ITL Masthead

Vol. 3, No. 2

Your Source for Teaching & Learning News and Information

Winter 2010

p-h-b Campus News

Curriculum Assessment at Chico: Identifying and Correcting Misconceptions

Dr. Kristopher Blee (top) & Dr. Jeffery Bell
Department of Biological Sciences
California State University, Chico
Problems Experienced with Programmatic Assessment

Educational professionals at all levels are increasingly expected to assess student learning and the effectiveness of courses and educational programs. Our experiences have taught us that it is difficult for faculty to accomplish even the earliest tasks in the design of an assessment, such as the identification of key topics, for example. Moving forward in the process to designing questions that can be easily used by large numbers of students or multiple courses presents faculty with a formidable task. Faculty time required to validate and refine each question is often incompatible with the time frames mandated for assessment completion. In addition, assessment responsibilities are often handed to less experienced faculty. As a result, junior faculty working in small groups, or singly, choose topics and design questions that may be used to evaluate curricular performance of an entire department or academic unit.

Even when departments develop unique assessments that simply measure curricular performance, these unique assessments prevent comparison of curricular performance between institutions. It is also likely that assessment features providing identification of the reasoning for poor performing areas of the curriculum will be missed.

The Holy Grail of Assessment: Detecting Misconceptions

We have come across groups of science education assessment experts who are working towards the development of meaningful assessment tools. They begin with the identification of key concepts within a field of study. Then they proceed to develop essay-type questions that address these concepts in order to inventory all potential student answers in the students’ own words. Next they devise multiple-choice questions with the students’ most common misconceptions for each particular question included among the (incorrect) answer choices. Finally, the questions are evaluated for validity and fairness. These refined assessments are available in various stages of completion for many disciplines in the sciences and await discovery by the Google-savvy assessor. Once armed with these powerful assessment tools, science faculty will find measuring curricular performance to be a cinch and detecting student misconceptions equally easy.

Misconceptions are Powerful Blockers of Learning

To the individual harboring a misconception, their incorrect information is a familiar memory. Each time a misconception is revisited the memory is strengthened. Such memories about difficult topics for students are just that, memories of supposed facts, as well as “dear old friends” called upon to help in making sense of new information. In our teaching we aspire to increase student knowledge by revisiting topics in greater detail. We are familiar with several examples of student learning outcomes that are revisited multiple times throughout the Bachelor of Science curriculum in Biology without any change in the percentage of students mastering the learning outcome. If a student holds a misconception on the topic, it will be reinforced through revalidation, so that any new information introduced, especially if contradictory to the misconception, is less likely to be remembered.

Breaking Misconceptions

Experience shows us that misconceptions are not easily corrected, even when we have taken numerous steps to do so, such as:
  • We have identified our students’ misconceptions and

  • Discussed the misconceptions with students.

  • We have provided explanations as to why the misconception is incorrect and

  • Given our students an example of a problem where the misconception would result in them providing an incorrect answer.

  • We have worked through the correct answer, and subsequently

  • Assessed student learning with the very same problem.

  • And our results indicate that this intervention did not correct the misconception.
So, how are we to break the misconceptions of students? Accumulating evidence indicates that misconceptions can be corrected if the student is given the opportunity to make a prediction or generate a testable hypothesis based on their misconception. The student must follow through with the experimentation required to test the prediction or hypothesis and see that their misconception fails to make accurate predictions. It is at this moment when the student is most receptive to correct information, and now the misconception can be corrected – a kind of learning through failure.

Chico student experiments in a teaching lab as part of a plant pathology course.

Curricular Tuning

After misconceptions have been identified, curriculum can be modified to address them. It has been our experience that time requirements for correcting misconceptions are best met in laboratory courses. Therefore, once we have identified prominent misconceptions that are widespread among our students, we follow up with corresponding laboratory experimentation that encourages students to make predictions based on these misconceptions and then test them through experimentation.

Tips for Identification and Use of Assessment Tools
  1. Google with the terms concept inventory + title of your field of study or topic. As a positive control for your search, try physics concept inventory or genetics concept inventory or ecology concept inventory; these terms should lead you to assessments developed from the concept inventory approach.

  2. Use your new assessment only intermittently for programmatic evaluation; do not allow your questions to become another document in students’ test file.

ITL Funds 15 New Realities Faculty Learning Communities

Campus Topics:

California State University Bakersfield

•   Student Team and Group Learning

California State University Channel Islands
•   Multidimensional Lesson Design for Deep Learning

California State University Chico
•   General Education Program Assessment

California State University East Bay
•   Hybrid Course Development

California State University Fresno
•   Facilitating Student Group Learning, 2.0

Humboldt State University
•   Active Learning Strategies for Engaged Learners

California State University Long Beach
•   Blended Course Designs

California State University Monterey Bay
•   Student Learning Communities

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
•   Course Design for Student Responsibility for Learning

California State University Sacramento
•   Scaling Up: Engaging Students in Larger Classes

California State University San Bernardino
•   Course Design for Learning Continuity

San Diego State University
•   Special Study Learning Integration Modules

San Francisco State University
•   Course Redesign on a Dime

San Jose State University
•   Implementing Technology Solutions in Teaching Larger & More Diverse Classes

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
•   Effective Teaching and Learning

General Education, Graduation Rates, and Quality

Ken O’Donnell
State University Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Policy
CSU Office of the Chancellor.

