Assistant Clinical Professor of Biochemistry Purdue University West Lafayette, Indiana, United States
Orla Hart (Purdue University)
2020 required a complete overhaul of curricula, syllabi, and pedagogy by educators across the world. This is not a tale that suggests instruction can possibly be as effective during a global pandemic, and I make no attempt to normalize what students and educators are experiencing. However, I will describe here how the necessary changes I made to an in-person biochemistry lab course for 80 students, led to some unforeseen silver linings. Changes included eliminating in-person TAs, cherry-picking introductory labs that could not be eliminated, and choosing to eliminate one project that I have previously demonstrated as is instrumental in helping students achieve higher levels of learning. These changes were made because social distancing required a reorganization of how we conducted labs. The semester was divided into two modules: Foundational techniques (7 weeks), and protein purification (8 weeks).
Usually the foundational techniques labs would be carried out by teams. In Fall 2020, every student completed each of the foundational techniques labs individually. My hypothesis was that if students have to “fend for themselves” in the lab, rather than depend on team members, they would have to develop a stronger understanding of the material, and master the lab skills more effectively. Data reported by students on their mid-term practical exam (a protein determination assay) supported this hypothesis. Students from the Fall 2020 cohort were significantly more accurate than all 12 other cohorts that have previously taken that assessment. 82% of students reported a protein concentration within 5% accuracy, compared with 34% from Fall 2019, and the average R-squared value of their standard curves was 0.986, compared with 0.973 from Fall 2019.
For the protein purification module, students worked in teams, where alternating team members were present each week. The student attending lab had to record all data, then disseminate it to their team after lab. As mentioned above, a subsequent planned project was eliminated, and I hypothesized that eliminating this second project, which was previously shown to improve higher order thinking skills, and performance on high Bloom’s level assessments, would lead to students failing to achieve the standards of previous cohorts. Interestingly, this was not borne out in the lab assignments or final exams: there was no significant differences in student performances on the final exam in Fall 2020 compared with previous cohorts. While this may seem contradictory, one critical piece of the puzzle should be mentioned here and might explain: The instructor-to-student ratio was 1:8 in the Fall 2020 semester, and there was no additional instruction from TAs during lab times. There were no late penalties for assignments, and remote outreach and engagement by TAs was extremely diligent. In this lab course, the students learned as much, or more, than in a “regular” semester, despite being under huge stress. Before final exam grades were released, 78% of students reported that they learned more in this course than in any of their other courses in Fall 2020, and 63% said they performed better than had expected to in the course. Can this be sustained? Most likely not. At some point, I will have to step out of the teaching lab and do the rest of my job too. But it certainly puts a few things on the radar for future course design.