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Attend the best conference for people who teach biology labs … for free!

January 11, 2018

ABLE banner

This is a good time to direct your attention to my favorite professional organization: The Association for Biology Laboratory Education, or ABLE.

I raved about ABLE in a previous post, and I won’t repeat my praise here. I just wanted to let you know that the 2018 conference will be at The Ohio State University from June 19-22. Registration isn’t open yet, so I can’t tell you the cost … but it’s typically in the $300 range and includes quite a few meals.

Are you thinking to yourself, “I can’t afford that!”? If so, I have good news for you. ABLE grants a limited number of registration waivers for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, new academic faculty/staff, and faculty/staff from community colleges.

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Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria: A Simple, Realistic Lab Activity

December 20, 2017


Every now and then I write a blog post about lab activities that worked in my nonmajors biology class. For example, I have written about reptilobirds (an activity combining meiosis and inheritance), staining banana cells to illustrate digestion in plants, and building models of protein synthesis with candy.

Here’s another topic that nonmajors (and everyone else) ought to know about: the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. If you teach biology, you might have learned about antibiotic resistance so long ago that you assume everyone else knows about it too. However, I learned this semester that the misuse of antibiotics is still a real problem. 

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Selling the laptop ban: An activity

September 9, 2017

students with laptops

In my last blog post, I reported introducing a new no-laptop policy in my nonmajors biology class. We just finished week 3, and things are going well — there has been no pushback, and I really enjoy looking out at a sea of faces instead of the lids of their laptop computers.

One of the studies that influenced my to-ban-or-not-to-ban deliberations over the summer was a study describing three experiments by Mueller and Oppenheimer...

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A laptop ban at last

August 29, 2017

family feud game board

More than three years ago, I wrote a blog post about the debate over allowing cell phones and laptops in class. In the blog post, I summarized a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer showing that students who took notes on a laptop did not do as well on conceptual test questions as those who had taken notes by hand.

I thought about this issue a lot more over this past summer, and about a week before this semester started I decided to take the plunge: No more laptops and cell phones in my nonmajors biology class.

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Looking for a scantron replacement? Consider ZipGrade.

August 13, 2017

phone and scantron

As I’m preparing for the upcoming semester, I have been trying to find ways to save money in my class. One obvious cost-cutting target is scantron forms. Yes, I suppose I could make my students buy them, but I have never felt right about that—it just adds insult to injury to make students buy something they must have for an exam.

Well, I just learned about one scantron replacement. It’s called ZipGrade. It lets you use your cell phone’s or tablet’s camera to scan in paper test forms (available free at the site). I just downloaded it and gave it a whirl, using my ancient iPad2 and two sample exams with two different keys. I have to say, I am impressed!

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Trail cam images and data for your lab

July 1, 2017

WildCam screen capture

Earlier this month, I went to my favorite conference of the year: the one for the Association for Biology Laboratory Education. If you don’t know about it, check it out. Each conference follows a workshop format, so you don’t sit and listen to people drone on about what they do. You actually get to try the lab activities yourself and see if they’ll work for your own class.

At one of the workshops I attended at this year’s conference, I learned about a great resource from HHMI BioInteractive. (Loyal readers of this site may recall that I previously wrote about their wonderful rock pocket mouse evolution video.) The focus of the workshop was the resources posted at HHMI BioInteractive: Gorongosa National Park. This park, in Mozambique, was all but destroyed in that country’s civil war, but it is now rebuilding.

I am planning to use the WildCam material in my nonmajors biology lab this fall, as a replacement for our rather silly animal behavior lab (sorry, isopods!).

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Radiometric Dating: Need to Practice?

May 18, 2017

Radiometric dating activity screen capture

Last year, we posted a video explaining how to do three types of radiometric dating problems; we wrote about it in this blog post.

I am pleased to report that the prodigious Matt Taylor has now released an activitywith four sample problems that your students can work. The first two problems are pretty typical. In question #1, students are given the half-life and % of the isotope remaining and must figure out the age of the fossil. In question #2, students are given the age and half-life, and they must determine what % of the isotope remains.

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One Good Clicker Tip

April 26, 2017


The end of the semester is not a great time to introduce a tip for using clickers; I am sure this post would have been more useful in January! But I can’t control when ideas for blog posts drop into my email, and I received a good one recently.

It’s an article called Clicking Your Way to Flipping Your Class, and it appears in Tomorrow’s Professor—an excellent resource for professors in any discipline...

I’m not a big classroom flipper myself, but I am madly in love with clickers. What I like about the “Clicking Your Way…” article is its subject, clicker-based peer instruction.

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Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Your Students

April 7, 2017

two books

This semester, I’ve been reading a lot about teaching with a growth mindset. I wrote about this topic at the end of last semester in a blog post called At the End, I’m Looking to the Start. Since that time, I have been studying Carol Dweck’s Mindset and Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn. Dweck’s book provides a broad overview of the fixed and growth mindsets as they pertain to all aspects of life. Once you are sensitized to the difference, you can start working on making the monologue inside your head less judgmental and more constructive. McGuire’s book focuses on teaching college students, and it is exemplary because of its practical suggestions and positive, success-oriented stance.

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Teaching cell chemistry with Legos

January 24, 2017


Behold, my trusty bag of Legos … I bought them because my students have such a hard time with the basics of cell chemistry for biology. The main idea I am trying to teach is that food consists of complex organic molecules (proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and fats) that are broken down into amino acids, monosaccharides, nucleotides, glycerol, and fatty acids via hydrolysis reactions in digestion. These small molecules enter the bloodstream and are distributed to cells, which use them to build their own large molecules or use them in respiration. It’s easy once you know how it works, but it’s pretty hard to learn it for the first time.

