C: Researching Innovation, Part A

TITLE: The Power of Choice: Making Unpopular Courses Better using Empowered Assessment

PRESENTERS: Susan Rowland, University of Queensland; Ian Wood, University of Queensland

Justification for the project: This presentation addresses assessment policy, design, and implementation in STEM. We present evidence from a large-scale research study and a small scale case study that support assessment choice as a method of improving student experiences in STEM education. Our findings suggest the need for cultural change in STEM teaching and provide a mechanism by which this can be practically implemented. Background: As the dollar cost of education rises, college students appear to want shorter, more specialized, study programs that are tailored to their immediate vocational needs. This is often at odds, however, with the goal of a University or degree-granting college education, which aims to produce a well-rounded graduate with a range of generalist attributes and a comprehensive knowledge of a field. The University of Queensland (UQ) is a large, research-intensive, public, Australian university. Many of our STEM-subject undergraduate programs have foundation science courses designed to provide broad, groundwork knowledge that our students can use throughout their lives. Our students, however, have a wide spectrum of learning goals, prior educational experiences and academic attainment levels. They are often dissatisfied with these compulsory studies, saying they are “not relevant” to their goals.

“Empowered Assessment” (EA) is a term we use to describe the practice of giving students choice over the type, mode, and weight of assessment during a program of study. This can include assessment components that are self- or peer-marked, replacements of one type of assessment (eg: a written assignment) with another type of assessment (eg: making a video), or a simple choice between two topics for an essay. This project aims to develop an EA approach to generalist undergraduate science at UQ; we hypothesize that giving students in foundation science courses an acceptable level of self-direction in assessment will increase their satisfaction and engagement. The acceptability of EA is key – there is no point in introducing practices that are designed to empower students in the assessment process if students have a negative view of the practices, or if they find them stressful. Both of these situations will reduce motivation and engagement.

Research Basis: Aim 1 of the study was to identify which EA practices are most palatable to students from different groups. We will present evidence that addresses this aim from a survey where over 500 UQ undergraduate students participated. The students were at various stages of their education, from first (freshman) to fourth (senior) years. Aim 2 of this study was to design and deploy tailored assessment strategies using our findings. We have done this for a large (~470 students), unpopular second year course called BIOC2000: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. We will present this case study, which has yielded dramatic, positive results.

To address Aim 1, we used a modified version of the ASSIST survey (Tait et al., 1998), with added questions that examined aspects of empowered assessment such as

    (i) democratic decisions on assessment made by the class,

    (ii) peer marking,

    (iii) self marking, and

    (iv) choice of assessment item.

This survey allows us to determine the types of learning behaviours our students engage in (strategic, deep, or surface apathetic). Our added questions allowed us to correlate these attitudes with the students’ preferences for different types of assessment. Our results were surprising. Contrary to our expectations (or hopes), average scores for the different learning styles did not change as students progressed through their education. This result is disappointing, as it suggests that students do not improve their attitudes to learning (or the strategies they use to study) during their undergraduate careers. It also suggests, however, that we should not spend time trying to change their fundamental attitudes to learning – rather we should employ teaching and assessment strategies that accommodate all possible learning styles. When we examined student attitudes to different types of assessment practices, we found that only one EA practice, assessment choice, ranked very positively with all types of learners. We also examined how much choice was acceptable to students, and how heavily weighted the choice had to be before it became unacceptably risky. Students were very much in favour of assessment choice when the risk was low (83% said they would welcome choice on an assessment item that was worth 20% of the course weight). When the choice increased in risk, however, to 80% of the course value, only 43% welcomed a choice. 38% of students said they would be stressed if the choice was worth 80%. For low-risk choices, students did not think everyone should do the same assessment item (only 6% overall thought this was the fairest option). When the choice was higher risk, this proportion increased to ~18% overall.

