Jamboard: A great tool for collecting student questions and ideas

I am back in the nonmajors biology classroom after a long departure. COVID-19, a sabbatical, and some unexpected administrative duties took their toll, but it’s good to be back. I have been trying to reduce the amount of superfluous content in my class since the last time I taught, and some of those changes have freed up classroom time to try some new technology and tools. Today I want to write about one that I tried this week, called Jamboard.

Jamboard is a Google product that functions like an online collaborative whiteboard. The interface is plain and features a small number of tools (pen, eraser, sticky note, image, and a few shapes). That simplicity is a virtue because it is intuitive for students and instructors alike, and the uncluttered whiteboard space has lots of room for thoughts and ideas.

I have been wanting to try Jamboard since I learned about it in a workshop this past summer. In fact, I thought about using it on day 1 of the semester as a way for students to brainstorm ways that biology has benefited or harmed them, either personally or society in general. But my class has 60 students, and I struggled to figure out how to keep the board from getting too crowded with sticky notes. So I decided to go in a different direction with that first class.

This week, though, I took the plunge. My first use of Jamboard was as a forum for questions that students had on the day before our first quiz. I set up a Jamboard with nine frames:

  1. What topics do you feel comfortable with already?
  2. If you have any general worries about the quiz, what are they?
  3. Questions about chapter 1 (scope of biology, experimental design)
  4. Questions about first half of chapter 2 (atoms, bonds, water)
  5. Questions about second half of chapter 2 (dehydration synthesis, hydrolysis, carbs, proteins, nucleic acids, lipids)
  6. Questions about chapter 3 (membranes, prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells)
  7. Questions about chapter 4 (enzymes, ATP)
  8. Questions about chapters 5 and 6 (respiration, photosynthesis)
  9. Miscellaneous questions that don’t fit anywhere else

The instructions were simple: I asked students to use their laptop or phone to add their question(s) to the appropriate frame, with one question per sticky note. They could also use the pen tool to add a checkmark next to any questions already on the board that they also wanted to ask. I gave them about 15 minutes to review their notes and add their questions, showing the Jamboard on the screen as they worked. Then I spent the rest of the class answering the questions that were most frequently requested.

Below is an example slide from this Jamboard. It’s #4 in the list above.

You can see the entire Jamboard with student responses and upvotes here:


The number of questions was very large, and I didn’t get through all of them in my 75-minute class. But being able to see them all in one place, along with the checkmarked “upvotes,” made it easy to prioritize which ones to answer. I considered Jamboard experiment #1 to be an unqualified success.

My second Jamboard of the week had a different purpose. At the start of class, I asked students to read the description of a major class project they will be working on for the next 3-4 weeks, then fill out the six frames of the Jamboard:

  1. After reading through the project description, what questions do you have?
  2. Within reason, the due date is negotiable. Consider the syllabus for this class and other classes, and your commitments in your real life. Then, if you would prefer a different due date, please write it on a sticky note. Use the pen tool to make check marks to “upvote” due dates that you support (including the original).
  3. This is a big project, and we should split it into multiple, bite-sized tasks. What are the most important sub-tasks? Write each one on a sticky note. (Try to arrange the sticky notes roughly in the order that the sub-tasks need to be done.)
  4. For which sub-task(s) would you most like peer feedback before the due date?
  5. What do you think is the first step to take in working on this project? Write each one on a sticky note.
  6. What worries do you have about this project? For example, is there any sub-task that you don’t already know how to do?

Below is an example slide from this Jamboard. It’s #1 in the list above.

This second Jamboard occupied far less time than the Q&A session did. It took only 10-15 minutes for students to read the project description, ask their questions, and fill out the other frames in the Jamboard. The questions (frame 1) were reasonable, and I had not anticipated many of them, so the Jamboard was a very effective communication tool in that respect. We did end up moving the due date (frame 2) from a Friday night to the following Monday night so students would have the weekend to work on their projects. Frame 3 was interesting to me because I thought it would be easy for the students to identify the sub-tasks, given the way the project description was written, but they were reluctant to add to that frame without some coaxing from me, and I still don’t consider it complete. Frame 4 led us to identify three chunks of the project that students could share with a group of classmates for peer feedback. Frame 5 probably seemed like a silly question, since the answer would seem to be “pick a topic,” but our class discussion over this frame helped students to understand that they could do some of the work even before they had settled on a specific topic. The question about their worries (frame 6) revealed some predictable concern about workload in general but also some specific concerns about getting the content right.

Here is the link to the second Jamboard: https://jamboard.google.com/d/1rUWsmIFjnn_woqx32iFPCsidH4nk3GuVxWUj1H07xNU/viewer?f=0. (Toward the end, students got a little silly with the pens and shapes, prompting me to restrict their editing privileges!)

