teachers, and informed citizens. Data to support such claims, however, are surprisingly scarce. As part of a nationwide study of faculty teaching practices, we quantified the level of learning targeted by faculty in introductory-level biology courses. We used Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives to assign cognitive learning levels to course syllabi objectives and individual items on high-stakes assessments.
Of 248 syllabi submitted, approximately half contained explicit course goals. Goals ranged from simple recall of information to synthesis and evaluation, but the overwhelming majority of goals (81%) targeted Bloom’s levels 1 and 2 – knowledge and comprehension. Less than 5% of objectives were written to address Bloom’s levels 5 and 6 - synthesis and evaluation. Of the nearly 12,000 assessment items analyzed, over 90% targeted knowledge and comprehension and less than 1% addressed synthesis and evaluation. These results indicate that few faculty – roughly 25% of our sample – approach teaching with explicitly stated a priori goals for student learning. Further, faculty who articulated course goals focus on factual recall over higher order skills. While course goals and assessments appear to align, they do so at a very low-level of cognition. These results suggest a clear disjunction between the skills future biologists need and what they are currently taught. Further, they inform the design and implementation of faculty and future faculty professional development programs in teaching and learning.