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Research & Teaching

Nonmajor Students’ Use of Reflection to Enhance Biology Understanding and Relevance

Journal of College Science Teaching—July/August 2023 (Volume 52, Issue 6)

By Nicole J. Thomas, Tina Vo, and Jaime Sabel

Although most students in nonmajor biology courses will not enter careers in science, they will need a working understanding of biology and how it relates to their lives to make informed decisions on important topics that will affect their lives, including food, environment, energy, and health. This research seeks to improve on nonmajors’ understanding of biology and how it relates to their personal lives. This study was conducted in a biology course for nonmajors at a large urban university in the mid-South. Students were asked to provide written responses and thoughts on a curated set of popular science articles. Student participants provided a total of three article reviews and two reflection papers over the course of 1 semester. These data were qualitatively coded and assessed for recurring themes both on an individual student level as well as across student cases. Our findings suggest that the students who were able to establish personal connections to biology through reading and reflection were more likely to form an interest and understanding of biology as a whole over the course of the semester.


Although most students in a nonmajors biology course will not choose careers in science, they will encounter science in their lives and need a foundation of scientific understanding to make informed decisions (National Research Council, 2012). In A New Biology for the 21st Century, the committee assembled by the National Research Council (2009, p. 3) defined the emerging biological field as involving “an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to biology” that is emerging to address broad societal challenges in food, environment, energy, and health. To be able to make informed decisions regarding these societal challenges, students need both knowledge of scientific concepts and the ability to apply that knowledge in particular contexts (National Research Council, 2012). This ability to engage in decision-making involving science-related issues is known as science literacy (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). We approach science literacy learning goals as defined in earlier work as “an enhanced capacity, both at the individual and collective levels, to make effective decisions grounded in STEM-informed analyses of complex, real-world challenges” (Sabel, Vo et al., 2017, p. 64). Regardless of their career path, students will encounter the increasingly interdisciplinary field of biology and need a foundation of scientific understanding to make informed decisions about scientific concerns in their careers or everyday lives (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011; National Research Council, 2009). Unfortunately, in our experience, students in nonmajors biology courses often have trouble connecting the science they learn to their own lives and have had negative experiences in science and biology courses, so they believe they are “just not good at it.”

To address these issues, we recently redesigned a nonmajors biology course with the specific intent of supporting nonmajors in considering the connection of biological ideas to their own lives. We used a theoretical framework that combines scientific literacy with research on self-efficacy and the importance of having students reflect on their own experiences. Self-efficacy is “the strength of one’s belief in one’s ability to perform a given task or achieve a certain outcome” (Bandura, 1986, as cited by Ainscough et al., 2016, p. 1) and has been correlated with “academic achievement, task persistence, motivation, and resilience” (Ainscough et al., 2016, p. 1). Self-reflection involves students evaluating and reflecting on their performance on a task after the task is completed (Zimmerman, 2000). Reflection typically involves “a conscious exploration of one’s own experiences” (Silver, 2013, p. 1). By engaging in reflection as part of self-regulated learning, students can begin to better understand their own learning by considering the work they have done and how they can adjust their strategies to improve it (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Sadler, 1989). Some past work has shown success with the use of reflection to support both majors and nonmajors in learning biology content (e.g., Forbes et al., 2015; Sabel et al., 2015; Sabel, Dauer, & Forbes, 2017).

We redesigned the course to equip students with the skills of utilizing scientific reasoning and applying biological concepts. Our major goal was to enhance students’ curiosity and interest in the material, keep them engaged with the course, and increase their retention and success. To accomplish these aims, we incorporated three Science in the News assignments and midterm and end-of-course reflection papers. The purpose of this study was to investigate the extent to which non–biology majors’ conceptualizations and attitudes shifted over the course of a semester while they were engaged in these activities. We examined how students developed their ideas and interest in biology throughout the course and the unique ways in which students connected biology to their own lives. To determine how these interventions affected students, we asked the following research questions:

  1. How do students describe their interest in and understanding of biology as they engage in reflection activities in an introductory biology course for nonmajors?
  2. What are the perceptions that nonmajor biology students have about the relevance and application of biology to their personal lives after they engage in reflection activities in an introductory biology course for nonmajors?
  3. How did students’ perceptions and understanding of biology change over the course of a semester in an introductory biology course for nonmajors?

Design and methods

This study leverages an instrumental multiple case approach (Yin, 2009) by looking at sets of student data across a semester as individual cases. We found emerging themes and patterns by looking across multiple cases of students’ engagement with the course material through numerous artifacts.

