Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Major Professor

Elisabeth E. Schussler

Committee Members

Jennifer A. Schweitzer, Randall L. Small, Jennifer A. Morrow


For decades, educators and policy makers have called for reform in undergraduate biology education to produce a workforce capable of navigating the challenges of society today (NSB, 1986). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) outlined recommendations to enact these changes in the Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education final report (AAAS, 2011). These recommendations included restructuring curricula to focus on core biological concepts and competencies, implemented via student-centered practices, with a campus-wide commitment to change, and involving the entire biology community in the reform. The University of Tennessee, Division of Biology, implemented curriculum changes to their majors’ introductory biology sequence based on these recommendations in 2012. This curriculum reform had several goals: integrate the concepts and competencies into the two-course sequence, use more student-centered instructional approaches, and create discussion sections that targeted process of science skills. The goal of this dissertation was to document instructional changes throughout reform, how faculty perceptions of instruction changed, and what impact the reform had on student outcomes such as scientific literacy skills. The first chapter documents the baseline use of student-centered approaches, or active learning, during the first year of curriculum reform. The second chapter built on the first by conducting three years of classroom observations and faculty interviews to document the perception and use of student-centered instructional practices by core faculty of the introductory courses. Chapter three measures student scientific literacy gain and retention the year prior to and the first year of the curriculum reform to compare the learning outcomes. Overall, the instructors increased the use of active learning in their classes over time and changed their perceptions of how students learn. Students who experienced the new discussion curricula had greater gains in scientific literacy, and retained more information about research design, despite a loss of lab time. A reform specifically designed to target instructor practices and process of science skills succeeded. Collectively, these studies provide evidence for the importance of collaboration, reflection, and time for instructors to achieve the pedagogical changes needed for modern undergraduate biology reform.

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