Closing the gap in science education

Assistant Professor of Biology Amy Briggs wants to know where students get stuck in science.

She says research shows that students often get confused around the early concepts.

“There’s research that shows students have a lot of misconceptions about the basic stuff. As they’re learning the more complicated stuff, they have trouble because they have a shaky foundation,” says Amy.

In the last decade, there’s been a push for science professors to do research in their classrooms. With a team of microbiologist professors from across the country, Amy helped create a database of the concepts students often misunderstand. They created concept inventories, tools that professors can use to gauge learning over the course of the semester, most commonly on multiple choice tests.

Professors give students tests before they learn the material and then again afterwards. The team took three years to gather data, and often wrote and re-wrote the tests to hone in more accurately on the misconceptions.

After coding the data from a variety of institution sizes, public and private, the team was able to come up with several misconceptions about specific areas of microbiology basics. One major example of this was vaccination, in which 21.7 percent of coded responses said that “vaccines must cause disease in order to work,” which directly relates to the misconceptions concepts of cell structure, function, and basic immunity.

“This can also serve as a real tool for the community. If you know students struggle with x concept, then you can say ‘maybe we’ll do an extra activity on this,’” says Amy.

Two papers featuring Amy’s work have been published in the American Society of Microbiology, “Concept inventory development reveals common student misconceptions about microbiology” and “Development, validation, and application of the microbiology concept inventory.”

The database is available online for professors to contribute to and learn from. Amy says she hopes to continue to learn more about how students learn and how professors can teach more effectively, including investigating the persistent STEM performance gap in minority student groups.

By: Whitney Helm
March 30, 2018

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