Current Issues in Biology is a traditional course designed for the general non majors students and for education majors. It is a four credit course with lab. There are about 15–40 students per term.
Multiple components combine to comprise a final grade: Examinations, Laboratory, Academic Papers and Homework. The Homework component accounts for 20% of the final grade and Mastering Biology is the main section of this category. The other categories are Exams (30%), Labs (20%), Papers (20%) and Participation (10%).
MasteringBiology is assigned as homework for the first time this year. In general, non-majors biology students aren't given homework. I've tried implementing it two different ways. 1) This term, I've assigned a couple of online labs and used MasteringBiology to measure how well students assimilated the online lab material. 2) Students were also given standard homework assignments. For example, in one lecture class, we watched a 3D BioFlix animation and worked through the study sheet as a class. Afterwards students were given a surprise quiz. Some students were unhappy with the quiz results. Everyone was offered the opportunity to supplement their quiz mark by completing a MasteringBiology Tutorial assignment based on the BioFlix. Interestingly, all the students did the online assignment, even those who scored well on the quiz.
This semester several of the students are studying game design. I selected MasteringBiology intentionally to appeal to this student body. MasteringBiology has numerous visual activities and animations. Occasionally, the assignments will include multiple-choice Test Bank questions, but for the most part the assignments include Tutorials and Activities. There are about 30 questions per assignment, designed to take no more than an hour.
The diagnostic data is useful to measure how much the students know. It is a useful tool for formative assessment. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds; some have very good preparation courses, while others do not. Sometimes I'll introduce a topic that the students know well and are bored with. MasteringBiology allows me to create an assignment to test in advance how well students know a particular topic. If they are well informed, we can move on to another topic or move to another level of depth. Otherwise, I can review their errors and misconceptions, and give targeted review of foundational knowledge before advancing.
MasteringBiology also allows me to differentiate my instruction for advanced learners. I use the New York Times articles for this purpose. I particularly like these articles because they bring relevance to the topics we are learning.
It is too early in the term to report on quantitative data, but I am interested in measuring how well students are retaining knowledge. To that end, I'm including some of the same MasteringBiology questions on the exam for direct comparison.
Qualitatively speaking, the average on exams does seem to be higher than in the past when MasteringBiology wasn't used. I don't know if it has to do with MasteringBiology specifically or with the concept of giving homework regularly. In past courses, I checked concepts throughout the term. MasteringBiology is better in that it is more formalized and independent. The students' ability to make concept connections seems to be better than that in the past; although I haven't been able to standardize my students yet. I can say that the MasteringBiology questions are of a higher order level than some of the other companion websites used in the past.
The main reason homework is not assigned in non-major biology courses is the burden of grading. MasteringBiology makes assigning homework easy. The automatic grading enables an instructor to do more. The diagnostics are another time saver. They allow us to review key material in a targeted way, rather than just a scattershot review which often leaves the students bored. Now, I can drill down and help them exactly where they need help.