Thoughts on BIOS 101 and Large Lecture Sections

John Janovy, Jr.

Varner Professor of Biological Sciences


            These thoughts and ideas are a result of being in the large lecture classroom for 40+ years, with a range of classes: BIOS 101 (General Biology or equivalent – 150-350 students, non-majors); BIOS 112 (General Zoology – 100-200 students, majors); BIOS 204 (Biodiversity = BIOS 103 Organismic Biology ~ 100 students, majors).  These comments concern mainly BIOS 101 because it seems to be the most challenging in terms of students’ “habits of mind” behavior; a syllabus from fall, 2007, is provided as an example of my design of this course.  BIOS 112 is by far the easiest to teach, mainly because the subject builds on itself through the semester (the same should be true for BIOS 109- General Botany).  Because of the course intent, and the fact that the subject does not build on itself naturally through the semester, BIOS 103 is an absolute intellectual disaster that cannot be resolved no matter what a faculty member does; the BIOS 103 students themselves, however, are pretty easy to get along with because most are majors.


            The auditoriums or other large classrooms I’ve used to teach these classes at UNL have been in Love Library, Military and Naval Science, Burnett Hall, Bessey Hall, College of Business Administration, Morrill Hall, and Henzlik Hall.  I also had the experience of conducting a national meeting in the late 1980s and we used all these facilities.  The rooms differ substantially in their facilities and setups, and the courses take on somewhat of a character of the classroom because of these differences.  Henzlik Hall is the best place to put on a show and by far the best place for BIOS 101; Morrill Hall is an excellent room for anything else; the rest of those places are to be avoided if at all possible.  Hamilton Hall auditoriums (where I’ve never taught and would never teach) are the worst facilities on campus; nobody should ever volunteer to teach in one of those places, period.  Beadle Center auditorium is equally as bad (as Hamilton) but for very different reasons; if you don’t believe this assertion, go sit in on some of your fellow faculty members’ classes, but sit on the back row.


            Nobody ever should try to tell another faculty member how or what to teach, mainly because such “helpful advice” usually is either received with disdain or ignored.  However, based on all the above experiences, if I had any advice for a young faculty member just starting to deal with the large lecture sections, here’s what that advice would be:


The basics:


(1) Make absolutely sure that your microphone works well and that you learn how to use it well.  Watch the rap musicians; they always have the microphone right up against their mouths.  Whatever the microphone system is—clip on, remote, podium, etc.—master it immediately, make sure it’s clipped on aiming at your mouth, and use it so that you can speak to the person in the last row easily.  The microphone is your best friend, not an impediment.


(2) Figure out the computers and visual aids technology and practice using the stuff so that you do it smoothly and easily. 


(3) If you plan to use clicker technology (I strongly advise it), then do two things:  (a) master the technology so that you don’t struggle with it (this task is likely to be a non-trivial one); and, (b) develop a pedagogy that matches your teaching style and goals (this task is likely to be even less trivial than (a)).


(4) Go watch a few people give lectures and decide immediately that you are not going to make the audio-visual mistakes that they make.


(5) The major audio-visual mistakes made by large classroom lecturers are: pictures and writing too small, too much stuff on a slide or figure, mumbling or poor microphone use, whipping the pointer around the screen, going too fast, talking to the wall instead of the audience, pacing back and forth, and doing a variety of behaviors that detract from the subject or hinder communication.


(6) Always ask for questions at the beginning of class and a couple of times during class, especially after you’ve made a point that you believe is important.  This generation of students has a maximum attention span of about 15 minutes, and stopping for questions periodically helps deal with that problem.


(7) If you want people to actually write something in their notebooks, tell them to write it in their notebooks.  The same advice goes for pictures they need to draw.


(8) Start on time; finish on time; make yourself available for questions outside the classroom after class.


(9) Try to learn as many names as you can as early in the semester as you can.


(10) Expect that things will go more slowly than you’d like for them to go.


(11) Plan to spend whatever time is necessary to handle their grades correctly, recording them personally, and posting them in a timely manner.


Pedagogical philosophy:


(1) First of all, have one, or develop one, that addresses communication, expectations, engagement, creativity, and a vision of the discipline as an integral part of a future citizen’s intellectual and decision-making equipment.  Put that philosophy into the syllabus (example below).


(2) “Teaching” is a human activity regardless of how many people are involved and regardless of what kind of technology is used.  All class activities, even those that involve electronic technology, must be human activities first and foremost, and must not relieve students of the responsibility for human acts (e.g., getting up and going to school, asking questions, talking to other people, carrying on discussions, doing problems, etc.)


(3) Over the last few years I have come to believe that it is just as important to focus on student behavior (relative to the subject matter) as on content.  In other words, in the case of Biological Sciences courses, students need to be doing what biologists would do, and thinking like biologists think, regardless of whether those students end up being biologists or not and regardless of the level at which they are doing it.  What happens in a class should then be aimed at developing, or at least demonstrating, habits of mind, with the “material” as the vehicle for developing such habits.  Material (“content”) is always subordinate to behavior, especially in a world in which “content” increases exponentially and access (Internet) increases even faster.


(4) In recent years, graded work in my large introductory classes has become increasingly “contract” based, and in my upper division classes it has become mostly contract.  (See below [Ideas that seem to work] for some contract exercises used in the past.)  In other words, I’m saying to them “If you will do what I ask you to do, and do it to the extent that I ask you to do it, then I’ll give you full credit.”  In future large classes, this contract work is likely to be as much as 25% of the grade.  For example, here is a description of the columns in my BIOS 101 spreadsheet from October 17, 2005, halfway through the fall semester; by that time we had had eight such contract opportunities (in 2007 we had a weekly contract exercise). 


click# = your clicker number.
Knw = An X means that I believe I could recognize you on the street by name.
EQ1 = Credit for submitting questions for the first exam.
Vot = One of those times we voted on something.
919 = Extemporaneous writing on 091905.
923 = Extemporaneous writing on 092305.
E1 = First exam grade.
EQ2 = Credit for submitting questions for the first exam.
NP = Credit for submitting questions on The Next Pandemic.
926 = Credit for class discussion on 092605.
1003 = Extemporaneous writing on 100305.
E2 = Grade on second exam.
1014 = Credit for writing on our museum visit.


(5) “Contract” work seems to be an ideal way to let students demonstrate habits of mind behavior for themselves, engage in some peer teaching, and open their eyes to the subject matter in a larger context.  It’s also an excellent way to exercise faculty creativity, but most importantly, to increase the number of instructional modes used in a particular class.  Some additional examples are given on my web site ( The instructor, of course, has complete freedom to develop and choose contract exercises.  I work hard to make them easily graded, no matter how long or difficult they are, the grades being “did,” “did not do,” “do over,” and “a couple of extra credit points for exceptional performance.”


(6) For the past few years, I’ve also given out exam questions in advance, in fact providing large banks of such exam questions, making sure that there are far more questions in the pool than will be chosen for a test.  I’ve also told students that their tests will be taken from the pool, with the option of slight re-wordings, etc.  My overall grade distribution in BIOS 101 has not varied significantly (tested statistically) for the past decade.  I strongly suspect that the grade distribution would not change even if I gave them all the answers to all these questions.  Nevertheless, the questions are a fairly easy way to help students build vocabulary, I believe, just from watching the way a lot of students use those old tests.


(7) Everything that happens in class is legitimate material for the exam; everything—class discussion, questions, creative (but biological) diversions, current events of biological importance—everything that happens during a class period.  I also give a few points for students who are willing to take notes on such discussions and either write questions or post those notes on Blackboard discussion boards.  Beginning with fall semester, 2007, I recorded everything that happened in class and put the recording up on Blackboard as both a *.WMA and a *.M4A file, as well as made a iTunes podcast.


(8) The Institutional Objectives and appropriate Learning Outcomes that are part of the proposed revision of general education at UNL (see represent the ideals of higher education as expressed on many colleges’ and universities’ web sites, so it is permitted to use them in your class.  This use is okay regardless of whether the course is approved for general education credit or not; it’s okay to remind students of these Objectives and Outcomes; and, it’s okay to write outcomes for your own course.  This task is not very difficult or time consuming; it consists mainly of simply putting down on paper what you’ve been thinking about for some time.


(9) I have started adding the book OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS (Pearson Custom Publishing, ISBN 0536418500) to my textbook order.


(10) Study the sociology of current 18-22 year olds.  The results will surprise, if not dismay, you, and there is little that you can do to change the sociology of this group so you must find a way to subvert it.  I suggest focusing especially on matters of behavior, attention span, self-assessment, generation of products, and multiple instruction modes.  Do a Google search using “Generation Y” or “Millennials” as the search term to get quick access to a demographic and cultural profile of your clientele.


(11) Recording your lectures and making all content (ppts and pdf versions of them) available via Blackboard, posting all kinds of relevant information, e.g. grades, on Blackboard, communicating regularly with students via e-mail, setting up discussion boards with anonymous postings allowed (but NOT using such discussion boards as graded or required activities), etc., all can work to enhance engagement with the material.  In other words, information technology does not replace human-to-human interactions, it simply (and only) allows students to go back and revisit whatever happened during previous human-to-human interactions.


