Students all learn differently, especially when it comes to sciences like biochemistry. Some are visual learners, others auditory. Sometimes things click better after a demonstration. It can be helpful for others to be able to listen or watch something multiple times rather than having to absorb it in just one lecture.
Online education can help instructors provide these additional learning opportunities and Lynne Prost, a faculty associate in the Department of Biochemistry, used a university professional development grant to expand her expertise in this area. Thanks to the 2018 grant through the Office of the Secretary of the Academic Staff, Prost recently completed the Professional Certificate in Online Education from UW–Madison Continuing Studies.
“I don’t teach a fully online course right now but I incorporate online assignments and content into my courses,” Prost explains. “I was interested in learning how to get better at this kind of online material but also getting more educated on how all the pieces fit together and link back to our student-focused learning objectives.”
In the course, she gained more knowledge about writing course objectives and course organization, all in the context of online education. She also learned about effective online active learning opportunities and tackled important questions in online education. How do you maintain instructor presence in an online space? How can students be both independent and collaborative online?
Prost teaches Biochem 551: Biochemical Methods with faculty members Alessandro Senes in the fall and Vatsan Raman in the spring, and she also co-teaches Biochem 100: Biochemistry First-Year Seminar with faculty associate Mario Pennella. She considers 551 a “blended” course that mixes in online content with a lecture and lab. It is the capstone course required for all biochemistry majors.
“Lynne is always focusing her energy on how to achieve the best learning experience for students,” Senes says. “One example is how the course was redesigned to stimulate decision-making within the laboratory, using a process in which students are required to collaborate to reach these decisions. These innovations emphasize active and peer-driven learning. They have made Biochem 551 a modern, engaging, and effective course that makes it possible for students to synthesize new connections as they learn the fundamentals of biochemical technology.”
Students view online material, attend an in-person class that incorporates active learning, and then get hands-on experience in the lab. The in-person class for 551 covers the biological concepts behind the laboratory experiments and often demonstration videos prepare the students for the lab portion. Through the certificate, Prost learned how all of this material can be better integrated with course objectives.
“The certificate program was fully online so I got to be an online student and participate in some of these activities from that perspective,” she says. “In 551, the lectures echo the labs and we cover the theory behind what they are going to do so they aren’t just pipetting something but really understanding what’s going on in the cell.”
Biochemical Methods is meant to give students an idea of what being a biochemist is like by having them follow a research project they carry out throughout the semester. Along with laboratory techniques, students get experience in scientific communication through written and oral assignments and presentations.
“When I first started six or seven years ago, there really wasn’t much online content at all so I started adding more and more,” Prost adds. “This certificate helped me put all the pieces together and give our students different modalities and some flexibility in how they learn important concepts and techniques in biochemistry.”