Perspectives VII: My Experience Teaching Genetics in Fall 2020

By Mário Moniz de Sá, Instructor, Biology Department

Image by Jagrit Parajuli from Pixabay

Early in 2020, students all over the world experienced a sudden, dramatic, and unprecedented shift in their academic world. A whole two and a half semesters later, we find ourselves preparing for more semesters teaching and learning in the virtual environment. Some instructors at Langara took the opportunity to share their perspectives on the impact of moving to online teaching and learning.

Our seventh contribution comes from Mário Moniz de Sá, an instructor in the Department of Biology. Below, we share his experience teaching in the fall of 2020. Mário gives us an enthusiastic and thoughtful tour of his genetics course with many practical examples of what can be done online.

We look forward to bringing you more Perspectives. If you would like to make a contribution, please contact Jessica Kalra at jkalra@langara.ca.

My story of online teaching in the Fall of 2020 may be atypical in that, unexpectedly, I enjoyed it a lot. Many things conspired to make my semester as enjoyable as possible under the circumstances. I taught part-time, two sections of a second-year genetics course that were pooled into one. I have taught the same genetics course for over a decade, and I gained some experience teaching online in the summer. Also, thanks to the Biology department lab staff, the online version of the lab component had already been completed and delivered online in the summer semester. All these factors, plus great students and some wonderful tools provided by EdTech, namely Brightspace and Zoom, contributed to my unexpectedly very positive experience teaching online. I would happily do it again, with some further improvements.

In the spring of 2020, I was on my PD term, and unlike my brave colleagues, was not forced to pivot quickly to online delivery in a matter of days. I was very impressed that instructors were able to work so hard to accomplish this feat in such a short time. Langara has never had such a seismic shift in the way we teach and affecting all departments simultaneously, in such a short period of time. As a whole, I think Langara has done rather well in adapting to the pandemic whilst continuing to deliver a high-quality curriculum that allows anxious students to continue with their education and move on with their lives during this awful pandemic. This is a silver lining to teaching during the pandemic. It indicates that Langarans have the capacity to remain resilient in the face of great adversity. That is something to be proud of and make us stronger.

That is not to say that everything went well. There was lots of room for improvement. Ultimately, it was the responsibility of individual instructors and staff to make sure education was not disrupted using whatever tools were at their disposal. Speaking with my colleagues about their struggles and successes, I learned from their experience about what worked and what didn’t, especially as it related to the use of technology. I am a digital immigrant and initially I felt daunted about the prospect of holding synchronous classes online. I felt awful and guilty about my colleague’s struggles, in part because by the end of the spring semester, I was home on holidays, safe from COVID-19, and feeling helpless, but slightly relieved. In addition, I was not scheduled to teach in the summer term, and I was hoping that by the Fall of 2020, face-to-face teaching might resume. I got that wrong, BIG TIME. I was secretly hoping I would not have to adapt to online teaching at all. On top of this, inexplicably strong registration for the summer semester forced my conscription into full-time teaching in the summer. DOHHHHHHH!!!

My biggest concern with the delivery of the fully online courses was the potential for cheating and that my class would be too boring, which would reduce student engagement and attendance and result in poor outcomes for the students, and for myself. During in-class assessments, vigilance is the order of the day, and students must use the knowledge in their heads to answer questions or write in some detail about a subject. Difficult to cheat, especially with our relatively small class sizes and my keen hawkish eyesight. Online assessments, on the other hand, open up a hornet’s nest of different possible ways of cheating. I heard many horror stories from colleagues and friends who have family members in university. Their confidence with online teaching and assessment in post-secondary education was shaken and stirred. I resolved that I would try my best to prove that with some thought, consultation regarding best practices with those more knowledgeable, and a modicum of work, I could deliver on all the learning outcomes associated with my course whilst making the course engaging and keep cheating to a negligible level, and hopefully, do my part to help restore confidence, including mine, in post-secondary education during this  COVID-19 pandemic.

This story is not about my online teaching in the summer, but I did learn from the experience and applied it in configuring my genetics course in the fall. Although the summer semester started well, midway through the semester participation declined, there was a lack of engagement on the students’ parts; they were clearly overworked, in part due to the high workload in the labs, which was being developed as the semester went along, and I did not do enough to make my classes more engaging. Many students thought they could pass the course by doing it alone and just participating in online quizzes and exams. Clearly, the challenge going forward with online teaching was to increase the level of engagement and participation during class. Here are some pearls of wisdom I acquired from teaching a human biology class for non-majors students online in the summer of 2020.