Reflecting on my double experiment, I can perceive many advantages of using Jamboard. First, I kept the links to both Jamboards visible to students in Canvas. I had not anticipated any repeat visits, but one student told me she was grateful that I kept the Q&A accessible to her because she liked studying by trying to answer other student’s questions. Second, Jamboard is surprisingly easy to use, even on the tiny screen of a smartphone. Third, from an equity and inclusion standpoint, Jamboard is far superior to asking students to raise their hands to ask a question. On Jamboard, anyone can anonymously ask as many or as few questions as they like. Shy students, or those who are embarrassed to admit having questions, now can contribute just as much as those who are bold or brave. I like that. Jamboard will definitely find other uses in my class this semester.

Posted in Active learning, Collaboration, Engaging students, Equity and inclusion, Instructional technology, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Inhabiting the Anthropocene: Art Meets Biology

Photo by Nonmajors Biology student Maggie Contos in fall 2021.

This week I had to opportunity to contribute to a great blog called Inhabiting the Anthropocene. My friend and colleague Zev Trachtenberg hosts the blog site, which is “dedicated to exploring the intellectual and ethical challenges raised by the Anthropocene” (i.e., the age of human civilization). Dr. Trachtenberg gathers authors from several fields to reflect on these complicated issues.

I was invited to contribute to the blog to share my experience trying to bridge art and biology in my class. In fall 2021, I teamed up with our campus art museum to get students thinking about how artistic images can shape public opinion about biological issues. Spoiler: The activity went really well!

Learn more about the activity in the Inhabiting the Anthropocene blog post: Exploring the intersection of biology and environment through art. While you’re there, see what other ethical and cultural issues my colleagues are discussing on the blog site.

Have you ever considered trying to incorporate art into your biology class? If so, how did it go?

Posted in Assignments, Collaboration, Engaging students, Laboratory activities, Science in art | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Binary or not? Teaching the biology of sex

Sex and gender can be complicated to teach in biology class. Image source

For the most part, the world divides people into two categories: male and female. Public bathrooms, clothing catalogs, baby accessories, kids’ toys, fairy tales, marriage laws, sports, music videos, and the marketing of personal care items ranging from deodorant to razors all reinforce the idea that everyone is born definitely male or definitely female.

Some biologists agree with that idea, arguing that there are only two types of sex cells: sperm cells and egg cells. By definition, individuals who produce sperm cells are male, and individuals who produce egg cells are female. It’s as simple as that, and there is no in between. According to this view, encouraging people to explore their sexual identity beyond the male-female binary can confuse children and is potentially damaging to society as a whole.

But how do we know who is male and who is female? Two common strategies are to inspect the sex chromosomes and/or the genitals. According to tradition and conventional wisdom, the binary distinctions persist here as well. That is, for the sex chromosomes, XX means female and XY means male. For the genitals, clitoris + vagina mean female and penis + scrotum mean male.

Those distinctions seem simple, but life is more complicated that that. Variations in sex chromosomes, reproductive anatomy, and hormone levels can and do occur, sometimes causing a person’s genitalia to appear different from what is generally considered to be typical for either sex. Such conditions are collectively known as “intersex.” University of Oklahoma professor Dr. Ari Berkowitz explores intersex conditions in a blog post called “Human Biology Is not Binary.”

In a followup blog post, “Animal Biology Is not Binary,” Berkowitz extends the argument to invertebrate and vertebrate animals that are intersex, asexual, sex-switching, or hermaphrodites. He does not include plants, which have complex sex lives of their own, but he does mention that some fungi have thousands of “mating types” that are somewhat analogous to sex. These examples reinforce the idea that biological sex is not necessarily binary.

What does this all have to do with teaching nonmajors biology? Clearly, the related topics of sex and gender are relevant to students’ everyday lives as they observe their peers and develop their own identities. Yet I can hear the alarm bells ringing in the instructor’s head. Wading into disputes about sex and gender can easily become heated, especially when politicians get involved (see, for instance, this story from Oklahoma, which includes quotes from both sides of the political aisle).

I don’t want my classroom to become yet another battleground for political disputes, but I do want my students to understand both the promise and the limits of science in settling complex matters. Luckily, it is possible to find resources that give students an opportunity to focus on real data as they tangle with these thorny issues. HHMI Biointeractive, for example, has a thoughtful, substantive activity called Sex Verification of Athletes that dives head-first into the difficulties of defining who is eligible to compete in sporting events that are restricted to females.

For those of you teaching nonmajors biology students, what approach do you take with sex, gender, and other complex issues at the intersection of science and society? Please share your ideas; I would love to learn from you.

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Don’t Just Talk About Microplastics — Make Them Visible

As a biology teacher, I hope you’re aware of, and deeply disturbed by, the enormous volume of plastics that we all discard, day after day. We can see cups, bags, and other plastic trash by the roadside and in waterways, and it’s not hard to envision what happens when fish or turtles eat bits of this garbage or get tangled up in it.

