Use Concept Inventories to Improve Student Learning

July 6, 2017

How do you know whether you and your colleagues teach microbiology concepts in a way that students understand and consistently recognize?  Concept inventories help instructors understand students’ retention of knowledge and identify common misconceptions. They provide assessment data that departments and institutions continually collect and analyze about student learning. They also provide an opportunity for faculty professional development and can reinforce concepts across a curriculum.

ASM Microbe 2017 included this session convened by Dr. Heather Seitz, in which Drs. Ann Stevens, Lee Hughes, and John Buchner shared their work on innovative teaching, curriculum, and course design.

Ann Stevens started off the session describing the value of concept inventories as educational tools and the process used in developing the Microbiology Concept Inventory. The ASM Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Microbiology and accompanying learning outcomes were used to create true/false questions that were posed to several hundred undergraduates across several institutions. The students answered the questions and explained their reasoning. From their answers, common misconceptions regarding microbial theories were derived. Multiple choice questions using students’ misconceptions in their own language as incorrect answers (distractors) were developed to use in pre- and post-course student learning assessments, and even to evaluate how well students retain knowledge from one course to the next. The concept inventory is particularly useful for backward design of curriculum, in which assessments are used to help plan or revise instruction.

Lee Hughes continued the session with a closer look at student misconceptions. Building on the preliminary data described by Ann, and using the context of the ASM Guidelines, more than 700 student responses from 8 institutions were analyzed. The most common misconceptions occurred in the core concept of Evolution, followed by Cell Structure and Function. The Microbiology Concept Inventory, Microbiology Health Sciences Concept Inventory, and the full results of the misconconceptions study will be published in forthcoming articles in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.

In the final talk of the session, John Buchner discussed how understanding student misconceptions can help instructors reinforce content or work with peers to address the misconceptions. Concept inventories can be used in faculty development in a department or across a curriculum, to help instructors measure student learning gains and modify learning modules, and even to drive changes in curricula. For example, when the Microbiology Concept Inventory revealed that students often misunderstand/discount the importance of horizontal gene transfer, instructors planned to emphasize this topic in many courses and contexts. Concept inventories help individuals and teams improve student learning, and I will encourage my department to use this powerful and insightful methodology.

To learn more, see Ann Stevens, Lee Hughes, and John Buchner’s slides. You can also purchase recordings of other Profession of Microbiology sessions from ASM Microbe 2017.

Written by Merrilee Anderson, Ph.D.
Dr. Merrilee Anderson has served in a variety of teaching and administrative roles since she began working at Mount Aloysius College in 2000. She enjoys searching for diatoms, teaching undergraduates, and learning from her colleagues in the Allegheny Branch of ASM.

Author: Contributor

The Education Board's mission is to educate individuals at all levels in the microbiological sciences. It supports both student and faculty development through fellowships, online publications, conferences, workshops, and institutes, and networking opportunities.