California is counting on the CSU to preserve educational quality and access with diminishing funds -- an apparent contradiction when we’re closing sections and turning away qualified students.

But good curriculum and compelling teaching can help us through: by doing more of what we do best, we can serve more students. How? When we increase engagement in learning we improve persistence, completion, and time to degree -- freeing up valuable seats for others.

CSU faculty are renowned for cutting-edge education in the disciplines: inviting student collaboration in their research, supporting connections to industry, and creating capstones that integrate multiple courses as a springboard to life after graduation.

The problem with reserving our best practices for upper division work in the major: by then around half of our students have already dropped out. The result is a missed opportunity for students and lost capacity for the state, tens of thousands of enrollments that never result in a degree.

For the last two years, the CSU and state systems in Oregon and Wisconsin have been involved in a project led by the Association of American Colleges and Universities called Give Students a Compass, which seeks to build our best educational practices into the lower-division general education curriculum, where they could reach all students regardless of major or background, and get them before they drop out. Research indicates this could disproportionately benefit the historically underserved, making the Compass Project a potential lever toward halving the achievement gap.

Academic leaders from around California and the country met at CSU Dominguez Hills in November to plan an expansion of the Compass Project. From left: Savander Parker, Evergreen Valley College, and Debra David, San José State University

Three CSU campuses have begun re-imaging their GE curriculum to incorporate more high-impact practices, and a proposed expansion of the project could include another seven “beta sites” throughout the CSU, while involving the community colleges to pilot an improved general education transfer curriculum.

Join us: on May 3 and 4 faculty from across California are invited to Cal State Fullerton for two days of workshops, showcases, and brainstorming about the ways general education can be more vibrant, more relevant, and more effective for the students we most need to reach. See Give Students a Compass for more.

Review past issues at

Dr. Cynthia Desrochers
Director, Institute for Teaching & Learning
CSU, Office of the Chancellor, 6th Floor

p h b Teaching & Learning Tips

What Your Campus Experts Say: Enhancing Student Learning While Saving Faculty Time

Dr. Cynthia Desrochers
Faculty Director
Institute for Teaching and Learning

CSU Office of the Chancellor

We have had many positive comments about last fall’s article When Doing Less for Students May Help Them Learn More and have decided to tap the collective wisdom of our campus teaching and learning center directors for more ideas. What follows are five strategies for saving time while increasing student responsibility and learning. This sharing of brainpower is a unique benefit of working in the largest and most diverse university system in the country. Thank you to our authors.

How to Teach a Concept Using the EEGP Strategy

While visiting CSU Chico’s annual teaching and learning conference last October, I attended Dr. Dennis Pearl’s (Ohio State) plenary session on Statistics Course Redesign Using the Buffet Model. Among his many interesting points, I was particularly struck by the simplicity, and transferability, of one strategy called EEGP, which stands for Example-Example-Generalization-Practice.

Crediting Joan Middendorf (Indiana University) and Alan Kalish (Ohio State) as EEGP’s creators, Pearl has identified an EEGP for each of the 90 learning objectives in Statistics 135.

With thanks to Alan Kalish (former teaching and learning center director at CSU Sacramento) for provided me with his favorite EEGP example below, here’s how it works:

Step 1: Provide vivid, familiar example.

Step 2: Provide a less familiar example.

Step 3: Define the generalization (concept, principle, or rule).

Step 4: Have students practice.

Generalization— Humans have rules, but they aren’t interpreted or followed uniformly.

Step 1: Provide a vivid, familiar example. Example—Variations in stopping at a stop sign (share a specific intersection on campus that confuses people). Some drivers come to a complete stop, some slow and roll, and others miss the stop altogether.

Step 2: Provide a less familiar example. Example—Variations in following Canon of the Catholic church in regard to birth control. Millions of people around the world self-identify as Catholics, but when surveyed about their birth control practices, they describe a wide range of behaviors beyond what is allowed.

Step 3: Define the generalization (concept, principle, or rule). Example—Humans have rules, but they aren't interpreted or followed uniformly.

Step 4: Have students practice. Example—Observe and take notes in a dorm lobby as to the degree to which students adhere to the university's ban on alcohol in residence halls.

Student Peer Review

Dr. Pamela Vaughn, Associate Dean
Center for Teaching and Faculty Development San Francisco State

I first used student peer review many years ago in my beginning Latin class. It proved to be an outstanding way to encourage students to analyze their translations and to offer explanations about the choices they had made in vocabulary and syntax. More important, it turned a rather boring and rote exercise into something dynamic and fun for all involved, including the professor! Here are some of the lessons that I learned:

Repetition is the key to success. Peer review is most effective in those courses that have repeated performative elements: writing, oral presentation, music and dance performance, data analysis, translation, and so on.

