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Advancing Undergraduate Microbiology Education: Resolving Student Misconceptions about Microbiology

Misconceptions plague basic science education.  For example, it’s common for students to start a microbiology course thinking, “Vaccines must cause disease in order to work.”

While vaccines stimulate immune responses, they do not cause the diseases they protect against.  Unresolved misconceptions can hinder future learning, cause the next generation of teachers to propagate misconceptions, and contribute to public misunderstanding of science (which is especially troubling for microbiology, a course required for most health professionals).  Educators need tools to understand common misconceptions and assess how well they resolve them.

A recent national initiative from the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) developed the Microbiology Concept Inventory (MCI), a tool to improve undergraduate learning gains in microbiology classrooms.  The MCI is a validated and vetted assessment that quantifies student learning gains and uncovers student misconceptions. Our proposed project will:

(a) use the MCI to identify the most common misconceptions for liberal arts college students;

(b) identify whether targeted interventions can resolve the most common misconceptions; and

(c) develop an evidence-based toolkit of interventions for resolving those misconceptions.

This project will make us better teachers by improving our understanding of how students resolve science misconceptions and by introducing sustainable changes into our curricula.


Preliminary data gathered during development of the MCI identified the most common misconceptions of undergraduate students before taking a microbiology course. These included:

“In bacteria, prior exposure is required to acquire antibiotic resistance.”
“Vaccines must cause disease in order to work.”
“Oxygen is required for bacterial growth and/or speeds up growth.”

Having successfully demonstrated that the MCI can uncover misconceptions (Briggs et al. JMBE 2017), we’re ready to take the next logical step: use this tool to investigate how misconceptions persist and are resolved.

Our goal is, through collaboration among ACM institutions, to develop, assess, and disseminate an evidence-based instructional toolkit for undergraduate microbiology educators.

This project provides an opportunity for liberal arts faculty to be leaders in a key area of interest to the biology community, and the nature of our institutions makes us well-suited to this task. Liberal arts colleges have a long history of valuing innovative teaching, making our institutions an ideal setting for discipline-based education research. Additionally, we have unparalleled contact with our students and strong support from our colleagues and administrators, both key factors in effecting change.

The nature of liberal arts colleges also presents a challenge for microbiologists that this project can help us overcome. At our small institutions, we are usually each the sole microbiologist. It can therefore be difficult to see beyond our own classrooms and research. This project provides collaborative time, space, and resources to overcome this challenge.


This is a three-year project involving two teams of collaborators, the Implementation team (7 faculty members) and the Development and Analysis (DA) team (2 faculty members).

  • Year 1: the DA team will have an initial meeting to check in and establish a research timetable; the implementation team will secure institutional review board (IRB) approval at their home institutions and then use the MCI in their classrooms as a pre/post assessment to establish baseline data; the DA team will analyze the MCI baseline data to uncover the most common misconceptions of students in liberal arts microbiology courses; the DA team will then convene a multi-day, in-person meeting to research and develop classroom interventions that target the most common misconceptions; and the DA and implementation teams will have a follow-up meeting to get feedback from the implementers on the feasibility of the DA team’s proposed classroom interventions.
  • Year 2: the Implementation team will implement the classroom interventions and use the MCI instrument in their classes as a pre/post assessment of the impact of the interventions on student learning outcomes; the DA team will analyze those MCI data and then convene a multi-day, in-person writing workshop to prepare our work for dissemination.
  • Year 3: the DA team will submit a research paper for publication (e.g., JMBE or CBE-Life Sciences) and will submit the assessed classroom interventions to a peer-reviewed classroom material repository (e.g., CourseSource); DA team will also present our research at national academic conferences (e.g., ASMCUE or SABER).

We envision two products: (a) peer-reviewed published research on undergraduate student learning and (b) an evidence-based toolkit of instructional materials for microbiology instructors.

We will use the guiding principles of Scientific Teaching throughout this project.  Scientific Teaching is an evidence-based educational method endorsed by national organizations such as AAAS, National Academies, and AAC&U.  It seeks to maximize student engagement, learning, and retention by focusing on three tenets: equity, active learning, and assessment.

Using those guiding principles, we will research how classroom interventions resolve persistent, previously-documented misconceptions.  We will use the MCI as a pre/post-test to quantify normalized student learning gains for each of the concepts covered by the MCI, with the aim of identifying common misconceptions that are unresolved at the end of the semester.

For each of those misconceptions, we will use peer-reviewed microbiology education research literature to inform our design of new interventions. Implementation team members will then use these targeted interventions in place of or in addition to their traditional instruction for each identified topic.  We will then use the MCI to quantify the effects that the interventions have on resolving those most common misconceptions.

When our research is complete, we will share our analysis with the discipline-based education research community in the form of a peer-reviewed manuscript.  We will then assemble, disseminate, and publish a toolkit of classroom activities that improved student learning outcomes and resolved misconceptions.  This evidence-based toolkit will highlight the misconceptions, explain the classroom activities, and present the evidence of their efficacy.

