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You ‘Learned’ It, But What Do You Remember?

NSF Rewards Duquesne University Professor’s Outstanding Results in Retention

Dr. Nancy Trun, associate professor of biology at Duquesne University, has found a way to help students learn, remember what they learned and sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Because of her students’ outstanding critical thinking skills and knowledge retention rates, Science Education for New Civic Engagement and Responsibility (SENCER) and The Critical Thinking Assessment Test named Trun’s Microbiology Superlab 373 class method a national model for service-learning last year and one of a handful of Successful Projects nationwide, along with programs at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Clemson, and Purdue universities.

Additionally, she received a $205,000 award from the National Science Foundation to further test and assess the method, called Application-Based Service Learning; the grant is being used to develop interdisciplinary learning communities among several universities.

“Dr. Trun’s teaching methods hold the potential to change how future scientists learn and think about their research,” said Dean David W. Seybert of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. “The results that Dr. Trun achieved with her students are remarkable and could help to redefine science education at all levels.”

The Critical Thinking Assessment Test uses 15 essay questions to measure critical thinking skills at the beginning and the end of a course. Among 3,000 students tested nationwide, the difference between freshmen and seniors was a 5 point gain. In Trun’s class at Duquesne, students showed a 7 point gain in one semester.

“That’s the biggest gain in critical thinking the test developers had ever seen, and the biggest gain measured in critical thinking from over 40 institutions using the test around the country,” Trun said.

How did it happen? “I think it’s because of the way the class is taught,” said Trun. “It’s novel research on a community problem; students become independent and think in the lab. Active learning is a huge part of this. Students have to get involved and interpret the data to determine what experiment to do next. Over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles say active learning leads to impressive gains in learning.”

What students learned in the process is a point of pride. Trun piloted Application-Based Service Learning, working with collaborators at LaRoche College, and conducted research on the impact of the method on learning—again, with extraordinary results.

Using a lecture class as a comparison, students remembered 58 percent of the information they had learned in a lecture-only class after five months.

With the same professor, the same students and the same exam, but by implementing Trun’s Application Based Service Learning lab method, students five months later showed an outstanding 95 percent retention.

“That’s a huge increase in how much they learned and how much they retained,” observed Trun.

In the six years that Trun has turned labs into prime learning situations, she noted that students start coming to the lab daily, amassing up to twice the hours expected. The biology and health-science majors students focused on feral cats, including an examination of whether feral cats carry more bacteria than house cats. After more than 400 sets of samples, students came to the conclusion that they don’t.

“It’s no longer about, ‘I have work to be done for this class,’ but ‘I have to find the answers to this question,’” said Trun. “As they gain confidence, they gain independence.”“As they gain confidence, they gain independence.”

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.