What are the key ecology concepts all Intro Bio students should learn?

When I started at Georgia Tech, the “large” (80-90 student) course I was involved in was General Ecology. My first year there, I co-taught the course with my colleague Lin Jiang. I did what is probably fairly typical: I asked him for the materials he used when he last taught the course and then modified those. So, it was pretty eye-opening to me when, after that first semester, we (“we” being the people involved in teaching General Ecology and related courses) decided that we should try to assess what our students were learning. We couldn’t find a good ecology concept assessment*, so we decided to try to create our own. That involved deciding what the key concepts were that we wanted all students who had completed ecology to know. Coming up with that list was incredibly useful and changed the way I taught the next time.

I’ve been thinking about this again as I spend more time thinking about how to teach ecology to introductory biology students here at Michigan. I’ve thought about this before – we recently overhauled the course, and that involved a lot of thought about what to teach. But I feel like I want to think more about the core concepts again. I want to revisit the core ecology concepts that my GaTech colleagues and I came up with for a sophomore-level (that is, 2nd year) ecology course and figure out how to modify those for a freshman-level (that is, 1st year) course. With this post, I’m hoping to think more carefully about what the core concepts are, and to get feedback from others about the list I came up with.

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Imperfect analogies: shortcuts to active learning

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from my friend Greg Crowther. Who among other things has been a biochemist, and an instructor in various biology courses including ecology. He’s an unusually thoughtful and creative teacher, for instance using songs to teach anatomy and physiology. Oh, and he has three papers in Annals of Improbable Research (e.g.), which is like the science humor equivalent of having three Nature papers. Thanks to Greg for writing us a guest post on a handy teaching tip. 


Most people who think hard about how to teach well accept that students should engage in “active learning,” which has been defined (by Freeman et al. 2014) as follows: “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”

Sounds good, right?  In general, it is good.  I enjoy challenging students with hard problems and helping them find their way toward an answer, and they are usually glad to be moving and talking, especially if the problems resemble ones they’ll encounter on tests.

Active learning is relatively easy to include in teaching about a specific research study.  For example, after providing some appropriate context, one can simply work through the figures by asking students how and why the data in each figure were collected and what they mean (Round & Campbell 2013).

When teaching basic conceptual material, though, I slip into straight-up lecture mode more often than I’d like.  It can be very time-consuming to add nontrivial interactivity to coverage of this material.

However, I do have one fall-back strategy for quickly turning a traditional lecture slide into a mini-discussion.  I call this approach the “Dissection of the Imperfect Analogy.”  Here’s how it works.

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Taking a writing-intensive evolution course was transformative for me

Was there one course that had a profound effect on your career path? For me, there were a few courses that were important and influenced my path to ecology. But, without a doubt, the most important one was the Intro Evolution course I took as a second-year undergrad. I took it through Cornell’s Writing in the Majors program, which is “based on the premise that language and learning are vitally connected in every field”. I know others who had similarly transformative experiences in Cornell’s Writing in the Majors class in evolution (and, to a lesser extent, in the WITM version of ecology), and have wondered what it was about that course that was so special. More importantly, I wonder what I can do now as an instructor that might lead to a similarly transformative experience for some of my students.

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Flipping our big intro biostats class didn’t work (for me) (yet) (UPDATED)

A couple of months ago, I told you why and how we flipped the big intro biostats course here at Calgary, and that it led to a big improvement in student performance the first time my ace colleague Kyla Flanagan taught it back in the fall. And I said that so far, it seemed to be working well for me this term.

I spoke too soon.

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How much do scientists lecture, and why? Poll results and commentary

Thanks so much to everyone who completed my little poll on how much science faculty lecture, and why. I conducted the poll because of my admittedly-anecdotal sense that much of the vigorous online debate about how to teach–in particular, whether to lecture–is a bit disconnected from the practical decision-making of many faculty. The online discussions I’ve seen tend to focus narrowly on what pedagogical research says, with the implicit assumption that pedagogical research is or should be the most important determinant of how people teach, and that the main reason people still lecture is because they’re ignorant of pedagogical research. In practice, there are many considerations that go into how to teach, and their relative importance seems likely to be sensitive to individual circumstances. For instance because most faculty have other duties besides teaching.

Here are the full poll results. Below the fold is a summary of the main results, and some comments. The bit I found most interesting is that people who mostly lecture and people who mostly don’t are making their pedagogical decisions for very different reasons…

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Poll: how much do you lecture, and why? (UPDATED)

After spending over a decade doing little but lecturing, this term I’ve been teaching a big intro biostats course as a flipped class. My anecdotal impression is that this makes me somewhat unusual, at least among profs at research universities. I think most science faculty mostly lecture–heck, I still do in my other classes! But do science faculty mostly lecture? And if so, why is that, given that pedagogical research says that lecturing is less effective on average than other teaching methods?

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We flipped our huge intro biostats course. Here’s how we did it. (UPDATEDx2)

In a previous post I talked about why we flipped the intro biostats course here at Calgary, even though the old course was working fine. Now I’ll talk about how we did it. If you haven’t read that previous post, please do so before reading this one. To decide if what we did might work for you as well, you definitely want to know why we did what we did, and about relevant context like the size and makeup of the class. And if you want to know how others teach intro biostats, see the comments here.

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We flipped our huge intro biostats course. Here’s why.

BIOL 315 (Quantitative Biology I) is the introductory biostatistics course here at Calgary. It’s a big course that was working adequately as a conventional lecture+labs course. But yet we decided to flip the course—and so far it seems to be working. Want to know why we did it? Read on! I’ll cover how we did it in a future post.

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Having an Organism of the Day was only sort of successful

Over the past couple of years, we’ve made a lot of big changes to the Intro Bio course here at Michigan. I think we can demonstrate they’ve been really successful at improving student learning, but one downside of those changes is that I’ve worried that too much organismal diversity was cut. So, I decided to add in having an Organism of the Day, stealing the idea from my postdoc advisor, Tony Ives. I know that students in Tony’s class love the OotD, and thought it would be fun to add it in to my course.

I had few goals for the OotD:
1. To do a better job of introducing students to different kinds of organisms, especially things that are not vertebrates
2. To get students excited about those different kinds of organisms
3. To cover concepts that were sources of confusion for students and/or to help them develop process of science skills that I was trying to emphasize.

Was it a success?

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