It’s one thing to be alarmed about the amount of trash we see as we walk, ride, or drive by. It’s quite another to understand that the plastics problem extends down to the microscopic scale as well. The big pieces we see physically break down into smaller and smaller pieces. But did you know that cosmetics and fibers from clothing contribute plastic to water, too? These bits of plastic start small and stay small. Microplastics are hard to see with the naked eye, but they climb the food chain just the same.

Recently, The American Biology Teacher published a couple of papers by Franz X. Bogner and his team in Germany (see references below). Taken together, the two papers are excellent because they explain how we release plastics to the environment, why plastics persist when other types of pollutants do not, the environmental consequences of the plastics, what to look for in lists of product ingredients, and ways to minimize the use of plastic. The activities are targeted to an elementary school level, but they could easily be adapted to use in the college classroom.

Microplastic beads from Walgreens Deep-Acting Exfoliation Scrub. Photo was taken with a cell-phone camera mounted on the eyepiece of a dissecting scope.
Photo by M. Hoefnagels

The most memorable thing that I learned from the papers is that it is extremely easy to extract microplastics and view them with supplies no more sophisticated than water, a coffee filter, a funnel, and a cell phone camera. For example, in the first photo, you can see the microplastic beads that I filtered from a droplet of Walgreens Deep-Acting Exfoliating Scrub. All I did to create this photo was to mix a drop of the facial scrub in about 30 milliliters of water and pour it through a coffee filter placed in a funnel over a beaker. Once the water had passed through the filter, I cut the filter open and laid it on a dissecting microscope stage for photography. It’s easy to compare the size of the white and purple microbeads to the 1-mm markings on the ruler.

Microplastic fibers from black flannel. Photo was taken with a cell phone camera zoomed in on the microfibers.
Photo by M. Taylor

The second photo shows the microplastic fibers from a small piece of black flannel. To release these fibers, I cut a small square of the flannel (about a square inch) and swished it in about 30 milliliters of water containing a bit of dishwashing detergent. As before, I poured the mixture though a coffee filter in a funnel over an empty beaker. In this case, we used a cell phone camera instead of the dissecting scope to see if the microscope was even necessary to visualize the fibers and estimate their size. As you can see, the cell phone camera did a fine job on its own.

As biology instructors, what can we do with this simple activity? You could follow the Bogner team’s example and have students learn to find and visualize microplastics in everyday consumer items. (You can also use the workbooks and other materials they provide to do their full set of activities if you choose.) If you’re looking for something simpler, though, here are a few ideas.

First, it is easy for students to understand how the microplastics from facial scrub and laundered fabrics make their way into the water supply. From there, they could use their ecology skills to propose food chains or food webs that explain why microplastics accumulate in tissues of animals at the highest trophic levels.

Second, if you’re teaching about the tools of science, students can use photos like these as part of an exercise in learning to use the microscope and/or learn metric units of length.

Third, perhaps you’d like your students to interpret graphs from the scientific literature. Data from a paper can seem pretty abstract, especially to a beginner. Perhaps seeing examples of microplastics can help your students connect the professional world of published science to something they can see with their own eyes.

Finally, my colleague recently included microplastics in a short, asynchronous lesson called “Plastic Pollution” for his nonmajors biology course. The lesson contains online videos and assessment ideas. If you’d like to see it, please leave a comment below and we’ll be glad to email it to you.


Baierl, Tessa-Marie and Bogner, Franz X. 2021. Plastic Pollution: Learning Activities from Production to Disposal – From Where Do Plastics Come & Where Do They Go? The American Biology Teacher 83 (5): 320–324.

Raab, Patricia and Bogner, Franz X. 2020. Microplastics in the Environment: Raising Awareness in Primary Education. The American Biology Teacher 82 (7): 478–487.

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Using Google Forms for biology class: A free tool with many uses

My all-time favorite professional organization is the Association for Biology Laboratory Education, chiefly because the annual hands-on workshops provide ideas that I can use right away in my teaching. (ABLE’s journal compiles all of the past workshops and is a great resource.)

One great example is a workshop I attended in June at the 2021 Virtual Conference of ABLE (ViABLE) The workshop was presented by Joanna Vondrasek of Piedmont Virginia Community College, and she talked about using Google Forms in synchronous or asynchronous biology courses. Thanks to her presentation, Vondrasek opened my eyes to a world of simple, free, versatile ways of using Google Forms in class.

Here’s a screen shot of a Sample Google Form. I also made a form you can interact with here: Example Form.

