A Journey to Develop a First-year Course in Critical Thinking. And the Learning Community it Created

thinkingHow do you develop a course called “Critical and Creative Thinking in the Life Sciences”? A course that isn’t content-driven – a course that will be taught by multiple instructors in multiple sections to all incoming students within a program that encompasses 7 majors and 2 colleges? How do you get that course approved by the various committees? Where does it fit into the curriculum for graduation? These were just some of our questions. The following is a brief history of our triumphs and struggles.

First-year programs, increasingly common in undergraduate institutions, have been shown to have positive consequences both for students and for the schools. At NC State, we instituted a Life Sciences First Year Program (LSFY) and included a new course entitled Critical and Creative Thinking in the Life Sciences (LSC 101).  We cited a call to critical and creative thinking – less content – more active learning from multiple sources: Vision and Change, Paul and Elder’s Guide to Critical and Creative Thinking, countless publications supported by NSF, HHMI, AAAS – the list goes on. It was the thing to do – all the “cool” schools were doing it! We thought we were completely prepared to tackle this.

Course Goals: (A struggle in itself to get 5 amiable colleagues to agree)

  • challenge students to apply the intellectual standards of critical and creative thinking
  • guide students to an understanding and appreciation of the rhetoric of science
  • help students gain an understanding of fundamental principles of the nature and conduct of science within the life sciences
  • encourage and challenge students to become active, engaged learners through an understanding of effective approaches to learning

These goals seemed reasonable…and vague. How do we achieve them? The curriculum committees would need to see specific activities and assessments. They would want to see…a syllabus. NOW what do we do? We need outcomes! We need backward design! The scientists in the room panicked like their hair was on fire – what WERE these terms? (I should admit that we were all trained as research scientists who had done extensive teaching and discovered we loved it.) Most of us had attended the National Academies Summer Institute. We were doing many of these things in our classrooms already – we just didn’t realize these approaches had names.

Our team was fortunate to have the support of our college and passing our syllabus through the various committees was relatively painless. Many schools have a 1-2 credit hour course that welcomes freshmen to the university. We replaced that course with this and made sure to incorporate information about research, internship, advisement, and other opportunities.

Activities: (More of a triumph – we had lots of ideas)

Ultimately, the course used a variety of approaches, with case studies and extensive group work incorporated into each class. Some of the case studies came from the NSF case study website, others were developed by our team. Students were required to solve problems, design experiments, and interpret data. They created and critiqued arguments. They evaluated scientific writings from peer-reviewed journals. We used classic communications like Nature’s classic Watson and Crick paper and the Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty paper from the Journal of Experimental Medicine to contrast different styles, target audiences, and impact of scientific communications. Students discussed mini-ethics cases from news sources (a student favorite). They wrote mini grant proposals (A shout out to Kover et al!). They learned the fundamental principles of the neurobiology of learning and developed their own strategies for learning. And almost all of these activities as well as some of the formative assessments were done within small groups of students working together as a cooperative team.

Back to the struggles:

We learned quickly that it was critical to have an instructor resource page to dump content, ideas, lesson plans, and anecdotes about time management, pitfalls, and student interest. As the student community grew, the discussion of “fairness” came up. “The other section didn’t have to do THAT assignment” or “I wish we had done THAT”. The site is very much a work in progress as we match activities with learning outcomes and work to create a bank of options for each. Ideally, these activities are dynamic as we incorporate current issues into the assignments.

And it was critical (and helped solidify the faculty community) to meet with each other weekly to discuss ideas and present a unified front. I know. I hate meetings too. So we set a stopwatch for 15 minutes. We met at a coffee shop on campus and we touched base. Honestly – 15 minutes is all it needs to be – think elevator talk.

What We Ultimately Learned:

So I mentioned we inadvertently created a learning community – it’s in the title – it must be true. And as a scientist, I thought I would provide a little data. (Very little data.) In many large universities, introductory courses populated by first-year students are large lectures with little opportunity for interaction. By creating small sections (30-40 students) of a required first semester course and structuring it so that much of the assessments relied on interaction, we hoped it would create learning communities that would last beyond those first few months. According to survey data, 94% of the students made new friends, 64% of these students purposefully scheduled classes with each other for future semesters, and 47% have formed study groups for courses other than LSC 101 (typically, chemistry and biology). It is our hope that providing this additional vehicle for forming learning communities will increase retention and overall GPA. So far, we have increased retention of students from freshman to sophomore year from 92% to 95%. And so far, students have been excited by the course. We will continue to track this information….”we” referring to our newly-formed faculty community of LSC 101 instructors and 15-minute coffee drinkers.



  1. R. Paul and L. Elder. (2008). The Thinker’s Guide to Critical and Creative Thinking http://www.criticalthinking.org/files/CCThink_6.12.08.pdf
  2. Brewer, C. A., & Smith, D. (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action.American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DCwww.visionandchange.org
  1. Stone E.M. (2014). Guiding Students to Develop an Understanding of Scientific Inquiry: A Science Skills Approach to Instruction and Assessment. Cell Biology Education
  2. Stefanou, C.R. and Salisbury-Glennon, J.D. (2002). Developing motivation and cognitive learning strategies through an undergraduate learning community. Learning Environ Res 5:77-92.
  3. Jamelske, E. (2009). Measuring the impact of a university first-year experience program on student GPA and retention. High Educ 57:373-391.
  4. Handelsman J., Ebert-May D., Beichner R., Bruns P., Chang A., DeHaan R., Gentile J., Lauffer S., Stewart J., Tilghman S., Wood, W. (2004). Scientific Teaching. Science 304:521-522.
  5. Kover, H., Wirt, S.E., Owens, M.T., and Dosmann, A. J. (2014). “Thinking like a Neuroscientist”: Using Scaffolded Grant Proposals to Foster Scientific Thinking in a Freshman Neuroscience Course. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 13(1): A29-A40.


Lisa Parks, North Carolina University


Lisa Parks is the Honors Program Director and Teaching Associate Professor in Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. In addition to her regular teaching load of cell biology and advanced human physiology, she helped develop and currently teaches in the new Life Science First Year Program. She has been a participant and a mentor in the National Academies Summer Institute where she was bitten by the “research as pedagogy – inquiry-based learning – critical thinking” bug. She gladly drops what she is doing to talk about this course. Lisa received her BS in Zoology from Duke University and her PhD in Biology with a concentration in cell physiology at Georgia State University.

One thought on “A Journey to Develop a First-year Course in Critical Thinking. And the Learning Community it Created”

I have found that when faculty members work together on task forces and committees, they frequently begin to talk the same language and become better at interpreting other perspectives.

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