UW Department of Biology E-News
Winter 2012  |  Return to issue home

Raising the Grade (and the Comprehension)

By Kristy Brady

Scott Freeman
Dr. Scott Freeman
Mary Pat Wenderoth
Dr. Mary Pat Wenderoth
Alison Crowe
Dr. Alison Crowe

This won’t come as a surprise to most people reading this: Science isn’t easy. In early November, The New York Times published an article entitled, “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)”. The article cited data from a recent UCLA study showing that nearly 60 percent of students initially pursuing a degree in science and engineering, including pre-med students, ultimately switched majors or dropped out altogether. 60 percent!

There are a lot of reasons why students change their minds. But a couple of them will, again, be unsurprising to Biology alumni. First, there are typically a load of tedious, time-consuming prerequisite courses that need to be passed before the fun finally starts. And second, if a student is interested in maintaining a sterling GPA, it is well-known that grade inflation makes that job much easier in the humanities and social sciences, a topic discussed in some detail in the aforementioned NYT article.

In the last six years, Biology faculty have been hard at work minimizing the deterrent effects of poor grades and countless prerequisites. As for the latter, the number is drastically lower than it was, for example, when I was an undergraduate here. At that time you needed a full year of chemistry before enrolling in the first introductory biology course, and there were math prerequisties for chemistry. Now, any undergrad can enroll in their first biology class without any prerequisites!

Several faculty in the department founded the Biology Education Research Group (BERG) in 2005 to conduct research on classroom teaching methods and efficacy. Their mission is to improve students’ comprehension of course material, thereby enabling them to earn better grades.

There are three regularly publishing members of BERG: Scott Freeman, Mary Pat Wenderoth, and Alison Crowe. (This group is also a powerhouse in teaching – among other accolades, both Freeman and Wenderoth are recipients of the prestigious UW Distinguished Teaching Award). These three form the core of BERG, which meets weekly throughout the academic year. Freeman says that about 30 different people come to at least one BERG meeting each quarter, with each weekly meeting attracting about 15 people. Attendees include other Biology faculty, graduate students, and post-docs, as well as faculty from other units on campus, local community colleges, and UW-Bothell.

BERG’s first study was funded by a small grant from the College of Arts & Sciences. With funding for just a few quarters of graduate student support, they were able to collect enough data to publish their first paper in 2007. Today, BERG has both the #1 and #3 most-cited papers in the top journal for science education research, Life Sciences Education.

BERG’s first few years’ of research revealed that students perform remarkably better when the instructor forgoes traditional lecturing for interactive teaching methods, which include a wide variety of tools, such as calling on students to answer questions in lecture, gathering class-wide responses to questions using clickers (an electronic response device), and in-class group exercises. The improved performance is particulary impressive among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These results were so striking that they were published by the top-tier journal Science this June, marking only the third time in its history that Science has published research related to education.

Two of the three introductory biology courses have active learning material developed for them, and all of the Biology faculty teaching those two courses utilize these resources. While learning a new teaching style takes time, data is something that science faculty respond to, so there was no hesitation by those teaching the two courses with established material in adopting the new tools. The group is now working on developing tools for the final course in the series.

Freeman describes their studies investigating the impact of teaching style on student performance as BERG’s “first generation research”. Now, he says, they are launching their second generation of research. Though a linear trajectory is a bit of a misrepresentation in this case; Freeman’s research trajectory looks more like a tree with the first generation as the trunk and the second as a whole host of branches. True to typical research form, BERG’s initial study has generated a number of additional questions.

Leading the pack, however, is whether and how the tools developed for UW Biology’s introductory courses can be implemented elsewhere. This question caught the interest of The National Science Foundation, which has funded BERG to find out. This past summer Freeman sent an exploratory email to colleagues at other institutions gauging interest in their involvement in a trial implementing active learning tools in their classrooms. In the span of one week in August, a notoriously difficult time to get in touch with anyone in the academic community, Freeman heard back from people at nine different institutions. Clearly BERG is filling an acute need in the academic world! As a result, next summer introductory biology instructors from at least three schools will come to UW Biology to learn how to incorporate the materials developed here into their own curricula.

I can’t report on how many UW students intending to major in biology change their minds and leave science, but I can tell you that biology is currently the single largest major on campus: We graduate well over 500 students a year. This doesn’t mean that science is any easier than it was, but the data do suggest that we are better at giving students the resources that they need to succeed. And that is a very laudable achievement indeed.

To learn more about the biology education research paper that was published in Science, read the UW Today article: http://www.washington.edu/news/articles/revamped-bio-course-improves-performance-2013-especially-among-educationally-disadvantaged-students-2013-in-spite-of-budget-cuts

And to learn more about the work that BERG is conducting, check out their website:


Winter 2012  |  Return to issue home