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Teaching majors biology better: think non-majors biology

Is teaching majors biology just brain-jamming?

In my own little sphere, I’ve been fascinated by some of the contrasts between design and delivery of majors vs. non-majors biology courses. Non-majors courses are subjected to thoughtful cherry-picking: “What is most relevant to student lives or futures?”, “What has ties to society and their interests”, “What can we successfully convey in the allotted time?”. On the other hand, in teaching majors biology, I think there is a lot of pressure for the ‘kitchen sink through a fire hose’ approach: ‘everything’ must be force-fed to students at whatever pace necessary to get it ‘into their heads’, and there simply isn’t time for the extravagance of relevance or interest. I propose that teaching majors biology more along the lines of non-majors biology can make our students more interested and provide them with more  knowledge and understanding when we’re done.

Much of a muchness (phrase origin)

I think one of the great shocks to any first-time teacher’s system comes when discussing the ‘alumni’ of a course with a fellow instructor who has ‘inherited’ them. “I can’t believe how little they know! I would think by now they’d have a deep understanding of x, y, z…”. ‘But,’ you reply (aloud or sotto voce) ‘I covered all that!’ And therein lies the rub–the great, gaping gulf between ‘covering’ something and ‘teaching’ it, or from the student point of view, between having heard about something and having understood it. I think molecular biology may face one of the greatest challenges here: history has been going on for a long, long time; careful physics dates back to Newton (and even Einstein was turn of the previous century), but the structure of DNA only became known during the lifetimes of many still teaching. RNA-as-enzyme and the concept of the RNA world was a ‘thing’ during my graduate career (dates withheld because I choose to 🙂 ). Many fascinating (and ‘essential’ according to IntroBio textbook content selectors) happened after I was clear of graduate school. Point being while all sciences are advancing on many fronts, Molecular Biology in many ways had its standing start in the 1950s.

This leaves us, then, with a snowballing body of knowledge and a steady-state level of time-to-teach. Something must give, and long ago (in my opinion) we sacrificed our students’ understanding on the altar of our refusal to pick-and-choose, and to accept responsibility of the things left out. I’ve posted previously on my initial salvo of “Things one guy could contemplate not teaching in Intro and saving for more specialized courses”. I think this is a very challenging discussion and needn’t have a single, monolithic solution… but it’s one that every institution must have internally, and where we would all benefit from seeking some broad outlines (since in the end, in the eyes of many of our students, we all serve the same masters: the MCAT, the GRE…). I’m guessing anyone who has read this far doesn’t need the vast quantities of education research demonstrating how few new ideas one can encompass in a sitting, how deeply one must wrestle with a new concept to encompass it, and how many repetitions even a simple idea requires to lock-in.

In my view, then, the inevitable conclusion is that in teaching majors biology, despite our desire to teach everything in depth, we must harden our hearts and do the very difficult work of identifying concepts (as distinct from ‘the topics we were taught’ or ‘the branches of the tree of Molecular Biology Knowledge), finding great exemplars of these concepts, teaching them in in-depth, exploratory, interactive ways, and giving students the time to engage.

Teaching majors biology: it should still be INTERESTING

I’m fascinated by the heartfelt wrestling I have seen in non-majors textbooks as well as non-majors course design over what is relevant to student lives, what will catch and hold their interest, how we can draw them in to the molecular mysteries. This is laudable, and last time I checked, aligned with good teaching practices when teaching… anything. How strange, then, that these conversations do not appear to take place in textbook selection and (in my very limited experience) can be hard to detect in course design as well! Let’s face it–‘even’ freshman biology majors are more deeply fascinated by Twitter, by the young man or woman 3 rows away, by what’s for dinner, or by why the professor dresses ‘that way.’ Their career ambitions are 3-10 years away, and many are here because they ‘know they ought to be’, or because their advisor insisted this was a stepping-stone on their path. Perhaps they’re even here to ‘find out why the instructor or department thinks this stuff is so interesting.’ It’s our burden to lure them in and help them see how what we are teaching them matters in their lives and in their futures.

Disclaimer 1: Do I practice what I preach?

It depends a lot on where you’re sitting. Personally, I find the way life works to be innately interesting. The fact that a chemical as simple as DNA can encapsulate a set of instructions for building and operating not only an organism, but the vast diversity of organisms we’ve investigated. It fascinates me that we can understand its function by ascribing simple properties (primarily, spacing and electronegativity) to its component atoms. I find the cleverness of the trp attenuator, the surprising multiplicity of layers of regulation (from single gene to whole-chromosome), the deviousness of viral lifestyles to make for engaging stories in and of themselves. I don’t think many of these ideas should require embellishments, or require me to invoke medical tragedies such as cancer or future large incomes for the students to attract attention and interest. But such thinking does clearly identify my burden in teaching these issues: I must present them in a way that students have access to deep understanding, have the time to sit under an oak tree and wrap their heads around it (artistic license: a saguaro does not offer the same opportunity…) and I should align my course assessments such that they reward the understanding, rather than driving my students to master Keyword Bingo.

Another critical aspect to all of this is peers and students in the classroom–their feedback (or uninvited ‘helpful suggestions’ 🙂 ) have improved or been the foundation of many of the elements of my courses of which I am most proud.

Disclaimer 2: Sometimes, I think it works

Medical schools long ago stumbled upon the fact that ‘disease detective‘ is a great game that everybody likes to play. Where we can do it, gamifying thinking and learning is a grand idea. But in many instances, I think the thing that gets squeezed out during game creation is the critical content or actual idea-having. Determining which of 4 PCR banding patterns looks most like the ‘child of unknown paternity’ doesn’t involve actual knowledge of inheritance or PCR or DNA replication–I’d be willing to bet most elementary school kids with no ‘relevant’ background could win the game.

Another way that I think interest students while teaching majors biology is by looking at how DNA information allows us to do historical reconstruction of the migration of peoples, the origin of alleles, the domestication of plants and animals. Let’s face it–DNA sequencing, gene mapping, homology searches and PCR are not even vaguely amusing in and of themselves. On the other hand, these procedures reflect basic principles of molecular biology (relying critically on the molecular specificity of basepairing) and the general theme in molecular biology of co-opting cellular processes to fashion investigative tools. Some of my own attempts to gather and tell stories include blue eyes, lactose intolerance, skin color and short-legged dogs (dogs not posted as of 5-2015).

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