On Obstacles, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my lab TA’s to have our students write their answers to these questions:

What do you feel is your greatest obstacle in achieving the grade you want in this class? What is one thing that is being done regularly in lab or lecture that helps you? Or is there something that is not being done that you could see helping you before your next test?


What hurdles do your students have to clear on their paths to success? Image cred: Wikimedia Commons

We got 60 responses across two sections.

I’d like to share some of their answers with you. The first question, and the subject of today’s post, is “What do you feel is your greatest obstacle in achieving the grade you want in this class?” I’ll tackle the other two questions in a future blog post.

Seventeen students (more than 25% of students who responded) alluded to their difficulty in understanding how the material fits together. In a way, I am not surprised that this response led the pack, because I frequently emphasize to my students that memorizing vocabulary words will not be enough to do well in the course. On the other hand, it is puzzling because I provide so many resources that should help students focus on connections. Or at least I think I do … hmm. I will return to this point at the end of this post.

About 10 students alluded to time in some form or another – some have trouble staying on top of all of their classes, some can’t come to office hours or Action Center (supplemental learning session) because of other commitments, some admitted to not devoting enough time to studying, some mentioned “time management” in general, and a couple admitted to procrastinating. Other than reminding students to keep up with the material and not limit their studying to the time immediately preceding an exam, I am not sure what I can do as an instructor to help.

Speaking of time, I won’t waste yours by listing all of the responses that only a handful of students made, but a couple of them are noteworthy. Five students mentioned “information overload.” That one makes a lot of sense to me, partly because this is a 5-hour course and partly because of the two responses I mentioned already. If you have difficulty making connections and don’t study as you go along, I can see how it would be easy to perceive biology as a meaningless series of difficult vocabulary words. If you can instead picture how everything works together, it becomes much easier to incorporate new information without feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Six students mentioned a lack of focus/motivation (this is a nonmajors class, after all). Of these, one wrote, “Biology doesn’t click and it’s not interesting” and another wrote, “I don’t enjoy biology, so it’s not interesting, so it’s hard to learn.” As an instructor who works really hard to help students see why biology is interesting and relevant, these comments are painful to read. If I take the “glass half full” attitude, I could remind myself that only a few students feel that way and that I can’t please everyone. On the “glass half empty” side, I could ask myself what I could do differently to open students’ eyes to biology.

Since students can quickly get bored with subjects they perceive to be incomprehensible, maybe the best thing I can do is to shift my gaze back to the “difficulty in understanding” response that led off this blog post. I already use clicker questions in nearly every class, and the questions focus on understanding (not factual recall). However, perhaps more of them should focus on the big picture instead of on specific processes. We also draw concept maps frequently in Action Center, every few weeks in lab, and occasionally in lecture; perhaps I should work more of them into lecture.

I also provide many resources on my website, but maybe too many students focus on the old exams and not enough of them dig into the Guided Reading Questions. These resources, which you can see on my teaching website, direct students to the most relevant Mastering Concepts, multiple choice, and Write it Out questions from the textbook; I also sprinkle in occasional lists of words they can assemble into concept maps. (Do my “Guided Reading Questions” need a snappier name? Maybe so…I am open to suggestions!) One good way to show them off might be to develop a team exercise, either for class or Action Center, in which each student answers a Guided Reading Question or completes a concept map and then a neighbor “grades” it. That way, they can get practice using an at-home resource and get quick feedback on how they’re doing.

Next time, I’ll share the answers to questions 2 and 3. In the meantime, what are your students’ obstacles, and what are your best ideas for helping students to overcome them?

Posted in Course design, Engaging students, Learning at home, Study skills, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

FOH: Finally, a cure for FMOOWMP

If your students are like mine, no location on campus is scarier than your office. Did you know that their reluctance to come to your office hours actually has a medical cause? I didn’t until I saw this funny new video from Arizona State University, which explains that many students suffer from a disorder called FMOOWMP, or Fear of Meeting One on One With My Professor. fmoowmp-screenshot

Just like in a commercial for a real pharmaceutical drug, students in the video ask questions, like “Is it dangerous?” and “How did I even get FMOOWMP?” Then, the video proposes a treatment: FOH, or Faculty Office Hours. More questions from students ensue: “Do I need a prescription?” and “Does it hurt?” and “Is it habit-forming?” The commercial ends with testimonials by students who have successfully undergone treatment for FMOOWMP, followed by the obligatory list of side effects (I won’t spoil it for you). The fast-talking disclaimer at the end is worth listening to as well.

I played this video for my class a couple of weeks ago, and I was amazed to see its impact. Suddenly, students started  showing up for my office hours, after weeks of fruitless cajoling on my part. They admitted that the video had played a role in their decision to come in and talk to me. Try it for your own classes — perhaps it will be just what the doctor ordered for you, too.

