Earlier this week I posted part II of the final pop quiz I give to my nonmajors biology class. By now, you probably already know that the quiz asks 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?
The third and final post on this quiz summarizes the answers to #3.
As before, unit 1 = chemistry, cell structure, metabolism; unit 2 = DNA, genetics, inheritance; unit 3 = evolution, diversity; unit 4 = ecology and environmental problems.
One problem with this question is that it was unintentionally ambiguous. I intended for students to describe interesting topics that I had omitted entirely or that we covered too lightly. But a few students evidently misunderstood the question to ask about topics they hadn’t learned very well. For example, one student wrote that she wished she had learned more about chemistry, “Because it will be the death of me on the final.” Another wanted more about animal diversity, “Because I will need it for the test.”
Despite this small glitch, most responses suggested that students understood my intention. In fact, the small number of votes for unit 1 confirms this impression: I spend a lot of time on chemistry, going into some depth on the structures and functions of the molecules in food. This topic is abstract and difficult, so it is hard to imagine many nonmajors students wanting more chemistry than what they are getting in my class. (And yes, I have considered cutting back on chemistry, but I like the topic and have a hard time dropping any of it!)
Units 2, 3, and 4 were approximately tied; I am glad to see this breadth of interest among my students. In unit 2, we explore topics like DNA function, mutations, viruses, genetics, inheritance, and DNA technology. Students especially seemed fascinated by mutations; seven of them mentioned wanting to learn more about diseases and traits associated with particular mutations. Most of the rest wished they had learned more about cancer or genetics.
In unit 3, the consensus was clear: Animals RULE. Seven students wanted to know more about animals, and six wanted more about human biology in particular. A few wanted more about biodiversity in general, with two specifically wanting more on evolution (a gratifying thought)!
Unit 4 was about ecology, and 11 of the 14 students who mentioned unit 4 topics chose “Environmental problems.” If you’ll recall from my first post on this quiz, this topic was also the highest vote-getter in the question about the most important thing students learned. It was also the only “unforgettable” topic from unit 4 (see the second post). If students think environmental problems are important and unforgettable, and they want to know more, then they are sending a strong signal that I might want to spend more class time on the topic.
One thing to notice about all three quiz questions is that at least some students think any given topic is the most important, or unforgettable, or covered in insufficient detail. This makes me think I am striking a fine balance. On the other hand, if we only consider the top vote-getters for each question, then students are likely to want more on human disease, the human body, other animals, and the environmental problems we cause.
If I were to give in to these preferences, what would I give up? My course is called Concepts in Biology, not Human Biology, so I’m reluctant to give up photosynthesis, plants, protists, and prokaryotic cell structure. The challenge is to help students understand why a well-rounded person recognizes the importance of nonhuman organisms, too. I will know I am successful when future students write that plants and microbes are the most important, unforgettable, and underrepresented topics in biology.