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At the End, I'm Looking to the Start

December 19, 2016


I turned in my course grades yesterday and thought I’d spend some time looking back at something that my TAs asked our students in lab to write about during week 1. After the TAs introduced themselves and talked about their portion of the class, we asked the students to combine my own day 1 lecture with the TA presentations to answer this question:

What are some of the obstacles that you feel might keep you from being successful in BIOL 1005?

... I found it interesting that students who eventually received an A or a B seemed more likely to express anxiety about how difficult the course would be than those who earned lower grades. Students who ended up with a C or below were honest that a major obstacle could be their general abilities as students. In essence, students who ultimately did better were more likely to blame “a course that’s just too hard” for poor performance, whereas students who ultimately did worse were more likely to blame themselves. That’s the opposite of what I would have expected.

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On Obstacles, part 2

November 11, 2016


My last blog post described three questions we asked students in my nonmajors biology class a few weeks ago. That post described some of the responses to question 1 (“What do you feel is your greatest obstacle in achieving the grade you want in this class?”). Today’s post examines answers to questions 2 and 3. Question 2 was this:

“What is one thing that is being done regularly in lab or lecture that helps you?”

Clicker questions: Two responses tied for the top, with 11 students apiece. One of these responses was “Clicker questions.” ... The other response tied for the top spot had to do with lecture. Eleven students mentioned lecture in general or specific lecture features such as analogies, examples, explanations, or images. 

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On Obstacles, part 1

October 31, 2016


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?

We got 60 responses across two sections.

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FOH: Finally a Cure for FMOOWMP

October 3, 2016

FOH video screen capture

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 MProfessor. 

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Flashcards, but with a Twist

September 7, 2016


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 1part 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.

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.

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The "Checks"/"Emails" Lab: A good start to the semester

August 28, 2016


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.

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What Are the Best Ways to Study?

July 5, 2016

woman studying

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.

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If you don't know ABLE yet, you should

June 26, 2016

Nematode trapped in fungi

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.

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Recognizing purposeful evolution: A treasure trove of prompts

June 16, 2016

filing cabinet full of questions

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. 

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Boost your evolution IQ: An evolution misconceptions game

April 6, 2016

coursesource screen capture

Last Spring, Mariëlle and I spent some time reading education articles about student struggles learning evolution. In particular, we were interested in which misconceptions about evolution students might bring to introductory biology classes. 

To target these misconceptions, we developed a collaborative, rapid-fire quiz game for use in class (the activity is based on an idea presented in Nehm and Reilly, 2007). Students work together in teams to answer evolution questions, which are each displayed for 30 or 60 seconds on a PowerPoint slide. 

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Help for Students Struggling with Radiometric Dating

March 31, 2016

radiometric dating graph

A little over a year ago, I developed an instructional video that aims to help students understand evolutionary trees (and we wrote a post about it here).

Several months later, Mariëlle updated me on the video and sent a request: “I posted the ‘How to read an evolutionary tree’ movie you made earlier this year, and my students have really benefited from it. I think the next topic should be ‘How to solve all three types of radiometric dating problems.'” 

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Return of the "Clever Cockroaches"

February 19, 2016


Longtime followers of my blog may remember that nearly two years ago I wrote a post about the misrepresentation of natural selection and evolution in headlines and news stories. In the study that prompted the post, researchers found that coating insecticides with glucose selects for cockroaches that avoid sweet-tasting substances. The headlines and nonscientific accounts of the story really got on my nerves, implying that cockroaches are “clever” and “wily” and that they have evolved with the explicit goal of evading our poisons.

Fast forward to the past couple of weeks, when my husband/colleague showed the post to his class, along with an assignment: In the next 30-40 minutes, form small teams and use PowerPoint to make a movie that shows how natural selection really works. He gave them a quick lesson explaining how to use PowerPoint as a movie production tool; I can send it to you if you leave a comment on this post. By the time class was over, the videos were created, saved as .mov files, and uploaded to the class dropbox.

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Growing a Thicker Skin: A Borrowed Lab Activity

January 27, 2016

Woman looking in microscope

Skimming through the August 2015 issue of The American Biology Teacher, I found a lab activity that I am eager to try. It’s by Troy R. Nash, Suann Yang, and John C. Inman of Presbyterian College, and it’s called “Growing a Thicker Skin: An Exercise for Measuring Organismal Adaptations to Terrestrial Habitats.” It caught my attention for several reasons: It asks students to apply the scientific method, use microscopes, and create graphs to evaluate how different environments select for adaptive traits. Also, the main part of the activity focuses on plants, and I’m always looking for ways to make my lab less “animal-centric.”

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A Cheap and Wonderful Way to Use Bananas in the Lab

December 10, 2015


I’d like to report on another great idea from a recent issue of The American Biology Teacher. This time it’s from the October 2015 issue. Dawn A. Tamarkin from Springfield Technical Community College wrote a wonderful article called “Exploring Carbohydrates with Bananas.” I haven’t tried this in my class yet, but my student worker did the activity. It was quick, easy, and informative.

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Node-Counting Is Alive and Well

November 10, 2015


In a previous post I offered help for students struggling with evolutionary trees. In that post, I talked about a particularly difficult final exam question requiring students to interpret an evolutionary tree (a labeled version of the image to the left). I surmised that the incorrect strategy of “node-counting” was responsible for the failure of many students to get the question right.

This semester, I used the same question as a “pop quiz” in lecture. I asked the same true/false question (“The evolutionary tree at [left] shows that a human is more closely related to a sea lily than it is to a sea urchin”) but further asked students to explain how they arrived at their answer.

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Video Recommendation: HHMI's Biology of Skin Color

October 12, 2015

HHMI video capture

Over a year ago I mentioned the HHMI Biointeractive site and its excellent videos. I just viewed another one on the same site. This one is called The Biology of Skin Color, and it is another winner. It is narrated by Nina Jablonski, who did much of the research cited in the video. (Those of you who use my Biology: Concepts and Investigations 3/e book can find a synopsis of her research in section 25.6.)

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Protein Synthesis with Candy: I won't take credit but it worked

October 1, 2015

Candy models of translation

We have been studying protein synthesis over the past couple of weeks. In my experience, students find the details of the process difficult to remember; the role of tRNA (and its mysterious anticodon) seems especially hard for them to grasp. I have tried various tactics to help students understand how the parts interact, including concept maps and white board drawings. But I wanted to try something new at last week’s Action Center.

I have a small grant that allows me to buy snacks for my Action Center, and a student suggested finding candies that could be combined with “protein synthesis” practice. A quick online search, plus a bit of thinking on my part, convinced me that was a good idea. 

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Time to start studying...

September 7, 2015

ASAP Science video capture

It’s Labor Day weekend, so I won’t take up your time with a long post. However, I wanted to share what came in my email last week. It was a link to an ASAP Science video called “The 9 Best Scientific Study Tips.” It’s really good. And if your students are anything like mine, they know that they OUGHT to be studying as they go along — but they keep putting it off. This is a great video to share with them.

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Can we nudge students toward those questions in the book?

August 23, 2015

Answering textbook questions

I spent the better part of last week getting ready for the fall semester, marking off items on my trusty checklist one by one. (If you want me to send you my checklist, please leave a comment on that post.)

One task on the checklist is to revise my “Guided Reading Questions.” The name’s not catchy, but it conveys the purpose: These questions help students understand what I want them to get out of their textbook readings. It’s easy to see why that might be valuable, but who has time to write a bunch of questions about the reading? Nobody, that’s who.

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Epigenetics: Two Great Resources

July 13, 2015

Epigenetics misconceptions

If you’re like me, you have been hearing a lot about epigenetics lately. I hope you don’t want me to define that term, because biologists don’t agree on what exactly it means. It is enough to say that epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that pass from a cell to its progeny but that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence. Examples include chemical modifications to nucleotides and histones that help determine if DNA is accessible to be transcribed or not.

Epigenetic modifications seem to be pretty dang important, but practical implications are still very much unknown. Nevertheless, some people are taking epigenetics waaaaybeyond the realm of scientific knowledge.

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Reptilobirds revisited: An evolutionary connection

June 29, 2015

Reptilobird worksheet

Judging from the number of comments, the “Reptilobird” post is by far the most popular one on this blog. And no wonder. It is a simple, fun activity that combines the stages of meiosis with patterns of inheritance. Along the way, it beautifully illustrates how sexual reproduction produces an astonishing range of sibling variation.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could incorporate natural selection into this lab as well, to show the connection between meiosis, patterns of inheritance, variation, and evolution? I am now happy to report an idea for this as well! And, much like the reptilobird activity, it is not my idea. I’m just the messenger.

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Good Teaching, Italian Style

June 9, 2015


Good teaching comes in many forms. Most of the time, I focus on good biology teaching, but on a recent trip to Italy I got to expand my horizons.

In May, three colleagues and I were faculty leaders for a 54-student trip to Italy, where the University of Oklahoma has a link to branch campus in Arezzo. The class was a 3-week whirlwind that combined art, leadership, and activism with trips to Cortona, Florence, Siena, and Rome. Although we were faculty “leaders,” other people did the actual teaching, and we got to watch the class sessions from the sidelines.

Read the rest of the blog post on Wordpress. Great teaching resources!

May 8, 2015

Learning is fun

I recently learned about a fantastic site called CourseSource, and I’d like to share a bit about what I found. According to the site, CourseSource is “an open-access journal of peer-reviewed teaching resources for undergraduate biological sciences.” Perhaps you are thinking, “Oh no, I don’t have time to keep up with yet another journal about biology education!” But CourseSource is different from CBE-Life Science Education and others in that niche.

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Survey Says: Biology Teachers Are "Tricky"

April 15, 2015

Tricky graph

Today I found a neat tool that summarizes what students write about professors in 25 disciplines. All the user has to do is decide on a word to search (for example: funny); the program then searches 14 million reviews on and tallies how many times the chosen word appears. It separates the results for female and male professors. Although the tool reveals gender splits for some words, that wasn’t what interested me. Instead, I wanted to see where biology professors ranked relative to professors in other disciplines.

I considered 18 words that students might use in a review.

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Calling Educators and Researchers: Here's a New Source for Travel Funds

April 6, 2015

Amazing undergraduate

If you have ever wanted to expose your introductory biology students to authentic research but weren’t sure how to begin, help is on the way. A multi-university team of faculty, led by Rachelle Spell and Chris Beck of Emory University, has received funding that will help “bridge the divide between research and education.” The NSF-funded project is called REIL-Biology.

