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Biology professor uses own classroom for researching teaching methods

May 8, 2013

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

Assistant Biology Professor Amy Briggs studies plant immunity, but she also trains her keen scientist’s eye on a project a little closer to home, using her own classroom as a lab in more ways than one—including researching teaching methods.

As part of a research residency with the American Society of Microbiology, Briggs was tasked with implementing a research project in the classroom. She decided to focus on quantifying student learning gains to determine if professors’ teaching methods are effective.

“There are a lot of misconceptions that remain even after students take a number of biology courses in which we think we covered important material in an active and engaged way,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to quantify our gut instincts about this.”

Thus, Briggs’ goal is to better uncover student misconceptions so that professors can tailor their course designs to meet the needs of students.

She conducted research last fall in her two genetics classes by comparing the test scores of the traditional pre- and post-tests with that of her newly implemented concept maps. While the former are multiple choice, the latter asks students to graphically connect two words. For example, she might ask students to give a verb that correlates with DNA and cell.

She has found so far that students might not necessarily do well on both tests, indicating that concept maps are in fact measuring something very different than pre- and post-tests. Now her goal is to tease apart what’s different about them and on what levels of knowledge and understanding the two models are testing students.

At this stage in her research, Briggs theorizes that the structure of the pre- and post-tests allows students to rely more on short-term memory of definitions, whereas concept maps push students to think about how the concepts are connected.

After continuing her research on her next two genetics classes in the fall, she plans to use the data as an assessment tool to learn the misconceptions of students. She will then use that knowledge to design classroom activities that better address what they don’t understand.

“We’re scientists, and we should approach our teaching with the same level of rigor we approach our research,” Briggs said. “Teaching isn’t an end point, but a continuous process just like research. As you gain new information and observations, you can change your methods.”

SOURCE: Assistant Professor of Biology Amy Briggs is a molecular biologist specializing in plant pathology. She uses biochemistry, microscopy, bioinformatics, molecular biology, and genetics techniques to study the molecular mechanisms by which the plant Arabidopsis thaliana responds to bacterial and fungal infections. Briggs teaches Human Biology, Microbiology, Emerging Diseases, Cellular and Developmental Biology, and Genetics. She received her bachelor’s degree from Lawrence University and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.