Jamie Oaks bio photo

Jamie Oaks

Evolutionary biologist.

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As a scientist and aspiring educator (perhaps someday I will get a “real” academic job), I am a strong proponent for integrating science into education. I think we can all agree there is a need for more science in the science classroom; seems obvious. Additionally, I think educators can benefit from taking a scientific approach to their craft. More generally, an evidence-based approach seems like a good idea for almost anything (don’t get me started on the need for evidence-based reasoning in our political system).

I think science education stands to greatly benefit from increased adherence to evidence-based curriculum development. This entails measuring students’ understanding of core concepts of a field of study and using such data to evaluate the effectiveness of different teaching material and strategies. Over the 2014 Winter quarter, I attempted to take the initial steps toward implementing such an approach for teaching phylogenetics—the study of the evolutionary relationships among organisms.

The Course

Dr. Adam Leaché and I recently initiated an evidence-based approach to teaching the Applied Phylogenetics (BIOL 449/553) course at the University of Washington. The course teaches advanced undergraduate and graduate students about phylogenetic methods, with a particular focus on applying such methods to biological data using currently available software. Adam is the lead instructor of the course, Jared Grummer was the teaching assistant for the Winter 2014 quarter, and several postdocs lectured for the course as well; I taught a guest lecture and lab on divergence-time estimation.

The Survey

I developed a knowledge-assessment survey for phylogenetics, which we had the students in Applied Phylogenetics complete at the beginning and end of the 2014 Winter quarter. You can see a comparison of the students’ responses before and after taking the course here. Based on the results of the survey, the students’ understanding of core concepts in phylogenetics did improve after taking the Applied Phylogenetics course. The utility of the results of this survey from one quarter of the class is limited. However, by administering the survey each time the class is taught, we will establish baseline data on how students are acquiring knowledge of fundamental concepts in phylogenetics. This data can then be used to compare the effectiveness of different teaching strategies and course exercises.

Some might argue that such a survey is not necessary, because we can use students’ scores on exams as metrics of teaching effectiveness. I agree that exam scores provide additional data, however, I don’t think they are sufficient. The objective of exams is to measure how well students learn specific course material. The goal of the survey is to measure how well the instructors taught the core concepts of the field of study. The questions are general (i.e., not based on specific class material), and the students do not prepare for the survey (it is anonymous and has no affect on their grade). I think examining our own performance in the classroom as teachers is equally (if not more) important as examining the ability of students to recite specific material.

All of the material I developed for the class, including the knowledge-assessment survey and guest lecture and lab, is freely available on Github under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Feel free to use and modify it; I think there is plenty of room for improving the survey!