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Flashcards, but with a Twist

I have had a fondness for index cards for quite a few years, if my 2012 series on the subject is any indication (for a flashback, visit part 1, part 2, and part 3). Flashcards are of course a tried and true way to use index cards, and I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about the subject.


Regular old flashcards. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

But a friend of mine recently drew my attention to a blog post illustrating a fantastic way to use flashcards: Be Your Own Teacher: How to Study with Flashcards. That link describes the technique perfectly, so you don’t really need to keep reading here anymore, but I’ll go ahead and describe my brief but wonderful experience with the technique.

First, a summary: The main idea is to make TWO sets of cards. The first set consists of traditional cards with a term on one side and a definition on the back. Ho hum. But the second set is where the magic happens. This set is much smaller, and it consists of some generic questions.


Boom! These questions make regular flashcards awesome. Photo by Laura Bartley.

I stole many of my generic questions from the Be Your Own Teacher blog post I referenced above, but I added a couple myself. Here are the ones I used:

  • Describe this concept without using any key words written on the flashcard.
  • Draw this concept.
  • Give a real life example of this concept.
  • How would you explain this to a child/someone who has never heard of it before?
  • What is the opposite of this concept?
  • Why is knowledge of this concept useful to you?
  • How does this concept relate to any other flashcard in your stack?
  • Where does this concept fit in the organizational hierarchy of life?

The student shuffles both sets of cards separately and then pulls one card from each deck. That means that a flashcard with, say, the definition of nucleotide is now paired with one of the thought-provoking questions listed here. As if by magic, the flashcard is transformed from a tool that promotes memorization into a tool that promotes thinking. The best part is that those question cards can be used for any topic in my biology class. Genius!

I used this technique on a couple of sets of students in my Action Center yesterday, and the response was very positive. The Peer Learning Assistant who runs the Action Center with me was also impressed, although she was also a little bit dismayed that all of the “go-to” questions that she uses to interact with clients could be summed up in eight little index cards.

I am trying to think of more questions to add to my set. If you have a good idea, please add a comment to this post.



Posted in Active learning, Learning at home, Study skills | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The “Checks”/”Emails” lab: a good start to the semester

Checks and their corresponding emails, side by side. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

Checks and their corresponding emails, side by side. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

We just finished our first week of classes at the University of Oklahoma, and my nonmajors students trooped dutifully into lab on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. To get them talking to each other, one of the icebreaker activities we have done for many years is the “Checks lab,” a lesson on the nature of science. According to the Checks lab page, the activity was originally developed in 1992 by Steve Randak and was modified in 1999 by Judy Loundagin.

In case you’re not familiar with this activity, here’s a summary. Each team of students is given an envelope containing copies of 16-17 checks that are made out to various payees. Students are told to withdraw four checks at random and propose a scenario that could account for the checks. They then withdraw four more and revise their scenario to account for the new information. After one more round of withdrawing two more checks, they aren’t allowed to see any more checks. At that point, the class as a whole comes together to figure out what actually happened to the people writing the checks.

Since each team sees a different subset of the checks, and no one sees them all, students may not agree on what happened and when. Depending on how deep the instructor wants to go into the nature of science, the ensuing discussion can go in any number of directions. To me, the main points are that scientists never get 100% complete information, that other researchers may have information that your group doesn’t have, and that collaboration is a valuable way to get as much of the story as possible. The website where I found this activity has a huge number of ideas for expanding on these and many others when teaching about the nature of science; I recommend it.

Over the summer, however, I got to thinking about whether students these days actually write checks (or know what they are). I did some asking around, and it turns out that they do—but they don’t write nearly as many as we did in our youth. They buy a lot of things online, and even when they pay for something in person, they are likely to use a debit or credit card. So the trusty old “checks lab” seems a bit outdated.

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so, because Judith Lederman and her colleagues published an updated version in The Science Teacher for September 2015, 82(6):57-61. This new version includes copies of emails instead of checks. Hurray! The emails themselves have been posted to NSTA’s The Science Teacher Connections, Sept. 2015 edition; here’s a direct link to the Word document they provide at that site.

Matt Taylor has upped the ante a little bit more: He turned the Word document into a PowerPoint (to be printed at four slides per sheet) that has a reduced emphasis on the AOL and hotmail logos. We used these mock emails in our labs last week, and they worked great; if you would like me to email you a copy, please write a comment in this blog post. In the meantime, kudos to all who developed, modified, and shared this activity.

