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Investigate how students’ affect, psychosocial, and background variables interact with biological learning and persistence in the biological discipline

We use theory from psychology and education to design and implement curricular innovations that uncover how students’ mental models and psychosocial backgrounds interact with learning environments to generate cognitive, behavioral, and social change. In particular, some of our work aims to disentangle the relationships among race/ethnicity, gender, psychosocial variables (e.g., sense of belonging), evolution acceptance, and perceptions of conflict with evolution and test models about how these variables impact evolution learning and persistence in the biological discipline (e.g., Sbeglia and Nehm 2020, right).

Advance conceptual understanding of biological reasoning about phenomena in order to design more effective learning environments

The cognitive models used to frame biology education research are built from conceptual understandings of biological reasoning, and are central to informing evidence-based teaching. Research shows that biological reasoning lacks cognitive coherence in novice learners. For example, evolution knowledge and acceptance have been found to be dependent upon the scale of evolutionary change (e.g., macroevolution vs. microevolution) and the lineages that are changing (e.g., plants vs. humans) (Sbeglia & Nehm 2019). This work investigates the links between the development of abstract reasoning in biology and cognitive coherence on topics such as genetic determinism, matter and energy, and evolution using advanced statistical and psychometric techniques.

Investigate how aspects of the classroom learning environment impact biological learning and persistence in the biological discipline

The same physical classroom is not experienced the same way by all students and conditions that may be benign for some, can be alienating for others. National organizations have called for instructors to move away from didactic lecturing and embrace inclusive teaching practices that promote the success of all students (NRC 2012, PCAST 2012, NASEM 2016). The lab engages in multiple projects related to this topic including measuring the role of the dosage of active learning (AL) and misconception-focused instruction (MFI) in evolution learning (Nehm et al. 2022, see left).

Develop and evaluate measurement tools

The rigorous measurement of variables of central importance to biology education is essential in the effort to understand learning.  Measurement instruments must undergo psychometric validation analyses in order to establish robust values of the latent traits they propose to measure (cf. NRC 2001). At present, the field suffers from a lack of sophisticated psychometric foundations, which limits the quality of our measurement and the validity of our inferences. Our work is at the for-front of bringing more rigorous psychometric methods to the measurement of learning and affect. For example, we have used Rasch analysis to psychometrically evaluate the functioning of instruments that measure evolution acceptance (Sbeglia & Nehm 2018a, 2019), understanding of randomness (Fiedler et al. 2019), and genetic determinism (Tornabene et al. 2020). I have also developed instruments that measure perceptions of conflict with evolution at multiple scales (Sbeglia & Nehm 2020a), and conceptual knowledge of matter and energy transformation (Kinlock et al. 2020, pre-post patterns shown to the right). Current work is focused on the development of a measurement tool to measure instructor ability to notice inequitable classroom events.

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