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Diagnostic Question Clusters and student active learning: Their role in faculty development of scientific teaching

Alan B. Griffith, University of Mary Washington, Barbara J. Abraham, Hampton University, Chris Picone, Fitchburg State College, Charlene D'Avanzo, Hampshire College, Andy Anderson, Michigan State University

Nancy J. Pelaez, Purdue University


Undergraduate science educators have been called on to approach their teaching more like they approach disciplinary research. Much like research, teaching should be: 1) based on knowledge of practices that improve student learning, 2) assessed in the context of specific learning goals, and 3) altered in response to analysis of student outcomes (Boyer 1990, Handelsman et al. 2004).  Since the lecture format has been a staple for teaching undergraduate science for generations (Bligh 2000), this change in teaching practices (i.e. scientific teaching) may have a steep learning curve for many educators. For example, while a large majority of faculty from across the US agreed they should collect data to assess student learning, less than half of these faculty used data to guide their teaching decisions (Ebert-May et al. 2003).

We have completed one year of a project (NSF DUE 0736943) that asked a group of 15 faculty from colleges and universities across the US to implement Diagnostic Question Clusters (DQCs) as tools to assess student reasoning about mass and energy transfers in biological systems. DQCs are sets of questions that consistently and reliably 1) identify content especially difficult for students, 2) identify problematic PATTERNS in student thinking, and 3) frame content to help students apply biological reasoning at all scales, cells to ecosystems. These faculty used active learning strategies, both of our design and their own design, to teach the biological concepts and reasoning related to mass and energy transfers at one or more scales. We report the experiences of two participants here in order to highlight the successes and challenges of faculty adopting scientific teaching approaches.

  • Faculty Implementation and Outcomes (cont.)

  • Both of these faculty, like all other faculty participants, used active learning materials provided on project website or activities adopted from other sources (i.e. TIEE, http://tiee.ecoed.net)

  • Both implemented DQC’s as pre- and post-test for teaching units

  • Both used cursory analysis of student reasoning as discussion points in class

  • Both faculty completed analysis of DQC responses at the end of the semester. Abraham used DQC responses from Fall semester to focus teaching in Spring semester course

  • Importantly, both Abraham and Picone expressed surprise at the low level of student understanding coming into their classes and the kinds of reasoning errors students make.

  • Picone observed students correctly describing concepts in one context, but reverting to old ways of reasoning when given new situations

  • Both continue to struggle with conflicting constraints to using scientific teaching approaches in their teaching, such as

  • - need to cover prescribed material

  • - time required to implement DQCs

  • Faculty Development Challenges (cont.)

  • incorporate DQCs as pre- and post-tests,

  • evaluate student strengths and weaknesses in biological reasoning,

  • implement student active strategies that specifically address their students’ weaknesses,

  • Re-check student reasoning through formative assessment and evaluation,

  • Re-visit continued student reasoning weaknesses.

  • Project Faculty Participants

  • From 15 colleges and universities across the US

  • Majority from primarily undergraduate institutions

  • Majority teach in small to medium sized classrooms (<100)

  • Moderately experienced practitioners of student active learning strategies

    • >10% class time dedicated to active learning (15 out of 15)

    • >10% class time is students speaking (13 out of 15)

  • Courses taught: Introductory Biology, Ecology, and Environmental Science (12 out of 15)


-Bligh, D. A. 2000. What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

-Boyer, E. L. 1990. Scholarship reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

-Ebert-May, D., J. Batzli, and H. Lim. 2003. Disciplinary research strategies for assessment of learning. BioScience 53: 1221 – 1228.

-Handelsmam J, D. Ebert-May, R. Beichner, P. Bruns , A. Chang, R. DeHaan, J. Gentile, S. Lauffer, L. Stewart, S.M. Tilghman, & W.B. Wood. 2004. Scientific teaching. Science 304: 521-522

  • Faculty Development Challenges

  • Our idea of complete adoption of assessment tools and active teaching is illustrated in Fig. 1.

  • We asked faculty to

    • Understand concepts behind the development and use of DQCs,

  • Implementation and Outcomes of Two Participants

  • Abraham and Picone expressed the same motivations for joining the group: working with colleagues with similar interests in scientific teaching and formulating strategies to teach more quality and less quantity of content