I was a little surprised that I didn’t know about Google Forms already, because I occasionally use Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides in my class. For example, in lab, if students use their microscopes to measure the thickness of a frog’s skin, they might enter their measurement into a Google Sheet and later use the pooled data to make a graph. One problem with using Google Sheets in this way, however, is that a student entering data toward the end of the collection time may be influenced by data that others have already put in. They might think, “Hmmm, I thought the skin was 50 microns thick, but everyone else got 300-350 microns, so I’ll change my answer to 300.” As a result, the class may move as a herd to incorrect answers entered by students who rushed through the exercise, or accurate outliers may go unreported.

One strength of using Google Forms instead is that each student reports and sees only their own data. They can’t see what anyone else entered until the instructor shares the results from the whole class. But there are other benefits as well: The interface for Google Forms is user-friendly; the creator of the Form can embed videos and images; it’s easy to create open-ended, multiple choice, dropdown, or check box questions; you can import questions from other sources. It’s even possible to make the form conditional, so that a user can’t move onto a subsequent set of questions before answering precursor questions correctly. (Vondrasek has used this feature to create an “escape room” review for exams – I am not that ambitious yet!)

In the workshop I attended, Vondrasek used this animated gif of root movement from HHMI BioInteractive’s Phenomenal Images collection, and she paired it with questions adapted from the educator materials handout. In the form she created for the ViABLE workshop, we examined the animation and answered some basic multiple choice questions about roots and plants. We then entered our observations and questions about the animation, and we listed environmental stimuli that might affect the direction of plant root growth. As a mock “student,” I found it both engaging and super easy to use.

But the best part was yet to come. She went to the Responses section at the back end of the Google Form site, quickly copied all of our answers about environmental stimuli that influence root growth, and pasted them into a word cloud generator. In the blink of an eye, we could see the collected responses: light, gravity, water, nutrients, and so on. In her class, she uses the word cloud as a visual aid in talking about each of the most common responses (and, I imagine, the less-obvious answers that students may not have thought of). She finishes up the activity with a link to a question in a Canvas discussion board.

Google Forms have so much potential! Vondrasek uses Google Forms as a way to focus student attention in breakout rooms in her online classroom, but they could easily be used in a face-to-face class. For example, would it be possible to use Google Forms to replace clickers altogether? Also, besides generating material for discussions, as Vondrasek has done, could we replace some of the data collection pages in our printed lab manuals with a series of Google Forms?

If you’re intrigued, here are some links to useful resources:

And if you want to try interacting with a Google Form, I created a simple four-question one for you: https://forms.gle/sYPTBiBfV4Ki7j5L8. Please have a look, answer the questions if you’d like, and if you think you can make room for Google Forms in your teaching, I urge you to explore the many features of Google Forms that I haven’t covered here.

Posted in Active learning, Engaging students, Instructional technology, Online teaching, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mindset Matters for Teachers, Too

Mindset has been a recurring theme throughout my blog posts. (If you need a quick primer on the difference between fixed and growth mindset, you can find a good summary here.) In a nutshell, people with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talents are pretty much fixed, whereas those with a growth mindset believe that these same attributes can be developed with practice.

Image credit: Jessica Ottewell on Flickr

Students with a growth mindset tend to be more productive learners, so I have written quite a bit about helping students cultivate a growth mindset; here are a few examples:

At the End, I’m Looking to the Start

Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Your Students

This might just be my new favorite book about teaching…

“Practice Perfection”: It’s Not Just for Gymnasts

I have also written about having a growth mindset myself, as an instructor. For example, the post entitled Instructors: Be kind to your future self gives a few tips for quickly noting your observations about each class session so you can improve your teaching in the future when you teach the same course again.

But other than developing our talents as instructors, does having a growth mindset matter to our students in any measurable way? According to this article, the answer is yes. The article, which appeared in Science Advances, is entitled “STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes.” The four-author team consisted of Elizabeth A. Canning, Katherine Muenks, Dorainne J. Green and Mary C. Murphy.

The title pretty much says it all, but let’s dive in a little deeper. Here’s a quote from the article’s abstract:

Faculty mindset beliefs predicted student achievement and motivation above and beyond any other faculty characteristic, including their gender, race/ethnicity, age, teaching experience, or tenure status.

Surprised? I confess that I was, especially at the thought that faculty beliefs about student mindsets was the single most important factor in predicting student achievement and motivation. It’s even more important than teaching experience! So I looked more closely at the article to evaluate the strength of their evidence. Read on to learn more.

The article begins with the premise that, on average, underrepresented racial minorities (URM) do not do as well as their white peers in STEM classes. In addition, the authors recognized that faculty members may harbor racial stereotypes and are likely to have varying beliefs about whether or not student abilities are fixed. The researchers designed their study to learn whether “these faculty beliefs are associated with URM students’ motivation and their academic achievement in those professors’ STEM courses.” In particular, they predicted that URM students in classes taught by professors who endorse fixed mindset beliefs would “experience lower motivation and underperform relative to their non-stereotyped peers.”

