Prevost Lab at USF

Our assessments tackle several key concepts in biology, including 1) information flow in genetics, 2) matter and energy flow in ecology, and 3) structure and function relationships in physiology, as well as biology problem solving. We are part of the Automated Assessment Research Group (AACR), a NSF-funded national collaboration to develop written assessments and tools to automatically score students’ writing in order to learn more about how students engage in STEM learning.

Automated Assessment of Student Writing

Previous studies have shown that students struggle with the role of stop codons during protein synthesis. We developed automated analysis scoring models for a suite of questions on genetic mutations and stop codons during replication, transcription and translation. We used these tools to assess where students’ understanding fails. We found that students have the most trouble identifying effects of a stop codon mutation on transcription, an incorrect idea that is often missed in traditional protein synthesis assessments.

These models were used to develop and assess a teaching activity in the classrooms of biology faculty at four undergraduate institutions. We found these assessments useful in helping faculty identify student misconceptions in their own classroom. The tools also helped teachers measure the effectiveness of teaching change.

The movement of matter and energy is a core biology concept and essential for understanding ecosystem ecology. This can be a challenge to students as they are required to interact between scales; for example, tracing the movement of atoms and molecules through ecosystems.  We are developing questions with their associated automated scoring models to determine how students trace matter and energy. Other questions are designed to understand how students interpret food webs, an important representation of energy flow. 

We are exploring assessment and model development for physiology education, especially the relationship between structure and function. In development are automated structure and function assessments to examine how students apply the relationship between structure and function at various levels of organization. We are also examining the effect of question prompts on students’ ability to apply this concept.

Documented Problem solving
In addition to developing assessments that examine student understanding of biology concepts, we are also interested in how students solve biology problems.  Writing can also provide a lens through which to view student problem solving. We have used the documented problem-solving approach (Angelo and Cross, 1993) which asks students to write down each step taken in solving multiple-choice problems. We found that higher-order questions asking students to analyze multiple pieces of data elicited the most high-order steps based on Bloom’s taxonomy.  We also observed that assessments with visual representations, particularly those that ask students to evaluate multiple pieces of evidence, prompted higher-order thinking.