Posted in Laboratory activities, STEM, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

HHMI Biointeractive Workshops at Tulsa Community College

Below is a flyer for a couple of excellent HHMI workshops that Tulsa Community College is hosting from October 6-7.

From the event coordinator: Faculty, TA’s and graduate students are encouraged to attend. Excellent workshops and networking! 

Please RSVP early by clicking here.

HHMI 2016

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What Can I Do With a STEM Degree? — Ricochet Science

Reblogging a great infographic from our friends at Ricochet Science:

Perhaps you are considering a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), but aren’t quite sure what you can do with the degree once you graduate. Our infographic provides a quick look at some of your career opportunities that a STEM degree provides. Need more information? See the list of resources at the end of the article or contact your local college or university.

via What Can I Do With a STEM Degree? — Ricochet Science

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What Are the Best Ways to Study?


Image credit: UBC Learning Commons

When I first started teaching, I could not understand why some bright, motivated students struggled in my class. Once I discovered the true problem — awful study skills — I became something of a study skills evangelist. Once a week I present a “Study Minute” in class, I co-host a “How to study for the sciences” seminar that attracts hundreds of students every semester, I include a “Learn How to Learn” section in each chapter of my textbooks, I host a weekly supplemental learning session that models effective study skills, and so on. I want my students to not only learn about biology but also become better learners.

So I was happy to learn of an article by John Dunlosky et al. that summarizes research on the best ways to study. You can find a condensed view of the article at Scientific American, but you have to be a subscriber or get it through your university library. Or you can dig into the full monograph in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That article is longer, but the price is right: It’s free.

Or you can read on to find the take-home message. Basically, Dunlosky and his colleagues evaluated the evidence behind 10 study techniques:

  • elaborative interrogation (for example, students might be asked to explain why photosynthesis requires water or why aerobic respiration requires oxygen)
  • self-explanation (for example, students might explain to themselves how they know that plants need nitrogen)
  • summarization (for example, students might read a passage about thermoregulation and create a summary of the most important points)
  • highlighting (or underlining)
  • the keyword mnemonic (you know, like ROY G BIV for the color spectrum, or the cheerfully phrased “Dumb Kids Playing Cards On Freeway Get Smashed” for the taxonomic hierarchy)
  • imagery use for text learning (students might read a paragraph about, say, transcription, then be instructed to create a mental image that will help them remember what they have read)
  • rereading
  • practice testing (self-testing)
  • distributed practice (students spread out study sessions rather than cramming)
  • interleaved practice (students mix topics as they study; for example, they might practice what they know about photosynthesis and respiration at the same time instead of keeping those two topics separate, helping them see the connections between them)

So, which five do you think Dunlosky et al. found the most effective? Have you picked your top choices? OK, then read on…

The winners were self-testing, distributed practice, elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice. Notably, the old standbys — highlighting and rereading more than a second time — are pretty much a waste of time. The other three techniques might be OK but more research is needed.

I love this article because I spend a lot of time coaching my students on the best study techniques. Thank you, Dr. Dunlosky and your colleagues, for giving me tools I can use to help my students succeed in all of their classes.

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If you don’t know ABLE yet, you should

I just got back from the 2016 conference of the Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE). If you teach biology labs at any level, you really should check it out. It’s hands-down my favorite meeting of the year because it’s about DOING labs, not about listening to people TALK about doing labs. It’s also the friendliest group of colleagues you’ll ever meet. And if you’re a member, you have access to the latest volumes of ABLE’s Proceedings, which contains write-ups of every workshop presented at the annual conference — that’s 35 years and counting. If you’re looking for ideas for labs, I urge you to start there.


Attack of the killer fungi. A trapped nematode is in the lower right; two flowerlike clusters of spores are visible across the field of view to its left. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

I attended several sessions that I liked, but I want to especially call attention to Brian Sato’s workshop, “Attack of the Killer Fungus: “Real” Research in the Classroom.” I have a lot of background in mycology, but I didn’t know how easy it is to obtain Arthrobotrys fungi that produce nematode-snaring traps. What a great way to help students appreciate the ecological role of fungi, up close and personal.

Once students have had a chance to explore and understand the system, Brian suggested how they can devise and test their own hypotheses about what triggers trap formation, how the fungi attract nematodes, how the traps ensnare the worms, and how the fungi digest their prey. Along the way, students develop their skills in dilution calculations, micropipettor use, literature searches, and data analysis.

I just noticed that Brian published a full description of his module in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. Skip to the section called “Possible Modifications” to learn how to adapt the lab to different course levels and for a list of variables for students to test. His ABLE workshop materials will be available online once the Proceedings for this year are published. Check it out if you’re interested in a unique lab activity that teaches students about the process of science and gives them a window into ecology occurring at a microscopic scale.

