Classroom Refresher: Using Evidence-Based Teaching to Improve Student Learning

Oct. 17, 2019

Learn about evidence-based teaching, inclusive teaching practices and active learning by taking the Teaching Undergraduate Biology Webinar Series which is designed for early-career and future educators.
Although it feels like the fall term just began, planning for the next term will arrive quickly! Take a moment to consider these questions: 
  • What is your process for preparing for your new courses or refreshing current courses? 
  • How do you determine the content and skills your students need to develop? 
  • How do you set up a framework for the course, choose effective assessments and sort through possible learning activities? 
The design work of courses, assessments and learning activities is a highly underestimated and underappreciated task of many biology educators. Evidence-based teaching (also known as Scientific Teaching or research-based teaching) takes at least a semester or half-year to build from an idea to the learning management system (Moodle or Canvas). There is an entire body of biology education research, or BER, that has identified course structures, assessments and teaching practices that are most effective to help your students succeed as undergraduates.  

The last time you designed a course, did you start the design process by identifying chapters out of the microbiology textbook to teach? An alternative method is to use the ASM Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Microbiology to determine the skills and content necessary for a well-rounded microbiology education. Then use the Understanding by Design framework, or “backward design." In this approach, choosing the textbook is the very last step of course design, along with writing the syllabus. 

Use these steps to get started with backward design:
  1. Identify the concepts or fundamental statements and skills that your students need to learn. 
  2. Write your learning outcomes using measurable, actionable and clear verbs - don’t forget the critical thinking verbs like “predict” an outcome or “analyze” an argument.
  3. Design the major assessments (also called summative assessments), focusing on tasks that have a real-world element to them. 
After you’ve considered these steps, figure out how you will teach your students the concepts and skills they need to learn. Merely explaining the content to your students (i.e., lecturing) is one option; however, a large body of education research suggests that students learn more effectively and retain the knowledge longer when active learning techniques are used in the classroom. Active learning essentially means that students are doing something in the classroom other than just listening to the instructor talk. The possibilities for getting students engaged and involved during class time are endless!

Here is an example of a fully designed module to teach a Gram stain below. 
Here, the Gram stain is an approach for students to learn (1) the scientific-thinking skill of applying the process of science, (2) the microbiology laboratory skill of conducting a Gram stain, (3) how to follow laboratory biosafety guidelines and (4) the broad concept of “structure and function of microorganisms” through use of microscopy.
Source: Horak et al. Microbe Magazine 2015.

Author: Rachel Horak, Ph.D.

Rachel Horak, Ph.D.
Dr. Rachel Horak is an Education Specialist at ASM and is interested in helping educators design significant and effective learning experiences for all undergraduate biology students.