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Using Differentiated Instruction to Reach Hundreds of Students…Discover How CoAS Monica Togna PhD Does It

Monica Togna PhD is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Biology.   When speaking with Togna it is easy to get swept up in her passion for teaching and her tireless efforts to give all of her students the opportunity to succeed.  After teaching an average of 50-70 graduate students at Rutgers, Togna faced a new challenge when she came to Drexel University in that she would be teaching a part of the freshman biology sequence to hundreds of students.

“The large class size wasn’t the only issue, you also had students who at all different levels.  Some with lots of AP classes and others lacking a basic understanding of the concepts needed to succeed.  I needed a new angle.” 

Togna has two mottos.  The first shows her commitment to knowledge and is also a witty comeback for students that would question the need for what they consider to be an obscure topic.  The second reveals much more about herself and her teaching style.

“You can live without knowledge of Latin, but you can live more intelligently with it.”  Togna Laughs.  “The second is my teaching philosophy.  It is corny, but here goes: You all come from all different backgrounds, but if you stick with me nobody gets left behind.” 

Her efforts to leave no student behind materialized into her current research project “Individualized Learning in a Class of 500…a Multi-tiered Approach to Recitation Design.”  In the spring term of every year she teaches BIO 126: Physiology and Ecology to a variety of mainly science related majors which meets three times a week for fifty minutes.

“The problem in such a large course is how to give individualized instruction to students who need it.”

To this end Togna has developed assignments which are broken into three different tiers designed according to different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

  • Tier 1: Comprehension Level: multiple choice questions that focus on comprehension level and focuses on knowledge of facts.
    •  “So if a student doesn’t have the background knowledge on a certain subject, is confused or just is having a bad week, they can start with tier 1.”
  • Tier 2: Application Level: solve problems or questions based on weekly content. 
    • “This is where I expect my students to be if they want to be successful on my exams.”
  • Tier 3: Analysis/Synthesis Level: current events/issues, common misconceptions, MCAT prep questions, reading graphs/analyzing data.
    •  “This is where the students really start to make connections about the content and take it to the next level.”

The students are able to select the tier that best fits their current understanding of the instruction content for that week.  All tiers are worth the same amount of points and a student may choose a different tier on a week to week basis.  And here is the best part.  After each week all of the assignments are released to everyone, so that any student can see all three assignments in order to develop a further understanding of the content for that week.   The availability of the different tiers provides the opportunity for students to reach the level that they want to reach. 

Another positive byproduct of this tiered approach is that students regularly form workgroups that fit with their comprehension level which makes the groups more effective and showing the student buy in to the model.  When asked about student response to the tiers and the work groups Togna states, “I have had nothing but positive feedback from the students.”

The support for students doesn’t end there as weekly drop-in hours that are manned by SR Biological Sciences students as well as online animations with questions that help students to understand the different topics.  Togna also works very closely to help the academic advisors diagnose solutions for students who may be struggling.

Lastly, Togna has worked in reflective analysis in her course after attending a workshop by Karen Nulton PhD here at Drexel.  Students reflect on the course material and how it applies to them currently, to their field and to their future. 

“Dr. Nulton really opened my eyes to how reflective analysis can lead to a broader context and deeper understanding of who the student are as scientists.”

Togna presented a poster at the 12th General Meeting of the Biology Leadership Conference with her new course design and first year comparison data which looks very promising as it shows higher average test scores across the board.  She is looking forward to that trend continuing as she teaches the tiered approach for the third time during the spring quarter of the 2014-15 academic year. 

“Even if the trend in the data doesn’t continue to show improvement, I will continue to run the course the same way, because of all of the positive feedback from the students.”

This statement will probably prove to be untrue as Togna will find other ways to make her courses more accessible and enjoyable to all students leaving no one behind.