In 2000 the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Department of Biology began teaching year-long survey lecture and lab courses to majors and nonmajors alike. Last year, the lecture courses became required for biology majors (unless they choose to place out of these courses with biology advanced placement [AP] exam scores of 4 or 5). Prior to 2000, most biology majors took their first biology course, Biochemistry, the spring semester of their sophomore year, although some freshman seminars and a topical course called Physiology were options. Why were survey courses added to the curriculum? Just what are these survey courses? And do we know whether these courses enhance the major or improve the education of nonmajors in the life sciences?
WHY HAVE SURVEY COURSES?
About half of Hopkins biology majors took AP biology in high school. With our departmental focus on molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, it has always been a departmental tenet that strong foundations in physics, chemistry, and mathematics are essential to a deep understanding of these aspects of biology, and students were steered toward establishing these foundations before going on with biology courses. Even though the faculty widely shared the opinion that students completed the major without a broad biological perspective, the faculty took pride in the fact that the vast majority of graduates went on to medical school… perhaps the highest “premed success rate” in the country, which no doubt has contributed to Hopkins attracting a huge number of applicants whose professional goals are in medicine. Clearly, in some sense the system was not broken, so why fix it?
Among the strongest arguments for adding a survey course was that Biochemistry and Cell Biology were taught with the tacit assumption that students knew essentially nothing about biology. Many students took AP biology early in their high school years, and seemed not to remember much of it. Further, AP courses frequently fail to cover all the subject areas found in general biology textbooks, and the depth of coverage is variable. Now that most of our students take two semesters of General Biology, instructors in the more specialized courses can confidently expect a certain level of biological knowledge.
A related argument for survey courses was that they provide a forum for presenting basic concepts not easily worked into advanced courses. Perhaps foremost among these concepts is that science deals with falsifiable hypotheses and verifiable observations. Another major concept is the degree to which different scientific disciplines intersect to provide a fuller explanation of our world: such diverse areas as atmospheric and earth sciences, paleontology, and systems analysis all come into play.
Another argument for a survey course was that our biology majors were frustrated by the scarcity of their favorite subject, biology, in their first 2 years of college. Likewise, nonmajors needed courses that might provide them with a broad foundation in the life sciences. One can hardly doubt that such a foundation is essential for full, thoughtful participation in our society as well as for making informed decisions about personal lifestyles and health.
It was hoped that the introduction of survey courses in the curriculum would help to counter negative attitudes that contribute to a loss of enthusiasm for learning. Because the new courses touch upon subject matter relevant to life in general, they should provide abundant opportunities for the instructors to show students that they care about students' quality of life and students' ethical strength, open-mindedness, and courage to deal with reality. A great deal of thought and hard work was put into providing enhancements that would help students stay in love with biology. These enhancements, which are described below, include team projects, weekly workshops, class participation technology, our Web site, and serious attention from Hopkins' Center for Educational Resources (CER) in conjunction with generous funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
Finally, there was another aspect to the quality-of-life issue. People rarely see what they do not know or do not expect to see. A survey course has the potential for serving again and again as an eye-opener, hence the most life-enriching course imaginable. For example, if you can identify fungi, plants, and animals, then a walk in the woods (or even across campus) is a very different experience than if you can't.
WHAT ARE OUR SURVEY COURSES?
The biology survey courses consist of two semesters of lecture/project/workshop (four credits/semester) and two semesters of labs (three credits/semester) coordinated with the lecture material. The courses are team-taught by three faculty and one lecturer. Majors and nonmajors attend the same section together, and students with AP credit in biology may take the workshops separately as one credit/semester courses. Enrollment in the lecture courses is about 300, in the lab about 250, and an additional 40 take the workshops only.
The lectures cover the entire textbook (currently Purves et al., Life 7e). The fall semester begins with animal behavior and ecology (the last section of the textbook). These subjects are among the most interesting to the students: they afford the opportunity to provide an understanding of organisms and their interactions with each other and the physical environment that is fundamentally different from the “Disney” view most students bring to college. So, the beginning of the first semester is eye-opening and entertaining at the same time. This introduction to biology also avoids hitting students immediately with molecules/chemistry/energy, which they generally find either boring or scary.
Workshops are weekly classes in which guest experts (mostly from the Johns Hopkins faculty) present some aspect of research and/or current events related to lecture topics. Recent workshops addressed bird song, evolution of altruistic behavior, Chesapeake Bay ecology, cystic fibrosis, and bioinformatics (paralleling textbook-based lectures on animal behavior, ecology, cell membranes, and genetics). Laboratory exercises are also coordinated with the lectures.
The introductory biology survey courses pioneered the use of class performance system (CPS) technology on our campus. All students are required to have voting units (one-way devices much like a television remote control). Students use their voting units during lectures to answer questions posed by the instructor. Students earn points for participating, whether or not their answers to individual questions are correct.
All students also participate in team activities called “Biomes of Homewood.” Teams of about five students are each assigned a “biome,” a region of the campus, to follow through the semester. Special Web-based software, developed specifically for the course assignments, includes an interactive map of the campus and stores student responses from year to year. Students working in these teams apply concepts learned in class and from textbook material to complete simple weekly or biweekly tasks. Fall-semester tasks include identifying producers, herbivores, carnivores, etc.; examining effects of our recently emerged cicada brood; studying phylotaxy and leaf structure; and generally surveying the diversity of organisms within their “biome.” (For further information about the Biomes project and demonstration, go to http://www.cer.jhu.edu/index.cfm?pageID=272.)
