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Tombros Fellows of CESE: Meredith Defelice

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Description of Meredith Defelice's CESE fellowship project

Meredith Defelice's Fellows Proposal:

The focus of this fellowship proposal is to develop tools to encourage the growth and effective use of the Learning Assistant (LA) program across Eberly College and specifically within the BMB department.  In order to do this I propose to 1) further develop the materials and curriculum used for LA training 2) develop and utilize assessment tools for the LA program and based on those assessments put together an informational package containing best practices for using LAs as well as assessment tools for instructors that want to use LAs in their classes; and 3) investigate the use of LAs in teaching the laboratory course, BMB442, using a “flipped classroom” model.


Part I: Develop curricular materials for LA pedagogy course 

The spring semester of 2013 I volunteered to participate as a co-instructor for the Sci297C pedagogy class along with Dr. Jackie Bortiatynski.  The class was set up as a just-in-time instruction for 28 students serving as learning assistants in a variety of different classes offered in the Eberly College of Science.  Our goal for the class is to give the LAs critical insight into both the learning process and teaching pedagogy in order to set them up with skills that will help them change the classroom culture towards one that effectively utilizes active learning exercises to increase student motivation, knowledge, analytical skills, and retention of material.

For the Spring 2013 semester we had the students in the Sci297C class read chapters from the Ambrose book “How Learning Works”, and then the readings were discussed in small groups.  During the class discussions we also had the LAs relate the topics from the Ambrose book to their experiences as LAs.  I administered an end of semester survey to the students in order to get feedback on how to improve the course in the future.  Based on this feedback, I would like to develop some new materials that will allow us to use a mixture of group discussion with more active role play from the LAs.  I would also like to incorporate more educational research articles in conjunction with the Ambrose readings.  Therefore as part of a CESE fellowship, I propose to develop curricular material for Sci297.  Lastly, I would like to work with Dr. Bortiatynski to put together a manual that would be distributed to all new LAs that will contain some informational material, curricular material as well as well as list of best practices.  Once this material is developed and tested, then another goal is to determine which parts of the training could then be easily adapted to use in TA training courses.

The main thing that will be required in order to accomplish the goals outlined in this section is time.  Because it is not realistic to ask for teaching release this summer (and because we would like to have these materials developed in time to use for Fall 2013), I ask for supplemental pay ($500.00) to cover the extra required work load that will occur during this summer session.


Part II: Develop, utilize, and disseminate assessment tools for the LA program

Another goal of this proposal is to develop and disseminate assessment tools.  When assessing the LA program, one needs to consider the affect of the LAs on the students in the classes that utilize LAs, as well as the affect of the LA program on the LAs themselves.  In regards to the LA themselves, we would like to assess the effect of the LA experience on their retention of content knowledge from the course that they LA for as well as their approach to leaning in general. I would posit that the experience of serving as an LA, and taking the pedagogy class will provide insight that will affect the LA’s own learning strategies in a positive manner. 

Attitudinal data can be collected about the effectiveness of the LA program, and this can easily be accomplished through the use of ANGEL surveys and focus groups. Marley Pillon (an honors student who graduated Spring 2013 and did her thesis work on the LA program) has already developed some such attitudinal questions, but I plan to further develop these tools in consultation with Dr. Larkin Hood from the Schreyer Institute, and put them in a format that could be easily transferred to and used by any faculty member that wants to use LAs in their class.  Furthermore, in order to determine whether LAs have a positive outcome on student’s learning gains, comparison studies will need to be done. This study will be designed in consultation with Dr. Larkin Hood as well. For these studies students will be recruited from the BMB401 class offered in the Fall 2013 semester. The students will be assessed towards the beginning of the semester, and again at the end of the semester with a pre- and post-test.  In order to motivate the students to participate in this study, I suggest that we offer a small payment upon completion of the study (ie $20.00 per student).

It is important to not only collect assessment, but to also use the information to help define a set of best practices guidelines that can be disseminated to all faculty using or interested in using LAs.  In order to do this, I propose to use data that has already been gathered by Marley Pillon for her honors thesis (which was collected from LAs and students in 5 different classes in physics, chemistry, and BMB) and by myself (in my Fall 2012 BMB464 and Spring 2013 BMB401 class) to develop tips on how to effectively use LAs in the classroom.  These “best practices” will be included in a faculty manual that I will develop in collaboration with Dr. Jackie Bortiatynski. 


Part III: Investigate the possibility of using LAs and TAs side by side in a laboratory course

Because the roles of LAs and TAs in the classroom have distinct characteristics, I also propose that we investigate the possibility of using LAs and TAs together to help instruct students in laboratory classes.  The LAs are not expected to be absolute content experts, and we do not want the students to view them as such.  Instead, we hope that the training we provide will help the LAs become effective facilitators of active learning by guiding students to utilize and benefit from collaborative learning opportunities.  Meanwhile the laboratory TAs focus on teaching core concepts for the lab course, setting up lab, facilitate the running of the lab and grading lab assignments.  Due to these other responsibilities TAs cannot be as effective in facilitating collaborative learning opportunities.

One way in which I propose to explore the possibility of using LAs and TAs for the same course is to develop a “flipped classroom” approach to teach the nucleic acids portion of BMB442.  BMB442 is a 3 credit lab required of all BMB, MICRB, and BIOTC (general option) students.  The course covers an introduction to molecular biology and biochemistry techniques, with the first half of the semester focused on nucleic acids, and the second half of the course focused on proteins. I routinely teach the nucleic acids portion of the course, and I feel that this class has the potential to greatly benefit from the combined use of LAs and TAs.  In a flipped classroom model, the students would be expected to read background theoretical material before coming to lecture, and then the students would be assessed on this material using an online quiz that would be administered before the lecture time slot.  Then the lecture period could be used to have students do worksheets or data analysis examples related to the lab material for that week.  The LAs could facilitate these exercises held during the lecture time slot.  LAs could also be used in the lab period itself to help encourage students to share, discuss and analyze their own data.  I feel that this type of approach could greatly improve the learning environment and the student’s analytical skills.  In order accomplish these goals, I would need the time to develop the materials.  I propose that I am released from teaching classes in the summer of 2014 in order to have time to develop this model, which could then be administered during the fall of 2014.


Summary of Requested Funds/Release Time:

1. $500.00  Supplemental pay to develop materials

2. $1000.00 to pay students to participate in study ($20.00/student *50 students)

3. Release from teaching requirement in Summer 2014