The content of many courses is too focused on the facts—those details that students memorize, use to answer test questions, and then promptly forget. That criticism has been levied against many introductory college-level courses, especially by those of us who think faculty are too focused on covering content. But is it a fair criticism? Do introductory courses ignore the higher-level thinking skills, like those identified on the Bloom taxonomy? Is the evidence empirical or anecdotal?
There isn’t much empirical evidence—that’s what a group of researchers discovered in their review of the literature. They decided to undertake an analysis of introductory biology courses to see whether or not evidence supportive of the criticism existed. Here are the three research questions they aimed to answer: 1) “What is the mean cognitive level faculty routinely target in introductory undergraduate biology, as evidenced on course syllabi and assessments?” 2) “Did faculty align their course goals and assessments to determine the degree to which students achieved the stated goals?” and 3) “What factors—class size, institution type, or articulating objectives on the course syllabus—predict the cognitive level of assessment items used on exams?” (p. 436)
They collected sample syllabi from 50 faculty who taught 77 different introductory biology courses, about half of which were general biology courses. They taught at a wide range of different public and private institutions. The teaching experience of the faculty cohort ranged from three to 36 years, and the size of the classes they taught ranged from 14 students to almost 500 students, with a mean class size of 192.
They looked at goals stated on the syllabi and categorized them using the Bloom taxonomy. They also analyzed what they called “high-stakes course assessments,” meaning quizzes and exams that accounted for 60–80 percent of the course grade. “These data provide evidence of what faculty consider important in the course. Goals stated in syllabi reflect faculty priorities about what they expect students to know and be able to do; assessments reflect how faculty evaluate students’ achievement of those learning goals.” (p. 436)
The findings are breathtaking—at least they took away this editor’s breath. “Of the 9,713 assessment items submitted to this study by 50 faculty teaching introductory biology, 93% were rated Bloom’s level 1 or 2—knowledge and comprehension. Of the remaining items, 6.7% rated level 3 with less than 1% rated level 4 or above.” (p. 437) And the news about course goals wasn’t much better. Of the 250 that were pulled from course syllabi, 69 percent were at levels 1 and 2 on the Bloom taxonomy. The level of assessments was not affected by class size or by institutional type. Students’ knowledge and understanding of facts were what was being assessed in virtually all these courses.
Some may be tempted to argue that students must begin to understand a discipline by acquiring these basic facts—that it is knowledge of these facts that enables students to do higher-level thinking tasks. “Evidence to supports such claims … is lacking.” (p. 439) These researchers argue that high-level thinking skills must be developed right along with a knowledge base, and they contend that those kinds of thinking skills only develop when there is opportunity to practice them.
“We do not have a prescription for the ‘right’ cognitive level of goals and assessments in an introductory course.” (p. 439) However, their findings would certainly indicate that in terms of fostering higher-order thinking skills, the current balance is not “right.” “We believe that students should begin practicing the skills of connecting, transferring, and modeling scientific concepts at the start, not the end, of their degree programs.”
This analysis focused on introductory biology courses. Every discipline offers introductory course work, and the norm is to packed those courses with content. Does that content focus too much on the factual details? That’s a question every discipline ought to be exploring, and this study provides a great model of how that analysis can be undertaken.
Reference: Momsen, J. L., Long, T. L., Wyse, S. A., and Ebert-May, D. (2010). Just the facts? Introductory undergraduate biology course focus on low-level cognitive skills. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 9 (Winter), 435-440.
Reprinted from Too Much Focus on Facts? The Teaching Professor, 26.3(2012): 6.