Biology instructor transforms his lecture course one new technology tool at a time


David Bos

Like so many faculty members, continuing biology lecturer David Bos started his career at Purdue by lecturing several hundred first- and second-year students per course in a large lecture hall. By the end of his first year, Bos knew he needed a more engaging way to teach. He saw how his method of instruction was not in alignment with his assessment methods. Lectures led to knowledge and comprehension skills, but he wanted his pre-professional students to improve their higher-level analysis and application skills.

Over the next six years, Bos made it a point to attend conferences and Purdue's Center for Instructional Excellence workshops on teaching. He also heard about ITaP instructional technology, such as clickers and class recordings. Today, he continues to remodel his course every year or so by adding or changing one element — a slow but manageable transformation to a more student-centered model, despite his large classes and teaching 1,300 students in the fall and about 850 in spring. He says the changes have improved student engagement along with enhancing students' critical thinking skills.

Bos, who teaches fundamentals of biology, wanted his students to have more practice analyzing and applying the material in their agronomy, animal science, forestry, pre-medicine, pre-nursing, pre-pharmacy, pre-veterinary and other life-science curriculums.

"I teach a rigorous course and, aside from content on cell biology, genetics, ecology and evolution, I hope to teach my students to analyze problems, offer solutions and apply newfound knowledge," Bos says.

Initially, he worked with ITaP to add clickers, a student-response system. Bos begins class with a question about the previous lecture's content. Students answer via clicker and then discuss their answers in small groups. Bos says he's found that students who initially didn't know the answer tend to become more comfortable with the material through the group discussions. His listening to the discussions also tells him what he needs to review with the class.

Bos "flipped" reading assignments so students read a chapter before his lecture and can send him content questions anonymously through Hotseat, an online tool that uses social media for messaging. This exchange often tells him before a lecture what students don't understand in the new chapter. Bos says using Hotseat also encourages first- and second-year students to ask more questions because he has observed that they tend to be self-conscious in a lecture hall with hundreds of peers. Hotseat is a web-based application developed by ITaP to enhance instruction and increase student interaction.

Bos devoted a summer to reworking his lessons to help students develop higher-level thinking skills. When his project did not qualify him for funding from the CIE, the director suggested Bos consult with an ITaP educational technologist.

ITaP ed tech Hans Aagard met with him weekly to remodel his course and give students more exposure and practice in diagnosing problems and reaching solutions. Aagard and Bos worked through each lesson, writing achievable objectives for each lecture, lab and recitation class.

According to Aagard, their work was one of the pioneer efforts before the launch of the Purdue Provost's IMPACT project — Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation — which aims to improve student academic success in introductory courses with large enrollments. Faculty who become IMPACT fellows work to engage students and improve performance by using best practices from research about teaching and learning.

"Some faculty members see new technology as a massive undertaking, but no one says we have to add them all at once," Bos says. "We need to take advantage of campus resources. ITaP ed techs, for example, have advanced degrees in pedagogy and instructional design and technologies. They 'get' what we need, and they want to help us.

For fall semester 2012, Bos started regularly communicating students' performance in the course and tips for improvement by using Blackboard Learn's Early Warning System. Also this fall, the Office of the Provost provided funding to the Student Access, Transitions and Success (SATS) Programs for six teaching assistants. These undergraduate students will serve as online coaches, guiding and encouraging Bos's struggling students and sending them regular e-mails regarding low or failing performance and relaying information about supplemental instruction sessions.

Bos also credits the strong support of the Biology Department, which provides 15 TAs for each section this fall of about 425 students and other TAs to help in lab and recitation sessions.

"I believe our teaching role in higher ed is shifting from being content distributors to learning facilitators," Bos says. "Students today are just not like the ones universities taught in the 1970s and 1980s. The Internet has changed that. They can now find the content, so our new purpose is to teach them how to judge the validity of source materials and apply what they know to real-world issues. And, we need to accept that the constancy of technology in their lives is here to stay."

To schedule a one-on-one or small-group consultation about any ITaP instructional technology, contact ITaP's teaching and learning staff. Faculty may wish to bookmark the ITaP training calendar for ongoing reference and workshop registration. ITaP ed techs also address specific issues in instructional technology in their teaching and learning blog.

Writer: Carol Bloom, ITaP Communications, 765-496-7998,

Sources: Hans Aagard, in care of Donalee Attardo, director of ITaP's instructional services, ITaP Academic Technologies, 765-494-2696,

Suzanne Ahlersmeyer, instructional designer, ITaP Academic Technologies, 765-496-7403,

David Bos, continuing lecturer, Department of Biological Sciences, 765-494-8528,

(This article originally appeared in ITaP News on September 7, 2012.)

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