Michelle Smith

Ann S. Bowers Professor Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, College of Arts and Sciences


Compelling, data-driven national reports advocate for substantial improvements in STEM courses at the college level. Although many institutions strive to make changes, considerable research is needed to understand what classroom techniques help students learn, how to effectively assess learning, and how to support faculty who implement change. My research engages undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, college instructors, and K-12 teachers in tackling these critical research areas. Together we focus on the following questions: 
1) What concepts are difficult to learn in undergraduate biology courses, and how can instructors identify them and help students? 
2) What aspects of active learning make it an effective instructional tool? 
3) How can college instructors help students with the transition between high school and college STEM courses? 
These research questions are answered using classroom-based assessments, interviews, observation protocols, and surveys analyzed through quantitative and qualitative methods.


  • Esparza D, Smith MK. “Professional social connections are associated with student science identity in a research-based field biology course.” Ecosphere. 2023 14(9):e4662. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.4662  
  • Heim, AB, Esparza D, Holmes NG, Smith MK. “Comparing study features is easy but identifying next steps is hard: Evaluating critical thinking through the Biology Lab Inventory of Critical Thinking in Ecology.” Ecology and Evolution. 2023 https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.10071
  • Treibergs KA, Esparza D, Yamazaki JA, Smith MK. “Journal reflections shed light on challenges students face in an introductory field biology course. Ecosphere. 2023 https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.4509
  • Schmid KM, Avena J, Hobbie L, Kalas P, Kelley T, Klocko AL, Pavlova IV, Radick G, Edris Snow L, Smith MK. “Honoring the complexity of genetics: Exploring the role of genes and the environment using real world examples.” CourseSource. 2023 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2023.2
  • Heim AB, Walsh C, Esparza D, Smith MK, Holmes NG. “What influences students’ abilities to critically evaluate scientific investigations?” PLOS-One. 2022 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0273337

  • Treibergs K, Esparza D, Yamazaki J, Goebel M, Smith MK. “How do introductory field biology students feel? Journal reflections provide insight into student affect.” Ecology and Evolution.2022 http://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.9454
  • Schmid KM, Lee D, Weindling M, Syed A, Yacoba Agyemang S, Donovan B, Radick G,  Smith MK. "Mendelian or Multifactorial? Current undergraduate genetics assessments focus on genes and rarely include the environment." The Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. 2022 https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.00093-22
  • Diaz Eaton C, Bonner K, Cangialosi K, Drewsbury B, Diamond-Stanic M, Douma J, Smith MK, Taylor R, Wojdak J, Wilfong K. "Sustainability and justice: Challenges and opportunities for an open STEM Education." CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2022 https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-08-0180
  • Shinbrot XA, Treibergs K, Arcila Hernández L, Esparza D, Ghezzi-Kopel K, Goebel M, Graham OJ, Heim AB, Smith JA, Smith MK. "The impact of field courses on undergraduate knowledge, affect, behavior, and skills: A scoping review." BioScience. 2022 https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biac070
  • Wollmuth EM, Sless TJL, Airey MA, France ED, Stump EM, Sundstrom MA, Wilkins RL, Smith MK. “Is the earth currently undergoing a sixth mass extinction?” CourseSource. 2022 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2022.19
  • Heim AB, Smith MK. “Escape Zoom!: Reviewing introductory evolution content using an Escape Room format.” CourseSource. 2022 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2022.21
  • Senn LG, Heim AB, Vinson E, Smith MK. “How do undergraduate biology instructors engage with the open educational resource life cycle? Frontiers in Education. 2022 https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2022.835764 
  • Meaders C, Senn LG, Couch BA, Lane AK, Stains M, Stetzer MR, Vinson E, Smith MK. “Am I getting through? Surveying students on what messages they recall from the first day of STEM classes.”  International Journal of STEM Education. 2021 https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-021-00306-y
  • Lane AK, Meaders C, Shuman JK, Stetzer MR, Vinson E, Couch BA, Smith MK, Stains M. “Making a first impression: Exploring what instructors do and say on the first day of introductory STEM courses.” CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2021 https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-05-0098
  • Meaders C, Smith MK, Boester T, Bracy A, Couch BA, Drake AG, Farooq S, Khoda B, Kinsland C, Lane AK, Lindahl SE, Livingston WH, Maliwal A, McCormick A, Morozov AI, Newell-Caito JL, Ruskin KJ, Sarvary MA, Stains M, St. Juliana JR, Thomas SR, van Es C, Vinson EL, Vitousek MN, Stetzer MR. “What questions are on the minds of STEM undergraduate students and how can they be addressed?” Frontiers in Education. 2021 https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2021.639338
  • Driessen E, Knight JK, Smith MK, Ballen C. “Demystifying the Meaning of Active Learning in Post-Secondary Biology Education.” CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2020 https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-04-0068
  • Arcila Hernández LM, Zamudio K, Drake A, Smith MK. “Implementing team-based learning in the life sciences: A case study in an online introductory level evolution and biodiversity course.” Ecology and Evolution. 2020 https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6863
  • Genova LA, Johnson BB, Castelli FR, Arcila Hernández LM, Chang van Oordt DA, Demery A, Fletcher NK, Gould 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 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2020.28
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-11-0243
  • 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 https://doi.org/10.1007/s41979-020-00031-1
  • 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 and Engagement. 2020 24(2):Summer 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-05-0084
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-06-0114
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.2873
  • 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.” The Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. 2019 20(2): https://doi.org/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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-07-0117
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00128.2018
  • Smith MK. “Publishing activities improves undergraduate biology education.” FEMS Microbiology Letters. 2018 365:11. https://doi.org/10.1093/femsle/fny099
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.17-02-0037
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.17-12-0260
  • 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 https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aap8892
  • 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 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2018.1
  • 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 https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2017.00068
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-08-0241
  • Trenckmann E, Smith MK, Pelletreau KN, Summers MM. “An active-learning lesson that targets student understanding of population growth in ecology.” CourseSource. 2017 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2017.11
  • 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 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2016.15
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.15-12-0267
  • Smith MK, Wood WB. “Teaching genetics: Past, present, and future.” Genetics. 2016 204:5-10. https://doi.org/10.1534/genetics.116.187138
  • 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.  https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.15-10-0224
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-015-9576-2
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-08-0120
  • Smith MK, Merrill S. “Why do some people inherit a predisposition to cancer? A small group activity on cancer genetics.” CourseSource. 2014 https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2014.11 
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-06-0108
  • Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP.  “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2014 11(23):8410-8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111 
  • 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.  https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-08-0154
  • 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) https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v14i2.560
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.12-09-0161 
  • 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. https://doi.org/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, Knight JK. “Using the genetics concept assessment to document persistent conceptual difficulties in undergraduate genetics courses.” Genetics. 2012 181(1):21-32. https://doi.org/10.1534/genetics.111.137810
  • Smith MK. “A fishy way to discuss multiple genes affecting the same trait.” PLOS-Biology.  2012 10(3): e1001279. https://doi.org/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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.10-10-0133
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.11-03-0019
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.10-08-0101
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.10-09-0114
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.09-07-0047
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1165919
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.08-08-0045
  • Smith M, Wakimoto B. “Complex regulation and multiple developmental functions of misfire, the Drosophila melanogaster ferlin gene.” BMC Developmental Biology. 2007 7:21-36. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-213X-7-21

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