Justice, one class at a time: The biology department’s fight to revolutionize assessments in STEM
Prof. Melissa Kosinski-Collins and Prof. James Morris explain their efforts to revolutionize the STEM learning experience.
It’s 8 a.m. on a crisp October morning. A beautiful day for dog walkers and leaf-peepers, but for students of Biology 15B, or “Cells and Organisms,” it’s the day of their first exam. However, this test is different. Gerstenzang 122, the Biology 15B lecture hall, is nearly empty. No, the students of Biology 15B are not skipping the test. A majority first-year class, they would not dare to do so. As long as they are not working together, the students are free to take the test wherever they please, whether that be in their dorm, the library or their favorite booth in Sherman Dining Hall.
While this setup seems like a perfect opportunity for academic dishonesty, Prof. Melissa Kosinski-Collins (BIOL), who teaches Biology 15B, is not worried about her students using outside resources. Why? Because they’re entirely allowed to do so! Textbooks, notes and even straight-up googling are fair game. Furthermore, in two days they will take the same exam in a different format. This allows students to collaborate and discuss the material in the interim.
This style of assessment is the brainchild of Dr. KC and is brand new for the 2023-2024 school year. However, this change is far from spontaneous. The context of its implementation goes deep into the Biology Department and its STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) departments as a collective. For Dr. KC, it is one of the hopeful first steps to a more inclusive STEM program.
The whole endeavor started with a grant, which Dr. KC wrote to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I interviewed her in her office, a cozy location in the Shapiro Science Center dotted with knick-knacks and inhabited by her dog, Flash. “I was super excited; it was a super elite grant,” she recalls. In 2018, armed with the $1 million five-year HHMI grant, Dr. KC founded the Justice League. “It’s funny, it’s become kind of a kitschy little thing,” she explains. While no members of the Justice League have superpowers, they all participate in a noble struggle: Finding ways to boost retention in Brandeis STEM programs. “At that point, I never talked to anybody from math. I didn’t talk to anybody from chemistry. We kind of all lived in our own little bubbles,” Dr. KC explains. “Now, the group has grown to 35 active individuals. It’s not just STEM but it’s across the University.”
Almost all members of the Justice League teach introductory level courses and historic “weed-out” classes. According to this article from the Brandeis Magazine, only 48% of students who start out in STEM programs graduate with a degree in STEM. As Dr. KC recognizes, this statistic comes from a variety of sources within the STEM community. As she describes, “You might have had a really amazing class. And [for some students, this] is the third time you’re taking bio ... And then you’re put in the same class as a student who maybe either never took bio or took it, you know, eighth grade or freshman year of high school. And it’s just, it’s just such a varied difference.” Evidently, these types of disparities are prevalent in introductory level courses.
Additionally, having completed a postdoctoral program in education, Dr. KC emphasizes the importance of implementing pedagogical practices into STEM curricula. According to her, STEM education as it has traditionally existed only caters to a certain type of learning style. “Traditional exams were about memorization, spitting back definitions. … [most people teaching STEM] were successful in high-stakes situations, they were good at memorizing … And so what happens? You end up with faculty who are institutions who are teaching in the same way that they were taught.” Looking at her own success in STEM, Dr. KC reflects, “I’m a fantastic memorizer. I don’t remember anything after I come out of an exam, and I can look at my undergrad degree and think I did amazing on exams, but I didn’t retain any of that information.”
Anybody who has attended one of Dr. KC’s biology classes can attest to her efforts to make learning a more authentic and engaging process. Even at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday, her classes are interwoven with real-life examples of the material and her lectures are filled with running, shouting and occasionally throwing. As a current student of Biology 15B, one of my fondest memories of the class is when Dr. KC accidentally broke a polypeptide model after smacking it to the floor to demonstrate the fragility of unfolded amino acid chains. In conjunction with her exams, this model is designed to break the “one-directional” mold typically seen in STEM classrooms. Questions are welcome and even the most uninterested students notice Dr. KC’s sheer passion for the material.