  • Students in their natural state are social creatures. Most are digital natives, born into the age of the ubiquitous internet. They communicate profusely, especially with their tricorders (I mean cell phones), and most have easy access to the internet. Effectively, students already possess in the palm of their hand much of the knowledge I require them to know and apply. So, knowing that I am powerless to prevent students from sharing information, and knowing that they have a proclivity to do so, I decided to use it as a strength and incorporate a lot more group learning and assessments in my genetics class.
  • Students, like everyone else, do not like their time wasted. If they think they can learn the subject material on their own, they will try to do so and not attend class, online or otherwise. Therefore, my online classes had to provide something that cannot be had or experienced without attending class. I decided that most of my class time was to involve challenging group work on problem-based learning, and all lecture-based assessments were to be done during scheduled class meeting times via Zoom. It is easier to assign students into groups randomly in Zoom then in face-to-face classes.
  • Students can self-monitor in groups. To make sure all students participated in group work, I used the group to self-monitor for cheating, such as when students who do not participate in group work via Zoom then expect their name to be on the submitted quiz. I asked students in a group not to include the names of non-participating group members. Group self-monitoring seems to work, judging from the number of times members of a group dropped one or more group members. In all cases, dropped group members did not get credit for the quiz, and for most, their level of participation increased in subsequent quizzes.
  • Students are curious and natural problem solvers. Open-ended topics allow them to learn about what they are curious about, within the bounds of the learning outcomes for the course. Therefore, instead of lecturing and then testing their understanding of the material, I used the need to solve assigned problems as the driving force to learn the relevant material from the notes, lecture slides, videos, or from the suggested textbook.
  • Students need externally imposed discipline. They can’t be left on their own to learn the subject material and then show up for assessments at an arbitrary date. I tried to create a natural ebb and flow to the course that allowed students to establish a weekly routine. The first three hours of the week involved problem-based learning on a designated topic and in the fourth hour, there were assessments. This schedule was facilitated because genetics classes always run as 4 x 1-hour lectures.
  • Students need and appreciate a detailed course syllabus. It is very important to provide a very detailed course outline indicating the exact dates when all the assessments take place and the topics covered. It is very important to stick to it. This allows students to organize their lives in advance and emphasizes, right from the start, that the overall grade will come from many assessments, not just a few.

Armed with these pearls of wisdom gained from experience and from consultation with colleagues who know better, I made several adjustments to my online genetic classes in the tall of 2020.

First, I used a flipped-class model. Students showed up to Zoom classes ready to apply their knowledge, which they learned on their own time, to solve genetics problems. I have been using mostly problem-based assessments in genetics for a long time, but never had problem solving as the driving force to learn the theory. This method provided a more active learning style and it was easier to demonstrate the relevance of the genetic theories learned and how to apply that knowledge. Students mainly learned the material from information posted on Brightspace. The information was divided into nine modules, and for each module I provided  comprehensive notes, videos, assignments with and without answers, and the answer key to all the end-of-chapter questions from the  textbook.

Second, I assessed students frequently throughout the entire term. The lecture component was worth 70% of total grade and consisted of 7 quizzes, 2 midterms, and 1 final exam. The other 30% of the grade for the course came from weekly online labs and the submission of lab reports. I designed the course so that between the lecture and lab components, students were assessed on a weekly basis. Careful choreographing of assessments dates in advance prevented students from being overwhelmed with too much work at certain times of the semester.

Third, I incorporated a lot more group work than normal. Students worked on 27 assignments in small random groups, and five of the seven quizzes were also group quizzes. Students did not know in advance if the quiz would be a group or solo effort. Midterms and final exams were solo efforts. Groups were always generated randomly using Zoom, composed of 4-6 students, and included students from two pooled sections of genetics. This enabled all students to interact and cooperate with all other students within both classes, allowing for more diverse communication. All questions in the assessments and assignments involved problem solving and required many logical steps or mathematical steps to arrive at a correct answer. For quizzes, I graded full answers to the problems and provided extensive feedback. For midterms and the final exam, all questions were problem-based, but were designed as multiple-choice questions and graded automatically on Brightspace. This saved a lot  time and allowed me more time for teaching and designing better genetics questions. Instead of being paranoid about student cheating, I encouraged students to cooperate within their groups, use all the resources at their disposal to solve tougher problems. Typically, quizzes were e-mailed to students five minutes before class. At the start of class, students were assigned randomly into separate zoom rooms to work as a group. I typically visited each room a few times to check on student progress or attend to their queries. This provided me with many teaching moments with smaller groups of students. Each group submitted the quiz in PDF format by e-mail at the end of class. These were easily graded, as if on paper, with my fancy iPad and Apple Pencil. I was able to provide more detailed answers and use a lot of graphics in my explanations. Genetic notation is not easily written using text alone. Having an iPad and Apple Pencil made grading a lot easier. It’s very easy to save graded files in PDF and send it directly back to group members. No more carrying around quizzes of students who do not pick them up in class, ever.

I liked assessing students for their ability solve problems together in groups because it better reflects how most students will eventually apply their knowledge in a work environment. Students learn better when problem solving rather than passively receiving information in a lecture. Learning is a social process and communication is integral to it. Group work provided more opportunities for students to communicate with each other, rather than just with an instructor. It also provided a safe place to try out new ideas and have those ideas vetted by the group before committing the answer to paper and perhaps being penalized for it. Learning from one’s mistakes is a valid way of learning. I have been doing it all my life.

