Biology education research earns Couch national award
Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the fall semester, Brian Couch teaches two consecutive sections of LIFE 120 — the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s introductory biology course — to a total of about 400 undergrads in Henzlik Hall.
You might think the newest recipient of the Research in Biology Education Award, given annually by the National Association of Biology Teachers, would have total confidence in his classroom capabilities.
“My research, and the research of others, makes me insecure about my teaching,” Couch said, laughing but only half-joking from his second-floor office in Manter Hall. “I’m constantly thinking about how we can make our courses better. In an ideal world, all of my students would succeed. Everybody would learn everything.
“When we fall short of that, that’s what keeps me up. That’s what gets me here to do more research and analysis.”
The associate professor of biological sciences developed his interest in instruction as an undergrad himself, learning from a small cadre of faculty at the Colorado-based Regis University.
“I had multiple classes with each of them, really respected them and wanted to emulate them,” he said.
So after earning a doctorate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University, Couch directed his attention to the science of teaching the concepts he’d spent years learning. By the time he arrived at Nebraska in 2014, he was helping lead the development of a suite of assessments — Biology-Measuring Achievement and Progression in Sciences, or Bio-MAPS — to gauge learning at the beginning, middle and end of a major.
At the time, most assessment tools were focusing on individual topics or courses. Couch and his colleagues were aiming to measure instruction, learning and student perceptions across entire academic programs: general biology, molecular biology, physiology, ecology-evolution. And they wanted to offer the programwide assessments free of charge, providing alternatives to the few commercial tools available.
If the response from academia is any indication, the team succeeded. To date, more than 60 U.S. institutions, including Nebraska, have adopted Bio-MAPS to assess upward of 14,000 undergrads. Another 100-plus institutions have asked for the assessments and are in various stages of considering or implementing them.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of is the variety of institutions that are adopting it,” said Couch, who will accept his research award and give a corresponding talk Nov. 16 in Chicago. “I love that there are community colleges, small colleges, regional colleges and research institutions. It really is filling a need for a lot of different groups.”
A primary focus of Bio-MAPS? Measuring whether students are truly comprehending the conceptual fundamentals of a given discipline — a sometimes-slippery objective that can elude multiple-choice, true-false and other traditional question formats.
Enter the multiple-true-false format, a Bio-MAPS signature that immediately raises the pitch of Couch’s voice by half an octave.
“I get excited when I start talking about multiple-true-false,” he said.
True to its name, the multiple-true-false format melds the construction of its predecessors:
Which of the following contribute to genetic mutations?
- True / False — mistakes occur during DNA replication
- True / False — stress-related hormones drive nucleotide replacement
- True / False — radiation or chemicals cause DNA damage
“With any domain or concept, students might have some correct ideas; students might also have some incorrect ideas,” Couch said. “And we know that students can hold these ideas simultaneously. The classic example, when we talk about evolution or natural selection, relates to how genetic variation arises.
“Students can recognize that there's an element of randomness to that process, but they also will say that organisms can deliberately alter their genomes to respond to some sort of stress, which doesn’t happen.”
By limiting student responses, the standard multiple-choice format struggles to tease apart conceptions from misconceptions, Couch said. Breaking that limitation allows the multiple-true-false to better detect and reflect what students actually know.
Couch’s research suggests that among the students who get a standard multiple-choice question right — choosing one correct answer over three incorrect options — only 50% of those students will accurately identify the truth and three falsehoods when presented with the multiple-true-false version. That finding has implications for the classroom, he said, as when students are answering clicker questions and receiving real-time feedback based on their responses.
“Historically, the advice was that if students get above 70% correct, keep going. Don’t slow down. They’ve got it,” Couch said. “Our data would suggest that's probably not the case. They probably have some misconceptions about the various options, and it might be worth slowing down to investigate those.”
The data also indicates that multiple-true-false questions can improve student grades when used to probe conceptual understanding throughout a semester, Couch said.
“The thing about multiple-true-false is that students perceive them to be challenging, and they let me know about that,” he said. “So today, in class, I gave them the pitch that these questions are good for them — that they’re good because they provide better assessment, but they're also good because they help their grades. So I’m trying to win students over on that.”
All talk, no interaction?
Couch has also investigated student attitudes toward interactive learning activities, whose use in the classroom continues to lag behind lecturing despite their demonstrated superiority at teaching and crystallizing concepts.
“I kept hearing this feedback that students were resisting them, and that students just wanted us to go back to lecture,” he said. “I wanted to know more about this, because it seems like a major deal-breaker. If it's hard for faculty to do this, and students don't like it, then it isn't going to last very long.”
Instead, Couch and his colleagues have found that those students may just represent a vocal minority, with a majority seeming to appreciate the value of engaging more directly with material in class. But the researchers also discovered that first-year students anticipate more active learning than do more-experienced students in the same courses, implying that college classrooms may be conditioning students to expect lecturing.
Couch said Nebraska has done a “really admirable job” of emphasizing active learning and giving due attention to other factors, especially the financial and psychological, that can tilt the odds toward or against a student.
“I love being at Nebraska,” he said. “I think we have great people who care tremendously about student success. I know that when a student comes here, we want them to succeed, and we’re putting people and resources in place to help them do that.”
Many of those same people — members of his lab, collaborators, faculty at Nebraska and elsewhere, departmental leaders — also put Couch in position to receive recognition from the National Association of Biology Teachers, he said.
“On my own, I really can’t do much,” Couch said. “Helping students and doing research really takes a lot of people. You get an award and you appreciate the pat on the back, but it’s really recognizing that broader community of people.”