Real-time Formative Assessment and Student Learning in Biology

Instructional Challenge

Students taking 100 level science courses to satisfy core requirements outside their declared majors can be a challenging audience for instructors. If students are not engaged, they tend to participate less and may not learn all they need to succeed in the class. Furthermore, without their vocal participation in class, Dr. Blaisdell found it challenging to determine if students were competent in the material. Were they ready to move forward and apply their knowledge in a lab experiment, or would they benefit from review of key concepts?

Instructional Solution

Dr. Blaisdell started using online polling in her Biology 103 classes in Fall, 2018 to enhance student engagement as well as to gain insight into what students were actually learning. She most frequently uses multiple choice questions in her polls, where she writes targeted content questions and suggested answers and then projects her screen for the class. She might ask: Where does the most biomass of a plant come from? And then offer the following suggested answers: The Air, Fertilizer, or The soil. Students then respond by texting in their answers. The answers given then appear as a bar chart or other data visualization to show the responses graphically. When Dr. Blaisdell identifies the correct answer, everyone can see the level of overall understanding or misunderstanding. Dr. Blaisdell evaluates the responses for knowledge gaps or to see if students have learned the essential information from their reading or assignments and are ready to build on that knowledge. Students may also benefit from knowing whether their level of understanding is in line with their peers or if they are falling behind. If a student sees where their answers diverge from their classmates’, they might be prompted to seek extra help or study further. 

While polling gives Dr. Blaisdell insight on student understanding (ie. real-time and ongoing formative assessment), students see it as a fun, low-stakes way to learn–and they get to use their beloved mobile devices for a moment. Used informally in her class, Poll Everywhere enables Dr. Blaisdell to gauge student understanding which she then employs to tailor her lessons accordingly. By seeing how students respond to the specific questions in her polls, she can adjust her course lectures to the present learning needs of that class. Rather than repeating what students have already learned and know, she can move on to focus on the areas where students experience difficulty. This maximizes student attention by targeting their learning and makes the lecture time more efficient and effective for everybody.

Lessons Learned

Dr. Blaisdell found that implementing online polling in her classes was quick and easy. She found the technology to be user-friendly and quickly got up and running with it. The questions she created are stored in her Poll Everywhere account as a library of questions that she can use in different semesters or sections. She found it a worthwhile time and learning investment as it was also quite helpful in engaging those students who were not deeply interested in the field of biology and increased their participation and readiness to learn. 

Another benefit to polling for her was that it allowed students to answer questions without being identified. This anonymity can liberate quieter students from self-consciousness or fear at not getting the answers right. In a typical classroom where some students might not come forward, online polling can be a more inviting formative assessment–where they can participate and learn without that pressure, while giving instructors crucial feedback on their level of understanding.

USF Biology 103 instructor Dr. Kai Blaisdell has found that making a concerted effort to engage these students, whose educational interests lie elsewhere–to keep their attention and get them excited about Biology, helps them to actively engage in the class and successfully achieve the course learning outcomes.