MasteringBiology® educator study analyzes final exam averages at Broward College

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MasteringBiology® educator study analyzes final exam averages at Broward College

Key Findings

  • A variety of MasteringBiology assignments were implemented utilizing diverse resources, giving students multiple opportunities to engage with the content.
  • In addition, the instructor was able to use the data in MasteringBiology to monitor results to better understand student progress and performance throughout the semester and use that information to guide instruction.
  • Of all MasteringBiology assignments, Dynamic Study Modules had the strongest correlation to final exam scores. In addition, the data for this course showed that students who attempted more MasteringBiology assignments had higher final exam averages than students who attempted less.
  • The instructor has found that it is important to help students prepare to use MasteringBiology during the semester by providing Mastering registration information, along with detailed information about the Mastering assignments on the syllabus at the start of the class.

School name
Broward College, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Course name
Introduction to Biology I

Course format

Course materials
MasteringBiology; Campbell Biology by Reece, Urry, Cain, Minorsky, Jackson, and Wasserman

Fall 2015

Submitted by
Thaddeus McRae


The Junior College of Broward County opened in 1960 with 701 students, later becoming Broward Community College. In 2009, it became Broward College with the addition of baccalaureate programs to meet specific, targeted needs of the community. The College currently has three campuses with more than 67,000 students. Data from 2015 show that of all students, approximately 33 percent identify themselves as Hispanic, but students represent more than 175 countries. In addition, 41 percent of students were over the age of 24.  

Introduction to Biology I is the first of a two-course sequence introducing science majors to biological principles including cell structure, function, communication, reproduction, biochemistry and metabolism, classical and molecular genetics, and genetic engineering. The introductory course is a three-credit lecture with a required co-requisite lab. Students who take this course are primarily enrolled in a health science program, with biology majors making up the remaining students. Only the biology majors are required to take the second course in the sequence.

Assistant professor Thaddeus McRae has been teaching at Broward since 2012, and had taught both at the high school and college levels prior to that. Along with this course, he also teaches the non-majors biology course. The course objectives for Introduction to Biology I state that upon successful completion of this course, students should be able to explain the methods of science, describe the characteristics of life, describe structure, function, and communication of cells, distinguish mitosis and meiosis, describe cell energetics, photosynthesis, and respiration, solve genetics problems, and describe major advances in genetic engineering.

Challenges and Goals

McRae believes it’s important to engage students at different points in the learning process. When McRae started using MasteringBiology at Broward the first semester he taught the course, his goal was to develop assignments that would provide students with diverse resources and activities for each chapter. He wanted students to come to each class with a basic understanding of the topics being covered, to understand what concepts weren’t clear so they could ask better questions, and to then have additional learning resources to help them remediate and continue to develop their understanding of the concepts as it was covered in lecture.


To address his goals, McRae implemented three different MasteringBiology assignments for each chapter with staggered due dates. Pre-Class Dynamic Study Modules and chapter homework become available and can be started at any time before the due date. Adaptive Follow-Up assignments are generated based on a student’s performance on the chapter homework and become available after the chapter homework is completed.

MasteringBiology homework assignments are as follows for each chapter covered:

  • Pre-Class Dynamic Study Modules (5 points each): To help students get the most out of class, a required pre-class assignment is due before the chapter lecture. Dynamic Study Modules (DSM) are designed to continuously assess student activity and performance in real time as students answer questions and indicate their confidence level. Each assignment is designed to take students approximately 30–40 minutes to complete. Students are able to access the modules at any time in the semester for review.
  • Chapter homework (10 points each): The Mastering chapter homework is designed to help students interact with the concepts and build their knowledge base and understanding. Each chapter homework, comprised primarily of activity questions with some tutorials, is designed to take an average of 3040 minutes. If students earn 90 percent or higher on the chapter homework, full credit is automatically given for the subsequent Adaptive Follow-Up assignment. Students are able to redo the chapter activities at any time during the semester for review, but the homework grade will not change after the due date.
  • Adaptive Follow-Up (5 points each): Mastering generates an Adaptive Follow-Up (AFU) assignment for each student based on the questions missed on the chapter (parent) homework. Students who score at least 90 percent on the chapter homework test out of the AFU assignment earning 100 percent for the AFU. Students have three days to complete their AFU assignments, and while the assignment length varies, the average time to complete takes about 45 minutes per chapter. All students can review these assignments any time during the semester, even those who tested out of it.

In general, two chapters per week are covered. Students have approximately six MasteringBiology assignments each week, which take approximately between one and five hours to complete, depending upon the individual. The assignments are always due at 11:59 p.m. on the specified due date. Dynamic Study Modules are due the night before the first scheduled lecture on that chapter. The chapter assignment is typically due the day the next chapter is started in class, and the Adaptive Follow‐Up assignments are due three days after the chapter homework due date.

One suggestion from McRae to help students develop good time management skills and keep up with the homework is to create a schedule of all Mastering assignments, and provide that to students at the start of the semester. He recommends listing each assignment, the due date, and where to locate everything needed in Mastering. He has observed that some students struggle with being organized, so he feels that helping them manage the process from the start of the semester can be beneficial.  

