NSF grant supports project to improve undergraduate physiology curriculum

Posted at 10:10 AM, Aug 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-22 10:10:40-04

Michigan State University researcher Kevin Haudek is the lead investigator of a three-year, $485,000 National Science Foundation that develops learning progressions and evaluates principle-based reasoning in undergraduate physiology students.

Principle-based reasoning is a practice of mind used by scientists to approach problems and constrain the boundaries of problems.

“We believe that using such principles will help students think more like a scientist,” said Haudek, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the College of Natural Science.

When students are able to demonstrate principle-based reasoning, they are capable of accurately predicting outcomes to disturbances of a system. Too often, the reliance “on rote memorization rather than principle-based reasoning to solve problems, leads to ‘context-bound’ thinking that fails to build robust understandings,” which limits students’ ability to excel in the sciences.

The project is a cross-disciplinary collaboration between MSU researchers Joyce Parker in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, John Merrill in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Mark Urban-Lurain in the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU and researchers at the University of Washington.

The grant proposes to create the first learning progression in undergraduate physiology focusing on flux and mass balances core concepts.

“Our learning progression will guide the creation of assessments instructors can use to determine where their students are along the spectrum of understanding,” Haudek said.

When designing assessments, researchers and instructors must choose between constructed response and multiple-choice formats. Haudek noted the project will focus on the development of CR assessments and the evaluation of these assessments using computerized scoring methods.

“We believe CR assessments have certain advantages, which is why we’d like to develop these types of assessment items and framed in a whole new content area,” he said.

Another aim of the grant is to begin to gather information about national trends in student learning of physiology during two and four-year programs.

“The results of this aim may indicate that some gaps or ‘plateaus of improvement’ might exist over the course of a curricular program,” Haudek said.

Haudek and his colleagues are hopeful the project will positively impact a variety of science-based programs since physiology intersects with so many other degrees and career paths.

“Although the project is not structured for the purpose of specifically addressing issues related to curricular gaps,” Haudek said, “one outcome of the study may be that some departments and programs become more self-reflective in the way students’ understanding of course content is evaluated, thus prompting changes in instruction, courses and or programs."