The study was impressive in its scale. Over seven semesters, the researchers surveyed 150 STEM faculty from 13 STEM departments at one university. The survey questions assessed the degree to which each faculty member identified with fixed or growth mindset beliefs. The researchers also retrieved grades and racial identifiers for all of the 15,000+ students enrolled in the classes taught by these 150 STEM faculty.

Overall, students performed more poorly in courses taught by faculty endorsing a fixed mindset (P = 0.011). But the effect was stronger for URM students than for white or Asian students. While racial achievement gaps persisted in STEM classes overall, the gap for classes taught by professors endorsing fixed mindset beliefs was 0.19 grade points (GPA scale of 4.0), whereas the gap for their counterparts with growth mindset beliefs was 0.10 grade points.

Interestingly, the researchers did not find that a faculty member’s gender, race, age, STEM discipline, tenure status, or years of teaching experience influenced the likelihood of endorsing fixed vs. growth mindset. Nor did any of these characteristics predict student performance as strongly as faculty beliefs about mindset.

The researchers mined student course evaluation data to learn more about the student experience. For example, one possible explanation for the results is that faculty who believe in fixed abilities happen to design classes that are tougher than those of their growth-mindset colleagues. To test for this possibility, the researchers analyzed responses to this student evaluation question: “Compared to other courses you’ve taken how much time did this course require?” The result? No difference, suggesting that the differences could not be explained by course difficulty.

Instead, two other evaluation responses turned out to be important: “How much did the instructor motivate you to do your best work?” and “How much did the instructor emphasize student learning and development?” The researchers found that faculty endorsing a fixed mindset tended to be “demotivating” and to use teaching practices that were less likely to emphasize learning and development. In turn, these practices were associated with lower course grades.

The results of this large study are noteworthy because they point to potential steps that all faculty can take to boost equity and help erase achievement gaps. In particular, as instructors, we can each take an honest look at where our beliefs lie. Do you think that some students are inherently brilliant and others are doomed to fail? If so, you probably think it doesn’t matter what you do in the classroom. On the other hand, do you think that students who are willing and able to put in the work can be guided to higher achievement, regardless of their starting point? I do, and research like this shows that working toward a thoughtful approach to teaching really does make a difference in student lives.

How can students tell if their instructor believes in their potential to develop and grow? For one thing, it doesn’t hurt to tell them! But those encouraging words should be backed up by teaching practices that give students a chance to practice, discuss, struggle, receive feedback, and reflect. That doesn’t mean reworking your class from the ground up. It can instead involve adding small practices that make a big difference. For ideas, please click over to one more blog post from the past: It is about an article by Kimberly Tanner, in which she promotes “Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” I urge you to check it out. Picking up a few of her ideas can help bring energy and equality to your classroom, two good steps on the road to cultivating a growth mindset in your own students.

Posted in Engaging students, Equity and inclusion, Mindset, STEM, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does Comedy Add Interest, or Does It Distract from Scientific Rigor?

[A guest post by Matt Taylor]

The COVID-19 pandemic got me thinking about how difficult it can be to engage biology students, especially nonmajors learning in an online environment. An especially challenging area for me to teach is animal diversity. I struggle to help students find the relevancy in it. And I get their point: Why should they care about the difference between a planarian and a nematode? Will it affect their health? Unlikely. Will it affect how they vote? Almost definitely not.

On the other hand, I know I want to include some amount of diversity instruction in my course. From a macroscopic view, I want my students to have an appreciation for the astounding diversity and beauty of life.

(Side note: I often find it comical to see “appreciate” in a learning objective. “By the end of this course, students should be able to appreciate the diversity of Arthropoda.” As if I would dock their grade if they fail to appreciate arthropods’ evolutionary success. “You don’t find it remarkable?! That’s an F for you!”)

Videos can help students get a feel for animal diversity—in ACTION!—instead of bogging them down with a laundry list of characteristics for each phylum. Don’t get me wrong. Laundry lists have their place in the biology classroom. After all, many nonmajors enter on day 1 with the notion that biology is “all about memorization.” It would be rude to prove them completely wrong.

But should we leave a little more space for the intangible and un-assessable “appreciation” of biological diversity? If so, what’s the best way to do it?

In this blog post I am sharing two video resources with you, both because I think you might enjoy them and because I want your feedback. Which type of video do you think is most appropriate for a college biology classroom? Which type of video is most likely to help students build that coveted “appreciation” of biology?

The first resource is KQED’s Deep Look videos. They are scientifically rigorous, entertaining, beautifully filmed, and cover an astonishing array of animal life (and some plants, too!). Here is an example about sea stars:

The second resource is slightly different. The YouTube channel “zefrank1” has a popular line of animal videos called “True Facts.” These are *mostly* scientifically accurate, with maybe a few mistakes such as suggesting that need-based evolution is possible (“[The animal] said, ‘I want bad-ass scales’ and evolution said ‘no problem'”). Of course, asking students to identify these scientific inaccuracies could be a good challenge.