To address Aim 2, we used this information to design a new assessment strategy for BIOC2000. Students were presented with several low-weight assessment items where they had a choice, as well as a dual practical stream where they could choose a “regular” laboratory experience or an undergraduate research project. This new assessment mechanism has led to a large increase in student satisfaction with the course and improved grades. We will present this case study in more detail.

Scope and impact: The whole process of data collection, course redesign, and new assessment deployment has taken approximately 8 months and approximately $10 000 in one-time costs to set up the new laboratory stream. At present, this study addresses just one institution, and approximately 1000 undergraduate students. It provides a paradigm, however, for enacting change in many different STEM contexts. We believe that the increased student satisfaction and motivation we observe when using assessment choice is driven by fundamental and well-established human psychological phenomena, particularly cognitive dissonance and the factors that drive choice theory. EA is applicable for many courses and study programs, not just our single case study.

Tait, H., Entwistle, N.J. & McCune, V.S. (1998). ASSIST: a reconceptualisation of the Appoaches to Studying Inventory. In C. Rust (ed.), Improving Student Learning: Improving Students as Learners. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.


TITLE: A First Course in Nanoscience

PRESENTERS: Anna-Leena Latvala, University of Jyväskylä; Janne Ihalainen, University of Jyväskylä; Anssi Lindell, University of Jyväskylä; Jouni Viiri, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Nanoscience expertise is in great demand in Finland. In 2008, there were 202 active nanotechnology companies and the workforce included 2,900 nanotechnology professionals. Moreover, the prediction by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation for 2013 was 11,000 positions - the growth rate is considerable (Spinverse, 2009). The Ministry of Education in Finland has raised attention to the need for improving graduate and especially undergraduate education in Nanoscience (Ministry of Education, 2005). The vision for year 2020 expressed in the recently completed Nanoscience research program FinNano (Academy of Finland, 2011) includes an emphasis on education; they envision an interdisciplinary Nanoscience major from undergraduate level all the way to doctorate studies. At the University of Jyväskylä, undergraduate education has received special attention and the Physics Department has twice been chosen as a High-Quality Education Unit by the Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council. The attention has now been directed at improving the relatively new Nanoscience undergraduate education, which started in 2007.

Currently, the rigorous Nanoscience courses do not start until the 3rd year. Before that, the students may not have had anything to do with Nanoscience. This project is about creating an introductory, first-year Nanoscience course in the Bachelor's degree program. The course will begin in April 2012 and be attended by 20-30 students in its first year. It is a joint project between the Nanoscience Center (NSC) and the Department of Teacher Education at University of Jyväskylä. The main goal of the course is to introduce students to the fields of Nanoscience and multidisciplinary thinking. We hope to offer students a framework through which they can evaluate the differences and similarities between Nanoscience and the Physics/Chemistry/Biology phenomena they have met during secondary school. The framework we are using comes from the "Big Ideas" by Stevens, Sutherland and Krajcik (2009). The students will use the Big Ideas to classify phenomena and learn to look for the effects of the nanoscale. The experimental work done during the course involves four areas studied in more detail: force microscopy (Planinsic & Kovac, 2008; Lindell, Latvala, & Viiri, 2009), electrophoresis (Latvala, Lindell, Nevanpää, & Viiri, 2010), color and nanoparticles, and magnetism (Sederberg & Bryan, 2010). They are used to explore the Big Ideas of novel tools, dominant forces, size-dependent properties of matter, and models. The experiments were originally developed using learning-demand analysis with (upper) secondary students in mind, but are modified to suit the course.

The two other goals of the course are to improve the students' scientific literacy to meet the demands of the University courses, and their enculturation into the community of the NSC. The better-spoken researchers of NSC are invited for guest lectures, prior to which the students read, interpret and discuss a hand-picked publication by the said researcher. The students are expected to write a short report on a research topic investigated at the NSC, and the reports will be assessed by the researchers. We hope that the effort of the researchers will pay back in student interest in their research projects and consequently, student choice in Bachelor's thesis topics. The sooner the students become a part of the research teams, the sooner they are able to begin an enculturation process guided by the senior researchers and approach their courses with an insight for the skills and the ways of thinking needed in their field (Tala, 2010). Overall, the insight gained in student understanding of Nanoscience will 2011) and the design of experimental work in Nanoscience. It will also help the NSC staff communicate better with prospective students as well as guide the researchers in their other outreach projects.

