Monthly Archives: September 2014

Plant Biology: Core Concepts and Learning Objectives for Undergraduates

Plants are not optional.  Plants are essential for everyone’s daily life because they are integral to most all fibers (e.g. cotton, paper, and wood), sustainable biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and food. In fact, with 9 billion mouths to feed and arable land always at a premium, feeding the world requires new technology.  Plant biology can help.  Your students need to understand why and how. Use the Core Concepts in Plant Biology– with learning objectives and sample student activities – to make sure this happens this year.

Core Concepts Recap: With support from NSF, ASPB pursued a peer-reviewed process with plant biologists and created these concepts to address the need for instructional materials in plant biology. The materials must align with Vision and Change recommendations for transforming undergraduate biology education.

Plants need light, soil, air and water. Metaphorically speaking, students majoring in plant biology do,too. Here’s why using the core concepts and learning objectives of plant biology can cultivate your students’ exposure, inquiry and expertise in this field:

  • Quality soil provides a firm foundation and houses a rich environment of interactive elements that sustain growth.  The Core Concepts of Plant Biology is a field of goals and learning objectives for teaching biology – with plants as model systems to AP or undergraduate students. The concepts are organized to align with and expand upon the four life science domains of the framework for K-12 science education developed by the National Academy of Sciences Board on Science Education. Those domains are: (1) From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, (2) Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, (3) Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits, and (4) Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity. Each set of plant biology concepts begins with a description of the foundational knowledge in the domain. This rich soil is fertile ground for your syllabus and your students.
  • Healthy air provides necessary elements for sustained growth.  It also is evidence of a properly functioning biological process (plant respiration) that is integral to a thriving environment. Likewise, mastery of the concept-specific, sample learning objectives will allow students to demonstrate their understanding of a given concept.  The aggregate will serve as a way to measure the ‘air quality’ in your classroom and evaluate how your new crop of budding plant biologists is doing.
  • Timely allocation of light and water fuels photosynthesis, a process which is critical to life on earth. Timely teaching and active learning fuel the process of education which is critical to new knowledge and creativity.So use this curricular guide to help cultivate your course design and instruction for productive yields. Additionally, consider professional development options for teaching undergraduates.  For example, the ASPB Master Educator Program (MEP) offers financial support to successful applicants (ASPB members) to participate in focused, substantive, and practical professional development (PD) with the aim of developing undergraduate plant biology instructional materials. See 

Plants are great model systems. So all undergraduates will benefit from understanding plant biology.  Yet your syllabus may not have room for 10 weeks of plant science. That’s okay.  You can use plants (and these core concepts) to teach genetics, reproduction, bioinformatics and more. If you don’t want to go in-depth on all the concepts pick the core concepts that do fit; rotate others in next season.  For majors and non-majors alike, also be sure to:ASPB Logo






Katie Engen, M.Ed., is the Education Coordinator for the American Society of Plant Biologists. ASPB recently joined the Life Science Teaching Resource Community as a Partner. Their teaching resources may be found here.

5 Steps to Preparing Your Courses for the New Semester

iStock_000019716260SmallAh, the new school year! It’s an exciting time when we begin afresh. What should we be doing to prepare for our courses? Many instructors start with the course syllabus, but I like to start with course outcomes. It seems most logical to think first about what I want the students to get out of the course. Identifying outcomes first and then planning assessments before developing course content has been described by others including Wiggins and McTighe in their book entitled Understanding by Design.

Here are the 5 steps that I follow:

Step 1: Identify your course outcomes

Write down what you would like the students to know and be able to do by the end of the course. For guidance, consult the table of contents of your course textbook or resources such as this excellent list of core concepts in physiology. In terms of skills, your institution has likely identified competencies that they expect students to develop during their studies. At the University of Toronto where I teach, these are: critical and creative thinking, communication, information literacy, quantitative reasoning and social and ethical responsibility. In my courses, I focus on developing scientific communication skills and developing the ability of students to read scientific papers. Consult with colleagues to refine your list of topics and skills. Instructors in introductory courses should consult with instructors in upper-year courses to determine what they expect incoming students to know, and vice versa. While I typically focus on the big picture, other instructors write detailed learning outcomes. If you take the latter route, be careful not to spend too much time, you might not get the course prepared before it starts!

Step 2: Revisit your course evaluations

Now is the best time to re-read your course evaluations, paying particular attention to the written comments. Are there common themes? Are there suggestions for changes? When reading your evaluations, it is easy to become defensive. Try to keep an open mind. One way to do this is to tabulate the responses, keeping track of the number of times a particular comment is made. If previous evaluations aren’t available, perhaps you can informally ask students who may have taken the course in the past. In this case, I find that speaking to students in person gives the most useful feedback. Consider gathering additional student feedback when you teach your course. I use a questionnaire that asks students to “list three things you liked about the course” and “describe three things that you think should be included/improved”. The completed questionnaires are held in a sealed envelope until the course marks are submitted and are invaluable for course planning.

Once common issues have been identified, think about how you will address them. If you are lucky, the written comments from course evaluations will include useful suggestions. You can also consult with colleagues, including those at your teaching and learning centre, and former students for possible solutions. It can be very useful to establish or join a community of practice that you can call on for advice. I belong to a group of lecturers who teach large classes at my institution and a larger group called the Ontario Consortium of Biology Educators  with members from over fifteen universities. Both groups have provided excellent suggestions for improving my courses. The newly established Physiology Educator Community of Practice (PECOP) in the LifeSciTRC also promises to be a great resource.

Step 3: Determine how you will assess student learning and skill development

Design assignments and tests to help to develop and assess the student outcomes that you identified in Step 1. Many skills, such as writing, require practice, so it can help your students if you break down larger assignments into smaller chunks. In addition, if you plan to ask students to apply the knowledge they have learned on tests, demonstrate this activity in class. Keep in mind marking time. Ways to reduce marking time include on-line quizzes, software programs for peer assessment such as Calibrated Peer Review and peerScholar , or group assignments. Remember that short assignments can be as effective as longer assignments. For example, in a senior course, I ask students to write a one-page lay summary of a scientific paper. For very large classes, multiple choice question tests are a necessity. Practical tips on designing and implementing multiple choice tests, including how to create higher-level Bloom’s questions, can be found here

Step 4: Finalize course topics, choose classroom activities and write the course syllabus

Think about how best to achieve your desired course outcomes. What topics are you going to cover in each class and what activities will help the students learn the material? In higher education, there is a move away from straight lecturing to more active forms of learning. Options include: clicker questions with small group discussion, case studies, in-class quizzes followed by group assignments and even two-stage (individual + group) exams. When incorporating these activities it is best to allow lots of time and to be flexible. For example, it can be hard to judge how long in-class group assignments will take. You might have to omit the last question or add an additional task on the fly. I find it is best to make only one to two changes a year. That way there is time to focus on the changes and also to observe the outcomes. On a related note, think about how you will evaluate the effectiveness of your new approach. If the approach is really novel, and you would like to publish your findings, plan to seek Research Ethics Board approval.

Step 5: Revise, create and assemble course content

With all of this information at hand, it is now time to revise, create and assemble your course content including assignments, lecture slides, animations and case studies. There are many excellent resources that can be found in the LifeSciTRC that will give you a head start. One last word, make sure that you spread out your effort; it is very easy to polish your first class so that it sparkles like a diamond, only to run out of time to prepare for the other classes!


How do you prepare for a new semester? Are you planning to incorporate any new teaching approaches? If so, what are your plans?  





Michelle French, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Physiology, University of Toronto who has a special interest in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).  She is a member of the Life Science Teaching Resource Community (LifeSciTRC) and Physiology Educator Community of Practice (PECOP).