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Course improvement grant spotlight: “Incorporating student feedback in introductory biology to increase learners’ sense of belonging”

Posted by on Thursday, September 16, 2021 in Commentary, Grants, News.

Jessica Gilpin, senior lecturer in biological sciences, recently told us about her Course Improvement Grant project, “Incorporating student feedback in introductory biology to increase learners’ sense of belonging.”


Can you tell us briefly about your project and what inspired you to do this project?

As you know, the title of my project is, “Incorporating student feedback in introductory biology to increase learners’ sense of belonging.” I was inspired to pursue the project when I taught my first summer course in the summer of 2020. It was really fast paced, and I noticed some students fell behind and had trouble catching up, but they wouldn’t ask me for help. I’d try and reach out to them, but they wouldn’t get back to me. I had never introduced more formal feedback surveys in a course; I just assumed the students would talk to me at some point. I started to wonder if regular, formal surveys could encourage students to ask for help and take a more active role in their learning. I decided to introduce weekly formal feedback surveys into an online course in the summer semester. I wanted to test whether this benign and voluntary intervention could encourage my students to feel a better sense of belonging in their introductory undergraduate biology course. I also implemented a pre-semester survey and a post-semester survey as a quantitative measure for student sense of belonging and trust in their faculty. These measures were adapted from published general belongingness scales and student trust in faculty scales.In my proposal I noted that undergraduate students commonly leave the STEM fields because they lack a sense of belonging in a lot of these courses,especially early on in their scientific careers. These findings are exaggerated in minority groups. It’s important to me to identify mechanisms to improve students’ sense of belonging and their sense of trust in their faculty. By gathering feedback on their experience in the course and trying to incorporate as much of their feedback into changes I make to the course, I hoped to build a greater sense of trust and promote a sense of belonging.[Jessica plans to share her findings at SABER-West, a conference for biology education researchers, supported in part by her Course Improvement Grant.] I was ready and excited to apply for this opportunity because of my participation in the Center for Teaching’s Investigating Student Learning journal club, where I planned some of this work with other participants.


What is the anticipated impact of this project on students and the Vanderbilt community in general?

With this particular project I’m hoping to find some sort of certain significant support for this teaching practice. These feedback surveys were only about four questions;they were open-ended and asked how the course was going, what the students liked or didn’t like about what was happening and then how they would suggest I should go about changing it. I tried to do as much as I could during the semester to take that feedback from the surveys and make adjustments.

I’m hoping to see a change in the sense of belonging in the class and trust in me as an instructor. I feel like that I did see,at least anecdotally,a sense of belonging increase with my students. They were very open with me this summer which was different than the previous summer,so I felt like they felt more comfortable coming to me to talk to me. At the beginning when I introduced this project it felt kind of awkward as I went through my IRB protocol script, but I think they really enjoyed the ability to go in and give their feedback anonymously for how they thought the course was going. I was able to make a few changes,like being more structured in our approaches during class time and leaving more time for students to ask questions. By the end of the semester most of the feedback was, “I really enjoy being able to ask all my questions during class time.”So I sense that I did see a bit of impact with my15 students this summer from this anecdotal information, and Rachel Hanebutt, a graduate student in the Community, Research, and Action program, is going to help me analyze the belonging and trust data more systematically. [Rachel’s time is paid for by the Course Improvement Grant.]Hopefully, I can also implement this investigation in the bigger biology class I’ll be teaching in the spring where there will be 150 or so students and collect some more data to aid in answering my main questions. I’d like to share my results at a faculty meeting or one of our lunch seminars on science teaching, and I’m planning to present some of these results at a teaching and learning conference in January.


What recommendations do you have for others who would like to apply for the internal teaching grant?

I would say that if someone could find a project that they’re passionate about it makes the process go very smoothly. I found that the application was really easy to fill out when I was writing about something I was genuinely curious about. Implementing feedback surveys was something I had planned to do anyway, but then I prepared a more formal way to implement them in the class through some of the discussions and readings completed during the CFT journal club. Also, I think it’s important to formulate the project so it can easily be incorporated into a class you already teach. It’s important to talk with colleagues in your department or the Center for Teaching to see what’s feasible in our classes and to figure out where there might be gaps in what we know. This where the Investigating Student Learning journal club community that ran during Spring 2021 helped me.

In one or two sentences, how would you capture your teaching philosophy?

My teaching philosophy is student-centered and has a focus on the specific needs of my students, especially in the online and hybrid environment. I have a real focus on where and when a student’s sense of belonging is lacking because you can tell when they disengage from a course. I also have an emphasis on active learning to motivate students to engage in their own learning and to practice critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills that will aid in whatever future endeavor they decide to follow.






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