The BioFlex approach

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The shift

Beginning in the summer of 2013, a team of instructors in the biology flexible learning project, or BioFlex project, have been working on the transformation of BIOL 112 (Biology of the Cell) and BIOL 121 (Genetics, Evolution and Ecology), by introducing evidence-based and learning centered strategies using a flipped classroom model.


BIOL 112 and BIOL 121 are two large enrolment, multi-section (17 sections in total), required first-year courses in the biology program and life sciences discipline, impacting roughly 4,000 first-year students per year.

Under the umbrella of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI), BIOL 112 had been undergoing gradual course transformations to an active format since 2007. With flexible learning providing the necessary support, it was an ideal opportunity to include BIOL 121 in the transformation process with an overarching goal to align the learning objectives of the two foundational courses with other courses in the biology program, and to ensure that students were equipped with the necessary tools to take on courses in year two and beyond.

While some active learning and blended approaches were in practice already in both courses, the BioFlex project helped spur the momentum towards a more thorough learning-centred transformation. The core objectives of the BioFlex project included: development and implementation of evidence-based, learning-centered pedagogical practices; assessment of the classroom practices and student learning; and documentation and improvement as needed in an iterative manner.

Attention was also paid to ensure that students learned the foundational concepts without being overloaded with content at this stage of their education.

Teaching strategies

Learning objectives

In both courses, instructors worked to really refine and align the learning objectives to the way students were being assessed.

“We adopted a backward course design,” said Dr. Sunita Chowrira, the project lead for BIOL 112, “to ensure that the resources and learning activities developed for each topic were in alignment with the learning outcomes and the way students were assessed in the course. We asked ourselves—what and how are we testing students on exams, and then asking, how are we preparing them in class? Then going back and making sure that the learning objectives clearly communicate those expectations to the students—are they detailed, are they aligned with the in-class activities and are they aligned with the types of questions on exams? So every question is carefully reviewed to ensure it meets the criteria communicated in the learning objectives.”

A very similar approach was spearheaded in BIOL 121 by Dr. Pam Kalas. Common learning objectives, both course-level objectives and individual topic-level objectives, were developed as a guide to promote consistency in the teaching and learning activities undertaken across the different sections of the two courses.

Pre-class work

Both courses emphasized in-class activities, which meant that students were required to do work before class to prepare or “set the stage” for these activities. The team collaborated on identification, development, curation and deployment of resources needed for this. The resources included videos and targeted readings, where instructors, for example, pointed out certain sections of a chapter to read and what students should be able to understand after they do the readings. “It helps them prepare in a more effective and efficient manner,” said Karen Smith, the co-lead for BIOL 112, who has been coordinating the course for 10 years.

In the learning-centered environment, learning was promoted by providing learning opportunities both in the classroom and outside the classroom. Class time was used to help students learn to apply factual knowledge to novel situations (problem solving), and to develop conceptual understanding in a well-supported and collaborative environment with instructors, TAs and peer tutors. Resources were developed to facilitate meaningful student engagement with the course content outside of the class, both before class as a way to prepare them for in-class activities with peers and the teaching team, and after class as a way for students to practice application of the concepts learned and test their own understanding. The gathering of factual knowledge was moved outside of the classroom, by making the relevant materials available to students online, to be accessed at any time that was convenient to them.

The challenges

“Time,” Chowrira said was the biggest challenge. “We don’t have the time to do all the things we want to do.”

The BIOL 112 team also said it was challenge to make the videos and animations that they wanted to use for the course. They needed to find people with the ability, and the discipline specific background to make the videos. They ended up hiring a few students, but the resources were not as readily available as they would have liked.

In the case of BIOL 121, Kalas said that even though the project is in its second year, it feels like they’re just at the beginning.

About the course, Erica Jeffery, who is coordinating the evaluation for the project, said, “One of the things I realized was that this project wasn’t just going to end at the end of August this year. The more you work on these things, the more you realize how many more things there are that you can do and that you can work on.

“I think they’re going to continue working on all of these different aspects of the course. I think that’s a big part of the attitude that’s been adopted.”

Kalas also mentioned that one of the themes that’s come up repeatedly is sustainability—how will the project continue without, perhaps, the resources that it’s been getting over the last two years, and with instructors leaving and new instructors coming on board.

What’s next

Jeffery has been leading the evaluation of the project and has been using classroom observation protocols, such as the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM courses (COPUS) and the Behavioural Engagement Related to Instruction (BERI), to inform the team about what the classrooms look like.

“We are using the classroom observation protocols to inform us,” Chowrira said. “What does our classrooms look like? Is it really what we expected or what we thought it would be like? What areas can we change, are we able to improve?”

Jeffery has also been using concept inventories and student focus groups to document student learning and student attitudes in the BioFlex project. Student use of the learning centre and workloads of graduate TAs are other pieces of data being documented in the project to provide help with future planning.

The response

While Jeffery is still working on the evaluation component of the project, the team says that in the last two years they have started to see results.

“One of the impacts that I can certainly attest to,” Chowrira said, “and this is based on my own experiences in second year courses, and experiences of colleagues in second year and upper level courses—they talk about how they find that the students are better prepared coming into their courses compared to previously. We now don’t have to spend class time going over material that we were expecting students to come with from pre-req. courses. Students are more open to and accepting of the active classroom. Our colleagues are seeing a change.”

Teaching Innovation in Practice (TIP): Tipping Points

This case study was presented at Teaching Innovation in Practice (TIP): Tipping Points: The BioFlex Approach in May 2015. Watch the webcast here.