“This is Sticking with Them:” Professor Explores Benefits of Model-Based Learning

Nearing the end of a National Science Foundation grant, Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse and a research team are devising ways to implement model-based learning in introductory biology courses, which have been successful at Bethel.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

November 01, 2019 | 3:25 p.m.

Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse

Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse ’05 talks with biology students as they create a scientific model on a Bethel classroom whiteboard. Through model-based learning, students use diagrams as a way to think about and reason with systems—and to think about how complex systems interact and change. Wyse is finishing work on a three-year collaborative grant through the National Science Foundation to study how students learn through such models.

Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse ’05 draws a two-dimensional model on a piece of paper. She labels boxes “structure” with arrows pointing from one to another with “behavior/relationship” written beside the arrows. Though a simple drawing, modeling has become a foundational education practice in STEM at schools like Bethel, and Wyse is studying model-based learning to better teach students.

Wyse is finishing a collaborative research project called "From the learner's perspective: Unpacking the why and how of model-based learning about biological systems” through a three-year, $67,309 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), but her work isn’t done as the research team is already looking toward another grant.

Model-based learning helps students think about systems—and Wyse describes biology as the study of systems at various scales, including cellular scales, ecological scales, body scales, etc.—and how such complex systems interact and change. “Systems have emergent properties, like things that when all the pieces function together in the way that they should, create something novel,” Wyse said. “That is a really, really difficult thing for students to wrap their heads around, and it is one of the key hallmarks of our discipline.” Top-level students pick up the on relationships within and between systems intuitively, but Wyse says it needs to be more explicit for other students so all are able to develop the necessary skills as scientists.

That’s where modeling comes in. Textbooks often bold terms like “nucleotides” and “DNA” so students will memorize them, but modeling takes it a step further. Students put such concepts or ideas in boxes called “structures,” which are connected to the next structure by a behavior or relationship. “When they memorize them as discreet units and as independent facts, they don’t think about, ‘How is DNA related to a chromosome?’ or ‘How is DNA related to a gene?’ ‘What’s the relationship between gene and allele?’—like all these terms that they work with. So these models actually force them to put the concepts in relationship to one another,” Wyse says.

Through the grant, Wyse and a research team spanning four universities continue to unpack behaviors, cognitive practices, and approaches students use to make and reason with models to discover more effective ways of teaching introductory biology and assessing student learning. “The research team that I’m a part of is really interested in the way that scientists develop thinking in their field,” Wyse says.

When creating models, students hone in the relationships between components of biological systems, identifying the connections/mechanisms and articulating them in their own words. This helps build neural pathways that allow students to build a framework for the information. By building models over and over, the achievement gap closes as B- and C-level students move closer to the A-level students. One key goal of the grant was to develop a framework for how to teach and assess modeling in biology effectively. The team filmed students during each step of making a model. Students initially took a few minutes to start the model, spent a short time on it, then returned to their seats. They didn’t spend much time reflecting after creating the model. “Once they finished, they stepped back and kind of said, ‘We’re done,’” Wyse says. “So we realize that our students were making the model, but if we want them to reason using the model, we’re going to have to prompt them a lot more to think about what the model is communicating and about its purpose or its function.”

Next, the team studied students’ modeling and reasoning before and after instruction when creating a system-specific carbon model. Professors gave students a way to disturb the system. Then using models, students would make predictions about carbon movement and storage during changes. Without prompts, students showed a linear train of thought and left out pieces of the model they couldn’t see. After instruction, the students’ models became more circular and included more complexities. Their reasoning extended beyond the most directly-impacted structures, as they displayed deeper reasoning and deeper levels of interaction. “We were just trying to uncover what is it that we could do in the classroom to prompt them to develop these systems-thinking skills, and then how can we assess them?” Wyse says.

While the team made great strides in its research, Wyse says more work is needed. The team is researching modeling in other disciplines, and it’s begun work on an essay to highlight ideas for a undergraduate biology teaching framework based around modeling. But, as Wyse says good research often does, their work is raising more questions, which will provide the springboard to additional grants and research. The team is hoping to explore further questions in another round of grants. The work will focus on reconstructing an introductory biology course centered on using modeling to study systems, and they’ll work on ways to assist faculty as they assess how students are building their skills.

We’re hearing anecdotally from students that this is sticking with them. It’s helping them build that foundational working knowledge that they need as competent professionals in any field that they’re going into.

— Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse '05

As the team continues exploring, it’s already answered a key question that points to positive steps moving forward. It asked if learner characteristics—like grit and determination—factored into the improvements students displayed. But they found no factors correlated with competency or improvement. “Which is awesome because it means that it’s a tool that isn’t already implicitly biased to a certain group of students with a certain approach to life,” Wyse says. “If you have low grit or high girt, low need for cognition, high need for cognition, low motivation, high motivation, truly you can access the model and it can be a learning tool for you.”

Bethel’s Department of Biology already integrated model-based learning into its introductory curriculum and several upper-level courses, but the practice isn’t widespread outside the grant’s partner universities. Many students who’ve taken practice MCAT exams or return as alumni relay stories about recalling lessons learned using models outside of Bethel. “We’re hearing anecdotally from students that this is sticking with them,” Wyse says. “It’s helping them build that foundational working knowledge that they need as competent professionals in any field that they’re going into.”

Maria Pecoraro ’19

Study biology at Bethel.

Bethel’s Department of Biological Sciences gives students the space and tools to investigate the wonder and intricacies of life. Students explore the grand diversity of living things and embrace our call to care for all of creation through experiences in the lab, field, and classroom.

Learn more