The goals are to help faculty develop new research modules for use in introductory biology and to engage new faculty in implementation. The path to achieving these goals is a 5-year series of workshop meetings

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What Good Is It to Know Biology? Study Says Not Much

April 3, 2015

Ice bath

The March 2015 edition of The American Biology Teacher features a research article by Alla Keselman et al., entitled “The Relationship between Biology Classes and Biological Reasoning and Common Health Misconceptions.” (ABT has kindly posted a free PDF of the article). Keselman and colleagues raise two questions: “First, do we have evidence that science knowledge … is useful in daily life? Second, does formal classroom instruction benefit daily living?” These are pretty huge questions, but the authors approach them in a limited framework: the personal health beliefs of college students. They recruited 74 students, of which about half were biology majors; the rest were nonscience majors. All of the participants provided demographic information and completed a “Common Health Beliefs Questionnaire” that the authors developed. The authors compared the two groups in terms of the accuracy of their health knowledge and the depth of their biological reasoning.

The results suggested that biology majors had slightly more accurate beliefs than non-science majors. Furthermore, not surprisingly, students who had taken advanced biology coursework were a bit more likely to use biological knowledge than “media/culture-based knowledge” in their reasoning. But overall, in the words of the abstract, “…the direct impact of college-level biology coursework on judgment accuracy was minimal.”

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Drawing to Learn

March 13, 2015


You might have heard of Writing to Learn, but what about Drawing to Learn?

Kim Quillin and Stephen Thomas recently published an article in CBE–Life Science Education that promotes the use of drawings to help students learn biology (especially “model-based reasoning”). I was intrigued by this idea, because I can’t draw very well, and I know many of my students feel the same way. Can drawings be useful, even if they’re terrible?

The article is rather lengthy, as it spends quite a bit of time exploring the definition of “drawing” and explaining why instructors should ask students to draw. 

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Defending Darwin in Introductory Biology

March 4, 2015


James Krupa, a professor who teaches introductory biology at the University of Kentucky, published an outstanding article in Orion Magazine about using evolution as a cornerstone in his courses. Find it here.

Krupa defends the importance of teaching nonmajors biology courses and argues that evolution should be a thread throughout each course. He writes with sometimes humorous candor about his failures and successes with reaching students who have strong preconceptions about evolution. Along the way, he provides strategies for building relevance for students who resist evolutionary theory.

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An Excellent Lecture? Yes, It Can Be Done!

February 20, 2015


In my last blog post, I mentioned I’d be using the COPUS protocol in my classroom observations this semester. I am still impressed by how easy it is to use the spreadsheet, which has enabled me to focus on the activities of an instructor and a class full of students for an entire class period.

The COPUS protocol was designed for observing STEM classrooms, but I have found that it also works well for the humanities. In fact, I recently used it in an upper-division class (Origins of Christianity). The class enrolls about 100 students. Amazingly, the instructor taught for 75 minutes without using any visual aids.

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Watching Other Teachers Teach? Here’s a Great Tool.

February 9, 2015


This semester, I am committing some time to sitting in on other peoples’ classes at the University of Oklahoma. The instructors I have chosen use a wide variety of teaching styles (from all lecture to all active learning) and come from many disciplines (from biology to calculus and physics to the social sciences). I knew some of the instructors already; others were recommended by students. My goal is simple: to learn from my colleagues across campus.

Once upon a time, a classroom visit meant that I would watch the instructor and take notes like a student.

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Help for Students Struggling with Evolutionary Trees

January 19, 2015


Introductory biology students have a lot of trouble reading evolutionary trees. On last fall’s final exam, I picked up an image that I found online (see left; it is figure 15 in this article), labeled the species in it, and asked my students this true/false question: “The evolutionary tree at right shows that a human is more closely related to a sea lily than it is to a sea urchin.” A majority of the students incorrectly answered “True,” and from previous conversations with students I think I know why. They count the nodes in the tree, then incorrectly infer that more nodes means more evolutionary steps and, therefore, a more distant evolutionary relationship. The concept of common ancestry, which I do try to emphasize in my class, clearly is not translating to the reading of evolutionary trees (which I have not explicitly taught).

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Ramblings from a First-Semester Nonmajors Biology Professor

January 6, 2015


This is a guest post by Naima Montacer, who just finished her first semester as an Adjunct Biology Professor at Mountain View College in Dallas, Texas.

Sex, evolution, embryonic stem cells, Ebola, sexually transmitted diseases, genetically modified organisms, and gene therapy. What do all of these controversial issues have in common? Biology 101. For the last four months I’ve navigated these rough waters in my first semester as a college professor and emerged with my eyes wide open.

After one semester, three major things became apparent...

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End-of-Semester Advice from Students: 2014 Edition

December 17, 2014

Most Important Thing Card

Last fall I wrote a three-post series about the questions I asked my students at the end of the semester:

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 results for 2014 had much in common with the 2013 responses, in that the entire semester was well-represented.

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Teaching the Biomes: A Different Approach

December 3, 2014

Biomes Map

Once upon a time, I lectured on the biomes, but nothing sucks the life out of ecology like a bulleted list of the climate, plants, and animals of each biome. (Yes, I included photos with my lists, but still … it was pretty dull.) Many years ago, I delivered the honest truth to students, and it went something like this: “I want you to know about the different biomes, but not enough to lecture on it in class. Go learn what’s in the lecture PowerPoint I posted on D2L.” Then I would pick out a Planet Earth DVD and let David Attenborough showcase the beauty and drama of just one biome. David Attenborough makes everything amazing.

But last fall, I received a windfall. I was out of town for a conference late in the semester, and my friend Mark Walvoord handled the biomes class. Mark is really good at finding ways to turn lectures into high-quality activities, and he took on the biomes challenge. I liked his idea so much that I used it again this semester, with great success.