About 20 biology mentors (former students in the course) run regularly scheduled drop-in help sessions. Each mentor also serves as the contact person and provides guidance for three Biomes of Homewood teams.
WHY DO WE THINK OUR SURVEY COURSES ARE FULFILLING THEIR PROMISE?
We have been aided by a grant from HHMI and help from CER. HHMI has allowed us and the staff from CER to develop the Biomes of Homewood and Mentoring projects. Staff from CER attend most class meetings, conduct student interviews, lead focus groups, and help with software development and hardware issues. CER staff members also attend the weekly instructors' meetings and make suggestions for improving every aspect of the courses. Their data collection and analysis have allowed us to evaluate, sometimes quantitatively, our survey courses.
Last spring, nearly 70 percent of the students in the general biology survey courses considered themselves premed, but less than half will choose biology as their major. Since many nonmajors will become physicians, we feel justified in offering challenging courses for them rather than separate, less challenging nonmajors' courses. In fact, nonmajors report a high level of satisfaction with the breadth and depth of our courses.
Interviews with students in the introductory biology courses, conducted by CER, indicate that they greatly appreciated covering the entire textbook. Feedback from former students of the survey courses consistently affirms that the courses were an excellent preparation for the Medical College Admission Test. An online discussion board has provided further confirmation of student approval of course coverage. Also, as part of a student-run schoolwide course evaluation system, students now give the survey courses much higher marks than they gave the starting courses under the old system.
In the spring of 2003, an anonymous survey of JHU students taking Genetics or Biochemistry found:
67 percent of respondents reported that taking General Biology was essential to their understanding of their current biology course.
84 percent were happy that they had had to take General Biology, in light of the demands of Genetics and Biochemistry.
63 percent of these students had taken AP biology in high school, with over 80 percent of them receiving a score of 4 or 5.
Interviews with the instructors in the upper-level biology courses have confirmed that students are better prepared. The instructors all said that they were able to teach their subject matter on a more advanced level.
Since the survey courses were introduced, Bioethics and several other majors at Hopkins have made these courses requirements for their majors. This attests both to the broader need for this course material becoming part of every student's knowledge base and to the quality of the courses themselves.
Introducing the CPS has provided a number of positives for the courses, as revealed by student interviews and focus groups. Students like CPS for self-quizzing, and they like seeing what the instructors consider important. They like the immediate feedback and ensuing explanation from the lecturer if their answers were incorrect. And they like the way CPS provides variation within class time and helps students stay alert. A side effect of the CPS system was a marked increase in class attendance. This effect has not been quantified, but the instructors estimate that attendance on a typical lecture day has increased from roughly 50 percent of students before CPS to 90 percent currently.
In addition to the evaluative information from students and faculty, the survey course instructors also have impressions that the courses have contributed importantly to some of the less-tangible aspects of student life and learning. Some of these impressions include:
Students are developing better study habits and performing better on tests now compared with when the survey courses were first given.
Students seem to appreciate the attention paid to their opinions about the course, and this has enhanced the enjoyment of the course for most students.
Students entering the upper-level courses seem to have a firmer grasp of genetics and evolution.
Students seem to have more perspective to put biochemistry and cell biology into a relevant context.
Students are gaining fundamental knowledge in some fields not well represented elsewhere in the department, such as ecology, animal behavior, reproductive biology, and plant biology.
Finally, development of the survey courses has brought a group of Biology Department faculty together with several outside experts to build the best possible beginning for our students' undergraduate experience in learning and maturing. Weekly meetings of this group continue, and so there is continuous evaluation and continuous thinking about further improvements.
The survey courses in biology at Johns Hopkins were set up fairly recently. They are significantly different from old-fashioned lecture courses; now they include workshops, team activities, drop-in mentoring, CPS usage, and monitoring of student points of view via an online discussion board, student interviews, and focus groups. With the survey courses in place, the amount and depth of instruction in the more advanced courses have increased. In addition to their function of helping students build broad foundations in the life sciences, the survey courses have provided a forum for addressing a variety of other needs, including development of study habits, development of collegial collaboration among students, and placing emphasis on connections between biology and society and between biology and personal life issues. Finally, the survey courses have required the faculty team to examine and challenge their approach to teaching biology to find innovative and, most importantly, effective pedagogical practices in the large-lecture setting. In this respect, the courses are always works in progress, and this will help maintain their value on campus.
The initiatives reported here were supported in part by Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant 52003733 to the Johns Hopkins University for undergraduate education.
Biocore offers two application options:
1. Freshman Admission: Biocore typically begins in the sophomore year, however Biocore offers a freshman start for a small cohort (~10) of well prepared, highly motivated first year students. Students who wish to start Biocore as freshmen need to apply prior to SOAR. Please see the Freshman Admission page for details.
2. Regular Admission:This option is available for all students taking Chem 103 and 104, Chem 109/109H, or Chem 115 during your freshman year and who would like to begin Biocore the fall of your sophomore year.
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The Biocore Fall 2018 Application is HERE.If you plan to take Biocore, do NOT take Biology 151 or 152. If you are considering taking Biology 152 in the spring of 2018, apply before January 5, 2018. We can review your application materials and inform you of your acceptance prior to the start of spring semester so you can adjust your course schedule.
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