Teaching ecological concepts using a digital text and a flipped approach: Assessment of engagement and skills acquisition
A redesigned introductory biology course, following recommendations from Vision and Change, focused on construction of knowledge, the process of science, data analysis and quantitative reasoning. I employ a flipped approach such that students analyze case studies ahead of time and we spend class time analyzing data and discussing cases. My current work is assessing engagement, understanding, and analytical skills using this approach. The text addresses big ideas (information, evolution, cells, emergent properties, homeostasis) addressed at each of five levels of organization. The second semester focuses on ecology. Many cases prepare students for upper-level ecology and emphasize concepts and skills over content and memorization. Methods included using a presentation and analytics program to give clicker-type quizzes and allow students to self-assess engagement. I designed exam questions to determine conceptual understanding, and application of knowledge and skills. I compared engagement at the beginning and end of each class and analyzed trends over time as well as engagement of particular case studies/topics. I predicted that engagement with material would be higher at the end of class, but would also vary by topic and proximity to an exam. The ability of students to analyze new data would increase over the course of the semester.
Class time was spent interpreting data presented in the text, reinforcing what students had already read and analyzed. My colleagues and I previously documented improvement of critical thinking skills and attitudinal changes using this approach. Here I found that students are more engaged at the end of class than the beginning, and that self-assessed engagement overall is moderate to highly engaged. Engagement with ethical, legal, and social implications of case studies was higher than for difficult and complicated topics such as evolutionary trees and optimal foraging. Answers to questions assessing ability to analyze new data revealed improvement of abilities over the semester and as compared to similar test questions posed in earlier classes not using this approach. Student evaluations revealed appreciation for the approach and text and for the preparation for upper-level courses. Students indicated the focus on the process of science, the honing of critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills and the method of knowledge construction were highly beneficial. We conclude that our approach improves these skills and leads to high engagement. The acquisition of these skills will prepare students well for ecology courses, especially discussion-based seminars where students are required to read and analyze the primary literature.