Conceptual assessment in the biological sciences (CABS)


In recent years the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded several groups of biology educators to begin developing concept inventories in the biological sciences. Representatives of these groups and others met in Boulder, CO to exchange information about the challenges and successes in these efforts. The meeting was organized by Mike Klymkowsly and colleagues and the University of Colorado, Boulder and was supported by the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program in the Division of Undergraduate Education at NSF.

There were 14 presentations (listed below) on a range of topics. For instance, Joel Michael described his work on students' misunderstandings in physiology, Susan Elrod explained her development of a genetics concept inventory, and Kathy Garvin-Doxas updated the group on the Klymkowsky group's progress towards development of a concept inventory for General Biology.

Following the presentations, there was discussion of conceptual coverage by the inventories in the biological sciences. Discussion also included the perennial complaints about biology textbooks trying to cover too much and not being organized in terms of the big ideas. Over the course of the workshop, there was increasing discussion of the approach taken in introductory biology by the Michigan State University group (Parker, Anderson, and Merrill). Rather than a horizontal piling of sub-disciplines (e.g., cell and molecular, genetics, physiology, ecology, evolution), material is presented vertically in terms of three themes: keeping track of matter, keeping track of energy and energy transformations, and keeping track of information flow.

Breakout groups talked about the next steps for conceptual inventory for these areas: nature of science, introductory biology, genetics, evolution, and ecology. The ecology group focused on students being able to develop models of systems (e.g., concept mapping a system) and discussed the components of students' doing that: observing, connecting, inferring, predicting, evaluating, plus handling the concepts of random and probability appropriately. For an ecology unit in introductory biology or for ecology courses (a more advanced level of presentation), the ecology group suggested that the three vertical themes from the Michigan State University approach might be: biogeochemical cycle (tracing matter in systems), population growth and interactions (tracking energy flow), and evolution of ecosystems (tracking information flow via myriad feedback mechanisms). Concept inventories could consist of ecological problems or scenarios, similar to that previously developed for evolution and could be conducted as pre- and post-assessments. At the conclusion, workshop participants decided that further workshops should focus on the content of introductory biology for the time being, with the next workshop within a year to follow up on progress made and future goals.

Papers, in order of presentation: