An Intelligent Approach to Blended Learning in Intro Biology

After instructor Pam Thomas redesigned her 1,000-plus student biology course, DFW rates fell to 10% and average test grades rose to a B.

biologist holding small plantFew instructors relish teaching high-volume introductory courses, but University of Central Florida (UCF) biology instructor Pam Thomas is one of them. “The more students, the better,” she says. “Even though I’m teaching the same class, it’s never the same. It stays fresh, and it’s super interesting.”

Still, managing 1,000-plus students per semester is a significant challenge, even for a three-time faculty teaching fellow with 20 years’ experience and multiple teaching assistants. The majority of students aren’t biology majors and, Thomas says, “A lot of students have a phobia of biology. They say they just can’t do it.”

Adding to this challenge was a university-driven shift in Thomas’ course to fewer in-person meetings and more online work: she wanted to add more structure, accountability and engagement to the digital components of the class.

Thomas knew she needed help. She’d tried digital learning systems that showed her what students were doing and helped her communicate with them, but she wanted more. “I’d been looking for good AI [artificial intelligence] for a long time for a couple of reasons. I wanted a personalized learning environment for each one of my students. It’s totally possible to do that in a large class if you have the right tools,” she said. “The other big reason was we needed to unify students’ skill levels. In these large classes, they’re all over the map when they enter.”

Thomas knew how she could make it easier to manage her course and help her students be more successful; all that was missing was a way to bring it to life. When she was invited to participate in UCF’s Course Redesign Initiative, she found the solution she’d been seeking in Realizeit, an intelligent learning system that was already helping UCF faculty in more than 35 courses.

Starting Small to Yield Big Results

In summer 2018, Thomas created three digital learning modules in Realizeit for her Biology I course, working in partnership with instructional designer Corrinne Stull. After the first run of the updated course, DFW rates fell to 10-12% from previous highs of 20-25%. Modes on test grades rose from 65-70% to 80-90%. Since then, Thomas has added digital modules in Realizeit for nearly all core topics, and the positive trends have continued.

Course redesign may sound daunting, but Thomas started small, focusing on three areas she knew introductory biology students struggled with most: acids and bases, the chemistry of life, and transcription and translation. “You do have to put in some time up front, but once the course is running, it’s a revolution in teaching. I’m probably saving 12-15 hours a week,” she says. “I can do all kinds of other things.”

Case in point: class time now focuses mainly on active learning activities instead of solely on lectures. Students learn the material online and demonstrate their knowledge via formative assessments ahead of class. The digital modules combine Thomas’ original content with open educational resources (OER).
“I know what they have trouble with and how to explain it to them,” she says. “That’s what I love. In this system you can write your own content, and you also can employ OER. It’s so flexible, and that’s why it works.” Students still have an ebook as well, but the pricey textbook is optional.

More Personalization, More Practice

Outside of class, Thomas also has more time to spend on one-to-one interventions based on students’ individual needs – typically near-impossible in high-enrollment courses. Using Realizeit’s analytics, Thomas can quickly see groups of students who need outreach – such as those who are falling behind or those who haven’t started the week’s work – and contact them with help from her TAs.

Students also can proactively signal that they need help by flagging problems on which they have questions. Through Realizeit, Thomas sees what and where the questions are and then responds. Additionally, students can indicate how they’re feeling about the course (happy, content, unhappy or frustrated) by selecting an emoji that shows up alongside their name on the faculty dashboard; those selecting the latter two are contacted right away.

This level of personal attention yields an extra benefit: students see that Thomas is paying attention, which drives up their engagement – and their sense of accountability.

Another critical part of the personalization students experience is having more agency over how and what they learn. “They can ask for alternate content, they can watch videos, they can do more problems. They’re empowered to select how they want to learn and can do what they think will help them the most,” Thomas says.

She points to a specific topic to illustrate why this works. “We used to have an incredible problem with students learning DNA synthesis. They get it mixed up with transcription and translation because there’s RNA, DNA and enzymes in both. We could go over it in lecture all day long and they still wouldn’t get it. Now they’re not mixed up anymore,” Thomas says. “They can see the pictures, they can drill into it, they can watch the videos. And by that point they have it.”

Thomas’ new approach also delivers one more essential component for biology students: more practice. Previously, Thomas had to create new question banks every one-and-a-half to two years – students were sharing questions and memorizing answers. With Realizeit, she creates variable-based questions that automatically plug in new values every time they’re delivered.

“They can practice as much as they want,” she says. “I have infinite patterns I can create for problems, and they can all work together and still learn what’s going on. I’m thrilled beyond anything you can imagine.”