Additionally, Dr. KC breaks down the nature of STEM exams themselves. She loathes the prototypical image of a STEM exam — dozens of students crammed into a lecture hall, practically on top of each other, surrounded by nervous energy and squeaky chairs. As she describes it, “It’s high stakes. If you mess up, you have a bad day, you’re sick, you’re screwed.” She is one of many teachers who have embraced the concept of competency-based grading, a system that gives students several low-stakes opportunities to prove their knowledge across the semester. However, in this model, Biology 15B only has three exams per semester. Dr. KC explains, “In an ideal world, I would give you 100 opportunities. The reality is, I can’t write 100 different exams so every day you have a different one.”
As one might expect, competency-based grading doesn’t look the same in every subject — each set of material presents a different set of obstacles. Across the Brandeis STEM community, new systems are flourishing and evolving. For example, in subjects such as calculus and computer science it is possible to write 100 different exams. Dr. KC mentions, “Calc has all moved to competency-based grading, including multiple [exams] every week. Prof. Tim Hickey’s (COSI) intro class, “Computer Science I,” has moved to competency specs-based grading as well.” And not all these changes affect the exam directly. In Prof. Claudia Novack’s (CHEM) notorious “General Chemistry” class students can earn back points on tests via “redemption point challenges,” giving them another opportunity to prove their knowledge and boost their grades.
The nature of the STEM tests, of course, is not the only element of the STEM experience that is changing. According to a 2018 article by The Wall Street Journal, testing accommodations such as extra time are becoming more and more prevalent in colleges across the nation. Brandeis University’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page identifies over 20% of the student body as disabled/having a disability, and nearly every syllabus includes instructions for accessing testing accommodations. While analyzing the origins of these statistics would require an entirely different article, one pattern remains clear: The needs of the student body are changing. While the Justice League is focused on general STEM retention, many of its members hope specifically that their models will be more inclusive to neurodiverse students who might have different needs and learning styles.
Ryan Callaghan ’27, who plans on majoring in biochemistry, has a surprisingly short history with testing accommodations. Despite being diagnosed with dyslexia in pre-K, he only started using his allotted extra time in high school. As he puts it, “I was doing as well as everyone else. I’m like, I don’t need it, and then a PSAT came around and I’m like, oh ... I need it.” A student of Biology 15B, he describes the balance Dr. KC’s tests have created: “Dr. KC’s tests are really hard because the whole concept behind them is to take the abstract out of it rather than just regurgitate definitions, which definitely works for comprehension in the long run.” Though Dr. KC’s tests have proved to be challenging for Ryan, he appreciates Dr. KC’s system for its lack of emphasis on test grades. “This model does a good job of taking that weight off of the test a lot. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Even students who perform well on traditional assessments are feeling the need for a change. Lara Daliana ’27, a neurotypical student planning on majoring in biology explains “I’m a very good tester … But I know people in my own life who don’t respond so well to those things … They’re creative people. They think outside the box, but they just cannot get straight A’s and that’s not because they’re not smart.” Even though traditional STEM pedagogy makes excelling easy for Lara, she recognizes how it excludes other members of her community. Both Ryan and Lara’s viewpoints draw a clear parallel to the future that Dr. KC and the Justice League envision, one that accommodates different types of intelligence and de-emphasizes traditional exams. As Lara puts it, “Right now it is very experimental, and I think we’re going to go through a period that is very experimental before we find something that we like or like that will fit what we want better.” As of now, both students plan on sticking with their majors in STEM.