The main difference between these videos and the KQED Deep Look videos is that these are meant to be outrageous and funny, but they still teach about biological diversity. Here’s one about anteaters, pangolins, and similar animals; be warned, it frequently strays into topics and language that many consider impolite or even offensive:

Of course, the point of these videos IS their questionable taste. If the following frequently up-voted comment below is any indication, many students might like to see True Facts videos in their college classrooms:

I feel conflicted about which type of video would be best for nonmajors: the traditional but beautiful educational videos of Deep Look, or the somewhat scandalous but entertaining True Facts videos? Either way, the videos couldn’t stand alone as animal diversity instruction. I’d have to supplement with other materials.

I would love any advice you have! And if you’re like me, you’ll find these videos an entertaining way to spend your Friday afternoon. Enjoy!

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Inching Toward Inclusivity, One Instructor at a Time

Credit: DES daughter on Flickr. Image cropped.

Like many instructors, I have spent the past year or so thinking more about enhancing inclusivity and a sense of “belonging” in my college classroom. One thought-provoking paper from CBE — Life Sciences Education that recently came my way has a real mouthful of a title: Signaling Inclusivity in Undergraduate Biology Courses through Deliberate Framing of Genetics Topics Relevant to Gender Identity, Disability, and Race. In a nutshell, the author, Karen G. Hales, describes many examples of the deliberate use of inclusive language in teaching genetics. If this is a topic that interests you, I urge you to have a look.

The article covers a lot of ground, but here are some examples of Hales’s language choices for genetics:

  • In pedigree charts, Hales proposes new symbols for transgender individuals, nonbinary individuals, etc.
  • Rather than using phrases such as “male organs” and “female organs,” Hales refers to “egg-conducting organs” and “sperm-producing organs.” Likewise, instead of “biologically male” and “biologically female,” Hales uses “assigned male” or “assigned female” or “person born with [body part].” And instead of “mother” and “father,” Hales uses “egg parent” and “sperm parent.”
  • Hales emphasizes that varying outcomes of human development are part of a normal population; disabilities do not necessarily need to be “fixed” or cured.
  • When referring to phenotypes, the adjectives “typical” and “atypical” are preferred to “normal” and “abnormal.” Similarly, neutral nouns such as “trait,” “variation,” or “condition” are preferable to “disease” or “disorder.”
  • When referring to genotypes and alleles, Hales suggests avoiding “mutant” in favor of “variant.”
  • Hales reminds students that race is a sociocultural concept with little to no genetic/biological foundation. In Hales’s words, “people are often fooled by loose association with a few features (skin color, sickle cell anemia) for which strong regional selection … has had disproportionate effect.”

I have selected just a few highlights for this blog post; the paper offers much more, along with research reinforcing Hales’s justification for each choice. I agree with much of what Hales suggests, especially when it comes to using neutral terms when referring to diseases and disabilities. And the next time I work with pedigree charts, I have already made a note to consider changing “Male” and “Female” to “Sperm parent” and “Egg parent” because each parent depicted in a pedigree does not necessarily conform to the male/female binary.

One thing I do wonder about, however, is the wisdom of layering the concept of gender identity onto the pedigree chart. Hales suggests using diamond symbols for nonbinary individuals and adding abbreviations for female-to-male, male-to-female, female-to-nonbinary, and male-to-nonbinary transgender individuals. While these notations may boost inclusivity, they may also entangle sex and gender in ways that may confuse students who are new to the distinctions between these terms. Note, however, that Hales’s intention is the opposite: “…my goal is to acknowledge gender identity as central yet separable from the binary of sperm–egg production.” I’m not sure if this goal is being met, based on the explanation in the article.

I also wonder whether some of Hales’s strategies may have unintended consequences, inadvertently making our word choices exclusive instead of inclusive. For example, suppose you decide to use “person born with a vulva” in place of “female” or “girl” or “woman.” If some students don’t know what a vulva is, you will have created a new barrier to understanding in your efforts to include everyone. Similarly, what if your use of inclusive language draws unwanted attention to students who would otherwise prefer to remain unnoticed? In that case, efforts to be inclusive can actually make some students uncomfortable.

Navigating the language of inclusivity sometimes feels like tiptoeing in a minefield, especially with the threat of an embarrassing “wrong” statement going viral on social media. What are instructors to do? I certainly don’t have all the answers. Next time I teach, however, I plan to let my students know that I care about their needs. I will acknowledge that I am not perfect, that I am still learning, and that I want to know if I have inadvertently made someone uncomfortable.

Your decisions as an instructor are highly personal, as is the makeup of each classroom. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. In deciding how to handle issues such as these, however, I urge you to consider the perspectives of your students, not just your own. A good first step might be to brainstorm ways to build mutual trust, to better meet the needs of all of your students, and to stay open to constructive, anonymous suggestions for improvement.


