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Biology Department Study Aims to Improve Education for First Years

By Errah Fawad & Hussein Ali Rifath

Biology has always been one of Adelphi’s most popular majors. But transitioning from high school into college life can be difficult, and the rigor that comes with majoring in biology only adds to that challenge. To address this, the Biology Department is running a study on biology education in search of ways to better equip first-year students to meet the demands of college-level work.

This year marks the second year of this study, which Dr. Lawrence Hobbie, a biology professor, launched in response to concerns about the effects of pandemic-era schooling.

“Many students struggle with adjustment to college from high school, especially students who were in high school during the pandemic. The study skills that they were able to use to get through high school may not be adequate for them to do really well in college,” he said. He hopes that with time, the study will bring results. “We'd like every student to succeed.”

Dr. Alan Schoenfeld, director of the Biology Department, echoed that sentiment. “I'm in favor of anything that helps students learn, so I looked at what he was proposing and it made a lot of sense. And it's definitely something that I've seen students struggle with over the years teaching BIO-111.”

He recommends that students adopt active studying methods. “If they do something active, like make a flashcard or test themselves on the material or try to explain it to somebody else, that's a much more active process. And if they're able to do that, it's going to stay better and longer, not just for the exam, but probably will be coded in [their brains] for a longer period,” Schoenfeld said.

Why is active learning more efficient than passive learning, even while the same amount of time is being spent? According to Schoenfeld, it is less about the time being invested and more about the benefits of long-term information retention.

“You could have student X that reads the same chapter over and over and over and over again and spends 20 hours on that,” he said. “If you have a student that reads it once, makes flashcards on it, and tests themselves with the flashcards for 20 hours, the student that made the flashcards will probably learn the material a lot better than the other student, even though they spent the same amount of time, than the student that just read it. That's where the active learning aspect comes in.”

The study’s pilot run last year didn’t yield many results. “We did not see a significant change [in the way students studied]. We were disappointed with that. And so, with a few research students continuing from last year and a couple of new ones, we've revised our strategy. We tried to make it more intensive and involve the students more [this year],” Hobbie said.

To that end, this year’s BIO-111 students were asked to take online diagnostic tests before the start of the school year on the DAACS suite in order to gauge their metacognition (how well they can assess their own understanding of concepts). Based on their performance, they received suggestions on what they could do to study more effectively. An outdated BIO-111 lab assignment was also replaced with a lesson on effective learning strategies, developed by Dr. Hobby and his research students.

Students have had positive feedback about the current approach, but the final impact remains to be seen. “The challenge in educational studies like this is that the anecdotal feedback may be positive, but if it doesn't really have an effect on how students study or how students do in a class, then you can't necessarily say it's worthwhile to do,” Hobbie said. “So, we're waiting for the longer term outcomes. What do students tell us in the surveys at the end about how they study? Do we see maybe, ideally, we'd see a lower rate of students who get Ds and Fs in the class at the end of this semester compared to previous semesters? We have to do various kinds of statistical analysis, just to see if there's a significant change.”

Alongside ineffective studying, college students nationwide are struggling to overcome one of the most debilitating predicaments of the post-pandemic world: burnout. When asked how the study hopes to combat this dilemma for students at Adelphi, Schoenfeld responded: “If we could help them to learn better, then we're hoping that they wouldn't burn out as much. I imagine learning it more actively is probably more pleasurable than sitting and reading a book, too. By varying their approaches in their studying, it's maybe less likely to lead to burnout.”

If this year’s results show potential, there may be a scope to expand this study. Hobbie said that while they don't currently have funding, the Provost's office has expressed some interest in possibly supporting it.

“I think we're hoping that we can show some sort of improvement based on what we're doing this fall,” he said. “And then we would have a stronger case to say, you know, if you could support us with some funding, we could roll this out, perhaps, to more students and maybe make it even more intensive and effective. One thing we would like to do is probably hire some additional students, upper level students who have already taken the class, kind of like the tutors in the Learning Center, but students who could work specifically in our inter-bio class and maybe help the students with these study skills, work in the lab when we're teaching them, go around and help them with that and maybe be available also for tutoring and guidance for the students.”

Along with Hobbie, two other professors from the Biology Department–Dr. Jonna Coombs and Dr. Eugenia Villa-Cuesta–have made great strides in developing STEM education among science educators. They served as mentors at the “Howard Hughes Medical Institute” and arranged workshops at the “Summer Institutes of Learning” to assist professors in reforming teaching methods.

“We’ve actually had a workshop here on campus, where we had biology instructors from other institutions come here to learn techniques on how to become better instructors,” said Schoenfeld. ”I attended it [...] since that time, I've adopted some of my teaching methods to be more scientific and include some of the techniques that they have suggested.”

This Biology Department is determined to pursue the goals of this study. “We’re really committed to helping students learn. We know that BIO-111 is a class that some students have struggled with over the years, and we'd like for everybody to be able to do well in the class. That’s the ultimate goal. We’re committed to changing whatever we need to change to get to that goal,” said Schoenfeld.

Hobbie echoed that sentiment. “What I find most exciting is the possibility that this could really help a lot of students, especially because we're doing it in an intro class where there are a lot of first-year students. If they can kind of develop good study skills that'll serve them well in university early on, then it could make a big difference, we hope, throughout college. It's great to do something that could help a senior. But if you can help a first year student, maybe it'll change how they succeed in college,” he said. “Hopefully, with this intervention, this kind of approach, we can help all the students find their footing in college and set them on a good path.”

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