CBS Turns a Scientific Eye to Improving Teaching and Learning

By Adrian Taylor

September 12, 2018

Students in class in a UoG classroom

A growing number of staff, students and faculty in the College of Biological Science (CBS) are engaging in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), a rapidly evolving field of study aimed at improving the student learning experience in higher education.  

Almost a dozen CBS faculty conducting research in fields ranging from human physiology and biomechanics to biochemistry and ecology are also taking a scientific approach to answer questions about student learning and to improve the quality of post-secondary education. To these researchers, the connection between biology and SoTL is clear.

“We’re scientists and we like empirical evidence, so why not use this approach to assess the way we teach science?” says Prof. Genevieve Newton, a faculty member in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences who studies learning strategies in higher education.

Evolutionary biologist and Integrative Biology chair Prof. Ryan Gregory agrees, and believes in the importance of SoTL and advancing teaching practice throughout his department. “We want to implement more evidence-based teaching practice throughout our courses.  As researchers, we have the skills to make this happen.”

These skills include not just the ability to generate empirical data and draw conclusions based on evidence, but to collaborate across disciplines and to train undergraduate and graduate students in the scientific process.

“Our SoTL research in CBS is highly collaborative; our projects bring faculty together from across departments and colleges to co-supervise undergraduate and graduate students. There is a lot of expertise on campus!” says Prof. Shoshanah Jacobs, an ecologist and SoTL researcher in Integrative Biology who has spearheaded numerous SoTL projects with students and colleagues across the college, university and at other institutions.

Here are just some of the ways that SoTL research is changing the learning experience in CBS.


Getting the Most out of Student and Instructor Evaluations  

Every course offered by CBS has a specific set of learning outcomes - these are the ‘take-home’ knowledge and skills that a student should gain from a given course.  Prof. John Dawson, a biochemist in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is examining how learning outcomes can be better measured against course objectives and expectations. According to Dawson, these metrics enable instructors to adjust their courses, where needed, to ensure that these outcomes are satisfied.  Dawson has analyzed the quality of exam questions to determine how well they reflect a course’s learning outcomes.  One thing was clear from the results:  instructors do a great job of assessing knowledge. But some of the other outcomes, like critical thinking and communication, are less emphasized, and the difficulty of the exam questions stays about the same as students progress through their undergraduate experience. “The challenge now,” says Dawson, “is to rebalance our courses and programs to be intentional in reaching all of our learning outcomes.”

Student testing isn’t the only type of assessment SoTL researchers are interested in.  Student feedback on instructors is also critical to understanding how the learning experience can be improved. In CBS, Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET) are the only mandated means by which students provide feedback to instructors. SET are most typically used for faculty promotion and tenure, but they can also serve as powerful tools to inform instructor development. Newton is currently leading a project with several CBS colleagues that is exploring faculty experiences with SET, how they are being used to inform teaching practice, and how the process of instructor evaluation can be improved. The potential payoff to this effort is huge; not only will faculty be better informed on how to use SET feedback to improve their courses, but students are likely to be more judicious when completing their evaluations because they know their voices have a real impact.


Enhancing the Learning Experience in Large Classes

Many students have experienced firsthand or heard about the disadvantages of large class sizes – an increasingly common feature of post-secondary education. Typically, larger classes suffer from lower average grades, a reflection of how difficult it can be to implement the high impact teaching practices often found in smaller classes, such as collaborative projects or engaging students in research opportunities.

Jacobs and Prof. Steffen Graether, a biochemist in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, are exploring what can be done to promote deeper learning and student-instructor connection in large classes. With the help of three undergraduate thesis students, they took a multi-pronged approach to understanding what characterizes a large class. After surveying students on their perceptions of both small and large classes, they found that the instructor can play a key role in making a large class feel small. In particular, students thought that classes “felt smaller” when instructors made an attempt to learn their names and engage with them individually. Students also felt a stronger sense of community in classes which included a lab or seminar component.

In Integrative Biology, community ecologist Prof. Karl Cottenie is working with Jacobs to measure how “metacognition” can influence exam performance, particularly in large classes. Metacognition refers to a person’s understanding of how they learn different concepts – which is critically important to students but often challenging to facilitate in large classes. At the beginning and end of the semester, Cottenie and Jacobs surveyed students to learn about how they perceive their own study habits. They introduced an evidence-based study guide for students to use throughout the semester. After each exam, students were also asked to reflect on how prepared they felt during the exam as well as the resources they used for studying. According to Cottenie, students who understand their study habits are ultimately better prepared for exams, by knowing what they do, and do not, need to review.

Implementing high impact teaching practices into larger classes is not impossible, say SoTL experts. Prof. Kerry Ritchie, a researcher in the department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, believes that high impact practices or “HIPs” often associated with small classes can be brought into large classes with careful design and planning.  For example, Ritchie is currently studying the use of long answer questions in exams as a method to promote critical thinking skills in classes with high enrolment. Understanding how universities can support learning outside of the classroom is another area of research for Ritchie. She and MSc student (and now PhD candidate) Justine Hobbins have studied the impact of Residential Learning Communities, which sees students with common interests grouped together in residence. The University of Guelph was the first in Canada to establish this type of program, and Ritchie and Hobbins found it has a positive impact on first year undergraduate learning, with students showing improved performance and retention.


Classroom Technology: Beyond the Blackboard  

Over in the human anatomy program, Prof. Lorraine Jadeski is emphasizing a hands-on learning approach in her classes. A PhD student in her lab, William Albabish, is exploring the use technology to facilitate deeper learning. He has created short videos to help guide students during their dissection labs that have been enthusiastically received. He believes they can also serve as an effective study tool to help improve grades of anatomy students. As a sessional lecturer in human anatomy, Albabish is also using virtual reality videos to supplement lecture concepts. This technology uses 3D imaging to help students to understand complexities of the human body which cannot be properly demonstrated with two-dimensional images – more evidence that technology has important role to play in the modern learning environment.

For students with disabilities (which is 1 out of 10 students in Ontario), field courses can pose unique barriers – something that Jacobs and Gregory want to change.  They are about to launch a project with a new graduate student to collect data on the barriers which exist in field courses, and the components of field courses that facilitate high impact learning. They will then use these data to develop a digital field course experience, which could open doors to students with disabilities in ways that were once impossible.


Tying It All Together: Transforming the Higher Education Experience

So what happens when SoTL researchers discover a new way to enhance the learning experience?  Instructors who incorporate a new evidence-based practice into their courses are certain to see a benefit to their students’ learning.  But the impact of SoTL research can, in fact, be far greater than the sum of its parts, says Jacobs. 

Along with colleague Prof. Dan Gillis in the School of Computer Science, Jacobs co-founded a unique learning experience for U of Guelph undergraduates called Ideas Congress (ICON) that is based on SoTL findings.  “In many ways, ICON represents a synthesis of SoTL research to date,” says Jacobs.  “We used all of the available evidence about teaching and learning to design a novel course that offers students a unique and impactful learning experience as they develop some of the key skills desired by employers.”

The project-based course has broken the disciplinary and year-level silos of a traditional course, bringing students together from across campus. Since the course was first launched in 2015, ICON students have been tackling pressing issues like food security and environmental sustainability in the housing sector.  The popular course has been enormously successful, with several participants going on to compete in national competitions, and in some cases even receiving funds to help take their ideas further.   

ICON is a prime example of how SoTL can transform the educational landscape. And as the demand for workers with important “transferable” skills such problem-solving and teamwork continues to grow, ICON also shows how SoTL can help educators ensure that their graduates are meeting the needs of an evolving workforce. 


