Learning Outcomes with Linked Assessments – an Essential Part of our Regular Teaching Practice

Learning Outcomes with Linked Assessments – an Essential Part of our Regular Teaching Practice

Ann C. Smith *, Gili Marbach-Ad
University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.

Setting up learning outcomes with linked assessments is a best practice in science education. In biology teaching, faculty are beginning to establish learning outcomes and assessments in the style of concept inventories. At a recent meeting of biology faculty who have designed concept inventories, the characteristics and uses of concept inventories were defined. Concept inventories used as pre-and post-measures of student learning provide a window into students’ understanding of key concepts of a discipline and serve as a tool to motivate faculty toward evidence-based teaching habits. A movement for the development of a microbiology concept inventory is suggested.

What should students learn from a biology education?

Father Guido Sarducci, a fictional character played by comedian Don Novello (http://www.fathersarducci.com/index.html), challenges the value of the university education in his popular monologue, “The 5-Minute University”. He offers a curriculum that requires five minutes to complete and suggests that this will be equivalent to what students remember five years after a traditional university education! Evidence from cognitive studies on how students learn and the work of discipline-based researchers have indicated that the methods used in traditional university science courses are not supporting student learning (53) . Faculty are often concerned with “covering” as much information as possible rather than aiming for student development of meaningful understanding of biological concepts (29) . In a movement to reinvent the norm for university classrooms, educators are attempting to define “bioliteracy” (27) . The approach has involved an effort to outline the most important concepts in biology (25) . Sarducci’s monologue begs the question, “What should students truly understand and be able to use and articulate five years postgraduation?”

Moving toward evidence-based teaching

The 1990 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) report Science for All Americans challenged university faculty to look at teaching with a research perspective, acting as experimentalists in their teaching, bringing the rigor of the research lab to their classrooms (1) . In 2004, Handelsman et al. (21) resounded the call and encouraged faculty to move toward a style of teaching (“scientific teaching”) that included systematic review and analysis of teaching methods. Too often faculty have been selecting and using teaching methods, presumably from their own academic experiences, without any evidence of their efficacy. In the face of growing numbers of students leaving science majors (43) , there has been a call for greater accountability in teaching (49) . In response, the majority of colleges and universities have established learning outcomes for all their undergraduate students (6) . Similarly the new Advanced Placement biology curriculum is founded on learning objectives (10) , and the guidelines for pre-med and medical education have shifted from course requirements to an expectation to meet a set of defined competencies (7) . In 2009, the AAAS recommended that faculty refrain from presenting science as a “sea of facts” but rather establish specific learning outcomes for each course or program (2) . With learning outcomes in hand, educators have the opportunity to select or design outcome-targeted assessments and then choose appropriate outcome-based learning activities. Such an outcome-based approach to curriculum design (“backward design” (51) ) offers a strategic method for faculty who are interested in designing courses grounded in best practices of student learning (22) .

Universal learning outcomes for biology

Although work has begun, it has been a challenge to define a comprehensive universally accepted set of principles that characterize “bioliteracy” (13) . Biologists have different views of the essential concepts that define understanding of biology. A biologist’s definition of bioliteracy and conceptual understanding of biology is colored by the perspective from which he or she views the task. For example, bioliteracy can be defined according to the target audience – basic science majors, pre-med students or all university students – or from the perspective of a particular biology discipline (e.g., a microbiologist might designate certain principles as crucial to understanding his field whereas a physiologist may select a different set of principles) (13) . Yet, various groups have begun to define concepts that can serve as the basis for learning outcomes – either by taking a broad look at biological principles (25, 28, 40) or focusing on a particular concentration area (35) . The AAAS Vision and Change report of 2009 recommends that to be scientifically literate, students must understand the overarching concepts of “evolution; pathways and transformation of energy and matter; information flow, exchange and storage; structure and function; and systems”, and challenges faculty to develop learning outcomes that will address these concepts (2) . The move to learning outcome-based teaching is a first step in changing how science is taught (22) , and the most important consequences of generating learning outcomes is to get faculty to use them both as a focus for their teaching and as a basis for informed selection of teaching methods. Further, it is crucial to encourage faculty to assess their teaching using student achievement of learning outcomes as a metric (16, 30) .

Using concept inventories as evidence for effective teaching

The Force Concept Inventory (FCI) was developed to assess student learning of essential concepts of Newton’s laws (24) . Evidence from student performance on the FCI allowed physics educators to shift the thinking of physics faculty in relation to the value of active-learning methods for conveying conceptual understanding of physics (11, 20) . Following the lead from physics educators, concept inventories have been developed in a range of disciplines including chemistry (38) , geosciences, astronomy (32) , and engineering (15) . To advance biology education along the same lines, in the last two decades there has been a movement to develop biology concept inventories to assess student conceptual understanding of biology (Table 1). Many of the biology concept inventory (CI) designers have contributed to a national dialogue on Conceptual Assessments in Biology (CAB) and have attended one or more of the three National Science Foundation-supported CAB Symposia (17, 19, 37, 46) . The most recent conference, CAB-III, took place 17–20 May 2010, prior to the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators, at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California. At this meeting, the current thinking about concept inventories was defined (Table 2).

