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Breaking Down Barriers in Biology: Cissy Ballen

Cissy Ballen has a history with the study of teaching and learning that stretches back to her time as a student. Today she works as an assistant professor of discipline-based education research in the department of biological sciences at Auburn University—where she also leads her own lab. Cissy’s research uses collaboration with undergraduate students and other professionals to investigate the causes and consequences of performance gaps in education.

Cissy attended the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate, eventually graduating with a degree in fisheries, wildlife, & conservation biology and minor in biology. During her time as a student she worked with Sehoya Cotner, researching the impacts of educators’ gender on their students. She would go on to earn her PhD in biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, where she focused her studies on color-signaling reptiles, like the veiled chameleon. Cissy then returned to America and began post-doctoral research on the subject of active learning.

A Veiled Chameleon

By the time she’d finished her post-grad education, Cissy had a considerable background in teaching and learning. However, her academic focus had always been on organismal biology, so she made her way into the professional world with the belief that she was limited to that precise discipline.

Cissy went on to accept a post-doctorate teaching position at Cornell University, tasked with transitioning a large, traditionally-taught evolution lecture course into an active learning course. As she began planning her curriculum, it seemed only natural to implement what she’d learned in her undergraduate and postgraduate experiences; the data showed that active learning techniques (broadly defined) would likely help her students succeed, so there was no reason not to integrate them into her courses. At the time, these were just strategies Cissy used to create an academically engaging classroom, but soon she realized that she was unintentionally collecting data. When students took her courses, they were providing feedback on how these pedagogies played out in a real world environment. The world of educational research wasn’t closed to her afterall - she was a living, breathing part of it.

This epiphany would lead Cissy to double down on her efforts to optimize her students’ learning. Not only would she continue to implement the teaching pedagogies she’d previously studied, but she’d find ways to draw more data from her classes. Which students were succeeding? What factors helped them, and what hindered them? How and why might performance change based on student identity? The early investigation she devized while teaching at Cornell would become foundational for her future research and lab.

She later returned to University of Minnesota for a second postdoc, united under the mentorship of Sehoya Cotner. Together, they tackled a number of projects that took empirical approaches to studying equity in the classroom, such as how some common assessment methods impose a ‘gender penalty’ in introductory science, or which factors have the biggest influence on equitable participation.

Cissy began work as an assistant professor at Auburn University in 2018, and has since established her own lab dedicated to the study of biology education and student barriers to learning. She continues her research in the classroom, but her work reaches beyond the direct impacts of teaching strategies. Recently Cissy began a project that aimed to create a more precise definition of “active learning” and chart which versions of its associated pedagogies yield the best outcomes for students. In a recent study, Cissy, a graduate student named Emily Driessen, and colleagues teamed up to analyze hundreds of papers written on the effectiveness of different education styles. They found that very few actually define “active learning” or go into detail on which strategies were used within their experimentation. This makes it impossible to tell which techniques yield the most positive results; were these studies done in classrooms that just integrated iClicker questions, or did they have a strong focus on group work during every class? The lack of a clear answer prevents replication. “You can think about it like making a cake—if you want to replicate a cake you need to know what ingredients in what proportions go into that recipe,” Cissy said. Her team went on to create a common definition for active learning in regards to biology, as well as an Active Learning Strategy Guide consisting of hundreds of active learning strategies defined and cited.

One ingredient commonly associated with the term active learning was group work, and she’s chosen to use these results to guide her future research and teaching. For example, her classes now implement group testing—students first take an individual exam, then in the next period they take a group exam that cements their knowledge and rewards collaboration. Cissy’s lab has also continued to study the effects of group work on student outcomes through experimental approaches and meta-analysis.

With such work perfectly exemplifying the goals of EDU-STEM, it comes as no surprise that Cissy has already begun research for the network. One project her group plans to tackle, led by post-doctoral researcher Sara Berk, will focus on how psychosocial factors (e.g., stereotype threat or test anxiety) vary by institution type, and how the differences in those factors might affect learning. The data collected through the EDU-STEM Network will allow Cissy to chart variations on both small and large scales, as well as give a more intersectional dataset with a greater sample size of minority groups.

Like many other educators, Cissy was faced with the challenge of rapidly switching to an online teaching format in early 2020. The situation she found herself in was far from ideal, but Cissy made the best of a bad situation. She responded by filming a series of vodcasts—5 minute videos that students would listen to before lecture. The videos give students a rundown of the day’s topics and goals, allowing for repeated exposure to course materials. Helping students prepare themselves before class means more lecture time can be spent cementing and assessing knowledge. When classes return to campus in the fall, her vodcasts will continue to be part of the course.

The switch from in person to online classes brought into focus the importance of the work that Cissy and many others in the network do. “It tore off the masks that we all wear when in a lecture hall or university - suddenly you see all the inequities in life and how they impact students.” As a professor who was overseeing two courses and over 400 students in spring 2020, Cissy witnessed first hand the many ways that such a drastic change could impact students’ abilities to succeed.

Facing the realities brought about by the pandemic has inspired Cissy to work even harder to ensure that disadvantaged students receive equity in higher learning. She will continue with her research - including a developing project that analyzes the demographics of scientists featured in textbooks. Such a goal may seem small when compared to her research that focuses on huge datasets collected from across the nation, but Cissy understands that the ways students engage with science in a common, everyday setting can be vitally important. Barriers that hinder student success still exist, but Cissy will continue in her fight to break those barriers down.

Written by Samantha Brandt