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Michelle K. Smith

Ann S. Bowers Associate Professor

Michelle K. Smith

Dale R Corson Bio Science Wing, Room E231

Educational Background

Ph.D., University of Washington (2006)

M.S., University of Dayton (2000)     

B.A., Hanover College (1998)


Compelling, data-driven national reports call for changes in the way STEM courses are taught at the college level. Many of the changes focus on helping students learn about core concepts and problem solving instead of concentrating on memorized facts. Although institutions are striving to make changes, understanding what classroom techniques help students learn, how to effectively assess learning, and how to support faculty who implement change is a complex research endeavor. My program engages undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, K-12 teachers, and university faculty in research on teaching and learning. I collaborate with researchers at several institutions, which strengthens the research questions we can ask and the generalizability of the results. Together we work on the following questions:

1) What are the origins of student conceptual difficulties in biology and how can instructors support students in overcoming these difficulties?

2) What aspects of peer discussion make it an effective learning tool?       

3) What factors influence instructors’ decisions about teaching?

These research questions are answered using classroom-based assessments, interviews, observation protocols, and surveys analyzed through quantitative and qualitative methods.

I teach BIOEE 2070: Evolution, which is a general education course about evolutionary thinking, and BIOEE 7600: Evidence-Based Teaching, which is a course for graduate students who would like to learn more about teaching at the undergraduate level.

I am also the Editor-in-Chief of CourseSource. CourseSource is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal that publishes teaching resources that have been developed with evidence-based pedagogical techniques. The articles are linked to learning goals developed by life science professional societies.  



Discipline-Based Science Education Research



  • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


Research Question 1: What are the origins of student conceptual difficulties in biology and how can instructors support students in overcoming these difficulties?

With collaborators, I developed biology concept assessments including the Genetics Concept Assessment (GCA) and a suite of assessments known as Bio-MAPS (Biology-Measuring Achievement and Progression in Science) that students take at multiple points throughout their major. Student answers on these assessments have been used to inspire subsequent research studies on differences in how majors and non-majors learn biology and which conceptual difficulties are most persistent. I have also used student thinking uncovered during the assessment development process to work with collaborators to design several research-based classroom activities (e.g., population growth, photosynthesis, central dogma, cancer genetics, epistasis, and complementation). We are currently developing new concept assessments focused on field research data analysis and using student thinking to design additional instructional resources.

Research Question 2: What aspects of peer discussion make it an effective learning tool?

This aspect of my research program began after a faculty member who was considering using clickers in her classroom, asked me “Do students learn anything when they discuss clicker questions with their peers?” I told her no one had directly explored this question and subsequently helped to design several studies that monitor performance on similar clicker questions given to students before and after peer discussion. The results from these studies show that students in large enrollment classes learn during peer discussion and that learning is significantly increased when peer discussion is immediately followed by an instructor explanation. Notably, similar gains in learning have occurred when students use clickers in small enrollment classes, middle school classrooms, and in informal science settings with farmers participating in a cooperative extension program. We are currently exploring how the ways in which instructors follow up to clicker questions influences student learning.

Research Question 3: What factors influence instructors’ decisions about teaching?

Because of the national call-to-action to reform undergraduate STEM instruction to include more active learning, there is increasing interest in collecting information on the range and frequency of teaching practices at institution-wide scales. To facilitate this process, I helped to develop a classroom observation protocol known as the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM or COPUS.  This protocol allows observers, after a short training period, to reliably characterize how faculty and students are spending their time in the classroom. COPUS data have been used in several studies including the largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM classes (over 2,000 college classes at 25 institutions) and a comparison of instructional practices from middle school to upper-division university courses.  These data reveal that students experience large changes in instructional practices from high school to college. We are currently developing faculty learning communities, with representatives from across STEM disciplines, that focus on this key transition point and designing data-driven materials to help introductory students with a long term goal of increasing retention in STEM.