Thank you to Trai Spikes, Elizabeth Besozzi, and Matt Taylor for constructive and enlightening conversations about this article!

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This might just be my new favorite book about teaching…

Last month, I bought and read Terry McGlynn’s excellent new book, The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching (published 2020). It is one of those books that hits the rare combination of being informed by educational research without dwelling on the minutiae or jargon of that research. (A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about my other favorite teaching book, Saundra McGuire’s excellent Teach Students How to Learn.)

What do I like about McGlynn’s book? Most importantly, it’s practical. It’s not exactly a “How to Teach” guide, because as the author acknowledges, each of us has different goals, different personalities, different classrooms, and different constraints. Instead, the book presents an easy-to-read narrative describing ways to implement what he calls two keystones: Efficient Teaching and the Respect Principle.

“Efficient teaching” is the idea that we can all spend more time—and more, and more, and more time—crafting an ever-more-perfect class. But will that added effort produce a proportional improvement in student learning outcomes? If not, perhaps it’s time to repurpose some of that polishing time into making larger changes that yield a bigger payoff.

Implementing the “respect principle” means setting aside the idea that students are dishonest or that they are constantly trying to exploit loopholes in our course policies. It means choosing trust instead, and actively dismantling class policies that reinforce a culture of mistrust. The author challenges readers to develop policies that are fair to all students, regardless of their individual circumstances and obstacles. In short, he likes to think of teachers as coaches, not adversaries.

Interested? Well, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve summarized only the first 13 pages! Those pages make up the first part of chapter 1, “Before you meet your students.” Subsequent chapters provide useful suggestions for the syllabus (chapter 2), the curriculum (chapter 3), teaching methods (chapter 4), assignments (chapter 5), exams (chapter 6), common problems (chapter 7), and online teaching (chapter 8).

This book gave me a lot to think about. Here are a few of my other main takeaways:

Make Class Policies More Flexible. I learned that inflexible class policies make life hard for today’s students in ways that many of us “old-timers” may not even think of. College is way more expensive than when we were in school, and lots of students work a lot of hours at low-paying jobs—not to mention caring for kids and/or ailing parents, facing technological challenges, spending time in long commutes, being sidelined by car troubles, and so on. Why not add some breathing room by dropping a few low scores in some assignment categories, or by reducing late penalties? Next time I work on my syllabus, these issues will be at the top of my mind.

Be More Accommodating: I also have been thinking about “services” that I offer outside of class, like office hours, review sessions, and supplemental instruction. Students can and should be held responsible for attending classes as listed in the schedule. But when it comes to out-of-class activities, how can we accommodate students who are unable to attend because of class conflicts, work schedules, or family responsibilities? I confess that I have considered my own convenience more than my students’ needs in offering office hours and weekly supplemental instruction. If a student wanted to attend but was unable to, well, that was too bad. I rationalized that these activities were “extra” and therefore not strictly required for success in the class. Now I see there’s a better way, as I outline below.

Record Review Sessions and Supplemental Instruction: The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly expanded opportunities to offer review sessions and supplemental instruction online, even for in-person classes. Putting them online should reduce barriers for students who cannot physically attend. The recordings can then be made available for all students to view at their convenience.

Better Office Hours: I think online office hours will also be in my future, along with more frequent reminders of what office hours are, how students can benefit from using them, and how to make appointments when my office hours don’t match up with a student’s schedule. I may even require students to sign up for a brief meeting at the start of the semester so I can talk to them one-on-one. That way, maybe it won’t be so scary for them to ask for an appointment later in the semester.

Anyway, this book has so much good stuff in it that I couldn’t possibly summarize it all here. If what I’ve described here sounds good, I encourage you to buy the book or see if you can get it at your local library. If you are open to new ideas about teaching, I think you’ll be glad you did.

P.S. As I was looking up the publication date for McGlynn’s book, I noticed that it is part of a series called “Chicago Guides to Academic Life.” Other titles in the series include What Every Science Student Should Know and How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying) and 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School. There are lots more, too. If they’re as well-done as McGlynn’s, they’re probably worth a look.

Posted in Course design, Equity and inclusion, STEM, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seven Strategies for Sustaining Student Engagement Online

Thanks to an extremely well-timed sabbatical, I have not had to teach my nonmajors biology class during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I have paid attention to what my colleagues are doing with their classes, and I have read a bit about best practices. I am especially interested to find out which pandemic-era teaching practices will remain when normal life returns.

Illustration source: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/webinar-conferencing-video-call-5310229/

I know that pandemic teaching has necessitated new strategies for maintaining student engagement, which is a challenge that I ponder even in the best of times. For example, in one previous blog post, I wrote about the benefits of random calling, and in another, I wrote about Kimberly Tanner’s excellent article describing 21 teaching strategies that promote engagement and cultivate equity.