TABLE 1 .  Conceptual assessments in biology


TABLE 2 . Characteristics of concept inventories a


In a national conversation on the value of a college education, David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for The New York Times , commented in his article The College Calculation ,

“Colleges … do so little to measure what students learn between freshman and senior years ... how much does a college education – the actual teaching and learning that happens on campus – really matter?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/magazine/27fob-wwln-t.html)

Are concept inventories the tool that will reveal the value of a college education and challenge the punch line of Father Guido Sarducci’s “5-Minute University”? With the availability of evidence from concept inventories, will biology faculty be willing to change their teaching? Will faculty be persuaded by evidence that certain approaches to teaching are more effective than others? (31) . As indicated in Table 2, those that have used concept inventories see great value in their use as professional development tools. At CAB-III, participants discussed the state of cognitive dissonance created when faculty who declare that they have covered a concept in class, learn from CI data that students do not understand the concept. Fairweather, in his National Academy commissioned report (16) , suggested that there is significant evidence that active pedagogies are the most effective methods for student learning. This evidence alone has not convinced faculty members to switch from the convenient and content-rich lecture mode of teaching to reformed teaching modes that are time-intensive to learn and to implement, but are focused on conceptual understanding. CAB-III participants reported that concept inventory data coupled with collaborative review and discussion of that data provided faculty with valuable insight into their students’ learning in the context of the faculty members’ teaching. Prior to this close examination of their own students’ performance on CI questions, faculty often have the impression that CI questions look straightforward, and expect their students to perform well. Concept inventories are designed upon research into students’ prior knowledge of a topic. Crafting responses to the multiple-choice questions is a process informed by an awareness of naive ideas, common alternate conceptions (also called misconceptions), and faulty reasoning commonly shared by students (13, 18) . As such, student performance on concept inventories is generally lower than faculty expectations (18) . Faculty who have expert knowledge of their discipline have a difficult time predicting what students will not understand (38) . Assessments help reveal the gap between expert and novice thinking (42) . As such, CIs can provide the personal awareness to faculty that is needed as a motivating factor to explore new teaching methods.

Widespread use of the FCI and growing interest in biology concept inventories suggest that a significant change in faculty teaching habits is approaching. Yet concerns have been raised about the value of CIs and what they measure (44) . How well can multiple-choice questions that make up CIs assess conceptual understanding, biological thinking and scientific literacy versus content knowledge? Can these inventories distinguish between rote learning and understanding? As is indicated in Table 2, the basic CI is defined as a multiple-choice instrument. There is a two-tiered characteristic (48) of many CIs (Table 1) that requires students to explain their response choice. The students’ explanations can provide data for qualitative review of their understanding. Review of open-ended responses can also complement the data of the specifically crafted multiple-choice questions of CIs (42) . Collaborative discussion of students’ explanations for response choice from the multiple-choice portion of CIs may be the complement to the analysis of quantitative CI data that addresses these challenges to CI use (36) . Further, coupling dissemination of CIs with faculty training may also address the effectiveness of CIs in motivating faculty development. Distributing CIs within faculty development workshops will allow opportunities to help faculty select the appropriate inventory, learn how to interpret results from pre-and post-tests, and provide a venue to educate faculty about teaching methods that have been demonstrated to reinforce student understanding (13) .

Sharing of concept inventories

The list of concept inventories in biology is growing; however, at present there is no communal venue for dissemination. Most CIs are available only via request to the designer (Table 1). This is unlike concept inventories being developed for engineering that are expected to be hosted on a communal on-line site, http://cihub.org/(http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0919889&version=noscript). Open access to CIs may allow for open conversation and evolution of the assessment tools. However, there are concerns about unrestricted release of CIs. There is: a) a need to protect the integrity of each test as a valid and reliable tool and to restrict access by students; b) an interest in controlling use of CIs in order to collect data on the use of the instrument or to protect the CIs as intellectual property of designers; and c) the view, as mentioned above, that effective use of CIs would benefit by coupling dissemination with faculty training on assessment and CI use. At this point, there is no communal agreement on how to share CIs. Controlled access, as envisioned for the CI-HUB, however, may allow users and designers to easily compare and share questions from various tools. Prior to releasing in an open environment, designers will need to determine their comfort with allowing others to use portions of a CI or alter questions.

What should students learn from a microbiology education?

