Using Connect and SmartBook in a Non-Majors Biology Course

As an instructor, I have been using digital resources in my classes for years. As many of you already know from my presentations and campus visits, I am not only an author, but also a consultant to McGraw-Hill Education.  One of my roles in this capacity is to help instructors effectively implement digital resources into their classes. Recently I was asked to design a complete Connect course for a non-majors biology class.

Here I am going to review the basic setup of that course and how you can use or edit it for your own classes. The course is based upon my Inquiry into Life text, but the strategy may be used with any of the non-majors texts from McGraw-Hill (although some of the resources may vary).



Overall Strategy

Most importantly, while this course was designed so that you can use it as a complete, out-of-the-box, course, the reality is that most of you will probably spend sometime editing the assignments so that they parallel your teaching style. This is exactly what I planned when the course was designed, so if you need any additional assistance on editing the content, please do not hesitate to contact me.

For this course, I used the approach shown below and then assigned digital resources to each of the three categories. This, of course, does not mean that you need to use all of the resources right away. In fact, if you are just starting out, it may be easier to start with just the SmartBook assignments, and then develop the in-class and post-class assignments over time.

The important part of this model is that it provides for two different forms of assessment. Non-majors courses rarely have any prerequisites (besides some basic math), so most instructors are unsure as to where the their class is at with regards to the content before coming to class. Furthermore, students don’t know what they don’t know – so it helps to engage them with the material and establish some understanding of where their personal knowledge deficiencies are. SmartBook acts as means of achieving this level of formative assessment before coming to class (more on this below). The summative assessment are the quizzes that instructors use to determine the amount of information that the student is retaining as they proceed through the module. These will be traditional quizzes delivered through the Connect platform.

So how then is the content organized within the course? Notice that for each chapter there is the following:

  • PreClass SmartBook Assignment
  • In-Class Activities: Every chapter has tutorial (interactive-style Connect questions), and many have links to our BioNow video series.
  • Post-Class Connect Quizzes.

All notice that at the start of the course I have generated a module called “Pre-Semester Material”.Within this section is a sample SmartBook assignment, tutorials containing drag and drop exercises, and a sample quiz. This module serves several functions. First, since most students (and especially non-traditional students) are not familiar with using digital resources in the classroom, this area provides them with a practice area before the enter into the actual course. Also, as is often the case in non-majors classrooms, the first week of classes usually has a lot of turnover (drops and adds), so assigning an actual assignment can create problems for the instructors. Finally, this content is associated with chapter 1 of the text, which most instructors treat as a supplement due to time constraints in the course. So this allows the students to interact with the content before starting the class.

Pre-Class SmartBook Assignments

The SmartBook reading assignments are designed to familiarize the student with the basic principles of the content before coming to class, while also providing some data to the instructor on the level of student understanding (click here for an example of how this works). The assignments do not cover the entire chapter, but rather the first few sections of the chapter. I typically assign these 4-5 days before the start of the topic, and assign about 20 minutes worth of work. For students who have hectic work or school schedules, this allows them some flexibility in when they complete the assignment.

These are pre-class assignments. On my course-management system, I tell the students that they are required to read all of the sections before the quizzes and exams.

This can easily be edited by selecting and deselecting the content you want your students to read before coming the class, and then adjusting the slider at the top to set the amount of time for between 20 and 30 minutes of work. Most students will complete the assignment is less than the indicated time, so you should just use this as a guide for your initial SmartBook assignments. Once you have a feel for how your students are responding to SmartBook, you can make additional adjustments.

In Class Engagement and Active Learning Resources

In-class activities are an important way to engage non-majors students. As instructors, many of us spend a considerable amount of time either designing, or looking for, these resources. The problem with many web-based resources is that they do not have assessment that is easily integrated into our LMS system. So if you have a large lecture (or multiple small classes), then if you use an online resource you may find yourself grading a number of papers.

There are two resources inside of Connect that I use to engage students and easily generate grades. The first are the BioNow videos prepared by my coauthor, Jason Carlson. These videos are used to show students the scientific process. They are not only entertaining, but they cover topics make science interesting.


Inside of the Connect course that I prepared, I generated an assignment that has 5 questions that the students can easily complete after watching the video. This can be used in-class (if students have access) or before class to engage students.

The second resource that I often use are what I call Tutorials. These are interactive-style Connect questions (drag and drop, classification etc) that are perfect for small group work. An example of a classification-style question on functional groups is shown below. These all have unlimited attempts and may also be assigned after class for student study groups or TA-led reviews.

For each chapter, I have selected several of the more engaging questions and placed them into an assignment. You can easily remove some of these (or add more) and adjust the point values according to the needs of your course.


Post-Class Connect Quizzes

The summative assessment for each chapter are the Connect quizzes. Each chapter has a Connect quiz that is worth 20 points with a 20 minute time limit. Of course you can edit the length of the quiz (or any aspect for that matter), but I have found this to be an optimal setting for my classes.

The key feature of the quiz is the question pooling. Basically, I have grouped similar questions (all multiple choice or T/F) into topics, and then set the quiz to draw randomly from the pool. You can delete or add new pools if needed. This is designed to reduce academic integrity problems, since students will not see the same questions as their classmates.



Need More Assistance?

What I have not done in this article is explain how to use the data from the assignments. I have posted a number of resources below that can help you manage the data coming from these platforms, or you can visit my page on adaptive learning to learn more.  If you are interested in learning more about this approach, or want a copy of the course, please either contact myself or Britney Ross ( at McGraw-Hill Education for more information or to schedule a presentation.


Additional Resources

All screenshots are of McGraw-Hill SmartBook and Connect resources and are used by permission.