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Graduate student Jessica Merricks wins national award for research on teaching

Jan. 29, 2014

Jessica Merricks

Biology graduate student Jessica Merricks won first place in a research poster competition at the National Association for Biology Teachers.

Jessica Merricks studies treefrogs, so even she was surprised when a side project she did on student learning garnered attention and a prize at a national teaching conference.

Merricks, a doctoral student in the Division of Biological Sciences, won first place at the National Association for Biology Teachers for her research poster presenting preliminary results of a study she conducted on how students in a non-majors biology course use learning objectives. Although experienced at research on acoustic communication in treefrogs, Merricks is new to research on science education, so she was very surprised to win the award.

“When you get to a new field, you feel very insecure, which speaks to why I was so shocked I won,” she says. “I’m surrounded by teachers who have taught for years and years. What could I tell them that they don’t already know?”

In this case, however, she says her outsider’s perspective may have helped. “I think that being new, I sort of have a different perspective than people who have been in the field for a while. I think that benefitted me this time.”

As an aspiring college professor, Merricks has taken several teaching courses. In all of them, she says, the first thing you learn is the importance of learning objectives, or statements that teachers write that describe what students should know or be able to do at the end of the course or lesson. However, she wondered, do students even use these carefully prepared learning objectives?

“Throughout my training, I was being told that learning objectives are very important, but I couldn’t find any research addressing whether students realized they were very important, or even if they know how to use them at all,” she says. “I think that’s why I got the attention that I got. I think people were just surprised that it was such a simple idea but that no one had looked at it.”

They were also very surprised by her findings as well, she says.

“We found that most students claimed that learning objectives were helpful, but when we actually turned around and challenged them to identify the learning objectives, they didn’t do so hot,” she says. “It seems that students see the utility of learning objectives, but they’re obviously not taking the time to really look at them and internalize them. That was a surprising result.”

the image shows merricks wearing a headlamp and holding a treefrog

For her doctoral research, Merricks studies the evolution of novel call behaviors in treefrogs in the Gerhardt lab.

Although at first this frog-researcher thought she might have jumped in over her head by moving into education research, she quickly realized that’s not necessarily true. Merricks says she’s been able to easily apply the skills she has learned as a graduate student in biology to education.

“There really isn’t much difference between designing an experiment to study frog behaviors and one to study student behaviors,” Merricks says. “Well, except for the paperwork — there are a lot more regulations for studying humans than studying frogs.”

“That’s what’s most striking about Jessica,” says Bethany Stone, an associate teaching professor of biological sciences who worked with Merricks on the learning objectives study. “This isn’t her field, but she still has great clarity of thought when it comes to doing this type of research. To have a biology graduate student win this competition is a real feather in our cap. It shows how well rounded she is.”

For Merricks, research is research. “I’m currently researching tree frogs and sexual selection, but I’m really just interested in doing research. I like idea of designing an experiment or designing a research project. I love data. I love it when I discover something interesting from numbers.”

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Written by: Melody Kroll

Related categories:
Awards, Graduate Studies, Science Outreach