I teach Bio 101 (Biology for non-majors), Bio 173 (Environmental Biology) and Bio 211 (first semester of majors biology sequence). I teach primarily web-based versions of these courses. Students watch a PowerPoint presentation and listen to me talk about what they are seeing on the slides. The slides and studio-recorded audio are delivered on the web as streaming media. The web environment also provides an opportunity for the student to take self-quizzes, do on-line exercises, engage in discussions with other students, and interact with me via e-mail. Tests are online with a password required to access the test. If the student is at Iowa State this is done in a computer lab by the lab monitor and if the student is not at Iowa State they must find an approved proctor to input the password. I have developed a test bank for every test so that each student gets a random set of questions that still has representative coverage of topics. This cuts down the opportunities for cheating and also allows the students to see their test results right after taking the test, making test-taking more of a learning experience. To get an idea of the nature of the on-line course see a Biology 101 Sample Lecture.
I also teach an Honors seminar called “Ethical Eating” with Barbara Pleasants. This is a subject that I am passionate about and I enjoy the opportunity to explore with students the health, human welfare, animal welfare, environmental, sociological, and economic ramifications of food choices.
Because I teach on-line courses I have been curious as to how this mode of delivery compares to traditional classroom delivery. I have compared student performance on standardized tests in an on-line section for which I was the instructor and a classroom section taught by my wife, Barbara Pleasants. In each section the same material was covered, the same set of lecture notes was used, and students took the same tests. Each semester the students in the on-line section scored 5 percentage points higher than the classroom students. I investigated several possible causes of this difference: 1) differences in instructor teaching ability, 2) differences in student learning behavior and 3) intrinsic differences in the students taking the courses. To examine instructor differences I guest-lectured in the classroom section for one test unit. Students test scores were still higher in the on-line section. To examine student learning behaviors I focused on attendance and use of practice quizzes. Both of these were highly correlated with individual performance on tests but neither was significantly different between the 2 sections. There were demographic differences in the student populations in each section. 79% of classroom students were freshmen or sophomores compared with only 54% of the on-line students. Year in college was correlated with test score; upperclassmen did better than lowerclassmen. However, even taking this into account, on-line students still scored higher on tests. So there is something about the on-line experience that causes students to perform better. What that is remains to be identified. It could be that the short (20-30 minute) on-line lectures are more conducive to learning than the 75 minute classroom lectures, perhaps because student attention span is not exceeded. Students may also be more attentive during on-line lectures because they can access them at a time of the day of their choosing when they are more alert. I plan to explore some of these possibilities in the future.