Fall 2021


  • Genova LA, Johnson BB, Castelli FR, Arcila Hernández LM, Chang van Oordt DA, Demery A, Fletcher NK, Goud EM, Holmes KD, Houtz JL, Howard MM, Hughes JJ, Jensen KH, Kunerth HD, Law EP, Lombardi E, Mazo-Vargas A, McDonald CA, Mittan CS, Ryan TA, Tracy AM, Uehling JJ, Weiss AK, Smith MK.  What is speciation, how does it occur, and why is it important for conservation? CourseSource.  2020.
  • Vinson E, Stetzer MR, Lewin J, Smith MK.  The University Classroom Observation Program: Connecting Middle and High School Teachers with University Instructors. Journal of Higher Education Outreach & Engagement. 2020. 24(2):Summer 2020
  • Meaders C, Lane AK, Morozov AI, Shuman JK, Toth E, Stains M, Stetzer MR, Vinson E, Couch BA, Smith MK. Undergraduate student concerns in introductory STEM courses: What they are, how they change, and what influences them. Journal for STEM Education Research. 2020.
  • Branchaw J, Pape-Lindstrom P, Tanner K, Bissonnette S, Cary T, Couch B, Crowe A, Knight J, Semsar K, Smith J, Smith MK, Summers M, Wienhold C, Wright C, Brownell S. Resources for Teaching and Assessing the Vision and Change Biology Core Concepts. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2020. 18(4):ar62
  • Smith MK, Knight JK. Clickers in the biology classroom:  Strategies for writing and effectively implementing clicker questions that maximize student learning. In J.J. Mintzes and E.M. Walter, Eds., Active learning in college science:  The case for evidence-based practice.  Berlin:  Springer Nature. 2020.
  • Meaders C, Toth E, Lane AK, Shuman JK, Couch BA, Stains M, Stetzer MR, Vinson E, Smith MK. What will I experience in my college STEM courses? An investigation of student predictions about instructional practices in introductory courses. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2019 18(4):ar60.
  • Zagallo P, McCourt J, Idsardi R, Smith MK, Urban-Lurain M, Andrews TC, Haudek K, Knight JK,  Merrill J, Nehm R, Prevost LB, Lemons PP. Through the eyes of faculty: using personas as a tool for learner-centered professional development. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2019. 18(4):ar62.
  • Smith MK, Walsh C, Holmes NG, and Summers MM. 2019. Using the Ecology and Evolution-Measuring Achievement and Progression in Science assessment to measure student thinking across the Four-Dimensional Ecology Education framework. Ecosphere. 2019 10(9):e02873. 
  •  Smith MK, Brownell S, Crowe AJ, Holmes NH, Knight JK, Semsar K, Summers MM, Walsh C, Wright CD, Couch BA. Tools for change: measuring student conceptual understanding across undergraduate biology programs using Bio-MAPS assessments. J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. 2019 20(2): doi:10.1128/jmbe.v20i2.1787.
  • Couch BA, Wright, CD, Freeman S, Knight JK, Semsar K, Smith MK, Summers M, Zheng Y, Crowe AJ, Brownell SE. GenBio-MAPS: A programmatic assessment to measure student understanding of Vision and Change core concepts across general biology programs. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2019 18(1):ar1.
  • Semsar K, Brownell S, Couch BA, Crowe AJ, Smith MK, Summers MM, Wright CD, Knight, JK. Phys-MAPS: A programmatic physiology assessment for introductory and advanced undergraduates. Advances in Physiology Education. 2019 43(1):15-27.
  • Smith MK. Publishing activities improves undergraduate biology education. FEMS Microbiology Letters. 2018 365:11.
  • Summers M, Couch BA, Knight J, Brownell SE, Crowe A, Semsar K, Wright CD, Smith MK. EcoEvo-MAPS: An ecology and evolution assessment for introductory through advanced undergraduates. CBE-Life Science Education, 2018 17(2):ar18.
  • Pelletreau KN, Knight JK, Lemons P, McCourt J, Merrill J, Nehm R, Prevost L, Urban-Lurain M, Smith MK. A faculty professional development model that improves student learning, encourages student-centered instructional practices, and works for geographically separated faculty. CBE-Life Science Education.  2018 17(2):es5.
  • Stains M, Harshman J, Barker MK, Chasteen SV, Cole R, DeChenne-Peters SE, Eagan MK, Esson JM, Knight JK, Laski FA, Levis-Fitzgerald M, Lee CJ, Lo SM, McDonnell LM, McKay TA, Michelotti N, Palmer MS, Plank KM, Rodela TM, Sanders ER, Schimpf NG, Schulte PM, Smith MK, Stetzer M, Van Valkenburgh B, Vinson E, Weir LK, Wendel PJ, Wheeler LB, Young AM.  Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities.  Science, 2018. 359:1468-1470
  • Smith MK, Toth ES, Borges K, Dastoor F, Johnston J, Jones EH, Nelson P, Page J, Pelletreau K, Prentiss N, Roe JL, Staples J, Summers M, Trenckmann E, Vinson E. Using place-based economically relevant organisms to improve student understanding of the roles of carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients in photosynthetic organisms. CourseSource. 2018
  • Akiha K, Brigham E, Couch BA, Lewin J, Stains M, Stetzer M, Vinson E, Smith MK. What types of instructional shifts do students experience? Investigating active learning in STEM classes across key transition points from middle school to the university level. Frontiers in Education. 2018
  • McCourt J, Andrews T, Knight JK, Merrill JE, Nehm RH, Pelletreau K, Prevost LB, Smith MK, Urban-Lurain M, and Lemons PP. What motivates biology instructors to engage and persist in teaching professional development? CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2017 16:ar54.
