Biology education research is a core aspect of SimBio’s teaching tools, and many SimBio content developers participate in our research program.
Research collaborations with instructors help us figure out what’s working and what’s not. For example, we built a special version of our Cellular Respiration Explored tutorial/lab for Dr. Juli Uhl and Dr. Kevin Haudek from Michigan State University so they could test the unique assessment tools. Though their intent was not to evaluate the module itself, their results clearly demonstrated its effectiveness. (If you’re interested, watch the webinar.) We also conduct research to better understand and inform how we address student misconceptions. This 2018 paper describes how we iteratively developed and tested how well our Darwinian Snails tutorial/lab addresses student misunderstandings about natural selection. We’re very proud of the result, as this is a notoriously tricky topic to teach!
Ongoing SimBio Research
We also engage in much larger research projects to discover new techniques for teaching difficult concepts. Our current research, funded by two NSF grants (“Grappling with Graphs”), examines the graphing skills of biology undergraduates. In a long running collaboration with Dr. Stephanie Gardner at Purdue University, Dr. Joel Abraham at California State University, Fullerton, and others, we re developing tools to assess student competence with graphs. The results of our research will help us design teaching tools that make it easier to teach and learn graphing.
In a recent webinar, Stephanie Gardner talks about the work of her own team, and our collaborative team, on graphing. The webinar provides interesting information about student graphing with lots of ideas you can take back to your own class. The summary won’t surprise anyone – undergraduate biology students make a lot of predictable mistakes compared to more experienced graphers, and being aware of those mistakes can help instructors better target their teaching. For instance, we know that students struggle to choose the right variables to graph, as well as picking the right type of graph to use for a particular data set. Knowing this, we can identify patterns in how students get those steps wrong and work to preclude them.
Our next step is to help instructors make these observations, whether of a student, class, or across the whole undergraduate biology population. In “Grappling with Graphs”, we identified a set of practices that lead to high graphing competence with biological data. We are building an auto-scored assessment tool based on these practices that can be used with large numbers of students. From that data, we hope to paint a better picture of where students need help with their graphing and, in turn, help SimBio build evidence-based materials to better teach graph construction. We are confident this approach works –it is similar to the grant-funded process that resulted in our highly effective Understanding Experimental Design tutorial, now used by hundreds of thousands of students.
We will soon be offering our graphing assessment more broadly. If you’d like insight into your students’ competence with graphing this coming fall 2022, please get in touch with our research team to participate.