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Whose Life Are You Changing Today?

November 3, 2014


We already know that teaching is a rewarding profession, but some days are better than others. If only more students knew how gratifying it is to hear that we have made a difference in their lives!

I had an email exchange last week with Patricia, a student who took my nonmajors biology class in spring of 2007. Informally I was a mentor to her, and she wrote to say thanks. She said, “Frankly, learning how to make real effort was a big first step and I’m grateful for the way that your guidance brought me to a place where I could identify and face my fear of hard work.” I found that last phrase intriguing, because every semester I have students who say they want to do better, and they know what they ought to be doing (not least because I constantly remind them), yet they don’t take the necessary actions. I don’t know quite how to reach those students, so I asked Patricia to elaborate.

She said, “… though the words I needed were in my head, they didn’t hit home yet. I know that I pursued only that which I had natural talent for so that I would have ample success with minimal effort and would change direction when a challenge rose in front of me.” I really like the way she articulated this thought. In fact, I see evidence of this behavior when students keep practicing skills they have already mastered (“I love Punnett squares!”) as a way to avoid the material they don’t know (“I hope she doesn’t ask about transcription on exam 2!”)

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YouTube PowerPoint Lectures for Flipping the Classroom

November 3, 2014

Preserving Biodiversity Still Frame

Interested in flipping your classroom? Or how about just providing some at-home help for struggling students? One way to encourage students to learn at home is to post lectures on YouTube. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be a tech whiz to make it work. I just created my first YouTube lecture, which I describe in detail at the bottom of this post. It only took me two hours to record, edit, upload, and add closed captions. (Of course, creating the PowerPoint presentation took additional time, but you may already have one ready.) 

Do you want to post a lecture on YouTube? You’ll need only a few things:

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Teaching Experimental Design: The Ongoing Struggle

September 1, 2014

Treatment groups graph

About two years ago, I wrote a blog post about my continuing efforts to teach experimental design in my nonmajors biology class. That post (Little Changes, Big Difference) detailed my use of the “Marshmallow Test” film clip to generate questions and hypotheses about the future adult behavior of the children featured in the video.

I used the same activity last week, and it dawned on me at the end of class that I wasn’t doing a good job teaching a key idea. The exercise asks students to design their own experiments, specifying the independent variable, dependent variable, standardized variables, and control. I learned that many students assume those four items must be mutually exclusive. As a result, they often come up with a combination of “independent variable” and “control” that makes no sense.

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Active Learning Using "Preserving Biodiversity" Infographics

August 12, 2014

Biodiversity Infographic

As I mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I spent some of my free time this summer developing graphics on the topic preserving biodiversity. I have now completed eight graphics, as well as three lesson plans to accompany them. You can find all of these resources at the following link. Please feel free to use them in your class.

Biodiversity Infographics

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Brainstorming about Human Movements

August 8, 2014

Charting culture still frame

Regular readers know I’m a sucker for attractive, thought-provoking videos. I just found this one, called Thousands of Years of Human Migration in Five Minutes. When I saw the title I expected to see humanity spreading across a map of the continents like paint, but that’s not what the video shows. Instead, it compiles the birth and death dates and locations for specific people — LOTS of them. The result is an informative progression that reveals much about the history of the Western world.

A history video is not an obvious choice for introductory biology, but stay with me. As I watched the video, it occurred to me that it has a lot of hidden content related to our classes. 

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Mythbusting Biology in Class

July 17, 2014

Asap Science Still Frame

An AsapScience video has inspired me to try a new activity in class. We’ve talked about AsapScience before. It’s a YouTube channel that creates weekly videos explaining the answers to frequently asked science questions.

Last week’s video was titled “7 Myths About the Brain You Thought Were True." What I loved about this video is that in less than three minutes of colorful, creative art and narration it debunked myths about the brain that many college-level students believe to be true. (Especially the myth that we only use 10% of our brains. I hear that one frequently.)

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Laptops for Note-Taking? Doonesbury and Psychologists Weigh In

June 8, 2014


The Doonesbury strip for June 8 hit on something I was reading about just yesterday. In the strip, a college professor complains to a class full of distracted students about what he calls “your tragic faith in the efficacy of multi-tasking.” I have previously blogged about the distracting use of cell phones in class, and the comic strip is an excellent companion for that post.

But what about the efficacy of laptops as a learning tool?

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Two Outstanding Videos: One for Natural Selection and One for the Genome

May 2, 2014


My recent post about natural selection misconceptions prompted a comment from a colleague who endorsed the educational value of Howard Hughes Medical Institute videos and learning materials. I spent some time on HHMI’sBioInteractive site to see what I could find, and I can say that I enthusiastically recommend the short film called The Making of the Fittest: Natural Selection and Adaptation

Speaking of gems, last Friday’s email brought a link to a new 5-minute video called The Animated Genome. (It’s from the Smithsonian’s Unlocking Life’s Code site, which also houses the Talking Glossary of Genetic Terms.)

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Stop-Motion Biology Definitions: A Survey

April 24, 2014

Stop-motion video still

Have you heard of Vine? It’s a Twitter app that allows users to record 6-second, looping videos and upload them to Vine and other media, like YouTube and Facebook.

We are considering building short stop-motion Vine videos to define the glossary terms in the Hoefnagels Biology textbooks. We'd like your feedback!

