ASCB’s Declaration on Effective and Inclusive Undergraduate Biology Education: From National Vision to Widespread Action


ASCB has taken a bold step to help educators adopt effective teaching and mentoring practices. Specifically, ASCB has adopted a Declaration on Effective and Inclusive Undergraduate Biology Education.1 The Declaration offers concrete, actionable recommendations for stakeholders in life science education: faculty members, teaching staff, graduate students, departments, institutions, and organizations that support undergraduate education.

Implementing Vision and Change
The Declaration on Effective and Inclusive Undergraduate Biology Education builds on the Vision and Change report,2 which is considered the guiding document for transformation of undergraduate biology education. Created a decade ago through a joint effort of biologists and educators and with sponsorship and leadership from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health among others, Vision and Change offers guidance based on decades of research on student learning and development and driven by the changing landscape in higher education. It calls for shifts:

  • From content coverage to conceptual understanding and competency building,
  • From treating students like empty vessels into which we pour biological details to helping students develop biological expertise by engaging in thinking and working like scientists, and
  • From teaching select students whose backgrounds have primed them for success in college to serving all students who want to pursue higher education regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances.

Colleges and universities across the country have been working to make Vision and Change a reality. Moreover, the authors of Vision and Change wisely recognized that, to achieve widespread improvement of undergraduate biology education, faculty and institutions could not operate in isolation. Rather, life science societies, like ASCB, need to support their members in effecting change by:

  • Recognizing outstanding contributions to undergraduate education through awards or other honorifics, which could then be leveraged to promote undergraduate teaching,
  • Offering professional development on teaching, learning, diversity, and inclusion for current and future faculty, and
  • Creating spaces for disseminating educational research during meetings and in society journals.

ASCB’s Commitment to Undergraduate Education
ASCB’s deep and longstanding commitment to undergraduate education is apparent in its leadership on all of these fronts. ASCB established the Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education over two decades ago to recognize individuals who have made innovative and sustained contributions to science education. ASCB offers teaching and mentoring professional development during workshops, roundtable discussions, and other sessions during its meetings. The Society has recently moved to improve accessibility of professional development by making sessions available year-round through webinars.3 Since 2002, ASCB has published CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE),4 which publishes research and evaluation studies in biology education and has grown into the leading biology education journal. ASCB has promoted undergraduate education in myriad other ways, including travel grants for undergraduates, undergraduate poster sessions and competitions, and free annual meeting registration for community college educators.

How Can We Be Better Teachers and Mentors?
Clearly, ASCB isn’t just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk. Yet, Society leadership has also recognized that there remains only modest uptake of effective teaching and mentoring practices by typical faculty members. The Declaration on Effective and Inclusive Undergraduate Biology Education was created to help close the gap between what research shows about how to teach and mentor undergraduates and what we faculty do as instructors and mentors. The core tenets of the Declaration are that

  • We must use evidence to inform how we teach and mentor;
  • Scientific progress can best be made when individuals who bring diverse perspectives, knowledge bases, and skillsets are actively engaged; and
  • We must establish and make widespread use of processes to support, motivate, and reward faculty members for teaching and mentoring effectively and inclusively.

What does this mean for our work as faculty members? It means we need to bring our scientific habits of mind to the work we do as educators and mentors, what is known as “scientific teaching.” We need to collect and analyze data on our teaching, on our mentoring, and on our students’ learning and development. Then we need to take action based on the results, using the results to improve what we do and ultimately to benefit our students. Here are some places for faculty to start.

The next time you teach, ask yourself: What data can I collect right now to tell how well my students are understanding something I am teaching? Consider dedicating two minutes at the end of class to hand out index cards to your class and ask students to write 1) one thing they learned and 2) one thing they are still confused about or one question they have. Students don’t have to identify themselves; they just need to respond to the prompts. Then collect the cards and read through them quickly to figure out what the most common question or point of confusion was. Start your next class by addressing that question or confusion. Over time, you will develop a better sense of where students are struggling with material and ways you can teach to help them overcome those struggles. For more ideas on how to collect and make use of educational data to make decisions, see the LSE article “From Assays to Assessments—On Collecting Evidence in Science Teaching.”5

The next time you teach, ask yourself: What am I doing to make sure that all students in my class have an opportunity to learn? What am I doing to ensure my students feel like they have a place in the scientific community? Consider conducting a short survey using questions drawn from the LSE article “Considering the Role of Affect in Learning: Monitoring Students’ Self-Efficacy, Sense of Belonging, and Science Identity.”6 You can distribute hard copies of the survey or use a Web polling tool like Poll Everywhere. This could help you figure out how your students feel about their science learning experiences and their confidence in science, which may be more influential factors in their career decision making than whether or not they have excelled in science class. If some (or all) of your students’ responses suggest they are not very confident and don’t feel like they belong in science, consider using tried-and-tested strategies for improving student engagement and building a sense of community in the classroom that can ultimately improve student learning and success.7

The next time you are working with your research group, ask yourself: What data can I collect right now to improve my research groups’ learning and development and my mentoring skills? Again, consider asking your research group to spend just a few minutes at the end of group meeting writing responses to these prompts on an index card: 1) What was the most helpful or informative part of today’s group meeting? 2) What is one suggestion you have for improving future group meetings? Then review their responses to see what seems to be working that should continue and what actions could be taken to improve the effectiveness and inclusiveness of group meetings.

As faculty members, we spend a lot of time giving feedback to members of our research group, but we rarely ask them for feedback. The next time you are meeting one-on-one with someone in your research group, consider pointing out this imbalance and asking them: What feedback do you have for me? Regardless of the approach you take, you must be patient and open. Ask questions if you need clarification to understand the feedback, but otherwise just listen and do not respond by defending your decisions. Your research group members may not feel comfortable offering feedback the first few times you ask, but if you keep asking they will believe that you are sincerely interested in what they have to say.

Most importantly, don’t let best be the enemy of good. If you are not comfortable thinking about how to collect, analyze, and use educational data because it seems so different from scientific data, remember that there are many things you have done in your research that you were not initially trained to do. Yet, we can all learn and ASCB is here to help. The Education Committee has collaborated with ASCB staff to redesign parts of the ASCB website to highlight teaching resources aligned with principles of effective and inclusive education.8 ASCB is also continuing its professional development programming on effective and inclusive education, hosting Online with LSE webinars during the academic year3 and hosted a regional educator meeting, titled Teaching Tomorrow’s Scientists, this past spring (see p. 22). Finally, ASCB is redoubling its efforts to ensure that all programs and offerings have strong representation and participation by individuals from diverse backgrounds. The Declaration on Effective and Inclusive Undergraduate Biology Education is an important part of an ongoing effort to help us all better prepare and support the next generation of scientists and scientifically engaged citizens.

Footnotes and References
2American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
5Tanner K, Allen D (2004). From assays to assessments—on collecting evidence in science teaching. Cell Biology Education 3, 69–74.
6Trujillo G, Tanner KD (2014). Considering the role of affect in learning: monitoring students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and science identity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 13, 6–15.
7Tanner KD (2013). Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 12, 322–331.

About the Author:

Erin Dolan is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Georgia.