Quantitative Skills and Complexity: How can we Combat these Challenges and Equip Undergraduate Students to Think and Practice as Biologists?

Rebecca J. LeBard, Rachel E. Thompson, Rosanne Quinnell

Abstract


Mapping the pedagogical process of learning in biology has shown that fieldwork and laboratory practicals require students to use quantitative skills in a high-level learning context. These tasks include creating graphical representations of data and performing statistical analyses, and are major areas of student disengagement and poor performance. Biology educators face a challenge: how to keep students engaged in mastering new techniques and methodology to develop the ‘thinking of a biologist’, while developing confidence using quantitative mathematical skills. Here we investigate the use of an online learning module in molecular biology to simplify this complex process of learning in biology. The module emphasised the links between the concept (gene regulation), experiments (growing Escherichia coli in the presence of different effector molecules and substrates) and the data recorded. An audit of student assignments and surveys before and after the introduction of the module indicated that students improved their data presentation skills. Results highlight the cognitive and practical complexity of the task. The usefulness of consolidating information by providing extra time using a blended approach to laboratory practicals is discussed. Finally, the relationship between the practical activity and threshold concepts, thinking dispositions and mindfulness is made to better understand how we can assist students to become quantitatively confident and competent in their practice as biologists.

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