  • Trenckmann E, Smith MK, Pelletreau KN, Summers MM. An active-learning lesson that targets student understanding of population growth in ecology. CourseSource. 2017
  • Pelletreau KN, Andrews T, Armstrong N, Bedell MA, Dastoor F, Dean N, Erster S, Fata-Hartley C, Guild N, Greig H, Hall D, Knight JK, Koslowsky D, Lemons PP, Martin J, McCourt J, Merrill J, Moscarella R, Nehm R, Northington R, Olsen BJ, Prevost L, Stoltzfus J, Urban-Lurain, Smith MK. A clicker-based case study that untangles student thinking about the processes in the central dogma.  CourseSource. 2016
  • Prevost LB, Smith MK, Knight JK. Using student writing and lexical analysis to reveal student thinking about the role of stop codons in the central dogma. CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2016 15:ar65.
  • Smith MK, Wood WB. Teaching genetics: Past, present, and future.  Genetics.  2016 204:5-10.
  • Lewin J, Vinson EL, Stetzer MR, Smith MK.  A campus-wide investigation of clicker implementation: The status of peer discussion in STEM classes. CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2016 15:1-12.
  • Barth-Cohen L, Smith MK, Capps D, Shemwell J, Lewin J, Stetzer MR. What are middle school students talking about during clicker questions?  Characterizing small-group conversations mediated by classroom response systems.  Journal of Science Education and Technology. 2016 25:50-61.
  • Batz Z, Olsen BJ, Dumont J, Dastoor F, Smith MK.  Helping struggling students in introductory biology: A peer tutoring approach that improves performance, perception, and retention.  CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2015 14:1-12.
  • Smith MK, Merrill S. Why do some people inherit a predisposition to cancer? A small group activity on cancer genetics. CourseSource. 2014
  • Smith MK, Vinson EL, Smith JA, Lewin JD, Stetzer M.  A campus-wide study of STEM courses: New perspectives on teaching practices and perceptions. CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2014 13:624-635.
  • Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP.  Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS.  2014 11(23):8410-8415.
  • Smith MK, Jones FHM, Gilbert SL, Wieman C. The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): a new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices.  CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2013 Winter, 12(4):618-627.
  • Knight JK, Wood WB, Smith MK.  What’s downstream?  A set of classroom exercises to help students understand recessive epistasis.  Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education.  2013 14(2)
  • Smith MK, Wenderoth MP, Tyler M. The teaching demonstration: what faculty expect and how to prepare for this aspect of the job interview. CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2013 Spring 12(1):12-18.
  • Smith MK, Annis SL, Kaplan JJ, Drummond F.  Using peer discussion facilitated by clicker questions in an informal education setting: enhancing farmer learning of science.  PLOS-ONE.  2012 7(10): e47564. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047564
  • Smith MK, Thomas K, Dunham M. In-class incentives that encourage students to take concepts assessments seriously.  Journal of College Science Teaching.  2012 42(2): 57-61.
  • Smith MK and Knight JK. Using the genetics concept assessment to document persistent conceptual difficulties in undergraduate genetics courses. Genetics. 2012 181(1):21-32. This paper was featured in the “Issue Highlights” section of the journal.  
  • Smith MK. A fishy way to discuss multiple genes affecting the same trait. PLOS-Biology.  2012 10(3): e1001279. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001279
  • Semsar K, Knight JK, Birol G, Smith MK.  The Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) for use in biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2011 Fall 10(3):268-278.
  • Haudek KC, Kaplan JJ, Knight J, Long T, Merrill J, Munn A, Nehm N, Smith M, Urban-Lurain M. Harnessing technology to improve formative assessment of student conceptions in STEM: Forging a national network.  CBE-Life Sciences Education.  2011 Summer; 10(2):149-155.
  • Smith MK, Wood WB, Krauter K, Knight JK. Combining peer discussion with instructor explanation increases student learning from in-class concept questions. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2011 Spring; 10(1):55-63.
  • Smith MK, Trujillo C, Su TT. The benefits of using clickers in small enrollment seminar-style biology courses. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2011 Spring; 10(1):14-17.
  • Smith MK and Perkins KK. “At the end of my course, students should be able to …”: The benefits of creating and using effective learning goals. Microbiology Australia. 2010 31(1):35-37.
  • Knight JK and Smith MK.  Different but equal?  How non-majors and majors approach and learn genetics. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2010 Spring; 9(1):34-44.
  • Smith MK, Wood WB, Adams WK, Wieman C, Knight JK, Guild N, Su TT.  Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions.  Science. 2009 323(5910):122-124.
  • Smith MK, Wood WB, Knight JK. The Genetics Concept Assessment: a new concept inventory for gauging student understanding of genetics.  CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2008 Winter; 7(4):422-430.
  • Smith M, Wakimoto B. Complex regulation and multiple developmental functions of misfire, the Drosophila melanogaster ferlin gene. BMC Developmental Biology. 2007 7:21-36.