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Short Writing Assignments in Non-Majors Biology

Prof. Tamara Western, Professor of Biology, describes using short-written assignments in a large undergraduate class:

My main goal when I took over a Non-Majors Introductory Biology course in Fall 2012 was to make it interesting and relevant for the students. I had several plans for this, e.g. highlighting recent news articles related to lectures, something I still want to do, but did not happen this first year because I was too busy writing new lectures. Another thing I wanted to do was to change how the course was evaluated. With large courses like this one (~250 students), multiple choice exams are a necessary evil, but I did not want the grade to rest solely on those. I was toying with the idea of having the students do some sort of group assignment related to a research paper, as I’d heard about in another class, but decided to wait, not in the first year. Then I went to a workshop in late August 2012 about ‘Bringing Research Into the Undergraduate Classroom’ facilitated by the McGill Inquiry Network. There, watching professors talk about how they fostered research of various sorts into their classes, and given the opportunity to brainstorm, I was inspired. By that afternoon (about a week before classes started), I’d decided, ‘what the hell, I’m going to go for it’, and drafted 3 short writing assignments based on the idea of sending the students out to look at the recent news articles:

  1. SCIENCE MEDIA & SOURCES (Individual – ½ page) – Find a biology-related news item on the web, determine the source of the science described in the news item and evaluate the reliability of the source in terms of the rigour (trustworthiness) of the science.
  2. SCIENCE MEDIA & LINKS TO BIOLOGICAL PHENOMENA DISCUSSED IN CLASS (Individual – ½ page) – Find a biology-related news item on the web [different than for #1] that relates to one of the topics covered in class and discuss how the research described in the article advances knowledge in the topic area.
  3.  POPULAR CULTURE & BIOLOGY (group of 4 students – 3 pages) – Find a movie or an episode of a TV show that includes biology-related science as a significant portion of its plot. Describe the movie/TV show, how the biology-related science is integrated, what is the biology-related science, describe the related biology covered in class and critique the biology-related science in the movie/TV show for its believability/realism.

These were presented to the students with more detailed instructions , an example, and a requirement to sign up for their topics in an online discussion group that allowed people to search to make sure they did not pick the same article. I was extremely impressed by student response to these assignments – many students signed up for topics immediately and picked a broad range of interesting topics from all aspects of Biology. In general, the summaries were high quality and I enjoyed reading them. My favourite assignment was the final one, where the students viewed a variety of movies and TV shows ranging from ‘GATTACA’ to ‘Contagion’ to ‘Twins’ to ‘WALL-E’ to ‘House’ and ‘The Magic School Bus’ (forensic shows like CSI and NCIS were banned).  A number of the critiques of the realism, especially, showed good insight into the Biology (or lack of Biology truly presented in the movies). Based on some comments I did get, I believe the students liked these assignments, and, personally, I like the idea that they took a few things of interest to them, saw how they related to Biology and thought about it at least briefly. I hope a number of them felt the same. Reflecting on this, I can see where these assignments could be improved in future years (e.g. more examples, better defined rubric, no documentaries for the pop culture assignment). I’d also like to look into how I could get a more tangible read on what they meant to the students, not to mention see what other ideas they may have to improve linking the science to their worlds.

1 comment on “Short Writing Assignments in Non-Majors Biology

  1. Margaret Lee

    This was helpful to read. I have about not quite 3 weeks before semester starts and definitely want to do add something like this to the intro biol course I’ve taught for several semesters.

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