(12) I require attendance, now that we have clicker technology to accomplish this easily and quickly by default when you use this technology for some valid pedagogical reason.


Ideas that seem to work:


(1) If the auditorium is equipped with a classroom response system (“clicker” system), then use it, especially in BIOS 101.  Such use will take some practice, patience, and creativity, especially patience (the use will, over the semester, cost you 10% of your lecture time).  The creativity part is reasonably difficult because of the lost lecture time.  What seems to work best for me are 5-10 minute exercises in which students have to respond in some way, by writing, to a picture, or a situation described on the screen, i.e., a mini-research exercise.  The picture or situation is an extension of whatever we’ve been covering in lecture, and it is typically out of some part of their book we have not covered yet.  Then I give three or four responses, ask how many actually wrote one of them, and use their responses for some extemporaneous explanations of the ideas.  Of course they see the frequency distribution of the responses as part of the clicker system graphics.  This kind of use seems much more instructive than asking multiple choice questions on the screen to see if students understand (~ pandering).  I pick up what they’ve written and give them a point or two for the page, and an extra point or two if they’ve been especially insightful.  In other words, I’m trying to get away from testing and into habits of mind development, admittedly in a minor (but recognizable) way.  I also simply made a dummy PowerPoint file for use with clickers instead of trying to incorporate the electronic response function into my regular show.  By use of the dummy, you free up a whole lot of personal time.


(2) Clicker use was far less important, successful, or necessary in my sections of BIOS 204 (= BIOS 103), mainly because the students were virtually all majors, they seemed to be more receptive to serious lecture and other kinds of classroom interactions (presentations, assigned discussion topics, etc.) than were the BIOS 101 students, and the classes were much smaller.


(3) With clickers, you can count attendance easily, and I strongly recommend it for BIOS 101.  The first rule for success in college is: get up and go to class.  I make attendance worth a significant part of the grade, typically 15%.


(4) I’ve paid points for being able to recognize students by name outside of class.  I’ll simply add 10 points (out of 600 or 700) if I can recognize that student by name halfway through the semester.  The students are responsible for making sure I know their names if they want the points.


(5) I demand quiet and respect for one’s fellow students.  I also pick out students either by name or clothing and tell them to put their newspapers away, turn off their cell phones, to stop talking, etc.  Then I usually launch into a minute or two of idealism about higher education.  About once a semester I end up kicking students out of class for continuing to talk and being disruptive after being asked once (politely) to be quiet.  I also walk down the aisle and simply take newspapers or other items away from students if necessary.  You can always pull out your own cell phone and fake a call to campus cops if none of this stuff works.


(6) From now on, when I teach BIOS 101, I will have as many as 10 extemporaneous writing exercises, each taking 15 minutes.  These exercises will involve “higher order” thinking about the subject; i.e., I will ask them something conceptual, or something that involves assimilation of material from several parts of the course or book and probably provide them with some illustrative material to interpret.  In the past I’ve simply recorded those as having been done, reading them about as fast as I can flip the pages and enter points in a spreadsheet.


(7) The from now on, when I teach BIOS 101, I am going to pay a significant point premium to students who pick up all their work, assemble it in a portfolio at the end of the semester, and show it to me with a adequate self-assessment (see 2007 syllabus and ACE report below).  I may pay a truly major premium to students who will convert all this material into a single electronic file and submit it (sort of as a test of how easy this is to do in a large 100-level class).  This kind of premium is intended to influence behavior; obviously some will ignore it completely.


(8) If a large class is able to have an extended and serious discussion, with everyone quiet and paying attention, and with at least 10 different people participating, then I give everyone who’s there that day 5 points.  That’s happened maybe three times in the last five years, but it’s a lot of fun when it does happen.  Then I ask students to write test questions based on the discussion and post those questions on Blackboard, along with answers, and reasons why the answers are correct.


(9) At least two or three times a semester I turn the podium over to students, although in a fairly formal way, and I maintain quite a bit of control over the class behavior.  This activity usually is good for about 15 or 20 minutes max.  One phrase that seems to work is: “Okay, folks, you owe your fellow students respect, and there will be questions from this discussion on the next exam.”  So again, I ask students to write test questions based on the discussion and post those questions on Blackboard, along with answers, and reasons why the answers are correct.


(10) The last couple of times I’ve taught BIOS 101, I’ve given points for students who will write three multiple choice questions and put them up on Blackboard for the rest of the class.  In order to get these points, the students also have to provide the answers and the place in the book where those answers can be found.  I’m going to modify this activity a little bit the next time, probably by asking for the rationale behind the multiple choice question answers.  Again, this is using Blackboard to encourage behavior that by default is educational.


(11) I’m also going to experiment with a section of the multiple choice exams in which I try to teach some higher order thinking by asking several multiple choice questions in a row about a single question, e.g., why each of the choices was right or wrong and giving several choices.  They’re probably not going to love it and the questions and answers are likely to require some serious reading.


Some creative approaches to class that have been used commonly in the past:


(1) Remember that awareness is a hallmark of the professional habit of mind: biologists see biological material everywhere in many different contexts and they interpret events and observations, regardless of the area (politics, economics, social situations, etc.), in terms of biology.  I try to develop awareness through use of seemingly strange contract exercises, e.g. those involving campus vegetation, biological content of art in the Sheldon, biological content of Daily Nebraskan cartoons, etc.  This same general approach should work for many disciplines other than biology.


(2) Fear is also a problem in large introductory courses, especially fear of the unknown.  I try to break down this fear by passing around biological materials and talking about them (e.g. ginkgo leaves, feathers found on campus, insects attracted to the Henzlik Hall podium lights, shells or fossils “accidentally” found in a jacket pocket, etc.), making sure students actually touch the items if possible.


(3) It is important to make a connection between the subject and students’ lives outside of class.  I try to accomplish this task by using such things as the ingredients list on junk food to support lectures on metabolism and help with vocabulary building.  Next fall I might spend some time in my local supermarket if the managers will let me, taking pictures of food as material for use in the metabolism, cell biology, and genetics sections of the course.  I’ve also used chemical compound lists from over-the-counter drugs in our house to accompany the material on biochemistry, mainly to impress on students the connection between what we’re studying and their lives after biology class.


(4) Students need to see the subject in a way that transcends the textbook and their sense of a “requirement.”  I’ve tried to help them transcend the textbook by putting a strange and beautiful (but with strong biological content) picture on the screen, using the document camera, during that period before class and during the first part of class when I’m messing around with the audio-visual software.  (I refuse to put a menu bar on the screen in front of an introductory class.)  Most of these pictures are ones cut out from one of Karen’s discarded art magazines but they are exceedingly biological.  Sometimes I’ll simply talk about that picture for a minute or two after class starts.


(5) I’ve routinely used the textbook as the source material for asking students to solve relatively outlandish but entirely plausible problems in their own individual ways, one example being: in fifty scientifically legitimate steps, justifying each step by citing a page, paragraph, or figure from the text, trace a carbon atom in its journey from a Cambrian trilobite’s eye to the explosives in a Baghdad car bomb.  In biology, of course, you can work with phosphorus, sulfur, nitrogen, and modify this kind of a problem a thousand ways.  I usually make these assignments as papers to be turned in but followed with a couple of students presenting their solutions (for points, publicly awarded) and some exam questions.  There are always a few exam questions on this material to keep people honest.


(6) I always award a couple of points for excellent questions, immediately and publicly, and I always explain why the question was a particularly good one that we should talk about for a couple of minutes.  I also award a couple of points, again immediately and publicly, for other kinds of intellectual leadership in class (coming to the podium, etc.).


(7) I have a fairly extensive information sheet that I collect the first day of class.  Whenever a student comes to my office I pull out that student’s information sheet and use it in the conversation.  See the last page of the syllabus for an example of this information sheet.


(8) I put graded exams and recorded extemporaneous writings in a big plastic box right outside my office door.  That way it is convenient for students who choose to pick up their stuff to introduce themselves.


(9) I never show a film or video without asking for some kind of a written analysis during the same class period the film is shown.  The written response typically requires that students put the video material into context relative to the lecture topics for that week.




Biological Sciences 101         I-07-08  1330MWF Henz Aud

Instructor: John Janovy, Jr., 424 Manter Hall;;

Text: Johnson and Losos, Essentials of The Living World, 2nd Ed. (McGraw-Hill)


            Welcome to the University of Nebraska.  I hope your time here is well spent and that the university experience turns out to be a positive one.  BioSci 101 is intended for first year students who are not majoring in Biological Sciences.  Consequently, this course enrolls people from a wide variety of backgrounds and with an equal diversity of goals and interests.  In addition, biology is an exceedingly broad subject; therefore, although lecture will be primarily from the text, you should expect to occasionally hear, or participate in, discussion of current scientific issues that affect your daily life. 


What to expect in this class:


(1) I usually will have three lectures a week, mostly explaining material in the book and expanding on that material when appropriate.  Facts, vocabulary, and diagrams will all come from the book, but the meaning, significance, and interpretations will come mainly from material presented in class.


(2) You will have weekly writing exercises done in class and you will be asked to pick up your papers and do some additional work on them.  All papers will be in a plastic box outside my office door.


(3) You may be asked to write short papers in addition to, and sometimes instead of, coming to class one or two times during the semester.  These paper assignments are likely to seem strange and challenging.


(4) We will use the electronic classroom response system, also known as “clicker technology,” every day in class beginning after Labor Day.  Plan to bring your “clicker” (officially known as a “response pad”) to class every day and do not lose it.  This technology makes it easy for me to include attendance and participation as part of the grading criteria.


(5) Some student(s) will earn extra points by asking excellent questions, or demonstrating other kinds of intellectual leadership.  I may also turn the microphone over to students periodically.


(6) The material will be integrated from the beginning, in the sense that both lecture and readings are likely to include information from sub-cellular to ecosystem levels and from several places in your book.  I suggest considering the index to be the rough equivalent of Google, in the sense that you can search for terms in the index and come up with information about those terms.  I will try to tie these subjects together, and you are expected to try to do the same.


(7) You will be treated as if you have come to a major university (which you have) and will be expected to behave accordingly in this auditorium.  If you are being disruptive, talking excessively, reading the newspaper, talking on your cell phone, lost in a dream with your iPod plugged into your ears, etc., you will probably be asked to leave, maybe even asked to drop the class.


(8) You will have to take notes, lots of notes, paying particular attention to interpretations of material from the text and to our attempts to integrate the various aspects of biology into a single big picture.


(9) I will try to learn as many of your names as possible; I greatly appreciate your help and cooperation in this effort.


(10) Expect a few unusual class periods when we do something different yet still quite appropriate for a university biology course.


Learning Outcomes for this class:


            As a result of taking this class, you should be able to clearly explain the following to your friends and relatives who have not taken biology:


(1) The fundamental nature of science and of biology.


(2) The biological roles and functions of the major ingredients indicated on labels of processed food.


(3) The design of a typical experiment and analysis of the results.


(4) The structure of a cell and the functions of all the cell organelles typically illustrated in an introductory biology text.


(5) Mendelian inheritance of dominant and recessive traits and the calculations used to predict probabilities of genotype.


(6) Why evolution is the central unifying theme in biology.


(7) The evolutionary principles as outlined in an introductory college biology text.


(8) The flow of energy, chemical elements, and molecules through an ecosystem.


(9) The diversity of living organisms on Earth.


(10) The role(s) that humans play, and have played, in modification of the Earth’s biota and life support systems.





            This class uses two forms of information technology.  These technological features include a classroom response system and Blackboard (a Course Management Software system).  Please get up to speed on these systems as quickly as you can; they’re not particularly difficult, but you will need access to the Internet in order to use them.




Classroom Response System (CRS): 


            In addition to a textbook, you will need a classroom response pad, or “clicker” for this section.  The pads are sold separately in the bookstores.  Each pad has a serial number, and you must get online and register it in order to participate in this class.  Instructions for registering online are provided on Blackboard.


Course Management Software (CMS):


            UNL has web-based CMS called Blackboard available for use by students and faculty members.  I will use that software to post grades, announcements, and possibly outside readings (or links to them), as well as to provide opportunities for you to earn extra credit.  You get into this software through the web site  If you are registered for this class you can get into Blackboard for this section.




            Attendance is required and accounts for about 15% of your final grade.  The quickest way to get into grade trouble in a large university class is to quit coming to school.  You are responsible for all of the material presented in lecture and assigned from the text.  Tape recorders are permitted, although I will try to put all lectures up on Blackboard as *.wma files.  Beginning with the second week, I will take attendance daily through use of the CRS or written exercises.




            Questions are expected.  Although I have a lecture schedule, it is not so rigid that we can’t spend an entire period on class discussion or in answering questions.  Someone please raise his or her hand and tell me to slow down, spell words, or repeat if I am going too rapidly.




            Your grades are calculated on the following basis:


(1) Hour exams – three @ 100 points each   = 300 points

(2) Final exam – one @ 160 points                           = 160 points

(3) Written assignments 14 @ 10 points                    = 140 points

(4) Attendance                                                         = 100 points


TOTAL                                                                    = 700 points


PORTFOLIO BONUS POINTS                             =    50 points



Hour exams: The tests may include multiple choice and matching questions, diagrams to label or interpret, and short essays.  You should also expect a “critical and higher order thinking” section on each exam, consisting of 5 questions that explore a subject in depth.  There is a test question bank on Blackboard.


Exam questions:  I will take as many of the exam questions as I can from the question banks posted on the Blackboard web site for this course.  I am likely to ask you to write some of your own exam questions and provide not only the answers but also the rationale for the answers (on Blackboard).


Pop quizzes: If given, pop quizzes will range from 4-10 points, and those points will be subtracted from the ones available on regular tests.


Writing exercises: Every Friday during the semester I will give small, extemporaneous, writing assignments.  You will get 1-3 points (awarded subjectively on the basis of grammar, information content, etc.) for actually doing these assignments in class, and another 4-7 points (awarded subjectively on the basis of grammar, spelling, originality and insight) if you pick them up on time, do the follow-up writing, and return them on time.  Follow-up writing will consist of correcting your own hand-written paper in red ink, typing the paper exactly as you wrote it in class and also correcting the typed version in red ink, and then evaluating your own performance with a single page of double-spaced typing.  These writing exercises are due the day the next one is given.


Portfolio Bonus Points: If, some time during the last week of the semester, you show me your complete set of work for this class, assembled according to instructions on Blackboard, and you have received at least 100 of the 140 points available through writing assignments during the semester, I will add 50 points to your total for the semester.  Detailed instructions for preparing your course portfolio will be provided on Blackboard.


Grading scale:  The class average is middle C.  I reserve the right to scale grades up if the class average falls below 75%.  If the class average is 75% or higher, then an approximate standard scale applies (90% = A, 80% = B, etc.).  If you end up with 630 points I will give you an “A;” with 560 points you are guaranteed at least a “B;” etc.


Makeup exams:  I give no makeup exams.  If you miss a test because of illness or personal emergency, I will not count that test if you have either a physician’s note indicating you were ill, or have some other documentation of a real emergency.  If you miss class because of athletic competition, I need to have the letter from your coach and I need to be reminded of that letter frequently and as the semester nears its end.  If possible, I will arrange for you to take an exam with you on any university-sponsored trip and have it administered by a university official.


Extra credit:  I will provide a number of opportunities for extra credit, which will appear as points simply added to your total.  These opportunities will include writing some of your own test questions, contributing to exam preparation via Blackboard, exhibiting intellectual leadership in class, sustaining class discussion (see below), etc.  There will be bonus points for assembling a portfolio of all your work in this class (contents and instructions will be on Blackboard).  In December, when I do the final grade calculations, if I am able to recognize you on the street, outside of class, by name and face, then I will add 10 extra credit points to your total.


Please decide this morning that you are going to come to class every day, take notes seriously, ask questions, participate in class discussions, take all the exams, take advantage of extra credit opportunities, make sure I can recognize you outside of class, and get help early if you need it.



Class discussion: 


            If a group of three or more students initiates a serious class discussion of current events, conducted within the context of material we are covering, and if ten or more additional students actually participate in this discussion, I will add 5 bonus points to the grade of everyone who is in class that day.  In order to get these points it will be necessary for you all to be quiet and attentive and to treat your fellow students with respect (but I don’t care how lively the discussion gets).




            I have no responsibility for, or control over, your lab grade.  BioSci 101L is a separate course from BioSci 101.  However, I will try to cover certain topics, e.g. cell biology and genetics, before they are covered in lab.  Dr. Jon Sandridge is the General Biology Laboratory Coordinator.  His office and the Bios 101 lab office are located in room 101A Manter Hall; his telephone number is (402) 472-0620; and, his e-mail is 


Office hours:


            My office hours are MW afternoons after class and Th afternoon 1:30-3:30.  You can call me at 472-2754 (office), or leave a message at 472-2720 (BioSci office) or 489-4369 (home).  If you leave a message on my home or office phone, please speak slowly and clearly, and leave your name and phone number.  I also have a mailbox in 348 Manter Hall (BioSci office, campus mail zip is 0118).  My e-mail is  I am available by appointment about any day, including late in the afternoons (except on Friday).  If you see me out on campus and I don’t seem to be doing anything important, feel free to introduce yourself and ask any questions you may have about biology.


Study hints:


(1) Make a vocabulary list.  Someone ask me about how to make and use such a list.

(2) Find a study partner, or several, and use the vocabulary in your daily conversation.

(3) Seek individual help early if you feel completely lost.

(4) DON’T feel embarrassed if you are not doing as well as you think you should be; seek help.

(5) Use all the resources available, including those that may be on Blackboard.

(6) Attend the Supplemental Instruction sessions.


About your instructor:


John Janovy, Jr.

Paula and D. B. Varner Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences

BS in Math (1959), MS in Zoology (1962), and PhD in Zoology (1965); University of Oklahoma; post-doctoral research, Rutgers (1965-66).


Research interests: parasitology, especially ecology of parasitism and evolution of parasite life cycles, with focus on the protistan parasites of insects and the helminth parasites of small fish.  There are usually 2-3 graduate students and 1-3 undergraduates doing research in my lab.


Other courses taught: Parasitology (BIOS 385, spring semesters), Invertebrate Zoology (BioSci 381, fall semesters), Field Parasitology (BioSci 487/887, Cedar Point Biological Station, Lake McConaughy, NE).


Web site:


General advice on how to maximize the value of the education you receive at the University of Nebraska (these suggestions will cost you absolutely nothing except a little time):


(1) Make sure every instructor you have knows your name, and make sure that instructor knows you and your work well enough so that he/she can write a letter of recommendation for you if necessary.


(2) Simply decide today that you are not afraid of, or intimidated by, faculty members, no matter how obnoxious or wacko they seem, and regardless of whether their “values” are consistent with yours.


(3) Pay attention to world events, especially those with a cultural component.  Try to understand why these events take place, even though your courses may not deal with anything other than specific subject matter having nothing to do with global politics or economics.


(4) Visit the museums on campus about once a week (free with student ID).  Talk to your friends about what you see in those buildings.  Visit the Sheldon Gallery regularly and be able to talk intelligently about the works there, as well as the sculptures on campus.


(5) Pay attention to the campus landscaping; read the labels on the trees and plants.  Talk about campus landscaping and vegetation with your friends.


(6) Read some high quality magazine fairly regularly.  I suggest The New Yorker, Harpers, or Atlantic Monthly.  Ask your instructors for a reading list of non-fiction books and read some of the items on such lists.


(7) Talk to your parents or guardians about the ideas you are encountering at UNL.


(8) Do something original and creative (poetry, music, sketches, etc.) on a fairly regular basis.


(9) Go to free lectures and recitals when you have the opportunity.  Once you get there, stay through the whole thing and be a quiet and attentive audience member.


(10) Talk to your fellow students.  Find out who are the most challenging faculty members in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and enroll in those teachers’ courses.






The laboratory is an integral part of the General Biology course.  It is designed to provide you with a series of experiments and observations which illustrated many of the basic biological principles discussed in lecture.  Efforts have been made to coordinate the sequence in which lecture and lab materials are presented.  In general, the basic background information necessary to carry out each week’s lab exercise will be covered in lecture prior to the lab exercise.  The General Biology Laboratory is a 1 credit hour course (Bios 101L) which must be taken concurrently with lecture (Bios 101).  Your lab grade will NOT be averaged into your lecture grade.


Please note the following policies:


1.  If you drop or withdraw from Bios 101 lecture you must also drop or withdraw from Bios 101L lab.  Conversely, if you drop or withdraw from the Bios 101L lab you must also drop or withdraw from Bios 101 lecture.


2.  Attendance will be taken at each lab meeting.  If you miss more than 2 lab sections, you will automatically receive a grade of F for the laboratory (Bios 101L).


The General Biology Laboratory Coordinator is Jon Sandridge.  His office and the Bios 101 lab office are located in room 101A Manter Hall; his telephone number is (402) 472-0620; and, his e-mail is  All questions concerning the laboratory should be addressed to Dr. Sandridge.


LECTURE SCHEDULE.  In the following schedule, biology is presented in a sequence that is intended to build upon itself, the earlier lectures providing background information, ideas, and concepts necessary to understand the topics presented later in the semester.  Biology is a highly integrated field of study; for this reason I may select readings from several places in the book so that you will have both facts and context relevant to the topic.  In the Reading column, the entries are the textbook sections.  The sequence of topics also is somewhat dictated by the laboratory.


Week of                      Topics; refs in text





Question, Topic, or Issue


What is science?

1.5 - 1.7

Science literary in the general public.


What is biology?

1.1 – 1.4

How scientists approach the study of living organisms.


What is evolution?

1.9, 2.3, 2.5

Why is "it's only a theory" the wrong phrase to use when




   Trying to deny that the process of evolution shapes life on Earth?






Cell chemistry

4.1 – 4.5

What’s in junk food?  Why can I get vaccinated against some viruses?



17.2 - 17.4

Why are flu viruses different from HIV and what is meant by “mutant”?



17.2 – 17.4

Astrobiology, disease diagnosis, and sex on a very small scale.






Eukaryotic Cells

Chapter 5

What is meant by the term "cell"?


Eukaryotic Cells

Chapter 5

What is meant by the term "cell"? (cont'd)


Eukaryotic Cells

Chapter 5

Why are cells of potential use in medicine? In agriculture?






Cell Activities

Ch. 5, 6, & 7

How you and every other living organism process the environment.


Cell Activities

(parts of those

Food, feces, parasites, decay, recycling, worms, etc.


Cell Activities


A biologist reading labels (more junk food)







Ch. 9 - 14

What did your parents tell you about sex?



We’ll select

What should an educated citizen know about sex?



parts of these

Diversity, designer kids, and human evolution - The basics







Ch. 9 - 14

Why is phenotype so important?



We’ll select

Why is phenotype so important? (cont'd)



parts of these

What is genetic information and how might it be used for profit?







Ch. 9 – 14

Some information on human genetics.



We’ll select

Molecular genetics and evolutionary biology.



parts of these

What is the so-called "nature-nurture controversy"?







Ch. 2

What is evolution?



Ch. 2 & 15

Why is evolution the central unifying theme of biological science?



Ch. 2 & 15 cont’d

Why do biologists consider evolution to be a fact?







15.4 -15.5

Population genetics and mutation.



21.7 – 21.10

Co-evolution and co-speciation.



16.1 – 16.5

The cladistic methodology.







21.2 - 21.4, 23.9

Are humans evolving?



16.7, 17.4

Why is the evolution of disease-causing organisms of importance to people?




Who is actually hurt by the teaching of evolution?







20.9 – 20.10

What is meant by the term "environment"?



20.1 – 20.5

The flow of materials.



23.1 - 23.5

Are humans destroying the Earth?








What is the relationship between the Earth's history and current political events?




To what extent do natural phenomena override government actions?




What power do individuals have to direct their own future and that of their children?






Organismic Biology

Ch. 17-19

Who shares this planet with us?


Organismic Biology

Ch. 17-19

Who shares this planet with us?


Organismic Biology

Ch. 17-19

Who shares this planet with us?






Organismic Biology

Ch. 17 – 19

Who shares this planet with us?


Organismic Biology

Ch. 17 – 19

Who shares this planet with us?


Organismic Biology

Ch. 17 – 19

Who shares this planet with us?





Wednesday, September 12, 2007.  Bring two sharpened No. 2 pencils.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007.  Bring two sharpened No. 2 pencils.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007.  Bring two sharpened No. 2 pencils.


FINAL EXAM: Tuesday, December 18, 1:00 – 3:00 PM.  Bring two sharpened No. 2 pencils.


Information sheet (please print legibly, thanks!):


Name____________________________________ Clicker number (if known)_______________


Home town_______________________ High school attended_____________________________


What year are you? (freshman, sophomore, etc.)________________ Major___________________


e-mail address___________________________________________________________________

                 (Please print this address very carefully, exactly as you would send a message to yourself.)


Other UNL activities you are involved in______________________________________________




Do you read any magazines?  If so, what are they?_______________________________________




What are the last two books you read that were not required as part of a course?_______________




What museum did you last visit, and when was that visit?_________________________________




Have you taken at least six semesters of a foreign language, or do you speak and read a language other than English, and if so, what is it?_______________________________________________


Foreign countries you have visited___________________________________________________




Reason you are taking this course____________________________________________________




Might you be at all interested, ever, in undergraduate research?_____________________________


Do you have a scholarship?_______ If so, what kind?____________________________________









TO: Biological Sciences faculty members

FROM: John Janovy, Jr.

RE: BIOS 101: analysis of an ACE model


As you all know, UNL is in the process of revising its General Education program, thus setting up an outcomes-based experience for all university students.  The program is named Achievement Centered Education (ACE) and the details are spelled out in the four proposals passed by all undergraduate colleges during the fall semester, 2007.  See the Senior Vice Chancellor’s web site——for pdf versions of the ACE proposals now approved by all eight undergraduate colleges.  The program will take effect in the fall, 2009.  This message is a report on an attempt to present an ACE version of BIOS 101.




            Regardless of what you read below, this particular section of BIOS 101 (MWF 1:30 Henzlik Hall) was the easiest, least time consuming, and most rewarding of any that I have taught in the past 41 years.  By modifying the way I delivered content I saved about 45 hours of preparation time over the course of the semester.  Furthermore, I gained an enormous amount of flexibility in handling student materials, which is the equivalent of still more time and effort savings.  Most students finished with portfolios of tangible evidence for accomplishment, and ended up doing at least 11 weeks worth of weekly extemporaneous writing, revision, and follow-up self-assessment of both writing and content, ending with a fairly serious and creative piece of writing.  Both campus museums were used for these exercises.  The details will be modified slightly the next time around, but the basic design of my fall, 2008, section will be essentially the same as discussed below.  The biggest surprise, and somewhat of a negative one, was the bi-modal grade distribution, resulting primarily from students opting out of the weekly extemporaneous writing (required) and thus becoming ineligible for the portfolio bonus opportunity.


(1) Introduction:


One of the issues that came up continually during the two years of work on the ACE proposals was the logistical burden of converting large introductory classes into ACE courses and then actually delivering on the departmental agreement required for ACE certification.  This issue is a non-trivial one.  As chair of the General Education Advisory Committee that designed ACE, it seemed imperative to me to actually find out how much work was involved in offering an honest ACE version of a large introductory course because (1) Biological Sciences is such a major player in lower division coursework, and (2) we have a mostly captive audience of first-year students, many of them, probably up to 15% of the total based on my survey data, self-selected high achievers. This report is the result of testing one model of such a course, namely, BIOS 101, 1330 MWF, Henzlik Auditorium, during the fall semester, 2007.  Enrollment started at 208 and ended at 196.

(2) ACE Constraints:


            Students in all ACE courses must generate assessable products, although not all students’ products need to be used in later program assessment.  The focus is on student academic habits and their own behavior that produces evidence they have accomplished an outcome or outcomes.  A faculty member must therefore design activities that allow students to demonstrate learning.  The ACE program guidelines do not specify how much of the graded activity has to be of this type, nor do they specify the exact nature of the activity.  The certification agreement asks for a description of such work and ACE certification is awarded by a subcommittee of the University Curriculum Committee, however, so departments should expect to be questioned if course design seems inadequate (always somewhat of a judgment call, but one made by fellow academics).


(3) ACE Outcomes for BIOS 101 1330 MWF:


            Here are the outcomes as specified in the syllabus for this section:


            As a result of taking this class, you should be able to clearly explain the following to your friends and relatives who have not taken biology:


(1) The fundamental nature of science and of biology.


(2) The biological roles and functions of the major ingredients indicated on labels of processed food.


(3) The design of a typical experiment and analysis of the results.


(4) The structure of a cell and the functions of all the cell organelles typically illustrated in an introductory biology text.


(5) Mendelian inheritance of dominant and recessive traits and the calculations used to predict probabilities of genotype.


(6) Why evolution is the central unifying theme in biology.


(7) The evolutionary principles as outlined in an introductory college biology text.


(8) The flow of energy, chemical elements, and molecules through an ecosystem.


(9) The diversity of living organisms on Earth.


(10) The role(s) that humans play, and have played, in modification of the Earth’s biota and life support systems.


(4) The ACE Activities and Products:


            In this model BIOS 101 course, I decided that the ACE-related activities should be a mini-version of what faculty members do regularly, namely, writing or research on some biological subject that requires design of studies, interpretation of observations, follow-up on that writing or research with formal document preparation, and self-assessment of the end products.  Because the intent of this teaching experiment was to determine the logistical demands of doing such a course, I was not too worried about the exact nature of the assignments this semester, only that they be legitimate biological exercises.  Remember also that BIOS 101 is a non-majors’ course; thus it has always seemed to me that one of our major responsibilities is to help students understand just how pervasive are biological materials, problems, and issues in their daily lives, and subsequently to apply the scientific information obtained in BIOS 101 to those problems and issues.  Many of my activities and products were designed to fulfill this responsibility.  Here are the graded activities from my syllabus:


Your grades are calculated on the following basis:


(1) Hour exams – three @ 100 points each                   = 300 points

(2) Final exam – one @ 160 points                              = 160 points

(3) Written assignments 14 @ 10 points                      = 140 points

(4) Attendance                                                           = 100 points


TOTAL                                                                      = 700 points


PORTFOLIO BONUS POINTS                         =    50 points


Hour exams: The tests may include multiple choice and matching questions, diagrams to label or interpret, and short essays.  You should also expect a “critical and higher order thinking” section on each exam, consisting of 5 questions that explore a subject in depth.  There is a test question bank on Blackboard.


Exam questions:  I will take as many of the exam questions as I can from the question bank posted on the Blackboard web site for this course.  I am likely to ask you to write some of your own exam questions and provide not only the answers but also the rationale for the answers (on Blackboard).


Pop quizzes: If given, pop quizzes will range from 4-10 points, and those points will be subtracted from the ones available on regular tests.


Writing exercises: Every Friday during the semester I will give small, extemporaneous, writing assignments.  You will get 1-3 points (awarded subjectively on the basis of grammar, information content, etc.) for actually doing these assignments in class, and another 4-7 points (awarded subjectively on the basis of grammar, spelling, originality and insight) if you pick them up on time, do the follow-up writing, and return them on time.  Follow-up writing will consist of correcting your own hand-written paper in red ink, typing the paper exactly as you wrote it in class and also correcting the typed version in red ink, and then evaluating your own performance with a single page of double-spaced typing.  These writing exercises are due the day the next one is given.


Portfolio Bonus Points: If, some time during the last week of the semester, you show me your complete set of work for this class, assembled according to instructions on Blackboard, and you have received at least 100 of the 140 points available through writing assignments during the semester, I will add 50 points to your total for the semester.  Detailed instructions for preparing your course portfolio will be provided on Blackboard.


            The writing exercises and portfolio bonus were intended to generate products appropriate for use in assessment of the ACE program, and at the beginning of the semester I planned to keep four of these sets of work, two from students in the top 10% of the class, and two from students in the middle part of the class, based on test scores.  The Friday writing exercises were done during the last 10-15 minutes of class each week.



(5) The Results:


            Counting the portfolio bonus a total of 190 ACE points were available, out of 700; the 700 did not count the portfolio bonus, so obviously a student could finish the course with a final average of over 100%. The results of this pedagogical exercise can be summarized as follows:


a. Number of students completing the course for a grade:                      196

b. Number of students completing the portfolio:                                    126

c. Number of students with over 133 ACE points:

    (133 = 70% of available points)                                                       127

d. Number of students failing to meet ACE requirements:                      ~40

e. Number of 4-Year Regents and National Merit Scholars:                  16

f. Final overall class average:                                                                76.7%

g. Final grade distribution for this section:


Grade                         Number of students      Final overall percent range:

   A                                         52                                90-108%

   B+                                       26                                86-89% 

   B                                         29                                80-85%

   C+                                       16                                75-79%

   C                                         16                                70-74%

   D+                                       21                                65-69%

   D                                         26                                60-64%

   F                                         10                                59% and less


            This grade distribution is rather bi-model, and as such is unusual for a BIOS 101 class. My last five large lecture BIOS 101 sections have all had rather classic bell-shaped letter grade distributions; the class averages have ranged from 70.6% to 82.3% and aside from the latter class, were not statistically different as tested by ANOVA.  The one 82.3% average was the first year of using clickers to count attendance, and I simply gave away too many points (200/700) for attendance.  My best explanation for the fall, 2007, distribution, based on writing scores, is that a fairly large number of students (~40-50, about 23%) simply opted not to do the weekly exercises, or did not take the assignments seriously.  The number of high grades is clearly due to students working seriously at the writing and thus getting not only most of those points during the semester, but also the portfolio bonus at the end.  Fifty-five percent of the students were actually doing the intended behavior and doing it seriously.


            The last four lectures were ones in which there were extemporaneous writings consisting of 10 complete sentences about the lecture topic of that class, done in the last 10 minutes, but guided by a particular task or prompt.  I have saved about 200 of these last extemporaneous writings as indicators of how well students were absorbing and assimilating my lectures within the course of 40 minutes.  In general, they do surprisingly well; either this class is a much better one than is typical of BIOS 101, or they have learned during the semester to pay attention and assimilate the material quickly, knowing they will be asked to write about it extemporaneously.


            Attendance was taken for 36 days during the semester, using a variety of means (clickers, signup sheets, extemporaneous writing).  Average attendance was about 85%, meaning that on any given day, probably 35 people were absent.  Attendance grades were calculated as a percentage simply by dividing the number of days present by 36 and multiplying by 100.


(6) Contract Theory:


            The ACE writing assignments (20% of the final grade excluding portfolio bonus) were designed in accordance with what might be called “pedagogical contract theory,” an instructional approach I have used in all my courses, to varying degrees depending on the course and level, for at least 30 years.  The contract simply says: If a student will do exactly what I ask him/her to do, in the manner I require it to be done, and to the extent I require, then I will give that student full credit.  Such a contract can be applied in many different ways, but in essence it does two things: (a) puts a demand on the faculty member to design activities that are in and of themselves educational, and (b) relieves the faculty member of actually grading how well an activity is done, and instead simply asks a faculty member to decide whether the contract has been fulfilled.  In other words, contract theory places considerable burden on students to do what faculty scholars do, although at a student level.  Examples of such exercises used in BIOS 101, BIOS 103, and BIOS 204 over the past decade can be found on my web site ( in the document entitled Field-tested ideas for contract work in large (100-250) introductory classes.


(7) The Logistical Burden:


            I did not keep a detailed record of the amount of time involved in handling student materials, but I did estimate it roughly as the papers were processed.  Obviously a large-enrollment ACE course will require investment of faculty and teaching assistant resources.  For BIOS 101, fall semester 2007-08, I had a half-time undergraduate administrative assistant who did some of the “grading.”  Handling the paper was significantly easier and less time consuming than dealing with electronic submissions, and the flexibility provided by using paper was an added positive aspect of the writing.  We handled about 8000 pages of student-generated work this semester, and based on that experience, here is my estimate of the amount of time involved, per student, for handling each student-generated item, including recording of grades:


a. Friday extemporaneous writing:                        15 seconds

b. Follow-up writing and assessment:                   45 seconds

c. Portfolio checking:                                           60 seconds


            Based on the number of students in this class, and the nature of the assignments, I estimate that we spent about 50 hours total, including my hours and those of my assistant, handling these papers.  I was able to make some marks and a brief comment on at least 75% of all typed follow-up papers.  I also asked students for permission to post their work on Blackboard, without names, for peer instruction purposes, and I provided two fairly extensive collective assessments of their writing during the semester (see Appendix below).  Posting student work, including scanning of the extemporaneous writing, and my preparation of the four portfolios for model assessment purposes, took about another 10 hours.  So I estimate we spent about 60 hours throughout the semester on ACE management, and of that my TA probably spent 25 (in addition to her other course-related duties). 


Obviously someone will say: you can’t grade a paper and provide meaningful feedback in only a minute or two.  That’s right; you can’t.  But remember the contract: it is the process I am teaching, and the habits, not the content (they get a bunch of that on the exams), and the extemporaneous writing prompts are intended to demand certain thought processes.  In general, students tried honestly to address the Friday prompts whether they were comfortable with the writing assignments or not.  I have never believed that “grading” student papers improves either writing or thinking skills; putting a premium on behavior, however, particularly repeated behavior with rewards and successful models, does seem to make a difference in the quality of work by a large fraction of the class.


            By way of perspective, relative to the logistical burden, it takes me about four hours per class to prepare a PowerPoint lecture, even with materials supplied by publishers, and of that four hours, 30-45 minutes will be taken up simply waiting for software to load.  This semester, because of the media setup in Henzlik, I prepared no PowerPoint shows for the cell biology and genetics sections of the course, and instead simply cut pages out of their book and used the diagrams, plus writing and zooming on the pages, with the document camera.  I used this lecture technique for about half the semester, saving approximately 80 hours of time.  As a rough estimate, I ended up saving about 20 hours of time (net) over the course of the semester by simply changing the way I delivered content, and counting what the TA provided, the total time savings for me personally was closer to 40-45 hours; i.e., an entire standard work week.


(8) Assessment:


            If this section of BIOS 101 had been a real ACE course, I would have ended up with four student portfolios as pdf files (I have two from this particular section), each of about 80 pages, that included:


a. a title page

b. table of contents

c. syllabus

d. all exams and bubble sheets

e. student self-assessment of his/her performance on exams

f. all 14 weekly extemporaneous writing assignments, follow-ups, and self-assessments

g. my collective comments about the writing from this class

h. an overall self-assessment (by the student) of his/her writing

i. an overall self-assessment (by the student) of his/her performance in this course


            The last extemporaneous writing was not done in class, but was asked for as one single-spaced typed sheet with answers to the following questions:  


a. To what extent have these weekly writing assignments helped enlarge your view of biology?


b. To what extent have these weekly writing assignments helped you improve your communication skills in general?


c. If regular writing activities are used in the future, what kinds of changes would you recommend?


d. Has the use of commonly available resources such as campus landscaping and museums helped you understand the role that biology plays in your life?


            These sheets were kept; thus I have a file of 149 pages of student answers to these questions; see Appendix below for examples of these answers.  If this section of BIOS 101 had been a real ACE course, I would then have had to make the portfolio pdf files available to an assessment team, probably one selected from this department, and I would have had to generate two or three pages of typing (similar to this report) as my overall assessment of how well the class performed and whether the outcomes were achieved.  I did not take up the portfolios, but my student assistant and I simply checked them to make sure all the requisite items were present.  The ACE program assessment activity will occur once every four years.


(9) ACE Credit:


            One of the issues that came up regularly during committee discussions was that of ACE credit for students who did not complete the ACE assignments.  In every case, the General Education Advisory Committee concluded that a faculty member should have the power to withhold ACE credit for students who did not perform the required assignments.  In this particular section of BIOS 101, there would have been about 40 students who did not receive ACE credit and would have to take another course to fulfill ACE Outcome 4, simply because they did not (would not?) do the contract work.


(10) Future plans:


            Because of the typical (perhaps stereotypical) characteristics of today’s university students—cell phone hooked, Internet addicted, iPod dazed, vanishing attention span, peer-dominated worldview, etc.—I will continue to do some contract activity, especially in large classes, that requires repeated original work and follow-up, with the follow-up activity being worth quite a bit in terms of grade.  There were a great many helpful suggestions from the last writing assignment; I kept those and will use some of them next fall.


(11) Personal time, logistical burden comments, and recommendations:


            The major problem with delivering this particular section of BIOS 101 was not the course itself, but my other obligations.  Most problematic for me personally was the concurrent assignment to teach BIOS 381 (Invertebrate Zoology) a rather high-maintenance class, my textbook revision manuscript deadlines, American Society of Parasitologists secretary-treasurer position, and the on-going ACE committee work.  Without those concurrent obligations (especially BIOS 381 and the textbook manuscript), this BIOS 101 course would have been quite easy and I would have gotten a great deal more research and other scholarly writing done.  As it is, our lab has published at least five papers during 2007, so it wasn’t a total disaster.


            My major recommendation for any department or faculty members contemplating ACE certification for lower division courses is to begin designing their own products and assessment mechanisms rather than responding to directives from above.  In other words, take into account faculty time, concurrent obligations, clientele, course content, and habits of mind you want to develop, then design some activities that minimize the work involved and maximize the students’ need to place value on their own work as evidence of accomplishment.  In addition, I strongly recommend that a large lecture section ACE course should count as two courses, i.e., the only instructional assignment, for faculty members teaching the course.





APPENDIX I. Examples of Friday extemporaneous writing prompts:


(Students were asked to select a favorite campus plant—a perennial—at the beginning of the semester, one that they saw every day, with the idea that they would be writing about it.)


083107: Design an experiment to demonstrate the role your favorite campus plant plays in the community surrounding it.

090707: Explain the junk food label (TGIFriday’s Potato Skins) to your grandparents.

091407: Describe the evidence for genetic vs. environmentally induced variation or characteristics in your favorite campus plant.

092107: How would a textbook author use your individual plant as a model for explaining the Big Picture in biology?

092807: In what way(s) can the compartmentalization of function in a cell be considered a metaphor for specialization in a society?

100507: Trace the flow of carbon skeletons through your campus plant and its surrounding community over the course of an entire year.

101207: Interpret the Red Grooms painting “The Unicorn Strikes Back” (given on the screen) in terms of all the energy and carbon skeleton flow we have discussed so far in class, using at least 15 different participants.

101907: Fill both sides of this page with writing, answering the single question: What do natural history museums teach?  Be sure to make your answer a general one, and use at least three different exhibits. (JJ’s note: this Friday was the one after the second exam and we spent the entire period on it.)

There were several others; see Appendix III for the 12th and 13th ones combined (the Sheldon assignment).



APPENDIX II. Writing feedback (posted on Blackboard at two different times during the semester):


Feedback #1:


Writing instructions and advice:


            Now that I’ve read several hundred pages of your writing, it’s time to pass along some general comments that may be of help not only during the rest of the semester, but also in other classes as well as in your employment beyond graduation.


·        Word usage:


            Below are some words that often are used incorrectly in student writing.  Use these words correctly and you will get better grades than if you use them incorrectly.


it’s = it is, not the possessive pronoun (e.g., It’s a red car).

its = the possessive pronoun (e.g., The red car had its oil changed.)

their = the possessive pronoun; there refers to a place (e.g., They took their cars there to get the oil changed).

a lot – Alot is not a word; a lot is two words (e.g., “I like my red car alot.” is not a sentence; “I like my red car a lot.” is a sentence but not a very literate one.)

your = the possessive pronoun (e.g., I like your red car.)

you’re = you are (e.g., You’re going somewhere in your red car.)

amount = a word that refers to quantities that you measure with weight and volume (e.g. Your red car saves a small amount of gasoline compared to my old truck.)

number = a word that refers to discrete quantities that you count (e.g. Your red car has a low number of miles on it, even though it has a large amount of space in the trunk.)

went = the simple past (preterite) tense of to go.  (e.g., The red car went around the block three times before the driver realized it had a flat tire.)

have gone = the present perfect tense of to go. (e.g., I have gone to the grocery store in your red car.  See for examples of usage.  The use of “have went” either in spoken or written English is a glaring mistake.)

wrote and have written = See the same comments as for went and have gone above.

since = a reference to time.  (e.g., It has been a year since I had the oil changed in my red car.)

because = a word to refer to a reason or cause.  (e.g., Because it had been so long since the oil was changed in my red car, the engine exploded.)

while = a reference to time (e.g., I had to wait two hours while the guy tried to change the oil in my red car.)

although = a word to indicate an alternative or comparative situation (e.g., Although I had to wait two hours while the guy tried to change the oil in my red car, he did a pretty good job of telling me about Husker football while he worked.)

whereas = a word that can be used in many of the same contexts as although; i.e., as a replacement for while.

research = a word that is best used as a noun (e.g., I’m going to do some research on why red cars are more popular than blue cars.)

study = a word that can be used as either a noun or a verb (e.g., I’m going to study that Department of Transportation study about the safety of red cars.)


Feedback #2:


BIOS 101 – I-07-08    Feedback on your writing and portfolio comments:


            Now that you have completed eight of the fourteen extemporaneous writing assignments, perhaps this is a good time to pass along some general impressions of the class as a whole.  Remember that this activity has four pedagogical goals: (1) To teach you to see biological materials and content in contexts outside the classroom, i.e., in your everyday life; (2) To provide an opportunity for earning points toward a letter grade in ways other than multiple-choice exams; (3) To develop scholarly habits that will pay off throughout your academic career and beyond; and (4) To encourage you to start placing serious value on your own creative work.  For Kari Neill and I, who end up reading this writing, there is the additional goal of trying to extract something original and interesting from a generation that is, or at least seems to be, increasingly homogenized by a number of powerful social/cultural forces.  So here are my comments:


(1) Fewer than half of you have 90% of the available writing points as of 102907, and given the available points remaining, 40 of you will be ineligible for the portfolio bonus points.  Remember, folks, that these are the cheapest points available for any university course, especially in the sciences, and that the writing points are awarded solely on work that you yourselves have complete control over.  In this kind of contract work, the faculty member decides what is to be done and to what extent the student is to do it, and the student fulfills the contract within broad limits that allow a great deal of individuality.  The prompts are almost always ones that can be addressed in as many different ways as there are students in the class.


(2) Originality and insight always (always!) leap out from the page, especially when a paper is prepared well and cleanly.  Again, I recommend re-reading Chapter 6 (Papers) of OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS, especially that section that deals with the Internet.


(3) Some of you are able to find quite a bit to say about the prompts, others struggle just a little bit.  If you are one of those people who are struggling to find enough words to fill up a page, I strongly suggest thinking about biology, about the implications of what you are seeing and learning in class, and noticing such biological materials as campus vegetation.  Finding words is one of those individual and free activities; anyone can do it, but we all have to devote some time and intellectual energy to the task if we are to be successful.  This technique of simply thinking about the subject matter, asking about the meanings of whatever you have been reading or studying, and imagining yourself writing on some strange prompt, works for all classes, not just BIOS 101.


(4) The follow-up writing seems to be working like it’s supposed to in a large number of cases.  The idea behind this follow up is to teach you to see your own writing in a way that gives you the power to modify it, make it accomplish whatever you want to with it, and to empower you a little bit.  Remember that in the United States, formal English is the language of commerce, and skill with this language will greatly enhance your ultimate chances of success in life, at least if you remain in this country.


(5) A large number of you (especially the guys) have absolutely abominable handwriting.  I really do encourage you to work on your penmanship, regardless of what you see up on the document camera when I write during class.  That penmanship will make a major difference in your grades in any course where you have essay exams actually taken in class.


(6) Some of you need to work on your paragraphing, especially making the paragraphs long enough so that a page of double-spaced typing with 1-inch margins in 12 pt Times New Roman type has two to three paragraphs on it (or breaking up a page of writing into two paragraphs).


(7) Remember that there may be several kinds of marks on your pages.  Anything that is underlined (by me or Kari), set off in brackets, checked, or starred is interesting and probably worthy of expansion.  Anything that is circled is probably something you need to correct, usually grammar.


(8) If you have scanned the grade sheets on Blackboard, you have discovered that I’ve started giving a few extra points now and then for particularly well-done papers.  These extra points, usually an 8 instead of 7 on the follow-up, are typically for the self-assessment and always indicate that the student has provided some depth and insight well beyond that of the other students.


(9) I strongly recommend reading the posted examples of student papers, and if you have been asked to provide such papers, then I greatly appreciate the contribution.  I don’t always get them up on Blackboard as quickly as you might want, but eventually there will be examples for most of the writing we have done this semester.


(10) If anyone who has gotten an extra point would like to volunteer his/her paper, I could easily go through that in class using the document camera.  This would be more of a lesson in writing and in what faculty members look for than in biology, but it might help you communicate better in all your classes, and that’s one of the reasons we’re here.  However, about everything I’d say is already in that chapter (6) in OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS, except the stylistic points.





APPENDIX III. Sheldon assignment and feedback:


Writing instructions for the Sheldon Assignment, I-07-08:


(1) This assignment is to take the place of two Friday extemporaneous writing assignments, numbers 12 and 13. You have until November 30 to turn it in, and you may do it with one other individual.  If you and another student do the assignment together, be sure that both students’ names are on all pages and that the pages are numbered.


(2) Here is the assignment: Choose five different pieces of art from inside the Sheldon Gallery or from the campus Sculpture Garden, in at least three different mediums.  Use these five pieces as your material for writing on the subject “the big picture in biology as it must have been understood by the artists.”  The Big Picture PowerPoint show and pdf files are still up on Blackboard, and a document version of the Big Picture in Biology will be up on Blackboard and will be e-mailed to you (see also below).  Take only a notebook and a pencil into the galleries.


(3) Any papers that are not in my possession by Friday, November 30, at 5:00PM will receive a zero.  I am not accepting any e-mail or electronic submissions, including those in Digital Drop Box. 


(4) The papers must be hard copy, double spaced, and stapled at the upper left hand corner.  They must include at least four pages of typing plus a page listing the art pieces used. You are allowed one sentence maximum to name and describe each of the pieces you use in your essay.


(5)  You may not once mention agriculture, health, the military, family, politics, sex, sports, or religion in your papers.


(7) In order to get credit for this assignment, the form below must be turned in to the Sheldon security staff, or the Sheldon office, and the Sheldon staff must be instructed to put these forms in the mailbox of the Education Coordinator.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

BIOS 101  Janovy  I-07-08  Big Picture in Biology assignment




Date(s) visited the Sheldon Gallery and/or sculpture garden________________________


Time spent in the galleries or sculpture garden__________________________________


Sheldon Security Staff: Please return this form to the Education Coordinator.  Thank you very much!  - John Janovy, Jr.


· Format for Sheldon assignment:


            The art citations in your bibliography must be in the format given below.  This one is only an example, but note that it includes all the information given on a label had the piece been on display.


Newman, Barnett.  1949.  Horizon Light.  Painting; oil on canvas.  UNL-Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Sills


· Writing advice reminder (or, How to get better grades on your written assignments not only for BIOS 101, but for other classes as well):


(1) Use some clean, standard, font (Times New Roman, Arial, MS Sans Serif) instead of a fancy one; set type size at 12 pt; make sure your printer makes dark copy.


(2) Check each sentence to make sure it is complete (subject, verb, object) and that verb tense matches the subject.


(3) Check for typing errors, especially those that occur over and over again (which are really spelling errors).


(4) Turn on your spell-check and grammar-check options on your word processing program and follow up on the suggestions, especially in cases of red underlines indicating misspelled words.  Also, get and use a good dictionary.  Be careful about what word processing programs say about grammar, however.


(5) Turn off your right justify.


(6) Write your paper(s) soon enough so that you have time to let them sit for a day or two prior to their due dates, then read them again with a fresh eye toward style, grammar, spelling, etc.


(7) The text should average about 2.5 paragraphs per page.


(8) Follow format instructions and examples exactly; these instructions are provided because faculty members must write their professional papers according to these kinds of instructions, and therefore find papers written this way easier to read.  In addition, if you ever decide to publish an undergraduate research paper, you will be required to follow some journal’s format instructions exactly or the paper will probably be returned to you (as they will in this class) for re-writing prior to review.


(9) See Chapter 6, Papers, in OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS for advice on maximizing your writing skills and grades. (free download at




THE BIG PICTURE IN BIOLOGY: Take home lessons from BIOS 101 (with JJ’s personal comments in parentheses):


“The natural world need not be logical in any obvious way.  Science does not consist of imposing our reason on the world but rather reducing our preconceptions to the point that the world imposes its logic on us.  This is very difficult indeed, involving a minimalization of our ego while maintaining our full powers of observation and receptivity.  The capacity to perform this feat is what the teacher of science attempts to foster in the student.  No one succeeds completely.”

                                    --L. Slobodkin (from Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the                                                      Intellect)


I.  Earth is the only planet in the universe actually known to support life.


           (Get ready for a BIG surprise if life is discovered elsewhere, but in the meantime, don’t be short-sighted and stupid about how you interact with this planet.)


II.  Life on Earth is characterized by enormous diversity superimposed on great uniformity.


           (Uniformity is in DNA structure, metabolic processes, etc.; diversity is in the massive number of species that occupy the planet.)


III.  Evolution is the best general explanation science has for life’s enormous diversity superimposed on great uniformity.


           (That’s why it’s the central unifying theme of the discipline.)


IV. The vast majority of species that have ever lived are now extinct.


           (It’s real easy to be naïve and arrogant about our own, mainly because we’re so smart, but the evidence for IV. is very convincing.)


V. There is a staggering amount of scientific evidence that virtually all things in the universe have a beginning and an end, and our solar system is probably no exception.


           (The term “virtually all things” includes everything from individual lives, to nations and civilizations, to planetary systems, stars, and galaxies.)


VI. The present distribution of life and other natural resources is a result of several billion years of planetary change (evolution, both geological and biological).


           (That distribution has significant social and political consequences, and so to some extent, your daily headlines are a result of planetary forces at work, forces over which you have no control and did not make happen.)


VII.  Science is different from Technology.


           (Science and technology both require fundamental knowledge of nature, but technology seeks to control nature, while science seeks to understand nature.  Control is not necessarily “good;” understanding is not necessarily “bad.”  It’s what humans do with their control and understanding that make humans “good” or “bad.”)


VIII.  Many of our most difficult social and political problems have a major biological component:


           (The list of these problems includes racism, sexism, unwanted pregnancy, global energy distribution, intellectual and cultural richness, the definition of “human being,” narcotics, global water distribution, genetic “engineering” and its consequences, infectious disease evolution and transmission, our relationships with insects, etc.  Such a list could go on for several more pages.) 


IX.  You are surrounded by biological information, but you need to take the time and effort to look for, then use, it.


           (Your life, and the lives of those around you, will be greatly enriched by such awareness; after all, life is the characteristic that sets Earth apart from other planets and, insofar as we know, all other planetary systems.)


X.  The scientific and technological explosion is not going away any time soon; it’s better to be educated than ignorant about all scientific and technological issues.


           (For one obvious example:  the information technology you use hourly is taking away your privacy, and re-defining what it means to be a human, about as fast as it can be done.)


Feedback on the Sheldon assignment:


BIOS 101 I-07-08  Feedback on Sheldon assignment:


Any time that a large class does one of these kinds of assignments, involving original out-of-class observations and extensive writing, then a faculty member owes that class some collective feedback in addition to whatever marks were made on individual papers.  So here are my comments on reading about 700 pages of your work over the last few days:


(1) These papers were really well done.  There were very few grammatical errors, only an occasional mis-spelled word (and those were mostly artist’s names or titles of work), and few if any incomplete sentences.  In addition, the vast majority of you constructed your paragraphs according to formula, and linked paragraphs together in an obvious way.  Faculty members always have the option of giving extra credit for excellent work, and in this case fourteen papers were awarded more than 20 points.


(2) What makes a paper worth extra credit?  That is a difficult question to answer, but in general, those papers are ones that I end up reading several times, usually after saying to myself “Wow!  That was a good one!” the first time through.  There is some combination of preparation, originality, insight, and narrative structure that just makes a major impact on a reader, or at least on this reader.  There seems to be no established relationship between extra credit and a student’s exam grades, and that has been the case in every one of my large classes for the past 35 years, i.e., as long as my introductory students have been writing these kinds of papers.  Some people simply write beautifully, think deeply, and are not afraid to be original, regardless of what they make on multiple choice exams.


(3) I would again like to express my appreciation to the individual who allowed her paper to be used as a grading guide, although I’m not sure that use was entirely voluntary.  Nevertheless, almost 70 of you re-did your papers over the weekend as a result of going through her work in class, so that one paper made a major instructional impact on a third of the class.


(4) As a general rule, I know what is up on exhibit in both of the big museums on campus, and I also have a pretty good idea of what is available on the Sheldon web site.  So when I send a BIOS 101 class to Sheldon with an assignment that involves original encounter with the works, I can usually tell when students visit the web instead of actually going to the building.  In the case of this assignment, the Sheldon security staff was quite impressed with the number of you who actually showed up, and the amount of time you spent studying the pieces.  Out of all the papers I read, there were only three or four in which it was fairly obvious you’d taken material from the web, Tom Otterness’ Fallen Dreamer being a case in point (not out on the steps for the past couple of weeks), and even in those papers the other pieces written about were ones that I know were up and were not on the web.


(4) In general, you made excellent connections between the Big Picture and at least some of the pieces.  There were a few favorites, e.g., the Jason Middlebrook meadowlark painting and the oil drum bench.  Middlebrook was here not long ago, and I believe that I made an announcement in class about his public lecture.  As you might suspect, because of family connections I end up at many of those talks, as well as at private dinners with visiting artists, and I honestly believe Jason Middlebrook would have been thrilled with your use of his work and your interpretations.  He is a very intellectual person with a strong sense of ecological responsibility; he could easily have given that public lecture in our class, illustrating it with his work, and not been out of place.  James Surls also gave a public lecture; he’s a little more mysterious than Middlebrook, but still if you had seen all the rest of his work you’d have realized the deep connections between it and the southern Texas pine woodlands where he grew up. The photography in the first floor gallery was also heavily used, and appropriately so.  In fact, most of you came pretty close to picking the same pieces, and saying the same things about them, that I would have done had I been a student in this class knowing what I know now. 


(5) This kind of exercise seems to work best toward the end of the semester, after students have gotten over the fear of not doing something correctly; at least that’s my impression.  Nevertheless, I always get the sense that most students are being careful, trying to do the assignment in a way that seems legitimate to the instructor.  In the future, if you are ever given the opportunity to do an exercise with characteristics similar to this one, I’d encourage you to be a little more courageous, at least with part of the paper.


(6) I am always willing to give detailed comments (about writing) to anyone who really wants them, and to talk about writing and other forms of communication in general.  But you have to be fairly aggressive in seeking time for this to happen and not be afraid of the results.  I have been on the receiving end of several different editors’ work, and I can assure you that some of these editors can make you look great, and others can stifle you almost to the point of literary suffocation.  The suggestions about which magazines to read regularly is pretty good advice: TIME Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and The New Yorker.  After you’ve read them, cover to cover, every week, for content, then go back and read them for style, sentence and paragraph construction, use of material, vocabulary, etc.  Studying how the successful folks do “it” is always educational!


(7) The other trick that sometimes is exceedingly helpful, especially to students, is to take some famous book or best-seller and simply copy the first few pages with your own computer, double-spaced, with one inch margins, then print out the typing, set it aside for a few days, then pick it up and read it.  You’ll see what that [famous, important, . . . etc.] book looked like when it was sent off to the editor long before it was published.  This little exercise takes a lot of the mystery out of writing and trying to write well.


APPENDIX IV. Sample response (out of ~150) to last writing assignment:




APPENDIX V. Portfolio:


            At some time in the next 60 days a portfolio from this class will be posted on my web site, probably under the hot links to instructional materials.  The portfolios generally ranged from 40-50 pages, and I added some of the feedback materials above before posting.  The instructions given to students for portfolio preparation were as follows:


BIOS 101 Portfolio Preparation Instructions:


The portfolio you will prepare for this class is intended to be tangible evidence for what you have accomplished this semester in BIOS 101 and what you have learned as a result of taking this course.  The portfolio is optional, but it is also a fairly easy way to simply add 50 points to your total for the semester.  Portfolio preparation is an activity that forces you to reflect on your own work in a way that is educational instead of simply trying to satisfy an instructor on exams.  But this project also requires some constant writing and self-assessment during the semester.  By the end of the semester, those who prepare a portfolio successfully, and receive the extra credit points, will see themselves as people who can produce tangible evidence for accomplishment.


(1) In order to receive the 50 points extra credit, you will have to have done the weekly writing assignments and follow-up writing enough so that you’ve accumulated at least 100 out of the possible 140 points by the time the portfolio is due.


(2) The portfolio consists of the following sections:


a. A title page with your name, student ID number, and clicker number on it.

b. A table of contents.

c. The three hour exams, each one accompanied by your answer sheet and a single page of double-spaced typing which is a self-assessment of your performance and study methods for each exam.

d. Your weekly writing assignments.  At the end of this section is a single page of double-spaced typing which is a self-assessment of your performance on the weekly writing assignments as a whole.

e. Two pages of double-spaced typing, which are a self-assessment of your overall performance in the class, what you have learned, and how you might apply this learning to new situations in the future.

f. Each section should be tabbed for easy access.