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A Small Victory, but We Have a Ways to Go

April 22, 2014

Evolution pre and post test

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the pervasive misrepresentation of natural selection, not only in the mass media but also by professionals who should know better. My main problem is with the depiction of natural selection as an intentional process, as in “The cockroaches evolved a clever solution in order to avoid the pesticide” or “The cockroaches had to evolve in order to survive.”

Last week, my husband and colleague Doug Gaffin provided evidence from his class that this misconception is common, but that good teaching can start to turn it around.

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Giraffe Nerves and Clean Water: Two Videos I Like

March 26, 2014

ASAPscience water

I came across two YouTube videos recently that have nothing to do with one another except that (1) they could be useful to biology teachers and (2) they caught my attention recently. Without further ado, I’ll share

First, a student sent this video about the nerve that leads from a giraffe’s brain to its larynx. Don’t be fooled by the esoteric topic; it’s a great story about homology and the evidence for evolution.

The second video is from AsapSCIENCE, and it is called “What if You Stopped Drinking Water?".

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"Citizen Science" That Could Save Lives

March 11, 2014


If a few minutes of your time could help researchers discover a new antibiotic or cancer treatment, wouldn’t you willingly devote that time?

It really might turn out to be that easy! Recently, my class was fortunate enough to visit the laboratory of the University of Oklahoma’s own Dr. Robert Cichewicz. He is the leader of OU’s Natural Products Discovery Group, a small army of postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers who are screening just about every imaginable substance for fungi that produce novel, medically useful compounds. They want your dirt!

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Making "Reptilobird" Babies: An Action Center Success Story

March 5, 2014


I have frequently struggled to help students connect the events of meiosis with the adaptive value of sexual reproduction; it’s hard to get students to look away from the stages of meiosis to see the “big picture” of genetic variability.

So I was interested to read a recent article by Dorit Eliyahu in The American Biology Teacher (full reference below). Eliyahu’s exercise leads students through a simulation of meiosis and reproduction in a fictional “reptilobird,” using paper chromosomes...

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Connecting Biology to the Olympics

February 16, 2014


Thanks to my friend Michael Windelspecht at Ricochet Science for pointing out thatASAP Science has been posting YouTube videos relating biology to the Olympics. The ASAP Science videos are brief and fun-to-watch, and they present content supported by research. (I referenced one of their videos in an earlier blog post suggesting a “What is biology?” activity.) Here are a couple of my favorites in their Olympics collection

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"Exam Wrappers" Give Students a Chance to Reflect

January 17, 2014

Student reflecting

How can we help students improve their exam scores? We can nag them to “Study more!” or “Study earlier!” or ”Study smarter!” But in my experience, nothing has worked as well as a post-exam assessmenttool (available on my course website) with which students can categorize the exam questions they missed and identify study techniques that would have helped them perform better.

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Life on Mars? Teaching Life's Characteristics and the Process of Science

January 9, 2014

Mars photo

The start of the semester always gets me thinking about ways to capture student interest in science and biology. Even nonmajors want to know whether life exists on other planets. Mars, of course, is a prime candidate.

I have been searching for resources that might help me combine the “What Is Life?” content with the “Process of Science” content typical of chapter 1 in an introductory textbook...

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Final Quiz, Parts I-III

December 19, 2013

Graph of student interest

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 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. 

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Learning Through (Digital) Play

November 26, 2013

Forensic biology website

If students sacrifice study time and class time for their games, then would they show the same motivation to participate in educational games? A recent Google Hangouts discussion, featuring an educational games designer and two college professors (one in marketing and the other in political science) who employ educational games in their courses, suggests that the answer is yes. Jordan Shapiro, a journalist for Forbes who often writes about educational technology, moderates the discussion. 

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Cell Phones in Class: A Faculty Divided

October 28, 2013

Graph of cell phone use

On a whim, I recently asked my students this anonymous clicker question: “How many times do you interact with your phone during a typical lecture?”

The graph at [left] shows their responses. I think it’s fair to eliminate the “2647″ answer, and perhaps some of the other high numbers are exaggerations as well.


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How Can They Do Better? Our Students Know the Answer.

September 25, 2013

Graph of unsatisfied students

The exam 1 results are in, and many students are disappointed.

Yesterday I handed back exams and asked students to answer this question on a quarter-sheet of paper:

Are you satisfied with your exam score? (Yes or no?) If YES, to what specific strategy do you owe your success? If NO, what specifically do you wish you had done differently?

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The Incredibly Stretchy Condom: A Lab Success Story

September 3, 2013

condom lab

In my nonmajors biology class, our first lab of the semester is about the process and tools of science. Students get to practice with hypothesis-testing, the elements of an experiment, showing data in graphs, and metric units of measure... The basic idea of the lab is very simple: Have students ask and answer their own questions about condom strength, size differences, stretch, expiration dates, country of origin, and so forth. It’s reinforcing the same skills as our paper towel activity, but condoms lend themselves to questions that are a LOT more interesting to students.

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More Evolution, Please!

August 26, 2013


I thought you might be interested in this recent blog post by Kelly Cowan (Are WE the Missing Link in Acceptance of Evolution?). To me, the central idea of Kelly’s post is this: “It just might be possible that the lack of sophistication about evolution in this country is not due to a resistance to it on the part of students, but due instead to a lack of coverage on the part of teachers.” This is particularly a problem in high schools, where avoiding the topic of evolution is often simpler than dealing with the inevitable protests. That puts more of the burden on those of us who teach in colleges and universities.

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Should We Teach for Biology Content, Science Skills, or Both?