The AAAS Vision and Change Report of 2009 recommends that faculty come to consensus on the central concepts of biology that are relevant to their discipline and define learning outcomes and accompanying assessments to address these (2) . We have been working with a teaching team whose focus is microbiology (35) . The team is composed primarily of tenured and tenure-track faculty with expertise in the research area of host pathogen interactions (HPI) and also includes teaching faculty with expertise in science education research. We teach nine microbiology courses – General Microbiology, Virology, Microbial Genetics, Bioinformatics and Integrated Genomics, Pathogenic Microbiology, Microbial Pathogenesis, Principles of Immunology, Immunology Lab, and Epidemiology – and have met regularly as a teaching team since 2004. We have been interested in students’ development of meaningful understanding of biological concepts. Rather than tackling the broad goal of bioliteracy or even attempting to define the big ideas of the discipline of microbiology, we made a decision to center our work on student learning in our area of expertise, HPI, and to consider the target audience of microbiology majors who take our courses. We began by attempting to list the important ideas of HPI. Our first lists of important ideas were long and related to the content covered in our courses. In retrospect this was to be expected as, similar to the national norm, our courses were content focused (23) and even with our concentration on a discussion of HPI, a narrow area of microbiology, our initial list of important topics was too long. Therefore, to focus our thinking we reflected on Sarducci’s monologue and asked ourselves: “What would we want our students to truly understand about HPI five years postgraduation?” We eventually agreed upon a list of 13 HPI concepts (35) . Our belief is that understanding of these concepts would represent a broad understanding of HPI. With the goal of creating a curriculum aimed at student conceptual understanding of HPI (HPI literacy), we restated the 13 HPI concepts as learning outcomes. We have used these outcomes to link learning of HPI concepts from course to course, generating a learning progression (35) .

As a teaching team, the process of establishing learning outcomes and assessments was not interesting to us until we considered our passion – teaching microbiology, specifically the area of HPI. After defining our learning outcomes, the challenge for our team was to think about the charge to move away from lecturing, our primary mode of teaching, toward more informed teaching methods. With our continued concern about delivering the appropriate amount of content for our students’ needs (progression to graduate work and the job market), moving away from the trusted lecture style of teaching was not a straightforward choice for our group. We struggled with our goal of conceptual understanding of HPI and selecting the best teaching methods. We needed evidence related to our students’ learning to transform our thinking about alternate teaching practices.

With our list of HPI concepts defined, we developed an HPI concept inventory to assess student gains in understanding of the 13 HPI concepts in our courses (35) . As described by others, the path to development was long (13) . Initial true-false questions associated with student explanations were reviewed to create a series of multiple-choice questions with responses reflecting students’ misunderstandings and faulty reasoning. As our inventory was meant to assess understanding over a set of courses from introductory to advanced, we aimed the vocabulary of the tool to a microbiology knowledgeable target audience rather than at novice college students, the target for many concept inventories (32) . For each semester, beginning in 2006, we have used a version of the HPI concept inventory as a pre-and postassessment for each of our HPI courses. Each semester, we met to review students’ explanations of their response choices and refined the questions. The HPI concept inventory now consists of 17 multiple-choice questions, each followed with a request for students to explain their response (two-tiered question style (48) ) (35) . In end-of-semester workshops, the HPI teaching team continues to communally review students’ scores and response explanations from the HPI concept inventory given as pre-and postassessment in each of our courses. We have found that when faced with direct evidence about student learning on the HPI CI, we and our fellow HPI faculty are moved toward change. “But I taught that!” has been a refrain when reviewing students’ performance on the postcourse delivery of the HPI CI. With faith in the HPI tool and strong support in the learning outcomes assessed, unexpected student performance on the HPI CI was a powerful motivator for us to consider changing our teaching approaches. Also, the use of the HPI CI opened our eyes to the power of formative assessment in supporting student learning. Now common in our HPI courses is the tactic to assess what students know, and then aim our teaching to student needs. Like others who have used concept inventories for faculty development, we have found that when faced with direct evidence about our own students’ learning using a trusted assessment tool, our faculty were motivated to experiment with and assess the effectiveness of new teaching techniques.

Core themes and concepts have been established for an American Society for Microbiology-recommended microbiology course curriculum (3) . From our work with the HPI faculty we strongly believe that a microbiology concept inventory will serve to motivate faculty teaching in the discipline to move from the traditional lecture mode to informed teaching methods (23, 14) , as recommended by AAAS (2) . To understand basic principles of microbiology, it will be important for students to move away from commonly held misconceptions (e.g., antibiotics are effective treatments for viral infections (9) ) to informed understanding. Our experience has been that faculty who have been involved in concept inventory development and trained in concept inventory use are likely to be convinced by the data generated from application of the tool. We therefore suggest that the microbiology education community join to develop a concept inventory that may be shared among microbiology educators. Like the use of concept inventories in biology, it is predicted that the use of a concept inventory for assaying concepts of microbiology will provide a window into students’ understanding, evidence for comparing the value of teaching methods, and a tool that will spur professional development.


The authors would like to thank the CAB-III participants, especially the conference organizers Kathleen Fisher and Kathy Williams of San Diego State University and Dianne Anderson of Point Loma Nazarene University.

The authors would like to thank Kathleen Fisher, Charlene D’Avanzo, and Jeffery Pommerville and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful suggestions. The authors would like to recognize the members of the HPI teaching team, http://cbmg.umd.edu/hpi. The work of the HPI teaching team has been supported in part by a grant to the University of Maryland from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Undergraduate Science Education Program, and by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Division of Undergraduate Education, DUE0837515 CCLI-type 1 (Exploratory).


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*Corresponding author. Mailing address: 1127 Microbiology Building, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742. Phone: 301-405-5443. Fax: 301-314-9489. E-mail: asmith@umd.edu .

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DOI: 10.1128/jmbe.v11i2.217
Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education , December 2010
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