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Competency exam certificate now available for MITx Introduction to Biology course
MIT NEWS OFFICE, Competency exam certificate now available for MITx Introduction to Biology course, Jan 03, 2017

One of the most popular MITx on edX courses now challenges online learners to put their knowledge to the test. MITx 7.00x (Introduction to Biology – The Secret of Life), which has been an exciting educational option for learners to engage with biology since 2013, now offers a rigorous competency exam certificate. The next competency exam opens on Feb. 21 and is available to learners enrolled in the verified-certificate track.

The competency exam is designed to test a learner’s mastery of the course learning objectives, tying together techniques and materials from different topics to provide a more thorough and robust means of evaluating online learners — and a more meaningful certificate for those who excel.

What the new verified certificate means

Earlier versions of MITx 7.00x offered certificates to learners who scored past a minimum threshold on weekly problem sets and topical exams. Yet those in-course evaluations were developed as active learning modules — optimized to provide instant feedback and improve understanding as learners solve problems. The new competency exam is designed purely with assessment in mind. This important distinction benefits both learners and course instructors.

“The best methods to preserve the integrity of assessments by preventing cheating go against the best methods for designing an online course for learning — such as providing instant feedback and allowing learners to try again. Separating these, as we have done with the 7.00x competency exam, allows these two aims to coexist,” explains Mary Ellen Wiltrout, who spearheaded the new competency exam as an MIT instructor and digital learning lab scientist for biology. “Furthermore, if we want the verified-certificates to indicate that learners have mastered course content, we must ensure the principle and rigor of the assessments. By creating an overarching 7.00x competency exam, we can test the mastery of the course materials in an integrated manner — as they occur in real biology — rather than just one topic at a time as dictated by the course schedule.”

One thing that makes massive open online courses (MOOCs) like MITx 7.00x special is that online learners have such a wide range of experience — from high school to higher education to people who have been in the workforce for decades. Learners from all over the world bring different goals and aspirations to the course. Some simply enroll to better understand the building blocks of life, while others pursue a verified certificate to boost their resumes. Learners who pass the competency exam earn an instructor-signed certificate highlighting their mastery of Introduction to Biology, which can help with a job application or admission into a higher degree program.

With the launch of this more robust competency exam, previous course participants are encouraged to return to test their learning and potentially receive the new competency exam verified-certificate.

The secret of life, revealed

MITx 7.00x is not your typical biology educational experience. The course receives glowing feedback from learners who find themselves inspired by Eric Lander, MIT professor of biology, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project. Lander is an engaging storyteller who teaches biology in a way that makes the details relevant to everyone, applying his knowledge and experience in scientific research to find new ways of understanding life.

The course explores the mysteries of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA technology and genomics, and rational medicine, and content reflects the topics taught in MIT’s introductory biology courses. Learners first focus on the structure and function of macromolecules such as DNA, RNA and proteins, then discover how structural changes can both alter molecular functions and affect human health. They then apply an understanding of heredity and genetic information flow within populations to human health and disease, and delve into molecular biology techniques and their potential impact on our changing world.

Scheduling a competency exam

The MITx 7.00x competency exam, available for completion only for learners enrolled in the verified track, will be offered several times a year. The next exam will be open Feb. 21-28, with a registration deadline of Feb. 6.

Learners interested in pursuing a verified certificate should prepare for the competency exam by reviewing the 7.00x course materials and free introductory biology resources available on MIT OpenCourseWare. The current 7.00x course — which is self-paced and can be started at any time via edX — features the same content as previous versions, while optimizing settings for learning, including instant feedback on problem sets and other digital tools. The course typically takes 12 weeks to complete, and it is recommended that new biology learners allow that much time to prepare for the competency exam.