Last Thursday was the last class of the semester for my nonmajors biology class. For their last pop quiz, I asked three questions:
- What was the most important thing you learned about biology this semester?
- What is something you think you’ll never forget?
- What is something you wish you had learned more about?
For the next three blog posts, I’ll summarize what my students answered this semester, in hopes that other instructors will find it enlightening.
First, though, I should explain how I organize my class. As you can see from the course syllabus, it is divided into four units. The first unit is about the qualities that unify living things (chemistry, cell structure, metabolism); unit 2 is about the qualities that make them different (genetics); unit 3 is about the history of, and variation in, life (evolution, diversity); and unit 4 is about ecology and environmental problems.
The chart below summarizes the responses to the first question, categorized by unit. The most gratifying part is that all four units were included in the student responses. True, the first unit (chemistry/cells/metabolism) got fewer shout-outs than the others, but the fact that many students recognized its importance warmed my heart. I was also pleased to see some cross-unit answers. For example, the answers marked with units 2 and 3 in the pie chart called out the link between mutations and diversity, or between genetics and evolution, as the most important thing they had learned.
Within each unit, many topics were mentioned repeatedly. The single topic to garner the most votes (17 of them) was “environmental problems.” It is possible that students were simply remembering that unit 4 topic best, since it’s the one we cover last. But many students specifically wrote that they had no idea of all the different ways that humans are affecting Earth. Topics we covered in class included plastic accumulation in the oceans and on land, CAFOs, eutrophication, biomagnification, global climate change, and the loss of biodiversity. I am pleased to think about my students using what they learned about these topics to spread the word to others.
Evolution was the second-biggest vote-getter (10 votes). Several students wrote that they were happy to have learned “the real story” on that unit 3 topic; one wrote about the importance of finishing all of your antibiotics, and another described that it was important to know that species don’t change “in order to survive.” This last idea is really important to me (see my earlier post on the topic of intentional evolution in “clever cockroaches“); I was glad to see it represented in the list.
I like this “most important” question for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s good to see that students recognize that even hard-to-learn topics (like chemistry and gene function) establish the foundation for learning about biology as a whole. Another is that it’s a good reminder that EVERY unit is important, even if it’s our least favorite. Instructors need to be sure to convey (and justify) the importance of, and our enthusiasm for, them all.
One last note: A few answers were hard to categorize. One student appreciated the fact that biology is everywhere and that the class had stimulated “bigger picture thinking”; another said she now understands the connection between DNA, an organism, and its ecological community. These types of answers show that students can appreciate how biology is connected across all scales. Many, however, will not come to this conclusion without guidance from an instructor; I will continue to try to improve in this area.