Theses Doctoral

Tapping into Students' Culturally Informed Prior Knowledge: A Study of Four Instructors Teaching Undergraduate Biology

Woodson, Jolie

While it is well established that pedagogies purposefully linking subject matter to students’ cultural contexts and prior knowledge can help students learn subject matter, little is known about practices for so doing in undergraduate biology courses enrolling substantial numbers of racially, culturally, and otherwise diverse students. This study sought to understand how four biology instructors of primarily Black and Hispanic students enact a form of teaching that draws out and uses knowledge from and about students’ lives—what I refer to as students’ culturally informed prior knowledge—to help students learn key subject-matter ideas in biology. It also examined how instructors managed their efforts to teach in this way and how they portrayed their reasons for so doing.

The study derived several insights. One, instructors can connect important subject-matter ideas, in the study of biology, to facets of students’ daily lives, using the latter to advance students’ understanding of the former. Thus, the teaching of college-level biology with knowledge drawn from students’ lives is more than an aspiration. It can and—per my study—does occur. It is then possible to teach college-level biology with knowledge drawn from students’ lives.

Two, to enact such teaching, instructors can strive to draw comparisons between topics that are concrete and familiar to students and new subject-matter ideas to make the latter comprehensible to them. Three, instructors can connect subject matter to their students’ physiological experiences, treating students’ thinking about their bodies as a form of prior knowledge. Four, instructors can call students’ commonly accepted yet incomplete or unexamined ideas and beliefs into question to facilitate their learning of subject-matter ideas. Five, instructors’ efforts to teach using knowledge from students’ lives can include planning and forethought—but also improvisation while teaching. Six, a desire to make the subject matter of their course relatable to students can inspire instructors to teach using knowledge from students’ lives.

The study recommends (a) changes in institutional policy toward supporting faculty in efforts to teach using knowledge from students’ lives, and (b) future research into teaching of biology and other STEM subjects that takes into account students’ prior knowledge.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Neumann, Anna
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
June 1, 2021