Plan ahead. Develop a rubric of key evaluative criteria, ideally no more than five, the same you will use in your own evaluation of the students’ work.

Model the review process. As early as possible in the term, take your students through the review process. For example, have them watch a brief video performance and provide your analysis and evaluation using the rubric you have developed. The students’ questions and comments will aid you in anticipating some of the challenges in the peer review process.

Start early in the term. Peer review is one of many elements of evaluation; the goal is to enhance learning and improve performance. With that in mind, peer review is most effective when used during the first third or half of the semester, thus allowing students to learn from the review process and improve their work.

Take time to reflect, assess, and revise. After a few sessions of peer review, check in with your students and ask them to share their comments on the effectiveness of the peer review and any suggestions they may have for improving the process.

Instant Discussion Design for the Busy Professor

Dr. Mark Stoner, Assistant Director (right) & Dr. Kimo Ah Yun, Director Center for Teaching and Learning
CSU Sacramento

Involving students in learning is important; discussion can be engaging. When students engage each other, try out ideas, and work together to answer significant questions, they experience the benefits of a community of learners. Sometimes we attempt to involve students in classroom discussions with little success. One reason may be that our questions are not the questions students need to ask.

A Problem

For many students, course content is often disconnected and confusing. However, in every course learning happens when students understand relationships of concepts. It is among conceptual relationships that significant research questions are generated and new understandings (learning!) created.

A Solution

You can quickly and easily create discussions that teach students to ask significant questions that raise the level of their thinking. Here’s how:

Step 1: Present two or three related concepts or ideas, and post them on the whiteboard, poster paper, WebCT, or whatever medium you use.

Step 2: Direct the students to create questions about the concepts. (You may have to seed the list with an example.) Record the questions.

Step 3: Facilitate the students answering the questions.

Figure 1 is an example:
  • We posed the topics in the circles.
  • The students created the questions which we posted.
  • A deep and engaging discussion resulted.
Try beginning with two concepts, theories, models, etc., and see how it goes. Try adding a third element to complicate the relationships and raise new questions. You can create a powerful discussion literally on your way to class. Use the same idea as a homework or paper assignment. The variations are unlimited.

Student Reflection on a Roll: Before and After Writing Exercises

Kiren Dosanjh Zucker, J.D.
Director of Faculty Development
CSU Northridge

The Before and After writing exercises encourage and create space for students to reflect on their learning. Selecting a particular topic, students compare their views at the beginning of the semester to what they learn during the course. While offering a glimpse of where they begin and where the course leads them, students create context for course content and witness their responsibility as learners. On a practical note, a brief Before in-class exercise and a short writing assignment due on rolling deadlines ease instructors’ daunting task of grading papers submitted on one deadline.

Start with a Before We Begin in-class Writing Exercise

During class early in the semester, distribute a list of questions, each related to a different course topic. For example, questions might ask for an opinion on a relevant current event, or a reaction to a statement regarding a particular issue. As an in-class exercise to be collected, each student then chooses one question and responds in a written paragraph—without referring to notes or the Internet to ensure authentic reflection.

Keep the After Homework Assignment Short and Concise

In a short essay, students revisit their responses to their selected questions after the relevant topic is covered. Students explain whether and how their view has evolved, deepened, or remained the same after learning more about the course topic.

Set Rolling Deadlines for the After Writing Exercise

The After assignment deadline is one week after the relevant topic has been covered in class. Note which students respond to what question in the Before exercise, and offer reminders of the applicable deadline.

Use Online Multimedia for Anytime Learning

Dr. Maria Dolores Costa
Director of Faculty Development
CSU Los Angeles

With a little bit of planning and preparation, you can take advantage of the many multimedia tools and resources online to save you time in class and during your office hours, while making the content of your courses accessible to your students anytime and anywhere.

Record your lectures and make them available as a podcast. This will allow the students to listen to the lectures multiple times, if needed, and 24/7, so you won’t need to re-teach during office hours to those students who were absent or missed certain points.

Create a social network for your students and post material and notes there. You can easily create a blog for your classes with Blogger. Ning and Google Groups are other easy-to-use- tools that allow you to communicate with your students 24/7.

Have others give your lectures for you. has lectures and conferences on numerous topics. Yale University has a number of open courses on topics ranging from biomedical engineering to religious studies. Many other universities also offer free courses online. Open Culture has listed some of the best podcasts on ideas and culture and the best of YouTube for learning . Academic Earth also provides videos of university lectures. To make sure the experience is fruitful for your students, write study questions for the students to answer when they go online.
p h b Events

April 24, 2010 (Saturday), 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

13th CSU Symposium on University Teaching
CSU San Bernardino

Registration deadline: March 29, 2010

Hosted by Dr. Rowena Santiago, Director
Teaching Resource Center
Questions: (909) 537-7424 or email