Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action

Most faculty agree that to be scientifically literate, students need to understand a few overarching core concepts: evolution; pathways and transformations of energy and matter; information flow, exchange, and storage; structure and function; and systems. As important, undergraduates need to understand the process of science, the interdisciplinary nature of the new biology, and how science is closely integrated within society. Students also should be competent in communication and collaboration, as well as have a certain level of quantitative competency, and a basic ability to understand and interpret data. These concepts and competencies should be woven into the curriculum and reinforced throughout all undergraduate biology coursework.

Student-Centered Classrooms and Learning Outcomes: In practice, student-centered classrooms tend to be interactive, inquiry-driven, cooperative, collaborative, and relevant. Classes authentically mirror the scientific process, convey the wonder of the natural world and the passion and curiosity of scientists, and encourage thinking. In addition, classes include both formal and informal assessment and regular feedback to students and faculty to help inform teaching and monitor student learning. And finally, regardless of their majors and eventual careers, students should have opportunities to participate in authentic research experiences and learn how to evaluate complex biological problems from a variety of perspectives, not just recite facts and terminology.

Understanding Key Concepts and Competencies: To be current in biology, students should also have experience with modeling, simulation, and computational and systems-level approaches to biological discovery and analysis, as well as with using large databases. Having a basic understanding of core concepts that form the very basis of life on earth, combined with training in newer approaches to biological research, provides students with insights into the process of scientific discovery, as they develop the tools they will need to succeed in tomorrow’s classrooms and board rooms.

Strategies for Change: To ensure a smooth transition to student-centered teaching and learning in undergraduate biology courses, all biology faculty and tenure review committees need to insist that the academic reward system value teaching and mentoring, set clear and concrete guidelines for assessment of these activities, and incorporate regular, formative and adaptive assessment of teaching effectiveness. Faculty need to come to consensus on the overarching, central concepts of biology that should be taught within their division or department, and define learning outcomes for those key concepts so that all faculty are working together toward the same learning goals as students move through their department.

The ultimate goal for biology departments should be to develop and grow communities of scholars at all levels of the educational process—from undergraduates to faculty to administrators—all committed to creating, using, assessing, and disseminating effective practices in teaching and learning. This kind of department-wide implementation requires cultural changes by all stakeholders and a commitment to elevate the scholarship of teaching and learning within the discipline as a professional activity.

SOURCE: National Science Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Education: A Call to Action, a summary of recommendations made at a national conference, July 15-17, 2009.

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