In 2018, Dr. William Carr, Professor of Biology at Medgar Evers College (MEC) of the City University of New York, confronted a challenge: Many of his General Biology I students struggled to master key concepts, and the in-class active learning exercises he relied on seemed to have hit a limit on how much they helped.
As described in an earlier case study, Dr. Carr began by trying to better understand exactly where students were having trouble. Using a digital OER platform called Waymaker, offered by Lumen Learning, in collaboration with investigators at Lumen Learning he compared quiz results for his students to national averages. That comparison highlighted the need for improved learning outcomes on two concepts: the carbonyl functional group (composed of a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom) and the difference between plant cells and animal cells.
“In both areas the quiz scores of the students didn’t reflect the effort they were putting in,” Dr. Carr says. “They’d go over the material and retake the quizzes many times and still didn’t do well.”
Located in Brooklyn, New York, MEC is a four-year college with a student population of 7,000 that is 76 percent Black and 15 percent Hispanic. “It’s primarily a commuter college,” says Dr. Carr, who worked as an aquatic animal veterinarian and then an immunologist researching HIV pathogenesis in South Africa before coming to MEC.
“I would say over half my students are working either part time or full time, so they have very limited time available,” he says. “There’s a wide variation in their college preparedness. Many have been trained to memorize, and their level of understanding of complex concepts tends to be very superficial.”
Redesigning homework for engagement and understanding
Dr. Carr decided that he needed to implement effective and engaging homework assignments to complement the in-class exercises, and he wanted a digital learning tool to support that. After attending a Lumen Learning-sponsored hackathon, he settled on a platform called HTML5 Package (H5P). H5P is a free, mobile-friendly, and open-source content collaboration framework that allows instructors and students to create, share, and reuse interactive content.
He innovated with digital learning and assigned an activity that required students to develop original multiple-choice quiz questions on one of the two key concepts previously identified. Students were instructed to design different questions assessing the first five levels of learning — remember, understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate — in Bloom’s taxonomy. He began the project by creating short instructional videos on how to use the H5P platform, and on how to interpret Bloom’s taxonomy, to emphasize the differences between kinds of learning.
The assignment asked students to create multiple-choice questions and to annotate each possible response to explain why it was a correct or incorrect answer. Based on Bloom’s hierarchy of learning, students created lower-level questions independently, and then created higher-level questions as group assignments.
To practice lower-level questions that demonstrate remembering and understanding, for instance, Dr. Carr asked students to develop ways to assess where photosynthesis would occur in a plant or why it occurs in the leaves rather than in the roots. To practice higher-level questions, he asked students to consider how a quiz taker could interpret and use data about photosynthesis in developing their question.
“For example, I might show them how to use an image of the absorption spectrum to show different wavelengths of light, asking which wavelength is optimal for photosynthesis,” he explains. “That level of question requires the test taker to assess data and differentiate between various possibilities.”
The ultimate point of this unique quiz writing activity, says Dr. Carr, was to have students employ the sixth and highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy — to demonstrate mastery of the concepts by creating new or original work.
The results of Dr. Carr’s innovated digital learning intervention were dramatic: When he surveyed his students, 75 percent reported that their confidence in explaining scientific content had increased. “Students commented that they realized that they couldn’t just memorize the material,” he says. “They actually had to understand it well enough to create and answer the questions. In some cases, the students designed questions that were much more difficult than the ones I would have created.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Carr was making similar adjustments in his advanced immunology class. “One thing students struggle with is somatic DNA recombination,” he says “It’s a complex topic. So that was something I chose to focus on.” When he assigned the quiz-writing activity to those students, “they were really getting into the fine details, asking about specific enzymes and things happening on a molecular level.”
Since the pilot study, Dr. Carr has adjusted his classroom approach to remove barriers to equity for his students. “I’ve been trying to move away from traditional testing,” he says. “I think many of the people in my classes may be good students but not necessarily good test takers. So I’ve been moving more and more toward project-based assignments.” This approach, innovated with digital learning, says Dr. Carr, benefits students who may know the material, but experience anxiety about tests.