MasteringBiology® educator study assesses the implementation of pre-lecture homework at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology

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MasteringBiology® educator study assesses the implementation of pre-lecture homework at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology

Key Findings

  • Students who attempted all pre-lecture MasteringBiology homework assignments had statistically significantly higher exam scores than students who skipped one or more assignment.
  • After implementing pre-lecture Mastering assignments, Hughes believes students came to class more prepared to engage in active learning.
  • Hughes recommends understanding the purpose of Mastering homework and how it fits into your course plan, and advises new instructors to develop assignments (type and quantity of questions and difficulty) so it is aligned to the overall percentage of course credit.

School name
Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, Toronto, Canada

Course name

Course format

Course materials
MasteringBiology® and Human Biology, by Johnson

Fall 2013–2015

Submitted by
Cathy Hughes, Program Coordinator


  • Public college located in Toronto, Canada
  • Full- and part-time programs offered at the baccalaureate, diploma, certificate, and graduate levels
  • Started in 1967
  • Enrolls approximately 17,000 full-time students and 90,000 part-time students

About the course

Cathy Hughes is the program coordinator for the Pre-Health science program, designed for applicants who have completed secondary school or students returning to school who do not have the prerequisite science and mathematics courses to gain entry into nursing and health science programs. Upon successful completion of Pre-Health, students will be prepared to meet the entrance requirements of a post-secondary health sciences program, however, completion does not automatically ensure acceptance.

Biology is the first in a two-course sequence, and is a four-credit lecture and lab course required in the first semester of the Pre-Health science program. The course investigates the processes involved in biological systems through the study of cellular functions, metabolic processes, genetics, evolution and the anatomy, physiology, homeostasis, and pathology of the integumentary and skeletal systems. Admission into diploma and degree programs are dependent on student success in this course and the other courses that make up the Pre-Health Science Certificate.

The class meets twice each week. In-class lecture with hands-on learning is combined with small group exercises. Labs are activity-based due to the absence of lab space, however, dedicated lab facilities are planned for the future. Additional student academic support is available in the learning center.

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to do the following:

  • Understand cellular functions and metabolic processes
  • Demonstrate an understanding of cell structure and function and the processes of metabolism and membrane transport
  • Investigate the molecular principles and mechanisms that govern energy-transforming activities in living matter
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between cell functions and their technological applications in the health care sciences
  • Understand introductory topics in genetics
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the necessity and the process of mitosis and meiosis
  • Describe the importance of genes in transmitting heredity
  • Understand anatomy, physiology, homeostasis, and pathology of the integumentary and skeletal systems
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the structure and function of the systems
  • Describe the pathological conditions affecting the systems and how the body maintains its homeostatic environment

Challenges and Goals

Instructors found that students were not reading the textbook prior to lecture and did not understand the basic concepts when they came to class. More class time had to be spent lecturing on definitions, terminology, and basic concepts, which limited the amount of active learning that could be conducted around applications and processes. The department adopted MasteringBiology three years ago to address the issue of students not coming to class prepared. The goal was to require students to complete a pre-lecture assignment covering the definitions and basic concepts so that class time could then be spent doing higher level learning activities.


During the semester, students were required to complete nine pre-lecture MasteringBiology assignments. They also were graded on lab activities, quizzes, and exams. The graded course components during this period of study were as follows:

MasteringBiology:  Nine MasteringBiology pre-lecture assignments were available one week before lecture on that topic and were due at 11:59 p.m. the day before the lecture. The homework comprised approximately 20 to 60 questions, including a mix of multiple choice, short answer, and essay. Each assignment was worth one percent of the course grade. Students were given unlimited attempts on the homework, but deductions were made for each additional attempt beyond the first. No homework extensions were granted and a grade of zero was applied if not completed by the due date.

Instructors did not answer basic questions on definitions or terminology in class since students were expected to learn that on their own via the pre-lecture homework. In-class activity was instead fully focused on the processes and applying the concepts.

Lab Activities:  Students were required to be present for in-class scheduled laboratory activities in order to submit the lab report for grading. Lab report grades were reduced by 10 percent for each day late, up to a maximum of five days. Lab reports were not accepted after the fifth day and were given a grade of zero.

Quizzes and Exams:  All assessments were administered via paper-and-pencil in class. During the semester, there were four quizzes, two tests, and one comprehensive final exam. If a student missed a quiz or test due to extenuating circumstances, he or she had an opportunity to make up one missed assessment. No quiz or test could be made up one week beyond the original date administered. Assessments contained a mix of multiple choice, true/false, diagrams, and short answer/critical thinking/application questions.

Hughes feels that the biggest challenge when first implementing Mastering was filtering through all the possible questions and deciding which ones were at an appropriate level and covered the information she wanted the students to focus on. However, she said that while this was the most time-consuming aspect, after the initial investment of time, she is now able to copy the questions that she wants to use from one course to the next and can make changes if she decides to replace questions or add new ones.

