Barthel Beham, Study of three skulls: different views of the same subject, a work in progress. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

For the past couple of years I have been polishing a kind of formative assessment that works very well for biology classes, especially general biology. It is not my invention of course: in my school’s MS Bio program students analyze their selected thesis topics from a variety of point of views (molecular, cellular, organismal) as they move through the different courses, and I was also much inspired by Prof. Campbell’s approach to teaching molecular biology through the “Your favorite…” assignments.

Most biologists would recognize this approach as attractive, as it appeals to the basic core concepts in biology, including the levels of complexity of living matter, the relationship structure-function, and the notion of any scientific topic being inherently complex. Deconstructing a topic to its simpler components to understand it, and then putting it together again in a larger perspective is what we do all the time as scientists. Applying the process to a topic that  students find personally interesting ensures they will be more engaged. In summary, a win-win situation.

As most things, the devil is in the details.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about my teaching. Between the informal mentoring by my education colleagues and several science education projects, it has become now more of a routine to think along the lines of “what do I want my students be able to do” and “what are the activities through which students can practice.” During the Coursera Gamification course I learned how good games aim at the edge between boring and challenging, and how the learning curve should be gradual to avoid losing players giving up in frustration. I lived it during the annotation practices of the GEP workshop: I consciously chose an easy project to start with so I could have a positive experience of being able to finish and then move to a harder one. The learning curve was still steep, but I had some sense of accomplishment, while some of my colleagues who chose complex genes with multiple isoforms sat through both days pulling their hairs.

And then of course there is also the issue of guidance. Discovery-based instruction is outed as the best way to teach science and I agree. However, we cannot really expect students to grasp the complexities of the research process by themselves, especially at the undergrad level.

When I started implementing these types of assignments, I assumed (incorrectly) that students would see right away the purpose of peeling away the layers of complexity of a biological topic, and would be able to analyze it with discipline, to finally put it back together. At certain levels, some students could, but most struggled and delivered “generic” reports, often obviously copied from wikipedia in discordant chunks.

With time and practice, I have gotten better at introducing the assignment, walking students through the process, and providing more detailed instructions. During the latest iteration, in a non-majors biology course, I developed highly detailed grading rubrics so students had no doubts about what was being asked for them. I personally dislike grading rubrics, as they are easy to game once you know how they work. On the other hand, especially in online courses, they are helpful to guide students as to expectations.

And then came the epiphany.

A student was writing about GMOs. We are talking a non-majors general biology course. It was the posting that should have tackled the molecular aspect of her topic, so I advised her to focus on one or two GMOs and look at the particular molecule that was being introduced and what it did. She mentioned in passing that the genes introduce resistance to insects or improve culture conditions, but the rest of her writing was a passionated diatribe against GMOs. And she did not meet the word count requirement.

I groaned in frustration. Didn’t I painstakingly break down point by point what I was looking for? Didn’t I post clearly that there was a minimum of 750 words? I huffed and puffed and moved on to the next posting, after giving her a hefty markdown.

Then came the squeaky clean postings. The ones that followed point by point what I was looking for in the instructions. With impeccable wording. No obvious plagiarism, but if you know how to do it you can evade the detectors. After happily assigning high scores to a bunch of them, I started to feel concerned, and went back to the first student’s writing. In comparison to the other postings, her writing was passionate and hers. She wrote to convey a message that was personally important for her, and I could see a clear space for improvement in that assignment. Improvement not only for better analysis, but also for a better knowledge in an aspect of her life that was important for her.

Just that day I had found this posting of “Dean Dad” Matt Reed very relevant to this train of thought, where he distinguishes two types of writing errors: “errors of laziness or ignorance, and errors of attempted growth.”

So what was my epiphany? That grading rubrics are useful for those students who know how to use grading rubrics, and will probably result in uniformly acceptable work with minimum attempted growth. But in other cases, one needs to be careful in deciding if this is just not paying attention/being lazy, or if this is somebody who needs practice in how to approach a complex topic. I am curious about the next posting.

And this is for today- tomorrow I will describe a bit more how I approach this kind of assignments and share some of the experiences (good and bad) along the way.

Dear readers, please share if you use this kind of assignments, and what is your view about grading rubrics!