A Bright Future Ahead for SoTL

As involvement and interest in SoTL grows in CBS, teaching and learning in the college promises to grow and evolve as well.  Playing a leading role in these efforts is the CBS Office of Educational Scholarship and Practice (COESP).  Launched in 2016, the COESP brings together faculty and staff in the college who share a common interest in enhancing teaching practices and delivering transformational learning to students.  Among its many activities, the COESP offers funds for SoTL research projects, grants to improve courses, and travel awards to attend educational conferences. In 2018, five grants were awarded to faculty and staff across CBS for course improvements, ranging from the production of videos for laboratories to the use of Raspberry computers for plant growth analysis.  It also hosts regular workshops and events that continue to galvanize SoTL activities in the college.


“Supporting and promoting research into how learning happens best in biology is what the COESP is all about,” says Dawson, who is the founding Director of the COESP. 

As part and parcel of this mission, the COESP has also launched the “BioEd Research Hub” for faculty in the college who are engaged in discipline-based education research. Chaired by Newton, the BioEd Research Hub provides a dedicated forum for SoTL researchers in CBS to share ideas and initiate collaborations around new research projects. 

As the College grows and adapts to changing technologies and student needs, the COESP is working to develop programs for new faculty, staff and graduate students to build a solid foundation of excellence in teaching based on research. Importantly, they are also involving alumni in the process. “Alumni are best situated to tell us about how relevant our programs and teaching methods are. We need their input to put together the best learning for our students,” notes Dawson.

Ultimately, both present and future students – along with their future employers – will benefit from the range of SoTL work being done in CBS, making the college an exciting place to be for learners, instructors and SoTL researchers alike.


For more information about SoTL activities in CBS, contact:

Bill Bettger, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences

Karl Cottenie, Integrative Biology

John Dawson, Molecular and Cellular Biology

Steffen Graether, Molecular and Cellular Biology

Ryan Gregory, Integrative Biology

Shoshanah Jacobs, Integrative Biology

Lorraine Jadeski, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences

Wendy Keenleyside, Molecular and Cellular Biology

Coral Murrant, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences

Genevieve Newton, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences

Kerry Ritchie, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences

Justine Tishinsky, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences

Lori Vallis, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences

John Zettel, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences


Recent selected SoTL publications from CBS

Justine Hobbins, Mildred Eisenbach, Shoshanah Jacobs and Kerry Ritchie. 2017. Do Students Who Live in Residence Learning Communities Perform Better Academically than Those Who Live in Traditional Residence and Off Campus? Discussions on University Science Teaching: Proceedings of the Western Conference on Science Education 1(1): Article 7.

Ceilidh Barlow Cash, Jessa Letargo, Steffen P. Graether and Shoshanah R. Jacobs. 2017. An Analysis of the Perceptions and Resources of Large University Classes. CBE – Life Sciences Education 16(2): doi: 10.1187/cbe.16-01-0004

Daniel Gillis, Jessica Nelson, Brianna Driscoll, Kelly Hodgins, Evan Fraser, Shoshanah Jacobs. 2017.  Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research and Education in Canada: A Review and Suggested Framework. CELT 10: doi: 10.22329/celt.v10i0.4745

Coral Murrant, David Dyck, Jim Kirkland, Genevieve Newton, Kerry Rithcie, Justine Tishinky, Bill Bettger and Nicolette Richardson.  2015. A Large, First-Year, Introductory, Multi- Sectional Biological Concepts of Health Course Designed to Develop Skills and Enhance Deeper Learning. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 45: 42-62

Husband, B.C., W.J. Bettger, C.L. Murrant, K. Kirby, P.A. Wright, S.G. Newmaster, J.F. Dawson, T.R. Gregory, R.T. Mullen, A. Nejedly, G. van der Merwe, K. Yankulov, and P. Wolf . 2015. Applying a linked-course model to foster inquiry and integration across large first year courses. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 45: 244-260.


Read about other CBS Research Highlights.