While most teachers adjust their exams directly, Prof. James Morris (BIOL) has taken a more radical approach. A proud member of the Justice League, he has worked extra hard to reform his classroom. Like Dr. KC, he specializes in STEM pedagogy. In his office, a cozy space stuffed with literature and featuring an elaborate seashell collection, he explains his new system to me. In Prof. Morris’ evolutionary biology course traditional exams are entirely a thing of the past. His model is entirely project-based, a branch of what is commonly known as Universal Design for Learning; UDL is the title given to any teaching approach meant to include all types of students. He made the switch last summer after a long period of frustration with the traditional 100-point grading system. “This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for at least the last five years, and every year I’m complaining about certain things about my classes or the same patterns that I keep seeing. And finally, over the summer I said I’m just going to do it. I’m going to redesign it,” he recalls.
Though Prof. Morris adapted his class with the idea of inclusivity in general STEM courses, he noticed that de-emphasizing grades has made an impact on all his students, no matter their ability. In his words, “A lot of the studies have shown that [UDL] actually benefits everybody. And I’ve actually noticed that if you give more time, then all students do better, not just the people who need the extra time.” His observations are backed up by a study by the University of Colorado, which demonstrates the effectiveness of UDL compared with traditional pedagogical methods. Prof. Morris describes the change as “entirely transformative,” and proudly describes some of the projects his students have made on Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” They span from children’s storybooks to tarot cards to graphic novels. When prompted to re-format the timeline of human evolution, students have used everything from Usain Bolt’s 100-meter run to their drive home from New Jersey. He explains, “I’ve been as inspired by the people who get it on the first time. I’ve almost been more inspired by the people who take, get it on the third or fourth time because I’m amazed at their persistence. They’ll [his students] come to me and they say, boy, nobody’sactually sat down with me and make sure I really understand it.”
One might expect that these classroom reformations come with some resistance. Dr. KC and Prof. Morris report that while they have received support from the University, there are still cultural boundaries to surmount in terms of changing STEM pedagogy. At Brandeis, a lot of the upper-level STEM classes use traditional examination methods. As Dr. KC explains, it’s not about lack of care. “It’s just time,” she states. “[Brandeis professors] are just so strapped, [they’re] worried about their research and what’s going on at the bench and being successful with their own grants. The idea that they have any bandwidth to think about these things is tricky.” While professors like Dr. Morris have spent enormous amounts of time reforming their classes, expecting a complete pedagogical overhaul in a short amount of time is unrealistic for most professors. Such foundational changes are especially difficult for professors who have been in STEM for a long time and are used to traditional learning methods. While the Justice League has found success in introductory-level courses, there is still the issue of retention in upper-level STEM courses. As Dr. KC puts it, “Some of the upper-level classes, some of the classes that really could do with an innovation are being a little bit behind. I don’t want to bash my colleagues who I don’t mean to say that negatively. I just think it would be great … if we all had time and we were compensated to be able to think about pedagogy and student inclusion.” As she references, though the Justice League receives support from the University, Dr. KC would like to see even more resources go to STEM pedagogy in the future. She explains, “In order to change the cycle, you have to change the way that people are setting up and looking at higher education. It needs to be taught by people who are trained a little differently or are willing to think outside the box.”
The Justice League’s fight to retain STEM students is emulated across the nation. According to a study by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the United States’ workforce will suffer a deficit of one million college graduates in STEM over the next decade. As bleak as that statistic sounds, Dr. KC believes that STEM culture around pedagogy is shifting. “It’s aligning more with information we knew in psychology and in education studies that have been going on for years that scientists and typical STEM professionals have not ever brought into the radar or the focus.” Additionally, she is a firm believer that the next generation will bring change to the educational scene. “The way you [the next generation] face the world, your interest in social justice, your ability to see deeper … I’m really excited if I can keep you excited and interested in my class to stay through the next class and learn. I mean, y’all are gonna change the world in a way that my generation couldn’t … So that’s what keeps me motivated. It’s a little Utopic but there it is.” As a final note, she encourages students to think about how they are being taught. “Think about how each one of those pedagogies is different … How does that influence who stays and who goes? Because everybody should have an opportunity to stay.”