August 22, 2013


I was fortunate to attend the Introductory Biology Project summer conference in Washington, DC in July 2012. Participants were given the opportunity to complete the following statement on a shared document: “At the end of the ideal course [in introductory biology], students will be able to …” The 46 instructors who contributed to the document each listed from four to ten core course objectives, and the document makes interesting reading.

Browsing through the lists of objectives at the time, I was struck by the strong emphasis on science skills and the under-representation of what I would consider to be core content.

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My Best Idea for Semester Prep

August 12, 2013


I have a recurring night-before-the-first-class dream in which I arrive in the classroom empty-handed, tell the students I have nothing for them — no syllabus, nothing — and tell them to come back the next day. In the dream I feel really embarrassed and ashamed at my inability to prepare.

In reality, I am an organized person and in days before the start of a semester I am busy with many behind-the-scenes preparations that are familiar to anyone who teaches.

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"Clever Cockroaches"? I Don't Think So!

May 24, 2013


One of my goals as an instructor and as a textbook author is to help students understand how natural selection works. It’s such an elegant concept that it should be simple to teach and apply. But students come in with deep-seated misconceptions that are extremely difficult to dislodge. For example, if asked to explain why cheetahs run so fast, many will respond that cheetahs got faster and faster because they had to outrun their prey in order to survive.

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Why I Like Charles Darwin Now, More than Ever

May 14, 2013

Down House

I recently visited Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, in the countryside southeast of London. Of course I expected to learn more about the man’s background and his writings on evolution, and I looked forward to seeing the study where he worked. But I also caught unexpected glimpses into his habits of mind. 

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Don't Assume That Technology Enhances Learning

April 30, 2013


Educational technology is on the rise. In the last decade, investments in EdTech companies have skyrocketed, totaling over 1 billion dollars in 2012. As a result, instructors are faced with a steady stream of new technology tools to use in the classroom. We’ve written about how some of these tools can be used to encourage active, engaged learning. But should every activity have a digital component? Does technology always enhance learning?

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Roadkill as a Teaching Tool

April 23, 2013


Years ago, as I walked home from work, I saw a dead squirrel on the road; the poor thing had just been run over by a car. Each day as I passed that same spot, I watched as the animal’s decomposing body was reduced to a fur-and-bones pancake and then, at last, a mere stain on the asphalt.

Up until now it never dawned on me to impose my voyeuristic fascination with roadkill on my class. But I just learned that others share my interest, and so I am inspired to try. 

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Teaching Natural Selection the YouTube Way

April 1, 2013


One of the hardest parts about teaching evolution is helping students get over their misconceptions about how natural selection works. In a search for “natural selection” on YouTube, I discovered something striking: there are no 1- or 2-minute videos on the topic! Most seem to be somewhere between 6 and 10 minutes, indicating that it takes time to explain this topic well. On the plus side, some of the longish videos are very good. In this post I’ll summarize one of them and describe how I might use it in my class next semester.

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Talking Glossary of Genetics Terms

March 18, 2013


I just learned that the National Human Genome Research Institute sponsors a Talking Glossary of Genetic Terms. The glossary is available as a free app, which you can find at the Education page at I spent some time with the iPad app today; here’s what I discovered.

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Patterns in Structure and Function: An Active Learning Activity

March 8, 2013


I recently saw a lovely video that has nothing to do with biology. It is a time-lapse video of an artist jolting a plywood board with 15,000 volts of electricity. The accompanying text on an EarthSky blog page concisely connects the video’s evocative imagery with branching structures in biology. That got me thinking about whether introductory biology students would be able to make that connection. For example, you could show students the plywood video, and as they watched, you could ask them to jot down ideas about what the branching patterns on the burned plywood resemble. 

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Is Active Learning All It's Cracked Up to Be?

February 27, 2013


I just learned of an article that should interest anyone contemplating the power of active learning. The title of the article is Active Learning Not Associated with Student Learning in a Random Sample of College Biology Courses, and it appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of CBE Life Sciences Education. I’ll leave you to read the full article if you’d like, but the point is that active learning, in and of itself, doesn’t automatically produce learning gains...

Why the difference between their result and the large number of previous studies reporting success using active learning methods? 

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An Asteroid as a Catalyst for Discussion

February 15, 2013


Earth’s “close encounter” with asteroid 2012 DA14 and the Russian meteor shower on the same day have gotten me thinking about the origin of life. After all, evidence from carbon and nitrogen isotopes suggest that some of life’s key chemical ingredients may have hitched a ride to Earth on meteorites (see, for example, the papers referenced at the end of this post).

It might be interesting to ask students to pretend that the asteroid unexpectedly collides with Earth, and it’s their job to figure out whether it contains life or organic chemicals from space...

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Milk, Food Coloring, and Detergent: An Active Learning Activity

February 3, 2013


In searching for quick science videos I stumbled across the Sick Science! YouTube channel. The videos posted there are short and to the point, they are of very high quality, and they show how to do a wide variety of eye-catching demos. Beware – if you like science demos, the site is rather addictive.

One of the prettiest demos I found (Color Changing Milk) shows a beautiful rainbow of colors that bursts from the center of a dish of milk when food coloring and detergent are added. It’s a wonderful early-semester video...

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Engaged Learning with Fakebook

January 23, 2013


Have you ever heard of Fakebook? It is a neat site that allows you to make a fake, Facebook-like page about anything you’d like. Then you can add pictures, profile information, comments, and friends.

When I stumbled upon this site I thought it might be a fun (and useful) exercise for students learning chemistry and cell structures. Those topics are typically challenging for students to relate to since they are smaller than the eye can see. But Fakebook provides a medium for students to think about how these tiny structures may interact. 