Milestone dates
The proposed project term will run from June 2019 through summer 2022.

June 2019:

  • DA team convenes an initial virtual meeting to establish a research timetable and assign tasks.
  • DA team hosts a virtual meeting with the implementation team to coordinate IRB approval and use of the
  • MCI instrument in courses for the upcoming school year.

Fall 2019 and Spring 2020:

  • Implementation team administers the MCI in their courses and submit their MCI data to the DA team for analysis.
  • DA team analyzes these MCI baseline data to uncover the most common unresolved misconceptions of students in liberal arts microbiology courses.

June 2020:

  • DA team convenes an in-person workshop to research and develop classroom interventions that target the most common unresolved misconceptions uncovered by analysis of the baseline data.
  • DA team then contacts implementers for feedback on feasibility of the proposed interventions.

July 2020:

  • DA and implementation teams meet virtually to coordinate IRB approval, use of the MCI instrument, and intervention implementation for the upcoming school year.

Fall 2020 and Spring 2021:

  • Implementation team administers the MCI, carries out the interventions, and submits their data to the DA team for analysis.

June 2021:

  • DA team analyzes the MCI data and then convenes a two-day, in-person writing workshop to prepare our work for publication.

October 2021:

  • DA team hosts a virtual meeting with all ACM microbiology instructors to share the developed toolkit, answer questions, and schedule follow-up meetings.

Summer 2022:

  • Continued dissemination through conference presentations.

Dissemination Strategies

First, we plan to directly share (via email) our vetted classroom interventions with all microbiology instructors in the ACM.  The DA team will offer follow-up virtual meetings for instructors who would like guidance or advice on incorporating the interventions into their own classrooms.

We plan to share our research more broadly through publication in the Journal of Microbiology Education (JMBE) or CBE Life Sciences and through presenting our findings at professional meetings such as the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Education (ASMCUE), the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) annual meeting, and the ASM General Meeting.

We will submit the evidence-based microbiology toolkit to a peer-reviewed classroom material repository, such as CourseSource.  Additionally, the ASM is committed to disseminating this toolkit through society-sponsored meetings, publications, databases, and communications to the global microbial sciences community.

Outcomes and Significance

This project will create a community of liberal arts microbiology teacher-scholars.  Centered around solving problems of common student misconceptions, this community will provide structure, funding, and support for research, writing, and teaching collaboration.

As all of us are the only microbiologists at our institutions, this project provides the opportunity to see through our peers’ eyes, to think beyond our own classrooms, and to share our expertise and creativity to develop better solutions than we could devise individually.

Additionally, this project will enrich the robustness of our research.  Due to the student-centered nature of our institutions’ pedagogical approaches, our classes are by design small, and particular subjects are frequently taught only once per school year.

A fairly common criticism of some discipline-based education research studies performed at small colleges is therefore that the sample sizes are too small.  Depending on the study design and research question, it can therefore can take years to accumulate a large enough data set to draw robust conclusions.

This project will coordinate the efforts of microbiology researchers at seven liberal arts institutions and provide a large, rich dataset from which we can study student learning.

Reducing institutional costs, demonstrating value of high-quality liberal arts education

Our proposed project’s main goal is to quantifiably improve student learning.  The student-centered nature of small liberal arts classrooms already fosters strong learning outcomes, and this project aims to amplify that effect in a systematic and strategic way.

The study of microbiology is fundamental to our understandings of agriculture, ecology, and human health, and an undergraduate course in microbiology is required by most programs in the health professions.

Liberal arts colleges send proportionally far more students to graduate, professional, and medical schools than our PhD-granting counterparts, and projects such as this one can contribute to student success in those programs, potentially bolstering our reputation as providers of high-value undergraduate degrees.

Additionally, the evidence-based toolkit we will build can bring ACM schools the attention of the national microbiology community.  The American Society of Microbiology (ASM), the oldest and largest professional society in the United States, has already committed to disseminating this toolkit through society-sponsored meetings, publications, databases, and communications to the global microbial sciences community

Being known in our field as institutions where faculty can do innovative teaching and discipline-based education research can help us recruit future faculty.

Advancing goals and priorities of participating campuses

Our institutions are committed to liberal arts education and to preparing students to be active, informed citizens. This project aims to resolve student misconceptions about important biological concepts, and this work can improve long-term science engagement and understanding.

Our institutions also recognize that faculty professional development benefits individuals, institutions, and our broader scientific disciplines, and this project will develop long-term collaborative relationships.

This project also aligns well with two of Beloit College’s academic strategic priorities: 1) engaging in evidence-based faculty and staff development that promotes high-impact learning experiences and mentoring relationships, and 2) promoting the above practices in rewarding and manageable ways through individual and collaborative experimentation.

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