The new faces of the GIRs: makeovers in biology, chemistry

More variations of Intro Biology; 3.091 & 7.012 use online learning

In Fall 2013, alterations and additions to the General Institute Requirement (GIR) classes offered students more options and new mediums for learning. The Department of Biology introduced two new Introductory Biology classes, 7.015 and 7.016, as well as incorporated online learning from edX into 7.012. Additionally, 3.091 (Solid State Chemistry) piloted an entirely new course format that strongly integrated the use of online learning materials into the structure of the course.


The Department of Biology introduced 7.015 and 7.016 as additional offerings to fulfill the Biology GIR in the fall, bringing the total number of Biology GIR classes offered to a total of five: 7.012, 7.013, 7.014, 7.015, and 7.016. 7.013 and 7.014 will continue to be the only two options offered in the Spring.

The addition of these courses alleviated the precarious popularity of 7.012; only 451 students were enrolled in the course at the end of this past semester, according to the reported number of students eligible to respond to the online subject evaluations for each course. This is much lower than the 802 students in 7.012 at the end of Fall 2012. 7.015 had 38 students, and 7.016 had 321.

All of the Biology GIR classes have a common core that comprises about 50 percent of the curriculum. For the remaining portion of the course, each takes a different focus: 7.012 focuses on genetics, 7.013 focuses on neuroscience and human biology, 7.014 focuses on ecology and biogeochemical cycles, and the new biology classes bring more options to the table.

The changes to 7.012 included with incorporating online materials into the curriculum. Students could watch edX lectures, as well as screencasts by Prof. Eric S. Lander that explained some of the content in more detail. Practice questions through edX were also offered; some were optional, and others were incorporated as parts of the p-sets.

7.015 is analogous to 8.012 and 5.112 — it is meant for students with strong backgrounds or keen interests in biology. The class introduced a new course format that included only two midterms and four p-sets, as opposed to 7.012’s three midterms and seven p-sets. 7.015 also added reading, discussion, and writing assignments, as well as guest speakers and discussion-based recitations.

Leah M. Okumura, one of 7.015’s instructors, found that the new class format offered more real world applications to the curriculum. “Overall I think having fewer p-sets really let us focus on the discussions,” said Okumura. “The discussions were geared toward popular press articles about some social or economic aspect of the science that we were discussing in lecture, which is designed to get students to think about the real world applications of what they are learning.”

On the other hand, the goal of 7.016 was to provide a more general approach to Introductory Biology and go into some depth about disease connections and current topics in biology. “We aim to teach the students the impact of modern biology on their lives,” said Prof. Barbara Imperiali, one of the 7.016 instructors.

7.016 closely resembled 7.012 in format, using the traditional lecture, problem set, and recitation style. However, 7.016 implemented the use of clickers in the classroom which made the lectures more interactive.

“The clickers were very helpful because they provided professors with feedback to see if we did a good job explaining the topics,” said Prof. Angelika Amon, another 7.016 professor. “When it was clear that students didn’t get it, we’d try again; the clickers were a way for students to tell the professors if they didn’t understand.”


Professor Michael J. Cima experimented with a bold new format for 3.091 this past fall: online assessments and learning modules were used as primary components of the curriculum. The course continued the use of lectures and recitations, but gave out no p-sets, no tests, and no final exam.

In September, Cima made the adjustment that attendance at 80 percent of lectures and recitations was mandatory in order to ensure that students did not intentionally schedule conflicts. Cima viewed that this was necessary to ensure that students were properly exposed to the content, as well as to extract proper data about how attendance correlated with comprehension and outcomes.

There were edX online learning modules available to students that were different from the ones offered publicly on edX open courseware. These modules had videos that supplemented the lectures and optional practice questions that gave students instant feedback.

Instead of tests and quizzes, the grades for 3.091 were based on online assessments that students took in a proctored Athena Cluster. There were 14 units in the course, and each unit had two or three assessment questions that students completed in order to pass the unit. In some units, students were given flexibility and were only required to answer some of the questions correctly, in other units, students were required to answer all of the questions correctly. Students had two weeks to complete each unit, with one attempt allowed per question per day.

There were 37 questions in total, which is the same number of questions that students were expected to answer in the old format amongst the final exams, midterms, and quizzes. Cima notes that requiring students to solve the problems correctly and giving them multiple attempts to do so allowed greater comprehension. “Outcomes, as measured by success at solving problems, is substantially improved over the traditional format,” said Cima in an e-mail to The Tech.

However, the new format had some controversial outcomes. “My impression is that the new format had greater positive impact on the less motivated of the students,” Cima said. “This is only my impression, but motivated students in chemistry may have had a better experience in the old format. They did not have a chance to “shine” with the new format.”

364 students completed 3.091 this past fall, which is consistent with fall enrollment numbers from recent years, according to the subject evaluation data online.

The future of GIRs

Data from students’ performances in class is telling of the efficacy of the new implementations. Only 167 fifth week flags were issued this November, which down from 203 flags issued in Fall 2012 and 214 flags issued in Fall 2011. For perspective, 3.091 gave out only two flags this year, as opposed to 29 in 2012. As for the new Introductory Biology classes, 7.015 issued flags to 7.5 percent of the class, and 7.016 issued flags to 9 percent of the class. This is significantly less than 7.012, which issued flags to 14.6 percent of the class.

Responses from the students in the evaluations at the semester’s end are considered when determining which components of the GIRs will change and which will stay the same in upcoming years.

In its course evaluation, 3.091 scored a 4.2 out of 7 overall, with a 70 percent response rate from students. 7.015 scored a 5.5 out of 7 overall, with an 84 percent response rate. 7.016 scored a 5.2 out of 7, with a 70 percent response rate.

According to the course evaluations for 7.015, said Okumura, students valued the small lectures and recitations because it allowed the class to be more interactive. Okumura noted that “there were a lot of student questions in class, which I felt really allowed the professors to tailor the discussion to what students were interested in hearing about.”

Imperiali said that “We are really pleased with how 7.016 went in its first year and with attendance. I think it will get even better; we will polish and refine what we can.”

“There are many other observations and improvements to make if I get permission to try this again,” added Cima. “Assessment room hours need to be improved. What we had access to last term was insufficient as students would have preferred more options for taking assessments.”