Faculty / Erika Offerdahl

Dr. Erika G. Offerdahl

Associate Professor


Room: BLS 431
Phone: 509-335-8258
Room: BLS 427
Phone: 509-335-8392
Lab Website

Erika Offerdahl

Research Interests

Research in the Offerdahl group is rooted in modern theories of student learning and employs methodology from cognitive science to systematically investigate the teaching and learning of biochemistry and molecular biology. Historically, our major research thrust has centered on the role of assessment for learning, along with an interest in identifying patterns of student reasoning during the transition from novice to expert understanding in life science. More recently, research in our group has grown to include visualization and visual literacy in biochemistry and molecular biology. Goals for the next five years include extending the research on assessment and visualization, and returning to a previous research interest – investigating agents of change in institutional transformation efforts.

Research Track #1: What are the mechanisms underlying the positive effects of formative assessment on student learning?

Research in the learning sciences tells us that effective curricula are those tightly aligned with explicit learning outcomes and reinforced by appropriate assessments that scaffold student learning. Assessments can be used summatively to evaluate student performance or formatively to diagnose and support progress toward learning outcomes. The formative use of assessment is widely cited as promoting meaningful learning and metacognition; it has become “urban legend” as perhaps the single most effective instructional intervention. While there is no shortage of formative assessment studies, few provide empirical evidence substantiating claims of increased student learning. Indeed, effect sizes associated with formative assessment are highly contested. Our synthesis of the literature suggests (1) weak consensus regarding the underlying mechanisms by which formative assessment affects student learning and, perhaps more concerning, (2) a lack of robust studies that lend empirical support to the long-accepted hypothesis that formative assessment positively impacts student learning. Current research goals are to generate and test a mechanistic model of formative assessment to empirically link instructor assessment practices to student learning within the context of biochemistry and biology.

Research Track #2: What is the role of assessment in developing students’ visual thinking skills in biochemistry?

Visualizations (e.g. graphs, diagrams) are the heart and soul of biochemistry and molecular biology. We use them to make sense of capacious data sets, to model complex biological systems, and to hypothesize about mechanisms of action. We use them to communicate ideas with one another, our students, and the general public. Not surprisingly, there is a demand to explicitly target the development of students’ visualization skills – the ability to construct, interpret, and reason with visualizations – in the undergraduate biochemistry curriculum.

Visual literacy is seldom an explicit learning outcome of biochemistry curricula; rather it is largely assumed that students will “pick up” visualization skills along the way. While students are routinely exposed to visualizations in lectures and textbooks, previous research in our lab suggests that these visualizations do not provide rich opportunities for students to practice visualization skills. Further, visualization skills are not regularly assessed. This implies that there is a need to create more opportunities for students to develop visualization skills, as well as increase assessment practices to reinforce and measure progress toward mastery of these skills. Currently, we are in the second year of a three-year investigation to understand the effects of frequent formative assessment on the development of visual literacy in an introductory biochemistry course for science majors.

Research Track #3: How might “knowledgeable others” be used as agents of change for large-scale institutional reform?

It is well documented that active learning increases student performance and retention in STEM disciplines. However, the integration of active learning pedagogies into undergraduate life sciences curricula is not yet widespread. While research into the adoption of research-based pedagogies by university instructors has enumerated a number of obstacles (e.g. department culture, insufficient dissatisfaction with current practices, minimal incentives for teaching), there have been far fewer studies elucidating the factors that enable adoption of active learning pedagogies.

Andrews and Lemons (2014) documented the value of personal evidence, as opposed to empirical evidence, in biology faculty members’ decisions to adopt and sustain reformed pedagogies. These findings are consistent with my own work, which examined the assessment beliefs and practices of three biochemistry faculty members while experimenting with active learning. I found that while these instructors were motivated and invested in adopting new assessment practices, they all returned to their previous instructional approaches after the experimental period. Research on K-12 teacher professional development suggests that changes in teaching practice are most likely to occur when teachers engage in sustained reflective practice. Reflection is most effective when instructors (1) are motivated to use reflection to develop knowledge, (2) have a minimal knowledge base to guide the reflection process, (3) link new knowledge to future actions, (4) are willing to take risks, and (5) are unconstrained by their teaching context. Current research is exploring the ways in which knowledgeable others can positively affect adoption of active learning strategies by increasing reflective practices.

Select Publications

  • Offerdahl, E.G., Arneson, J.A., and Byrne, N. (in press). Lighten the load: Scaffolding visual literacy in biochemistry and molecular biology, CBE - Life Sciences Education.

  • Goff, E.E., Reindl, K.M., Johnson, C., McClean, P., Offerdahl, E.G., Schroeder, N.L., and White, A. R. (in press). Variation in external representations as part of the classroom lecture: An investigation of virtual cell animations in introductory photosynthesis instruction, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Education.  DOI: 10.1002/bmb.21032

  • Offerdahl, E.G., Momsen, J.L., and Osgood, M. (2014). Commentary: PhD in biochemistry education - 5 years later, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Education, 42(2), 103-105.  DOI: 10.1002/bmb.20768 Full-text

  • Offerdahl, E.G. and Montplaisir, L. (2014). Student-generated reading questions: Diagnosing student thinking with diverse formative assessments, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Education, 42(1), 29-38 . DOI: 10.1002/bmb.20757 Full-text

    **Selected for the "Best of 2014" for research on the scholarship of teaching and learning on Faculty Focus

  • Momsen, J.L., Offerdahl, E.G., Kryjevskaia, M., Montplaisir, L., Anderson, E., and Grosz, N. (2013). Using assessments to investigate and compare the nature of learning in undergraduate science courses, CBE - Life Sciences Education, 12(2), 239-349. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.12-08-0130 Full-text

  • Lauer, S., Momsen, J.L., Offerdahl, E.G., Kryjevskaia, M., Christensen, W. & Montplaisir, L. (2013). Stereotyped: Investigating gender in introductory science courses, CBE - Life Sciences Education, 12(1), 30-39. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.12-09.0133 Full-text

  • Offerdahl, E.G. & Impey, C. (2012). Assessing general education science courses:  A portfolio approach, J. Coll. Sci. Teach., 41(5), 19-25.

  • Offerdahl, E. G. & Tomanek, D. (2011). Changes in instructors’ assessment thinking related to experimentation with new strategies. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, doi:10.1080/02602938.2010.488794, iFirst Article early view

  • Miller, M., Montplaisir, L., Offerdahl, E., Cheng, F., & Ketterling, G. (2010). Comparison of views of the nature of science between natural science and nonscience majors, CBE Life Sci Educ, 9(1), 45-54. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.09-05-0029 PDF

  • Baldwin, T.O., Elfring, L., & Offerdahl, E. (2008). Ph.D. in biochemistry (education)!, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 38(4), 251-252. PDF

  • Offerdahl, E.G., Baldwin, T., Elfring, L, Vierling, E., & Ziegler, M. (2008). Reading questions in large-lecture courses: Limitations and unexpected outcomes, J. Coll. Sci. Teach. 37(4), 43-47. PDF