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Recognizing purposeful evolution: A treasure trove of prompts



Can you imagine typing all of these test questions in, one card at a time?

I was recently cleaning out my teaching lab and found a stash of index cards with test items from the early 1950s. As I was trying to decide whether to keep them or toss them in the recycling bin, I idly looked at a few. Out of the million or so* test questions, the first one I picked up happened to be from a category called “recognizing purposeful language.” Immediately, I perked up, as “evolution to serve a purpose” is one of the misconceptions that I think most about. (See, for example, my prior blog posts on Clever Cockroaches and on the Evolution game.)

Some of the cards come in pairs, one with a purposeful tone and one without. If I were writing a clicker question to help students learn to recognize purposeful language, I could present both statements and ask them to choose the purposeful one. For example:

Which of these sentences uses purposeful language to describe a biological process?

  • Cactus plants have thorns, which protect them from many animals.
  • Cactus plants have thorns to protect them from many animals.

Here’s another one:

Which of these sentences uses purposeful language to describe a biological process?

  • Food accumulates in the seeds of many plants to supply the embryo (young plant in the seed) with food.
  • Food accumulates in the seeds of many plants and supplies the embryo (young plant in the seed) with food.



This card has one of my favorites: “Carrots grow beneath the ground to avoid being eaten by rabbits.”

Then, when the students get more advanced, they could pick out the one sentence out of four that uses proper language rather than purposeful language. For example:

Which of these sentences uses proper (unpurposeful) language to describe a biological process?

  • Plants bend toward a light so that the greatest possible leaf surface will be exposed to the light.
  • Leaves have stomates so that they may get rid of excess water.
  • Some seeds have a hard coat to protect the young embryo.
  • A plant without oxygen cannot live because oxygen is necessary for certain plant processes.

I’m curious how many teachers share my concern about this misconception; those who do might be interested in the entire list of prompts from the index cards. If you want to see them all, send in a comment and I’ll email you the Word document. Happy teaching!

*slight exaggeration

Posted in Assessment, Evolution, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Surprisingly Awesome” podcasts

What do broccoli, pigeons, frequent flyer miles, and mattresses have in common?

They are all subjects of “Surprisingly Awesome” podcasts.Surprisingly Awesome logo

I just listened to the one on broccoli, and I was really impressed. I love resources that help students see connections among topics. In just 41 minutes, the broccoli podcast touches on genetics, chemistry, sensory biology, natural selection, selective breeding, human evolution, and culture.

The podcast opens with the hosts swabbing their mouths to collect DNA, in an intriguing effort to find out more about their personal relationship with broccoli. But they don’t follow up on this tantalizing idea right away. Instead, they turn to an explanation of broccoli’s evolutionary history. Broccoli, collard greens, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower all belong to the same species, Brassica oleracea. Millions of years ago, Brassica oleracea was a weedy, stemmy plant with yellow flowers; in its original form, it doesn’t even look edible. But the species has lots of variation in the genes that tell it how to grow stems, leaves, and flowers. Some variations tell the plant to grow a super thick stem, as in kohlrabi; others tell the plant to make long, curly leaves, as in kale. Before recorded history, people were already selecting for these different variations.

This brings us to the ~15 minute mark and a couple of highly palatable commercials (narrated by the podcast hosts themselves). When we return to the podcast, the hosts introduce bitter-tasting chemical compounds, like the goitrin in broccoli (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goitrin). Our genes determine if we can taste it — that’s the connection with the DNA test at the start of the show. A goitrin solution has no flavor to non-tasters, who do not express the receptors for that chemical. But the same solution tastes awful to a taster. Like other bitter compounds, goitrin is a defense against herbivores — there’s the natural selection connection. Bitterness often indicates poison, so it’s no wonder people (especially kids) generally don’t like bitter foods. However, some bitter plants that taste bad are nutritious, so we cook them and add seasonings to make them taste better. From here on, the podcast is mostly devoted to the interplay of biology and culture, before returning to the awesomeness of broccoli.

I recommend this podcast as a relatable way to introduce students to selective breeding and natural selection. Instructors might want to assign the podcast as an at-home activity to inspire later in-class discussion about natural and artificial selection.

However, the hosts do commit a couple of linguistic crimes against evolution: When talking about plant defenses against herbivory, they say “The plants know they have something inside of them that animals want” and “They’re trying hard to keep animals away.” Anyone who has read my “Clever cockroaches” blog post will know that this shortcut — depicting evolution as a purposeful process — is one of my pet peeves because it undermines student learning about how evolution really works. On the plus side, statements like that can be valuable if we use them to point out  what’s wrong with talking about evolution that way.

Posted in Engaging students, Evolution, Podcast, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments