Field-tested ideas for contract work in large (100-250) introductory classes


John Janovy, Jr.

School of Biological Sciences

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Lincoln, NE 68588-0118


This paper is intended to provide examples of graded exercises that can be used in large introductory classes, that require minimal faculty time to evaluate, and that require student behavior that mimics, albeit at a lower level, that of professional scholars in a discipline.  The specific examples are drawn from three courses: BIOS 101 (General Biology; ~250 students), BIOS 103 (Organismic Biology, ~100 students), and BIOS 204 (Biodiversity, ~100 students).  BIOS 103 and BIOS 204 are core Biological Science courses for majors (the course number 204 was changed to 103 in 2005); BIOS 101 is ostensibly a non-majors, general science course, although at least 20% of the students are actually pre-health professions “majors,” with the remainder being a mixture of business, fine arts, teachers’ college, humanities, and social sciences majors.  All three courses have laboratories, although the one in BIOS 101 is a separate course number and not under the control of lecturers.  Any effort to infuse general education type activities into such courses is enhanced by access to course management software such as Blackboard.


The exercises below actually were used in lecture, and they resulted in student products that could easily have been archived in electronic form.  In every case, some of the student products were posted on Blackboard, with the students’ permission, as examples of excellent work, and some of it was reviewed in detail during lecture, often followed by a discussion of what makes a “good” paper.  In some cases, this kind of discussion continued via Blackboard.  Multi-media classroom auditoriums equipped with document cameras (e.g., Elmo) make the review of papers very easy, provided some student is willing to offer up his/her paper for public analysis (someone always does, especially for extra points).  Students who agreed to allow their work to be posted were also given the option of having their names attached to it or not.  All the exercises are intended specifically to impart a scientific habit of mind through role playing; such exercises could be easily adapted to non-science courses.  These activities also assume the presence of course management software (e.g., Blackboard).


In designing exercises, it is important to remember that “explain,” “analyze,” and other terms from the assessment literature actually are behaviors appropriate to formal educational enterprises.  These behaviors are not only teaching devices, or integral to certain teaching techniques, they are exactly the behaviors we faculty members use routinely as life-long learners.  Finally, they are behaviors that can be assessed, given the appropriate rubric.  Could one give an assignment, for example, in a large introductory course (BIOS 101 lecture; 250 students), asking for three pages of double spaced typing that demonstrated analysis of campus vegetation as a plant community?  Yes.  And how long would it take for a tenured faculty member to “grade” such an assignment?  Based on my experience of giving such assignments for about 30 years, the answer would be 30 seconds per paper (2-4 hr per assignment such as this one for a large BIOS 101 class), the grades being “did” or “did not”, and if the latter, then “do over, and you’ll still get full credit, but this time actually do the assignment instead of telling me a story about the tree on your grandfather’s farm.”  And if something caught my eye, there’s always the option for a couple of extra points. 


The right student volunteer, explaining to the class how he/she approached the subject, used material in the text to support her/his analysis, etc., accomplishes four things: it multiplies the value of the exercise (I believe), uses peer instruction (one of several teaching devices), changes the culture of a large classroom, and relieves me of the need to be “on stage” for 15-30 minutes.  Finally, after I do it once, then the second time it’s a much more effective teaching device.  Such use of “analyze” and “explain” ought to be open to any faculty member (although campus vegetation might not always be an appropriate subject, and even in biology, you can use that particular analysis problem only about once every five years). 


Remember, however, that like all large class instructional technology, this kind of general education/transferable skills activity decreases instructor content presentation and explanation time.  In effect, by incorporating student products, peer teaching, etc., into your class, you are trading content for process.  A better way to phrase the situation is that you are trading content for ability to access, assimilate, and use content.  Finally, see the Literary Considerations and Editorial Policies section below; this information is given to all students and on the date the papers are due, I ask them to study their papers and decide whether they meet all the editorial guidelines.  If they decide their paper does not, then they can re-type it for no reduction in credit.


Principles of exercise design:


(1) Any exercise must be worth a significant and recognizable component of the grade, or presented as an option that by definition earns points (“credit”) toward a grade (thus is the equivalent of a higher score on an exam).


(2) Any exercise must be extensive enough to require work well beyond a typical student’s expectation of an assignment for the course.


(3) Any exercise must be of a nature that it cannot be done using web resources, except for university library search engines and full text databases (unless the instructor specifically designs the exercise to use the web in a non-typical way).


(4) The exercise is one that can be graded in a “did/did not do” manner; thus “how well it is done” is not a grading criterion but can be used to award extra points.


(5) If at all possible, each student should have a different set of starting material, e.g., a different species, a different work of art, etc., but the problem to address is applicable to all students.


(6) It helps if the problems or assignments are not of obvious practical importance or have practical considerations (money, health, athletic victory, etc.).


(7) Students are allowed to do the exercise as many times as it takes to actually address the assignment, with no loss of credit.


(8) None of the assignments can take more than 30 seconds to a minute to evaluate and record, but all can be used as a basis for class discussion if desired.


These points are elaborated upon in detail in the following books:


Janovy, J. Jr.  2003.  Teaching in Eden: The Cedar Point Lessons.  Routledge Falmer, New York, 187p.


Janovy, J. Jr.  2006.  Outwitting College Professors. (free download)


Examples of exercises actually assigned to introductory biology classes (BIOS 101, General Biology lecture, 3 cr, 250 students):


 (1) Write three multiple choice questions; submit them to a discussion forum on Blackboard; and, for each question explain why the wrong answers are wrong and point out text or figures in the text that explain the correct answer (3/600 points; used for all four exams).


(2) Use some group of campus plants to illustrate the basic Darwinian principles, explaining where the plants are and how they illustrate the principles (10/600 points; 3 double-spaced pages with 1” margins).


(3) In the natural history museum, write for one class period, using at least three different exhibits to demonstrate your writing skills and visual literacy (done during a class period; 5/600 points).


(4) Pick up your writing from the museum, correct all the errors in red ink, double space type your writing exactly as you did it in the museum, again correct the typed paper in red ink, and explain in what way(s) you succeeded and in what way(s) you failed to fulfill the assignment, also in double-spaced typing (10/600 points).


(5) Pick up ALL your papers, including all the extemporaneous writing exercises done in longhand, your exam bubble sheets, and at the end of the semester bring them to me, arranged in order like a portfolio, along with your copies of the exams (5/600 points).


(6) Using a particular temporary exhibit of landscape paintings in a local art gallery, address the questions: What did the artist accomplish that the campus landscape architects did not and could not because of their media? and What did the landscape architects accomplish that the artist did not and could not because of her media? (10/600 points; 3 double-spaced pages with 1” margins).


(7) At least ten different extemporaneous writing exercises, done in class, usually the last 10 minutes of class, that asked for students to put the lecture just finished into a larger biological context of some kind (1/600 to 3/600 points).


(8) Trace the flow of a carbon atom from a Cambrian trilobite into an Improvised Explosive Device used in Iraq in fifty distinct steps.  Each step must be a possible one (biologically and/or geologically), and must be supported by a figure or paragraph and page number reference from your text (10/600 points),


Examples of exercises actually assigned to introductory core biology class for majors (BIOS 103, Organismic Biology, 4 cr, 112 students):


The basic starting material (from Blackboard):


Here are three files that contain lists of generic names (total 205) from which you must choose in order to write your four papers. The file named genplant.htm contains all vascular plant genera (and some very good ones for the purpose of writing these papers). The file named genname.htm is mostly animals and animal-like protists. The one named inverts1.htm contains mainly invertebrate animals. Each student must choose a different name for the subject of his/her four papers this semester. Once you have selected your genus name, then please immediately post a note to that effect in the Discussion Board forum set up for that purpose, so that everyone else can see which names have already been selected. Be sure to check that Discussion Board list because students have already started choosing names.


First paper assignment:


(1) Explain exactly why the genus you selected is an ideal one for learning all the transferable skills needed to become a well-educated organismic biologist.


(2) You must have at least 5 citations from the original journal literature to support your explanation (see Course Documents folder, Supplemental Information, writing.htm, for writing instructions).


(3) Papers must be three full typewritten pages, 12-point font, with 1-inch margins. The bibliography is a separate page.


Second paper assignment:


(1) Find an additional five journal articles, from the original scientific literature, that apply to your genus or to closely related genera (confamials at least).


(2) Do a critical analysis of the methods used by all the authors in all ten references (five from your first paper, five from the second). Be sure to address the question of whether there were hypotheses stated and whether the methods used actually resulted in a test of the hypotheses. Be sure to assess the logistical problems associated with this original research, and to indicate whether the authors interpreted their results in a meaningful way (their discussion).


(3) The papers must be three typewritten, double-spaced, pages, plus the bibliography page. Be sure to follow all the format guidelines posted on Blackboard.


Third paper assignment:


(1) Find and either photocopy or download five complete additional scientific papers, although this time the five papers should be of genera in the same family as your genus, but not about your genus.


(2) Answer the question: Is your genus a good representative of its own family or not, and if so, why, and if not why not. Be sure to address both possible answers (yes and no), and be sure to cite all 15 papers in your bibliography in support of your arguments.


(3) If you turn in this paper with any format mistakes whatsoever, i.e. mis-handling of scientific names, bibliography in the wrong format, text citations in the wrong format, I will give you a zero instead of asking that you do it over.


NOTE: All of the instructions, with examples, of exactly how to write one of these papers is given in the Course Documents, Supplemental Information, folder, in the item writing.htm. Remember that you are being asked to adhere to an exact format for several reasons, including the following: (1) Real scientific papers are written according to editorial instructions and requirements; (2) The use of these papers, and communication about organisms in general, is dependent largely on an agreed-upon way of writing about organisms; and (3) BIOS 103 is an IS course, and one of the major requirements of such a course is that of writing upon which the instructor comments.


Fourth paper assignment:


(1) you are a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and you have an agenda item involving the purchase of a 20’ high bronze, somewhat abstract, sculpture of a species in your genus. The purchase price of $1 million is to be met in part with tax and tuition money up to $500,000, which is to be matched dollar for dollar by an anonymous donor.


(2) Vote “yes” on this item and defend your vote. Now vote “no” on this item and defend your vote.


(3) The paper is to be three double spaced pages. Do not once mention money, health, agriculture, politics, sex, sports, or religion.


(4) Find five references involving intellectual conflict and add them to your bibliography. These references can be books, popular articles, and web sites, although if you use web sites, pick ones that seem legitimate and indicate in your bibliographic citation why you decided they were okay to use.


Examples of exercises actually assigned to a 200-level introductory core biology class for majors (BIOS 204, Biodiversity, 4 cr – 69 students):


First paper assignment:


 (1) You will be issued a scientific name.  This name represents your personal and individual study organism for the papers this semester.


 (2) Analyze the taxonomic and phylogenetic information available in the original scientific literature on the genus of this organism, i.e. in the journal articles published over the past century.  In particular, be sure to address the question of whether the taxonomic information is of any value in answering phylogenetic questions.  Convince me that you have learned how to use Biological Abstracts and the Zoological Record, and that you have actually read and understood some original scientific papers.


 (3) Remember, this paper is mainly an exercise to teach you how to use (= find, read, and understand) the literature of biological diversity and how to write in taxonomic and phylogenetic terms.


 (4) The paper must be three full pages of double-spaced typing, 12-point font, 1” margins, plus at least 5 original journal article references (4th page) in the correct format (see Blackboard for editorial policies).


Second paper assignment:


(1) Answer the questions: Who are these scientists that did the research and wrote the references you cited in your first paper?  Under what circumstances did they do their research and produce their papers? What can you infer about their daily lives from reading the materials and methods sections of those papers you cited? Can you envision doing similar kinds of research as an undergraduate honors thesis?


(2) For the literature cited section of this paper, add another five references from the book and journal literature. Your bibliography pages should contain your references from the first paper, marked with an asterisk (*), then five additional references. You may also cite up to five web sources IN ADDITION to the real library resources. If you cite web sites, then also add a paragraph indicating why you chose those sites, based on the advice given by the library’s web site link to use and evaluation of web resources.


(3) The paper must be three double-spaced typed pages. All the format rules still apply (see the Blackboard site for this course).

Third Paper Assignment:


(1) Define and explain the term “conceptual problem” as it applies to biodiversity (100 words or less).


(2) Determine the three major conceptual problems that have yet to be addressed concerning the FAMILY of organisms to which your genus belongs. Explain exactly why these problems are conceptual ones, rather than practical or economic ones. Illustrate your answers with at least five additional references from the original literature or from books on the general subject that includes your genus, making sure to mark with an asterisk (*) the references already used in your first two papers. It's okay to refer back to the papers used for your first two papers.


(3) The main body of the paper must be a minimum of three double-spaced pages with one inch margins. The bibliography is extra.


Instructor comments on paper number 3 (from Blackboard):

Here is the assignment, all with some expanded commentary:


(1) Define and explain the term “conceptual problem” as it applies to biodiversity (100 words or less).


The first thing I would do is simply look up “conceptual” in your dictionary. The second thing I would do (I’m NOT being sarcastic here!) is to look up the word “problem.” I find that very often students, including graduate students who should know better, simply fail to address the question that is asked, and instead try to answer questions that were not asked. So it’s important to know what a conceptual problem is, and it is very important for you personally to decide what a conceptual problem is relative to your genus and its relatives. Here are some examples of conceptual problems, problems that were or could be addressed in various ways, some of which we are now familiar with:


a. Is “separate but equal” a valid solution to race relations in the United States? This is a conceptual problem because “separate but equal” is an idea about how to establish a particular social order and distribute economic opportunity.


b. Are species fixed entities? This is a conceptual problem because “fixed entities” is an idea about the fundamental nature of categories we call species.


c. What is the nature of proof? This is a conceptual problem because “proof” can mean different things, depending on whether one is dealing with a mathematical theorem, a criminal case, a historical event (~ a criminal case), a political campaign promise, or an argument in a bar.


(2) Determine the three major conceptual problems that have yet to be addressed concerning the FAMILY of organisms to which your genus belongs. Explain exactly why these problems are conceptual ones, rather than practical or economic ones. Illustrate your answers with at least five additional references from the original literature or from books on the general subject that includes your genus, making sure to mark with an asterisk (*) the references already used in your first two papers. It's okay to refer back to the papers used for your first two papers.


Wow, this is a fairly difficult assignment! This sounds about like something I would ask a PhD candidate to accomplish! Obviously I’m asking you to stretch your minds, step up a notch in your intellectual sophistication, and act like the student from hell. However, to be brutally honest with you, about all I’m asking you to do is try to think and write like the undergraduates I have known at UNL who have gone on to very successful careers, most of them in the health professions. Just as obviously, there is a whole lot of flexibility in this part of the assignment, and when I grade the papers, I’ll simply ask: are there three problems, do these problems address ideas, and are some papers cited to support the student’s claim that the problems are actually problems? I chose the family level to give you some additional flexibility by enlarging the subject. This part of the paper is really nothing more than an upscale version of the question sets you’ve been producing in lab all semester.


(3) The main body of the paper must be a minimum of three double-spaced pages with one-inch margins. The bibliography is extra. This part of the assignment is fairly self-explanatory.


When I look at the grade roster of this class, I discover that nearly half of the students have an 85% average or higher. In any other class at this university, such an average would indicate either an unusually brilliant group of students or an unusually easy class. I’m not completely convinced this class is all that easy, and from reading your last exam answers, I’m not convinced that as a group you are thinking like an unusually brilliant group even though your grades suggest that is the case. So all I’m trying to do with this third paper is bring your independent thinking habits up to the level of your grades. Remember the pedagogical theory of this particular biodiversity section. I ask that students do activities that are in and of themselves educational, I try to design activities that accomplish the educational goal of producing students who have the biodiverstist’s habits of mind, and I allow a whole lot of individual freedom to accomplish the task in your own individual way (thus each of you get a different genus). I’m asking that you be a biologist for a semester, instead of take biology for a semester, and I’m giving you as many options for succeeding as there are human beings trying to succeed.


Fourth Paper Assignment:


For the last paper this semester, you are to use the resources in the Sheldon Gallery and in the Sculpture Garden that is spread across city campus.


(1) Critically evaluate the illustrations used in the taxonomic literature about your genus (one page maximum), providing commentary on the quality of illustrations, the media used, and the visual communication techniques employed.


(2) Pick five pieces from the Sheldon or the Sculpture garden in at least three media (oil, watercolor, photography, collage, sculpture, etc.) and tell how a study of those pieces would help you in communicating specific information about your genus (two pages minimum). As an aid in doing this, assume you must give an hour’s presentation to our class and need to find creative ways to keep your fellow students awake, alert, and vitally interested in the subject.


(3) There is no need to find additional bibliographic references unless the ones you already have do not allow you to answer (1) of this assignment. Be sure to cite in the text those that you do use, however. In the literature cited section, also list the artist, date, medium, size (if given), and ownership of the pieces of art you use in (2), and cite them by name and date as you would a scientific paper. If you wish to describe any of these pieces, then do it in the literature cited instead of in the paper itself.


Literary considerations and editorial policies:


            The requirements for BIOS ___ include a series of short papers.  Here are some warnings about common grammatical errors, as well as some suggestions and examples of writing formats suitable for papers in a science class.



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.)

Passer domesticus is a scientific name (the genus name is capitalized, the specific epithet is not, and both are in italics); so is Passer domesticus.  Passer domesticus is not in the correct format, and neither is Passer Domesticus. 

Do not begin a sentence with an abbreviation.

In a citation with more than two authors, use the term et al. (see example below); et does not have a period after it, but al. does.

Always use the complete journal citation and spell out the journal name.



            For this course, the correct format for a bibliography is given in the following Literature Cited section (these are fake, for illustration purposes only).  Please make sure your literature cited references are in exactly this format, right down to the spacing, use of commas, paging, italics, and spelling out of journal names.  Do not use footnotes; instead, use text reference citations as indicated in the sample text given below.


Literature cited:


Jones, C. D.  1999.  Phylogeny of the Sabellariidae (Annelida: Polychaeta).  Invertebrate Phylogeny, 4:197-231.


Jones, C. D., and A. B. Smith.  1993.  The annelida.  Boston, Worm Publishing Co. 795p.


Jones, C. D.  1995.  Polychaete setae as identification characters.  In: Contributions to the structure and function of annelids, Smith, A. B., and C. D. Jones (eds).  Seattle, Coastline Academic Press, p. 312-356.


Smith, A. B.  1997.  Polychaete species endemic to the San Juan Islands.  Journal of Annelid Biology, 20:19-32.


Smith, A. B., and C. D. Jones.  1998.  Diversity of Polychaeta in the rocky intertidal of southern Washintgon state.  Journal of Annelid Biolology, 21:133-144.


Smith, A. B., C. D. Jones, and N. S. Smart.  1997.  A survey of the annelids of the Oregon coastline.  Biological Inventories, 12:456-502.


Interpretation of the bibliography and sample text:


            Jones (1999), Smith (1997), Smith and Jones (1998), and Smith et al. (1997) are all original journal articles, from periodicals.  The journal titles are spelled out completely and the volume and page numbers are given as indicated, without spacing.  Jones and Smith (1993) is a book those two scientists wrote.  Jones (1995) is a chapter in a volume edited by Smith and Jones; the page numbers of Jones’ chapter are given.  The term et al. means “and others” and is used in text references when there are three or more authors of a paper, book, or chapter in a book.  For this class, it is okay to single space items in a literature cited section, but double space between items.


ÞDon’t include anything in the literature cited that is not, in fact, cited in the paper itself; that is, make sure you cite everything in your literature cited section.


            Reference to these works in the body of your paper would be as follows (another fake example, for illustration purposes only):


            It is well known that polychaete annelids are a highly diverse group (Jones and Smith, 1993; Smith et al., 1997).  However, Jones (1999) asserts that we have yet to establish the phylogenetic relationships between some of the more widely distributed taxa.


ÞNote that the text of the paper itself is double spaced (or 1.5 lines spaced as in this example).  Personally I prefer lines at 1.5 spaces just because it’s easier for me to read, but you still need to turn in three full pages, and most students double space to keep from writing an extra paragraph.  Either way is okay.


ÞNote that there are no page numbers indicated in the text references.


ÞNote that the text citations are given as author(s) and date in parentheses, and that when more than one reference is cited, they citations are separated by a semi-colon.



· Writing advice (or, How to get better grades on your written assignments not only for BioSci 204, 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.  (Elite type is okay, if you use a regular typewriter, but make sure you have a new ribbon.)


(2) Check each sentence to make sure it is complete, with a subject, verb, and object, and make sure 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) Pay attention to your spell-check and grammar-check options on your word processing program.  Check misspelled words in a real dictionary, and question grammar errors to make sure that the word processing program is not telling you something that is grammatically incorrect.


(5) Turn off your right justify function; right justification makes a paper very hard to read.


(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 some faculty member must write his/her professional papers according to these kinds of instructions, and therefore finds 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 by anonymous scientists in the field.




BIOS 101 example:

Total grades awarded = 250

Students I could recognize by name and face outside of class (10 point bonus) = 76

Number receiving 20-30 extra points from above exercises = 39

Number receiving 10-19 extra points from above exercises = 161


BIOS 103 example:

Total grades awarded = 112

Students I could recognize by name and face outside of class (10 bonus points) = 64

Number receiving at least 100 points (25 per paper) on the above assignments = 69

Number receiving more than 100 points (some extra credit for excellent work) = 47

Number receiving 75-99 points = 14


BIOS 204 example:

Total grades awarded = 69

Students I could recognize by name and face outside of class (10 bonus points) = N/A

Number receiving at least 100 points (25 per paper) on the above assignments = 57

Number receiving fewer than 100 points = 12

Number who declined to write more than one of the papers = 3