McRae also recommends sending an email at the start of the semester with information on how to register for Mastering. In addition, he assigns the Introduction to Mastering assignment, designed to help students register and become familiar with using Mastering so they are prepared to start working when higher stakes homework assignments are due.

Other course components include:   

  • Online writing assignment: There is one online writing assignment that involves reading pages in the textbook, going to websites, completing activities, and writing a report.
  • In-class peer review of writing assignments: During one class period, students practice peer review by reading papers from two other students in class.
  • Exams: McRae administers four unit exams, each covering topics from five to six chapters. The lowest score is dropped. Exams comprise approximately 50 multiple choice questions and are administered during regular class time. There may be a short answer or diagram question included as well.
  • Cumulative final exam: The final exam is similar to the regular exams, but is comprehensive. It contains 70 to 100 questions, mostly multiple choice, with some short answer questions or diagrams.
  • Extra credit: Various extra credit opportunities are offered throughout the semester for participating in extracurricular activities, up to 40 points. These points are added to the final point total at the end of the term.


  • 47% MasteringBiology (400 points)
  • 35% Exams (300 points)
  • 12% Final exam (100 points)
  • 5% Writing assignments (40 points)
  • 1% Peer review of writing assignments (10 points)

Results and Data

To better understand student performance and participation with MasteringBiology homework, results from the fall 2015 semester were analyzed. Both overall Mastering homework and individual assignments were analyzed and compared to final exam performance.

The Introduction to Mastering assignment is designed to get students started in Mastering. While no actual course content is covered, data indicate that the average final exam score for students who skipped that assignment was six percentage points lower than those who did the assignment. This may be a leading indicator of student motivation or commitment to being in the course, and is a data point that can provide additional information at the start of the class about which students are ready to get started on the homework (Table 1).

Fall 2015 average final exam scores and course scores by Introduction to Mastering assignment participation

Table 1. Fall 2015 Average Final Exam Scores and Course Scores of Students Who Skipped the Introduction to Mastering Assignment (n=16) and Students Who Attempted the Introduction to Mastering Assignment (n=13)

Correlations were calculated for MasteringBiology homework overall, and then for each type of homework individually. The pre-class homework, Dynamic Study Modules (DSM), had the strongest correlation to final exam scores with a moderate positive correlation of p=.45. While the Mastering assignments are part of the course score, the data does show that DSMs had a strong positive correlation to the course score (p=.73) and was the strongest correlation of the three types of homework assignments. However, DSMs (by weight) did not make up a majority of the overall Mastering grade.

Finally, an analysis was done to compare students who tended to do more Mastering homework to students who tended to skip more homework. Of the 55 total Mastering assignments, the mean number skipped was 15 (27 percent). Figure 1 shows that students who skipped fewer than 15 had statistically significantly higher final exam scores than students who skipped 15 or more assignments (using a two-tailed t-test assuming equal variance).

Final exam average based on number of MasteringBiology assignments skipped

Figure 1. Final Exam Average Based on Number of MasteringBiology Assignments Skipped, Fall 2015, Skipped <15 (n=17); Skipped 15 or more (n=12); Err Bars=Standard Err, * indicates p<0.05

While other factors can impact these results, such as motivation and study skills, McRae observed that by evaluating the data from Mastering, he could identify trends in student performance and use that information to help him identify which students may be at risk or less motivated in the course.

The Student Experience

Students were surveyed about their experience with MasteringBiology, with approximately 60 percent of students responding. When students were asked how likely they would be to recommend Mastering to another student, with 1 being not likely at all and 10 being extremely likely, the average answer was 7. In addition, when the students were asked what they did when they had a Mastering problem they couldn’t answer, 100 percent of those responding said they tried to use the resources to find an answer, including the textbook and online [Mastering] resources.  

Student feedback when asked how Mastering impacted their learning included the following responses:

  • “It made it more interactive and visual versus just reading off a sheet of paper.”
  • “It provides study tools that help [you] practice for the tests.”
  • “MasteringBiology helped me understand some material better than a textbook would because of all the different methods they used to explain various topics.”
  • “MasteringBiology interactive activities and explanations helped expose me to my strengths and weaknesses, as well as, fix my mistakes.”

Finally, students were asked what challenges they had with using Mastering. One student responded, “Some challenges were that the work at times was hard, but if it was easy, I wouldn’t learn. So it was a positive challenge.” Read a story from one of McRae’s students who used Mastering. 


McRae’s homework goal is to provide frequent engagement opportunities for students, so he implements Mastering assignments with different resources to address different learning opportunities. The pre-class assignments are intended to prepare students to ask questions and participate in class; the chapter assignments help students develop a more in-depth understanding of the concepts through activities and tutorials; and the Adaptive Follow-Up assignments provide personalized learning opportunities for individual gaps in knowledge. McRae can then use the data from the assignments to monitor student progress and performance, both during the semester and for making decisions for future semesters.


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