One recommendation she offers to others implementing MasteringBiology is to keep the length of assignments in mind when developing the homework. Hughes relayed some students’ comments that each homework assignment is only worth one percent of their grade which they perceive as low. She feels that some of her assignments may have been too long, so she is looking to make changes with the updated curriculum being implemented by the department in fall 2016. She feels that, given the purpose homework serves in this course, a maximum of 40 questions is reasonable as a pre-lecture assignment.

Hughes believes that assignment length should correspond to the course credit given. Since her intention is to encourage students to read the textbook and explore online resources prior to lecture, she feels that one percent per assignment is appropriate for the time required. She recommends that instructors understand the goal of the homework—and the amount of time needed to complete it—and keep that in mind when setting up the assessment values for the course.


  • 40%     Tests (two)
  • 30%     Final exam
  • 16%     Quizzes (four)
  • 9%       MasteringBiology pre-lecture assignments
  • 5%       Lab activities

Results and Data

To understand the relationship between attempting the pre-lecture homework and course results, an analysis of course data was done for the 2013–15 fall semesters when MasteringBiology was in use.

For each semester, students were broken into two groups, those who attempted all MasteringBiology homework; and those who skipped one or more MasteringBiology assignments. The mean number of pre-lecture assignments skipped was one out of nine (11 percent) each semester. For purposes of this analysis, a skipped assignment was considered to be one with a score of zero, the score of the assignment was not considered in the analysis, and students who had a zero on the final exam were not included in the results below.

The data showed that for the three semesters in this study, students who attempted all MasteringBiology homework had higher average final exam scores than students who skipped one or more MasteringBiology assignments (figure 1). A one-tail t-test was used to determine that the difference between students who attempted all homework and those who skipped one or more assignments each semester was statistically significant at p<.05.

  • Fall 2013, students who attempted all MB homework had a 10 percentage point higher average final exam score than those who skipped one or more MB assignment, and it was significant. Attempted all homework (M=68%, SD=15.4; N=29); skipped one or more assignment (M=58%, SD=16.3, N=24).
  • Fall 2014, students who attempted all MB homework had an eight percentage point higher average final exam score than students who skipped one or more MB assignment, and it was significant. Attempted all homework (M=68%, SD=14.5, N=66); skipped one or more assignment (M=60%, SD=15, N=73).
  • Fall 2015, students who attempted all MB homework had a nine percentage point higher average final exam score, and it was significant. Attempted all homework (M=71%, SD=17, N=30); skipped one or more assignment (M=62%, SD=15.3, N=32).

Hughes stated, “I can honestly say that, with a few exceptions, my students have a better grasp of the basics which frees up my class time to focus on the processes as well as conduct collaborative learning activities and labs.”

Final exam scores based on MasteringBiology homework attempted

MasteringBiology_Seneca_Figure1 (1)

Figure 1, Comparison of average final exam scores for students who attempted all MasteringBiology homework to students who skipped one or more MasteringBiology assignment, Fall 2013, Attempted all, n=29; Skipped one or more, n=24; Fall 2014, Attempted all, n=66; Skipped one or more, n=32; Fall 2014, Attempted all, n=30; Skipped one or more, n=38

The Student Experience

Hughes believes that since implementing MasteringBiology pre-lecture assignments students ask better questions in class, demonstrating an understanding of the basic concepts. She finds that they are not asking about basic definitions, something which tended to occur in the past. However, based on what she hears from students, using Mastering is “a bit of a love/hate relationship.” She believes that students tend to not like the program in the beginning and feel like it is a waste of time given the small percent associated with their final grade, but most students do it anyway. Once they get into the routine of doing the Mastering assignments, the feedback from students indicates that they understand it is helping them, particularly during class-time activities.

Hughes feels that students really appreciate Mastering when they take the second course, Human Biology, because the complexity of the material increases. “Since my program is a preparatory program, students that move on into diploma/degree programs tell me they wish they had Mastering as it had helped guide their learning in my class, and of course, forced them to read and review the material prior to classes.”


When asked if her implementation of Mastering has changed since she started using it, Hughes says, “The only thing that really changed over the time is that I eliminated short answer and essay type questions. I honestly don’t have the time to go in and mark them.”  She adds, “I have also switched to the Mastering version that syncs with Blackboard. This has been a lifesaver, even though the initial set-up was a bit challenging. [Pearson] Tech Support has been a big help with the set-up which has made getting started much easier.”

With the implementation of pre-lecture MasteringBiology homework, Hughes found that students came to class better prepared, allowing for more active learning in class. Time that previously was spent lecturing on basic concepts was used to conduct activities that helped develop critical thinking, an important skill needed for success in the nursing program and field.


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