New Course to Help First-Year Biology Students Succeed
Local socioeconomic factors play a major role in the quality of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculums in K-12 schools, and the lack of a strong early science education can leave many students from lower-income backgrounds at a disadvantage when it comes to being properly prepared for pursuing an undergraduate degree in a STEM field. However, it is possible to overcome such obstacles and tap into a student’s true potential because learning is a skill that can be cultivated through training and effort. So, to that end, the Department of Biological Science has begun offering a new course for incoming freshman entitled “BSC 113 Introduction to Principles of Biology.” This course is designed around the principles of metacognition and student learning highlighted in the book by Dr. Saundra Y. McGuire, entitled Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (2015). This book also serves as the basis for our Bama Biology Bootcamp (B3), a one-week intensive program offered to incoming freshman planning to enroll in the freshman majors biology courses (https://b3.as.ua.edu/), and both the BSC 113 course and the Bama Biology Bootcamp are designed to create a welcoming environment to promote diversity and inclusivity.
Metacognition is defined as an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, but as an active approach it promotes self-monitoring and self-regulation by training students to determine the best learning strategies that work for them as individuals and teaching them how to self-assess to determine if they are meeting their learning goals. In addition to assisting students in developing better study skills, the course also focuses on building self-confidence, critical thinking, and time-management skills. This class allows students to interact with their peers and graduate teaching assistants in a relatively informal setting, thus building a safe space for students to discuss and share methods for studying, coping with stress and test-anxiety, and life-skills. This Fall 2020 semester we have 298 students enrolled in our inaugural BSC 113 course offering. While there are many class activities for students to participate in over the course of the semester, one weekly activity is to have students write comprehensive exam questions from the current lecture material that can be used to create practice tests for all students. The ability to write a properly constructed question requires a higher level of thinking that encourages students to focus on higher cognitive processes like analyzing or evaluating the course information. Even after a few weeks of participation in the course the quality of the questions has improved and continues to trend higher as the students become more creative in general. This success is representative of the genuine interest students have in learning how to be more efficient at studying, and we hope that participation in this course will empower students to realize their full potential.
The success of our students is always a primary goal of the department and university. A recent assessment from several years of data on incoming UA freshman who have declared a biology major suggests that a significant majority of these students will leave the major before the end of the second year of their undergraduate career, often due to poor performance in their freshman biology and chemistry coursework. Our data also suggests that underrepresented minorities are disproportionately affected and more likely to leave the major. The lack of underrepresented minorities in STEM career fields is a persistent problem in the U.S. Even though our course focuses on the freshman biology curriculum, the principles of metacognition can apply to any subject. By assisting students with developing new learning skills, we can improve student retention that will ultimately lead to increased diversity in the STEM workforce.