Iona Baldridge, EdD, advocates creative prompts to build critical thinking among biology students, using a low-stakes Q&A, a 27-line paper, and more.
Professor of Biology,Lubbock Christian University in Lubbock, Texas
EdD, MA, and BS in Education
For scientists, the desire to experiment is almost a biological imperative—and with good reason. What can be more thrilling than discovering something new or improving upon something that already exists? So, it only makes sense that many science educators enjoy experimenting with their approach to instruction.
Among them is Lubbock Christian University professor Iona Baldridge, EdD, who started as an adjunct teaching general biology in 1979. “At the time, I had my master’s degree, but I realized that—while I took all the notes and passed all the tests—I hadn’t really learned much,” says Baldridge. The revelation inspired her to continue her studies and earn her doctorate in education, while always on the lookout for new and improved approaches to teaching. Some of her most interesting discoveries, she says, are the strategies that draw heavily from an entirely different subject area: English.
Below, Baldridge describes five exercises that she uses to bring writing and critical thinking into her science classes.
“My philosophy is not focusing on the load of facts students are going to walk out with, but how they can access the facts when they need them. I would much rather have my students know how to study than know the five stages of mitosis.”
-Iona Baldridge, EdD
Course: BIO 1300 Human Biology
Course description: Survey of human systems with an emphasis on integration of activities and heredity. No lab. Not for science majors.
Baldridge’s writing exercises for science students
Good writing requires clear thinking, a relationship that Baldridge makes use of to promote serious reflection in her classroom and prompt students to consider science from varied points of view. Below are some of the assignments that she gives students to develop their skills in critical thinking and communication—along with their learnings in science. These build from a low-stakes, short-answer exercise to more complex deliverables, such as a brochure and position paper.
1. Offer quick answers to “thought questions” in an online forum
As a quick, low-stakes exercise, Baldridge posts simple but thought-provoking questions on the online learning platform Moodle for students to answer. Some examples: “What’s your favorite food memory?” and “If your health didn’t matter, what’s the one thing you couldn’t get enough of?” Students must respond to the questions before they can read what any of their classmates wrote.
The questions are directly related to the course, covering such issues as digestion, the nervous system, and the endocrine system, for example. Baldridge does not always bring them up for class discussion, and the online responses are not awarded specific letter grades, but points for participation accrue. More important, Baldridge feels that the exercise pushes students to think for themselves and share their viewpoints, which ultimately prepares them to take the next step: asking questions about the science lessons to come.
2. Zoom in on key concepts with a 27-line research paper
To help them learn to summarize their learnings, toward the end of the semester Baldridge assigns her students a research paper than can be only 25 to 27 lines long (in 12-point font with one-inch margins). They can choose among topics on a list she keeps of subjects in the natural sciences, such as the deterioration of coral reefs, the characteristics of different kinds of winds, or prominent scientific figures.
Students work on these outside of class time, drawing on text, the Internet, or both. The length limit forces them to be strategic about details they include, while still exploring a broad topic. “They don’t have to cite anything, but they have to boil down the salient facts,” says Baldridge. “I’m not naïve. I know a lot of it will be just cut and paste, but they still have to find what’s important to cut and paste.”
3. Create an educational brochure for the general public
To help students consider how to present science to the wider world, Baldridge tasks them with writing and designing a brochure (bifold, trifold, or one-page flier) on a topic of their choosing. Usually students select from a list that Baldridge keeps handy of diseases, disorders, or little-known maladies.
Each brochure must cover six key elements of the health problem other than its name: cause, symptoms, transmission, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. The students present their brochures to the class using PowerPoint. “They all learn about 30 different maladies—some they’ve heard of, and some they haven’t,” she says.
The format is easier to grade than some other writing exercises, Baldridge acknowledges. “It’s easy to look through and see if they’ve included the six parts I requested,” she says.
4. Share personal beliefs about biology in a position paper
Baldridge acknowledges that teaching natural sciences at a Christian university brings many questions to the fore. But she also sees that as an opportunity to prompt students to think more deeply. An example she shares is the big bang theory. “We talk about how much faith it takes to believe that versus how much faith it takes to accept [creationism],” Baldridge says.
To encourage further introspection, Baldridge asks her students to create a paper at least 25 lines long that reflects their beliefs about a specific biology issue. While she tossed out common hot-button topics like abortion long ago, she still encourages spirited debate. “I like them to think about something they don’t often think about, or even realize there is controversy about,” she says. Past prompts have included cremation, vasectomies, organ selling, breastfeeding, and exorcism.
5. Write a detailed lab manual for a future science class
Baldridge recalls that lab manuals barely existed when she began teaching, which drove her to create her own. Eventually, she realized that her students would also benefit by creating lab research notebooks themselves.
Interestingly, students do not have to perform the actual lab exercises they create: Rather, each chooses a topic based on what Baldridge is teaching at the moment (such as properties of the solar system or characteristics of water) and writes up a lab that could be done.
Specifically, students must include the title (in the form of a question), the purpose of the exercise, a list of materials, a series of two or three questions directly related to the lab, a results summary, and a conclusion. “It’s more than just finding information,” Baldridge says. “It has to follow a guideline.”
For the most part, she adds, “these exercises are about junior high level, so [they] reinforce that science is not scary as many think…. Students actually enjoy the lab and realize science does not have to be hard. It also takes away some fear when these students end up teaching science themselves.”