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1.  Rethinking Exams and Letter Grades: How Much Can Teachers Delegate to Students? 
CBE— Life Sciences Education  2006;5(3):270-280.
In this article we report a 3-yr study of a large-enrollment Cell Biology course focused on developing student skill in scientific reasoning and data interpretation. Specifically, the study tested the hypothesis that converting the role of exams from summative grading devices to formative tools would increase student success in acquiring those skills. Traditional midterm examinations were replaced by weekly assessments administered under test-like conditions and followed immediately by extensive self, peer, and instructor feedback. Course grades were criterion based and derived using data from the final exam. To alleviate anxiety associated with a single grading instrument, students were given the option of informing the grading process with evidence from weekly assessments. A comparative analysis was conducted to determine the impact of these design changes on both performance and measures of student affect. Results at the end of each year were used to inform modifications to the course in subsequent years. Significant improvements in student performance and attitudes were observed as refinements were implemented. The findings from this study emphasized the importance of prolonging student opportunity and motivation to improve by delaying grade decisions, providing frequent and immediate performance feedback, and designing that feedback to be maximally formative and minimally punitive.
PMCID: PMC1618686  PMID: 17012219
2.  Teaching Cell Biology in the Large-Enrollment Classroom: Methods to Promote Analytical Thinking and Assessment of Their Effectiveness 
Cell Biology Education  2003;2:180-194.
A large-enrollment, undergraduate cellular biology lecture course is described whose primary goal is to help students acquire skill in the interpretation of experimental data. The premise is that this kind of analytical reasoning is not intuitive for most people and, in the absence of hands-on laboratory experience, will not readily develop unless instructional methods and examinations specifically designed to foster it are employed. Promoting scientific thinking forces changes in the roles of both teacher and student. We describe didactic strategies that include directed practice of data analysis in a workshop format, active learning through verbal and written communication, visualization of abstractions diagrammatically, and the use of ancillary small-group mentoring sessions with faculty. The implications for a teacher in reducing the breadth and depth of coverage, becoming coach instead of lecturer, and helping students to diagnose cognitive weaknesses are discussed. In order to determine the efficacy of these strategies, we have carefully monitored student performance and have demonstrated a large gain in a pre- and posttest comparison of scores on identical problems, improved test scores on several successive midterm examinations when the statistical analysis accounts for the relative difficulty of the problems, and higher scores in comparison to students in a control course whose objective was information transfer, not acquisition of reasoning skills. A novel analytical index (student mobility profile) is described that demonstrates that this improvement was not random, but a systematic outcome of the teaching/learning strategies employed. An assessment of attitudes showed that, in spite of finding it difficult, students endorse this approach to learning, but also favor curricular changes that would introduce an analytical emphasis earlier in their training.
PMCID: PMC192442  PMID: 14506506
Rasch analysis; item response theory; student outcome; student attitude; student confidence

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