The development and assessment of constructivist-based curriculum changes in a university general biology laboratory course

Sherry Shelton Herron


This study describes the processes involved in transforming the curriculum of the second semester general biology laboratory course for science majors, BSC 111L, at the University of Southern Mississippi from one based on the behaviorist model of teaching and learning to one based on the constructivist model. The study encompasses pilot and research phases. During the pilot phase conducted fall semester of 1997, the researcher presented to graduate teaching assistants an overview of the need for curriculum reform and some of the theoretical underpinnings for the movement. The researcher worked with all of the general biology teaching assistants to determine factors they considered supportive of the effort, identified specific goals and exercises, and developed a mission statement. The researcher then worked with two of the teaching assistants to write the new curriculum materials and pilot them in a designated laboratory section each week. During the research phase, the researcher facilitated the use of constructivist teaching methods and interviewed the teaching assistants during weekly group meetings. The researcher videotaped and observed the laboratories at various times throughout spring semester of 1998. Student responses to survey questions about the laboratories were collected during the observation sessions. Data derived from self-assessments on teaching beliefs completed by the teaching assistants, interview transcripts, videotaped laboratory sessions, and student surveys were used to assess the effectiveness of the new curriculum and the intervention program. It was observed that despite being given the same instructions, curriculum, and materials, each teaching assistant conducted his laboratory section in a unique way and rarely conducted the complete laboratory in the intended manner. It was also observed that one TA in particular needed more training in interpersonal skill development and content than was provided during the weekly intervention sessions. However, it was evident that constructivist teaching methods were being learned and that constructivist goals were being realized. Strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum materials were identified and extensive revisions were made by the researcher prior to the next semester. Finally, recommendations pertinent to the student survey used in this study (the Student Outcome Assessment Rubric) were made, and the need for more pedagogical instruction for teaching assistants and a mechanism to integrate lecture materials to the laboratory experience was described.