Participants and context

This study was conducted over a single semester of a 16-week introductory biology course for nonmajors at a large urban university in the mid-South. The course is an option for the general education science course requirement at the university. The course had 119 students enrolled and was held in a lecture-style auditorium. Institutional Review Board approval was obtained prior to the study. Classes consisted of short lectures on the material interspersed with active-learning opportunities for the students to engage in the topics. The course had three units, each with an exam, in addition to a final exam at the end of the semester. Students had three Science in the News assignments in which they could choose from Scientific American articles (preselected by the instructor) on topics related to the content of the unit (all article options are listed in Online Appendix A). Students selected an article and wrote a summary of the science, explained why they had chosen the article, and explained how it was relevant to their lives or their future careers (see Appendix B for assignment instructions). Students also completed two reflection papers, one at midterm and one at the end of the semester. These reflection papers focused on the connection between course content and students’ personal lives (e.g., How do you see yourself using topics we have discussed in class in your life?) and elements of metacognition (e.g., How do you determine if you really understand a topic?). (See Appendix C for reflection paper instructions.) The first reflection paper occurred after the first Real-World Scenario and first Science in the News assignment. The final reflection paper occurred after the completion of all of the assignments.

Data collection 

Data consisted of three Science in the News article reviews and two student reflections. All five artifacts were required course materials, but not all students participating in the study (n = 52) completed every required assignment. Students with missing data points were used to triangulate and verify themes but were not included in the initial coding or formation of themes. The assignments were all downloaded from the course’s learning management system. All names were removed prior to analysis and replaced with a randomly assigned number to allow matching all assignments for each individual. All students were given pseudonyms, which we use throughout this article. 

Data analysis

Open coding was conducted on students’ Science in the News assignments and the two reflection assignments. Student data were submitted in text form and imported into a qualitative coding software, MAXQDA 2018. The first author and another graduate student coded 20% of the data, reaching approximately 80% interrater agreement. Codes were negotiated to 100%, and the first author continued coding the remainder of the data. Through negotiations, a series of questions were developed to refine the second coding of data (Table 1). These codes were then used as a priori codes to investigate pre- and postreflections. Once data across each student were coded, a cross-case comparison was systematically conducted (Yin, 2009) to inform researchers on how students were conceptualizing the information and if any shifts occurred. Due to the timing of the assignments within the course, the Science in the News assignments represented individual perspectives on a case-by-case basis, and changes in the pre- and postreflections represented a larger shift of ideas. Students who completed all coursework were randomly selected to verify the equal dispersion of codes and to determine if there were any data trends (see Appendix D for the frequency of codes used per student).


Several themes and connections were drawn from the open-coding scheme that was established to answer the research questions (Table 1). Some codes overlapped with others, such as interest in science and enhanced understanding, but other codes did not appear in the presence of another one, such as enhanced understanding and aversion to science. These co-occurring codes assisted the authors with uncovering and developing the overarching themes present throughout the data. For example, students who discussed having an interest in science demonstrated a deeper understanding of the scientific information presented in the articles and were more likely to identify the implications and application of biology in the real world. Additionally, students who were able to describe personal connections to biology tended to coincide with the codes that represented enhanced understanding and biology relevance. 

 In the first research question, we asked, “How do students describe their interest in and understanding of biology as they engage in reflection activities in an introductory biology course for nonmajors?” When the codes interest in science and enhanced understanding were present, we found no evidence of aversion to science in the individual reflections. Additionally, some students showed shifts in thinking when we looked at their reflections over the course of the semester. Interestingly, we found no instances in which students developed an enhanced understanding but still stated that they had an aversion to science in the same reflection. For example, Jasmine seemed to understand the benefits of science and further strengthened their understanding by reading the articles and learning from the material in class. In their first reflection paper, Jasmine stated that “using discussed topics from class, my life will be helped in all my yet-to-come endeavors.” They were very interested in the topics that affected them personally and able to make connections to fields outside biology through this class. Although they described themselves as an “outsider” to scientific topics, they were interested in learning nonetheless, as demonstrated by this statement in their second reflection paper: “In criminal justice and history, my fields of interest, biology is useful to know because it helps in understanding, for example, what happened in history with diseases or plants, and with criminal justice, forensics.”

In the second research question, we asked, “What are the perceptions that nonmajor biology students have about the relevance and application of biology to their personal lives after engaging in reflection activities in an introductory biology course for nonmajors?” A strong example of the connection between biology relevance and application to personal life was observed in Dakota’s work. Dakota saw the value of applying biology to their life and their field of study (i.e., social work and African American studies). By applying concepts they learned in the classroom, Dakota expanded their understanding of science, and the topics discussed heightened their level of interest and engagement. They made a strong attempt to relate topics back to their personal life and demonstrated an enhanced understanding on a personal level regarding the importance of biology. In their second reflection paper, they wrote the following: 

I can see myself referring to the topics we have discussed all the time. Biology is the foundation of our lives, so it would not be difficult to relate it to life outside of school. Knowledge of these topics would be useful to me personally because it gives a different perspective and in the field I plan to work in, you have to be open-minded. It would be important to have an understanding of biology in the future because it affects you in more ways than one. Lack of understanding could honestly be considered as lack of common knowledge.

By creating connections between the topic of biology and their personal life, Dakota was able to understand the course material on a deeper level. Dakota succinctly stated this phenomenon themselves in the third Science in the News paper: “I believe that when something is more relatable, it becomes easier to understand.”

In the third research question, we asked, “How did students’ perceptions and understanding of biology change over the course of a semester in an introductory biology course for nonmajors?” Following the written reflections throughout the course, students were able to provide details on how their ideas shifted over time. Students who had aversions to science at the beginning of the course were able to demonstrate that they had taken an interest in science by the end of the course. 

