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Intro bio courses modified after student feedback

After the biology department received comments that the new introductory biology courses carried too strenuous a workload, it implemented several changes to the class for the Spring semester.
After the biology department received comments that the new introductory biology courses carried too strenuous a workload, it implemented several changes to the class for the Spring semester.

The biology department has made changes to its two new introductory courses according to feedback provided by students in a survey conducted at the end of last semester.

Last Fall, two gateway courses, BIO 101L: “Gateway to Biology: Molecular Biology” and BIO 102L: “Gateway to Biology: Evolution and Genetics,” replaced the three introductory courses: BIO 25L, 116 and 118. After completing surveys midway through the semester to assess lectures, labs and teaching style, students in BIO 101L and 102L were asked to complete another round of surveys at the end of the semester, which were more detailed than those typically given to students in Duke classes. Professors teaching the two courses this semester both noted that a stressful workload was a common complaint from students who took the courses in the Fall.

Steve Haase, an associate professor of biology who is teaching BIO 101L this semester, indicated in a Jan. 21 e-mail that the number of graded assignments has been reduced to help alleviate some of that stress.

“Surveys suggest that 65 percent of the students found the In Class Quizzes (ICQs) to be very helpful in learning the material, while only 25 percent of the students had the same opinion of the Reading Assessment Tests (RATs),” Haase wrote. “So we have reduced the number of both types of assessments and made the RATs pass/fail.”

The types of assignments for students in BIO 102L have changed as well. Mohamed Noor, a biology professor who teaches the course this semester, noted that the course will include three types of assignments: pre-class quizzes, problem sets and tests. Pre-class quizzes can be taken multiple times, so the assumption is that all students will receive 100 percent if they complete the assignment. Problem sets are designed to give students a chance to understand the material without being time-pressured.

“All of the assessments, including the in-class tests, will be open-book and open-notebook, which emphasizes that we’re looking for understanding and assimilating the material and not rote memorization,” Noor wrote in an e-mail Jan. 18.

Some students said they were pleased that the classes will focus on promoting understanding rather than memorization of concepts.

Jimmy Mu, a sophomore and BIO 101L student, praised the teaching style of the professors, noting that they seem to want “to foster a curiosity about biology” rather than force memorization.

Emma Fridel, a freshman also in BIO 101L, recognized the level of interaction and engagement the professors bring to the class. Fridel said students find the “Think, Pair, Share” in-class activity—which consists of discussing biological concepts with a partner during lecture—especially helpful because it requires students to reason through and analyze questions that have no concrete answer.

Paul Manos, director of undergraduate studies in biology, stressed that processing the data from the surveys is a time-consuming and ongoing process. Manos added that he is confident the department is moving in the right direction.

“A one-semester gleaning of data is probably not enough,” Manos said. “[After a few semesters] we’re going to start seeing that there are good things that have happened and that we’ve already weeded out things that aren’t working that well.”

Despite criticism by students, the professors teaching BIO 101L and BIO 102L said they believe the courses were a success last semester, though they noted that there is always room for improvement. Noor noted that it is challenging to teach a completely new class but added that the quality of the course will continue to improve semester by semester.


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