A great companion to these articles just appeared in CBE-Life Sciences Education. The new article, by Daniel L. Reinholz and colleagues, is called A Pandemic Crash Course: Learning to Teach Equitably in Synchronous Online Classes. It describes a situation that will feel familiar to anyone who was teaching in spring 2020: The rapid and unexpected mid-semester shift from face-to-face to online instruction. In this case, the “students” were instructors who were participating in a professional learning community focused on equity. That is, the instructors in the learning community were meeting face-to-face to discuss equitable teaching in their face-to-face classes… and when their own classes went virtual, the instructors’ learning community did, too.

The article contains a lot of details about how the participants used a classroom observation tool called EQUIP, but that’s not what I want to highlight here. For me, the most interesting part comes near the end, in a section called “Strategies for Promoting Equitable Participation.” The authors recommend seven strategies, which I have listed (and commented on) here.

  1. Re-establish norms: In face-to-face classes, you may or may not articulate the “rules” of the game, but students quickly come to understand whether, when, and how to ask questions or participate in the discussion. In a virtual classroom, students need to know whether to use Chat, or Q&A, or raise their actual hands, or just interrupt with a question, and they need to know how you are going to decide who to call on. Clarifying the rules will place everyone on equal footing from the start.
  2. Use student names: This is, of course, a good practice in any classroom. One of Zoom’s big advantages for teaching is that everyone’s name is visible on screen, so you don’t have to spend time memorizing names as you might in your face-to-face class. Using names, especially to call on those who have been quiet during a class session or to reinforce a point that a student made during a discussion, helps students feel “seen” and signals that you value their participation.
  3. Use breakout rooms: I have little experience with breakout rooms, but the authors of the article say that students who might be shy about speaking up in the “big class” will be more willing to participate in a smaller discussion group. You might consider popping in on the breakout rooms and then, when the whole class comes back together, calling on students by name to share some of the interesting ideas you heard them discuss in their small groups.
  4. Leverage chat-based participation: A lot of students would rather type into a chat than speak up. Depending on the size of your class, keeping an eye on the chat while you’re juggling your other responsibilities may be overwhelming. In online classes I’ve observed, a teaching assistant has monitored the chat sidebar, typing answers to questions that pertain to individual students and alerting the instructor about issues that need clarifying for the whole class. If you don’t have a helper, then consider taking periodic breaks to skim through the chat. You can then call on students to talk out loud about the comments they typed in. Or you can bring up selected issues that you see in the chat, which will demonstrate that you are listening and responding to their questions and concerns.
  5. Using polling software: Having students answer questions can liven up any class, whether face-to-face or online. If you don’t want to grade responses, then you can use the informal polling using tools built into Zoom or whatever online course delivery platform you’re on. If you want to grade the responses, then you can use applications like Poll-Everywhere or Top Hat or a similar cloud-based system—but then, of course, you will have to deal with the student registration problems that will inevitably arise.
  6. Create an inclusive curriculum: According to the authors, “Equity in a classroom is… reflected in… how an instructor validates different ideas, identities, and cultures (e.g., through the choice of course content, through the use of affirming language).” Part of the idea is for all students to feel welcome to bring their personal experiences into the classroom. I confess that in my own nonmajors biology class, I have been so focused on explaining the core scientific ideas that I have neglected the social implications of biology, as well as my students’ unique reactions based on their own experiences. I am only now waking up to the idea of exploring these avenues as a way to boost inclusiveness and equity, so I don’t have much concrete advice to add—at least not now.
  7. Cut content to maintain rigor: I am genuinely excited about nearly every topic in my nonmajors biology class, so it’s been hard for me to cut content over the years. However, I have also been thinking lately about what my students are missing, such as in-depth discussions about scientific topics that are relevant to their lives. In the words of the authors, “one of the barriers to equitable participation was simply trying to do too much in a course rather than doing fewer things well.” Hear, hear… now to figure out how to do it!

Finally, I appreciate Matt Taylor for offering one more suggestion from the perspective of a student who has been taking online classes during the pandemic. He suggests allowing students a lot of flexibility to complete coursework on their own schedule. Instructors are struggling to balance many competing demands during the pandemic, but so are students. Flexibility shows that you see your students as humans. It also doesn’t hurt to be liberal with your praise for what your students are accomplishing during a super stressful time.

I hope this list gives you something to think about as you plan next semester’s courses, which will almost certainly have an online component. Remember, when looking at any list of strategies, it’s important not to get overwhelmed by all the things you COULD do. Instead, look through the list and pick one strategy to focus on first. See how it works, get comfortable with it, and if you’re ready for another challenge, take the next bite. I am sure I am not alone when I say that I am eager to learn what you try and how it works—so please, leave a comment!

Posted in Engaging students, Equity and inclusion, Online teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment