Assessing “non-content” outcomes in a (lab) course

This past week I was fortunate to be invited to speak at UBC, as part of their Celebrate Learning Week.  The session, organized by David Oliver and Marcia Graves, was excellent: Exploring the CURE: A Symposium on Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences.  I got to talk about our new course, co-developed at SFU between Biological Sciences & BPK — the 4th-year Cell Physiology Laboratory.  I’ve been lucky to work on this course over the past year or so, along with Damon Poburko, Nadine Wicks, Tom Claydon, Gord Rintoul, and our awesome RA Ciara Morgan-Feir.  (And many thanks to my pals at UBC whose discussion of their own courses, lab and otherwise, has been super helpful!)

All speakers presented a snapshot of their undergraduate lab courses, and what elements of CUREs (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences) were highlighted in these courses.   It was excellent to hear what everyone else has been up to — several of us commented how often we work in isolation, and how helpful it has been to make connections and hear about others’ challenges and successes.  Thanks Dave and Marcia for this opportunity!

In the interest of making it useful to others developing courses, for my talk I chose to focus on how we have planned and implemented our assessment of student outcomes.


In our team, we found it useful to first spend time debating and clarifying what we were trying to achieve and assess; this was particularly interesting (and challenging) when we moved away from talking about content, towards specific scientific skills.  Here’s what our workflow looked like.

Working left to right; many interesting conversations came out when we asked questions such as, “but what do we actually MEAN when we say critical thinking?” (or experimental design, or communication…)

Following this discussion and some prioritization, we then looked for tools that would assess our desired outcomes.  This part was actually relatively easy, once we knew what we wanted to measure.  In my opinion/experience, we ended up with a more solid assessment approach compared to starting with available tools and shoe-horning them to fit our course.   We hope this will also keep our analysis manageable and with useful conclusions.  We’d be happy to have feedback on our plan, and would love to hear about how others are assessing their own lab course development!


Building opportunities outside lab courses for scientific process skills; including opportunities for other outcomes inside lab courses

Breaking down our higher-order non-content learning outcomes also emphasizes that we have opportunities to teach these research and process skills outside of lab courses — there are several LOs (related to, for example, analysis, interpretation, communication, experimental design…) which can (and should) extend quite nicely into lecture/project/tutorial courses.  Many, many parts of the scientific process don’t need a wetlab to be able to practice them!

The conversation at the CURE session also inspired me to explore learning outcomes related to the community of science — the nature of collaboration, professionalism, useful feedback/questions and constructive critique.  As most of our biology undergraduates will not be professors (even only 1 in 10 biology PhDs take that path), these transferrable skills are extremely important.  Further, I’m interested in clarifying outcomes to communicate what it actually means to be a scientist on a day-to-day level: proposing ideas and writing grants about them, designing figures to best communicate results, ordering reagents and considering $ versus impact of work, discussing findings in an ongoing way rather than as a polished end-point… it’s useful to know what the career actually looks like, should you be interested in it.


From the talk, my slides are here, including the following references.

  • Attitudes about biology: CLASS-Bio (Semsar, Knight, Birol, Smith 2011)
  • Experimental Design Skills: EDAT (Siram & Humburg  2011) and Extended EDAT (Brownell 2013) – thank you to Alex Paine & Sarah Brownell for help with this.
  • Characterizing the level of inquiry: review article (Buck, Bretz, Towns 2013)

Findings to follow – I’ll be presenting some results at the Spring 2017 SFU Teaching & Learning Symposium, and Ciara is hoping to present at SABER this summer.   Hope to see you there!

(Cover picture from Savage Chickens!)



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