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What Is Biology? (An Assignment for the First Week of Class)

January 11, 2013

ASAP Science

Mariëlle found some great teaching videos on YouTube the other day. Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown have a YouTube channel called ASAPscience, which boasts “Your weekly dose of fun and interesting science.” Mariëlle and I thought that an assignment built around one of their videos would be an engaging way to begin the semester.  With the help of Doug Gaffin, we put together a brief assignment that challenges students to apply the definition of biology to the topics discussed in this video: Amazing Facts to Blow Your Mind

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What Is Life? An Active Learning Activity

January 7, 2013


The American Biology Teacher recently posted an online “How to Do It” article entitled “What Is Life? An Activity to Convey the Complexities of This Simple Question,” by Annie Prud’homme Généreux. In this activity, each student receives a card depicting a living or nonliving object. Groups of six students describe what features their living objects have that the nonliving ones don’t have, leading to a whole-class discussion of the “What Is Life?” question.

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Taylor Mali Videos

December 5, 2012


I recently came across three excellent videos that I wanted to share with you. Each video stars Taylor Mali, a former teacher turned poet. His poetry advocates the importance of teaching.

Video #1: “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” can make any teacher feel empowered.

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The Most Interesting Thing

November 1, 2012


Two days before each exam in my nonmajors biology class, I pass out quarter-sheet pieces of paper and ask two questions:
1. What is the most interesting thing you have learned in this section of the class?
2. What is something you still don’t understand?

We recently finished the genetics unit, and I thought I’d share some of the answers to question #1. Here’s what my sampling of nonmajors students found interesting, from most mentions to fewest...

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The Versatile Index Card, Part 3

October 11, 2012


I never thought I would spend this much time writing about index cards, but I tried a new activity in class this week and thought I’d share the results.

In my original “Versatile Index Card” post, I mentioned a technique called Chain Notes from a book by Angelo and Cross (“Classroom Assessment Techniques”). I thought Chain Notes might be a good way to learn how my students feel about a new feature I have added to my nonmajors biology class...

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The Versatile Index Card, Revisited

September 26, 2012


In a previous blog post, I listed some of the ways that index cards are useful in class. I mentioned a page by Cathy Davidson describing a step-by-step way to use index cards in a think-pair-share activity. As I wrote the post, I was working up the nerve to try her technique in a talk I was planning for late September. That talk is now in the past, and in this post, I’ll report on how the method worked.

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The Versatile Index Card

September 5, 2012


I have been thinking about the humble index card. What are some good ways to use them in class or other presentations to large groups?

Here’s one way that I use them. On the first day of class, I have my students fill out an index card with their name, student ID, outside interests, class level, major, information about other science classes they’ve already had, how much they think they like biology on a scale of 1-10, and something they’ve always wondered about biology (their “Burning Question.”)...

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Little Changes, Big Difference

August 24, 2012

Marshmallow Test

Each semester, my last topic of week 1 is experimental design. I talk about the difference between discovery and hypothesis-driven science, go briefly through "the scientific process," and then introduce students to the elements of an experiment. I first show a brief Consumer Reports video on how sunscreens are tested. That video sets the stage for discussing independent variables, dependent variables, standardized variables, and controls.

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Teaching with an iPad

August 11, 2012


I got an iPad2 for my birthday last summer, and although I use it every day at home, I have rarely let it venture into the classroom... I finally decided that it is high time to do more with my iPad. So for this blog post I am going to lean shamelessly on my OU colleague Dr. Mark Morvant, an innovative organic chemistry professor who gave a presentation on using iPads in the classroom last January. This post is based on the notes I took during his session.

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Talk to Your Colleagues

July 29, 2012

Talking professors

A couple of months ago, I helped form a sort of “teaching club” with some carefully chosen colleagues. The idea originated with a talk by the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Robin Wright, who hosted an excellent workshop on active learning at the University of Oklahoma last spring. A biology colleague and I happened to be in the same group at the workshop; afterwards, we agreed that it was a rare treat to brainstorm and troubleshoot with other colleagues who also care about teaching.

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Talk to Your Family

July 19, 2012

Marielle and family

If you are like me, you are the sole biologist in a family of non-science people. Actually, in my case, that’s an exaggeration; I am married to a biology professor who is known as the Scorpion Man in these parts. But outside of our “nerd marriage,” the rest of the family does not necessarily share our passion for all things biological.

We recently enjoyed a visit from two family members, an interior designer and her husband (an architect). Although they are not biologists, they are curious about people and the natural world...

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"Pointless" Clicker Questions

July 7, 2012

not for points clicker question

Clickers are expensive. Since I require students to buy them, I want to use them as much as I can, both in lecture and in lab. Ever since I made the transition to clickers from paper quiz slips, I have presented 3 points worth of clicker questions in nearly every lecture – the exceptions being days when the quiz is written or days when we have an exam. (I plan to explore the use of clickers in lab, and ideas for written quizzes, in future blog posts.)

For the moment, I want to focus on ways to use clickers that are NOT worth points...

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Clicker Questions that Make Students Think

July 2, 2012

not for points clicker question

Conference season came to a quick start and finish for me in June, starting with the Association for Biology Laboratory Education ( conference at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and ending with the Introductory Biology Project ( conference in Washington, DC. I plan to use the next few posts to describe some of the tidbits I picked up as I prepare for the fall semester.

I am a big fan of clickers, but by far the biggest challenge for me is writing questions that force students to think deeply about the course material...

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