All members of a group had to participate in group assessments. If not, then the group could choose not to include the non-participant group member(s) name on the submitted quiz. I exploited human nature: no one likes to be taken advantage of. It works reasonably well and emphasizes a student’s personal responsibility to prevent cheating by others. Students who work hard to answer questions on a group quiz do not want to share with those members of a group who do not reciprocate in equal measure and will not include the name of those who do not participated.

The last major change was the incorporation of online exams. Typical exam consisted of 25 to 30 multiple choice questions and lasted 50 minutes. The vast majority of questions were of the problem-solving type or required an analysis of some kind and were not easily “googleable.” Often the answers were numerical, and students had to perform many steps of reasoning or perform extensive calculations to arrive at the correct answer. The most involved and challenging of these were worth more marks. All students wrote the exam through Brighspace concurrently and each student wrote an individualized exam to prevent cheating. Additionally, the questions were presented in different order, including the multiple-choice answers, only one question was presented on the screen at a time, and students could not scroll back to previous questions. Thus, with these measures, I felt confident that cheating would have been difficult and not worth the risk. Students were encouraged to use open notes, books or google to their heart’s content. They were also told that a pencil, an eraser, a calculator and lots of scrap paper would be essential to doing well on the exams.

Brightspace provided me with wonderful tools to generate individualized exams, which made up the majority of the overall grade for the course. With individualized exams there was the possibility of creating exams of varying difficulty levels or not testing fairly on the same learning outcomes, which would be unfair to students. To overcome this problem, I used Brightspace to create pools of questions, each pool consisting of similar questions of the same difficulty level and all testing the same learning outcome. For example, to test a student’s ability to infer if a genetic condition was a recessive or a dominant trait from a pedigree analysis, I created a question pool with six questions, each made up of a different pedigree, and thus the analysis and the answer was unique. During the exam, the program chooses only one (you can set it for more) question from that pool. Thus, for an exam with 25 question pools, and each pool consisting of 6 questions, it will be possible to generate 2.8 x1019 different exams. This would be very difficult to do in a face-to-face class, where instructors arrive with printed exams. But with Brightspace, providing individualized exams that are consistent in terms of difficulty level and topics covered was extremely easy. It did take some time to generate the questions and input them into Brightspace, but this time is more than made up by the fact the exams are graded automatically, objectively, and the students get their grade instantaneously. Also, the questions will be used in future terms, so it will save time in the future. The analytics tools provided me with ability to judge individual student performance and the quality of the questions.

Overall, teaching online in the fall was fun and exciting, and I felt my course had that new “fresh car smell” again. My nightmare scenario of empty Zoom classes and profligate cheating never materialized. And considering the state of the world, I kept my sanity and felt good throughout the term. All good things. But was this just my imagination? No. The following are some of the more objective metrics used in my determination.

There was a higher student retention for the online course. Fewer students withdrew than usual with 43 out of 47 students completing the course. The overall final grade average was 72% for the combined classes, which is similar to face-face classes. The grades distribution was also similar to face-to-face classes. Only one A+ was given out of 47 students and there were fewer failures than normal. Although Zoom classes were held from 8:30 am to 9:20 am 4 days per week, which is very early for many students, attendance was consistently over 80% for most of the semester, and during weekly assessments, attendance was always greater than 90%. Also, with few exceptions, it was not always the same students missing classes. The vast majority of students attended class and logged into the course on Brightspace regularly. I made my office hours very flexible. Typically, the hour after class was used as an office hour. Unless students had to rush to another class, on most days the Zoom sessions went on with many participants working in groups for an hour or more after class. In addition, students could ask for private Zoom sessions. These were very popular with many students making weekly appointments, including on weekends. I enjoyed the many opportunities to interact with students via Zoom on a more personal level. Overall, my office hours were more popular for the online course than for the face-to-face version. Finally, many students went out of their way to tell me how much they enjoyed the class. In particular, many liked learning in small groups. They enjoyed daily contact with other students. They did not feel alone in the course and learning was fun.

I really hope that the pandemic will be over soon and that by the fall of 2021 I will resume teaching face-to-face classes. However, come what may, the way I teach has changed forever. I will continue to implement flipped class models for other courses, use problem solving in small groups as the primary means of driving the learning process, and I will increase the proportion of the total grade that comes from working in groups.

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2 Responses to Perspectives VII: My Experience Teaching Genetics in Fall 2020

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Robin. Of all the courses that I teach, Genetics is most amenable to this style of teaching. It works well.
    Cheers
    Mario

  2. Robin Macqueen says:

    Wow, this is fantastic, Mario. Nice story, and great job! I think you have used this crisis as an opportunity to move your course in a very good direction. Active learning and group work has been shown many times to be more engaging and more effective than traditional lectures. Bravo for making the leap!

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