We found instances of students who began their reflections with the narrative of not enjoying or understanding science who demonstrated an increased interest in science in their final reflection response. Students who demonstrated an aversion to science, either explicitly or implicitly, either did not mention personal connections to science or had had a negative personal experience with science. We observed examples of this aversion in several of the artifacts: Coded student segments included phrases such as “I haven’t taken a biology class in 4 years, so truthfully, I wasn’t very excited,” followed by “This isn’t my field of interest” (as Raul wrote in their first reflection paper). Another student, Rian, stated in their first reflection paper that “there are many concepts [in biology] that I get confused about.” However, over time (i.e., from the first reflection paper to the second), students began recognizing the relevance of biology to their own lives. Rian, for example, began their reflections by discussing how they were easily confused by biology; at the end of the course, however, they had identified topics of interest: “Lately in class I have been able to see more connections between my life and the topics we have covered. For instance, I have found the topic about genetics very interesting” (as written in Rian’s second reflection paper). As for Raul, they stated that their perception had changed, sharing in their second reflection paper that “all in all, I’ve learned a lot this semester in biology, more than I thought I would.” They also identified the relevance of biology, stating in the same paper that “a lot of the topics we have covered have all related back to real-life problems.”

Some students, such as Avery, described how this course helped them develop their interest in and understanding of science. In their first reflection paper, Avery wrote, “When I started this class, I was a little apprehensive since I am a nonmajor, and I never really got into my science classes before.” Avery discussed this apprehension in detail, admitting that their experience in science was lacking so they felt uncomfortable at the start of the course. By participating in the reflection activities, however, Avery was able to identify topics of interest and expand on their scientific knowledge. In their second reflection paper, they wrote, “Usually, I never pay attention to the world around me (in a scientific sense), but I have now grown to have a better appreciation and understanding of it.” Avery demonstrated an interest in a specific biology topic, thus leading them to be open to further scientific learning. This enhanced understanding of biology came to Avery through the exploration of biological topics and self-reflective writing, which they described as being helpful to them throughout the course.


Our research suggests that students enrolled in this biology for nonmajors course self-identified as having developed a deeper understanding of biology when they were able to see a connection between biology and their own lives. By providing students with the choice to select an article that resonated with them, we allowed students to open up about their interests and make personal connections to the science literature they consumed. These personal connections were evident in students’ reflective writing, which allowed them to feel more connected to the field of biology despite being nonmajors. By affording students the opportunity to reflect on their own learning processes, this study further supports and adds to research on the use of reflection for both majors and nonmajors (Forbes et al., 2015; Sabel et al., 2015; Sabel, Dauer, & Forbes, 2017). Students who successfully completed the reflection assignments reported that their perception of their own understanding of biology increased compared with how they felt at the beginning of the course. Prior research suggests that students who are able to self-reflect may be able to better understand and improve on their own learning (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Sadler, 1989). By asking students to critically reflect on their experiences in the course, as well as their connection to biology on a larger scale, we give them the chance to provide concrete examples of their enhanced understanding of scientific topics. Our research demonstrates that, over the semester, the students who actively participated in the Science in the News activities decreased their aversion to science. The study’s limitations include the evaluation of “enhanced understanding”—that is, even though codes for enhanced understanding were used, the codes were based on students’ self-reported levels of understanding. This is an important distinction to make, as deeper understanding was not evaluated; rather, the students’ own perceptions of their deeper understanding were evaluated. Although these constructs may be connected, this particular study does not provide evidence on that connection.

By employing a framework centered around scientific literacy and self-efficacy, we were able to effectively redesign and improve a biology for nonmajors course. A working understanding of biology is essential for a science-literate population (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011; National Research Council, 2009, 2012). The incorporation of relevant and timely scientific topics into this course afforded nonmajors the opportunity to choose what they would write about, thus providing them with a space to self-reflect and draw personal connections to biology. The students demonstrated that they were more interested in learning the biology topics at hand by the end of the course: Students would cite facts from previous articles, discuss their excitement surrounding biology, and make connections to their personal lives. This evidence further supports the idea that incorporating reflective writing into courses leads to increased self-efficacy and confidence in scientific topics (Ainscough et al., 2016).

This work contributes to the research surrounding undergraduate biology courses for nonmajors. Our findings suggest that on a classroom scale, students who are enrolled in a biology for nonmajors course may benefit from opportunities to connect biology to their personal lives. This work will be of interest to general biology practitioners at both the high school and college levels, as popular science articles often cover a vast array of topics about which students may be interested in learning. To that end, this research may assist teachers with developing lesson plans to further engage students with the course content. In addition to this outcome, science writers and communicators will find this work of value, as our research demonstrates that the students involved in this study gravitated toward science articles that were relevant to their own personal experiences and interests. Finally, this work will interest researchers studying science literacy, self-efficacy, and the use of reflections to support student understanding.

Nicole J. Thomas ( is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Psychology and Higher Education, and Tina Vo is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, both at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Jaime Sabel is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee.


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Biology Pedagogy Teaching Strategies

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