Academy of Finland (2011). Nanovisio 2020. Publication of the Academy of Finland, 2/11. Latvala, A.-L., Lindell, A., Nevanpää, T. & Viiri, J. (2010, August). A Nanoscience Course for Upper Secondary Students. Presented at the annual meeting of GIREP-ICPEMPTL, Reims, France.

Lindell, A., Latvala, A.-L. & Viiri, J. (2009, August). Teaching properties of matter on the atomic scale with a toy model of an atomic force microscope. Presented at the annual meeting of GIREP-EPEC, Leicester, UK.

Ministry of Education (2005). Nanotieteen keihäänkärjet Suomessa. Reports of the Ministry of Education, Finland, 2005:39.

Planinsic, G., & Kovac, J. (2008). Nano goes to school: a teaching model of the atomic force microscope. Physics Education, 43, p. 37-45.

Sederberg, D., & Bryan, L. (2010). Magnetism as a size dependent property: A cognitive sequence for learning about magnetism as an introduction to nanoscale science for middle and high school students. Proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences. Chicago, IL: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

Sederberg, D., Latvala, A.-L., Lindell, A., Bryan, L., & Viiri, J. (2011, April). Progressions of Students’ Mental Models of Magnetism. Presented at the annual meeting of NARST, Orlando, FL.

Spinverse Oy (2009). Nanotechnology in Finnish Industry 2008. [Powerpoint slides] Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/spinverse/nanotechnology-in-finnish-industry-2008.

Stevens, S., Sutherland, L., & Krajcik, J. (2009). The Big Ideas of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. NSTA Press, Arlington, Virginia.

Tala, S. (2010). Enculturation into Technoscience: Analysis of the Views of Novices and Experts on Modelling and Learning in Nanophysics. Science and Education, 20(7-8), p. 733-760.


TITLE: NEXUS: Competency-Based Introductory Undergraduate Science Preparation of Future Health Professionals and Students in the Biological Sciences

PRESENTER: Marc Loudon, Purdue University

In 2011, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) funded NEXUS (National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education) as a four-year collaborative grant between the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, The University of Maryland College Park, the University of Miami and Purdue University. This consortium of faculty from four universities is developing a coordinated response to the AAMC/HHMI report "Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians" (SFFP), [www.hhmi.org/grants/pdf/08-209_AAMC-HHMI_report.pdf], which calls for competency-based premedical science education. The consortium has believed from its inception that the competencies listed in SFFP should be explored and assessed to see if they will provide an improved foundation for future health professionals, including pre-medical, pre-pharmacy, and pre-veterinary students, as well as undergraduates studying the basic biological sciences. NEXUS involves the disciplines of chemistry, physics, mathematics and how introductory college science instruction should relate to the biological sciences with an emphasis on the use of interdisciplinary case studies. The project includes an External Advisory Board (EAB), an Executive Steering Committee (ESC) and a Global Assessment Committee (GAC) with each of the four participating universities bearing primary responsibility for one of the disciplines.

The goals of NEXUS are to provide:

  1. greater integration of the subject areas of chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology than exists presently, with biology as the central focus;
  2. an emphasis on achieving competencies rather than just completing courses;
  3. an inventory of instructional modules and/or curricula employing active-learning strategies as resources to assist others in moving along a similar path; and
  4. techniques for assessing whether the other goals have been achieved.

With an emphasis on Purdue University’s focus on the chemistry aspect of the project, this talk will stress the evolution and structure of NEXUS, and the challenges of meeting the NEXUS goals both locally and nationally, which include policy, implementation, and cultural change at both the national and local levels. Thousands of students nationally could potentially be affected if this project is successful, and basic science education in biology and biology-related sciences could be transformed.