Facts First

In my youth, I designed a cell biology course I thought grad students would love. They hated it.

By | February 1, 2009

I enjoy reading online news and opinions not only because of convenience, but also because of the responses from readers. I know that these responses tend to be biased towards the extremes of opinions, but it is always interesting to see the diverse reactions to even seemingly noncontroversial subjects.

A recent example was the response to an editorial by Richard Gallagher ("Why the philosophy of science matters," October, 2008) that proffered the seemingly obvious opinion that science students need a strong understanding of scientific history and philosophy to help them face future challenges. This provoked a response from a reader, a college professor, that a major reason for the lack of good university science education was the laziness of his colleagues. They were taking the easy way out by concentrating on teaching facts rather than scientific concepts, he argued. In the respondent's viewpoint, it was far better to teach students how to think, since facts could always be looked up in textbooks. If you did not understand how to think critically and create knowledge, you could not be considered educated.

Although I am very sympathetic to this point of view, I don't believe that laziness is the reason why students are flooded with facts rather than concepts in biology class.

I came to this conclusion as an assistant professor after I joined the molecular biology graduate program at the University of Utah. I was asked to form a group to update the cell biology course for first-year graduate students. We had already received evaluations from previous students that indicated that they hated the "rote memorization" of the current course, and they expressed a desire to "learn how to think" about scientific problems. Being a young and naïve assistant professor, I felt that we had a wonderful opportunity to create a new type of course.

Together with several other young faculty members, I helped to create a new cell biology course that relied on examples from scientific literature rather than using standard textbooks, such as Molecular Biology of the Cell. The experimental systems we discussed were carefully chosen to illustrate important concepts and ideas that students would learn in a standard course, but we emphasized the experimental designs that revealed these concepts. For example, we used studies of bacterial chemotaxis to demonstrate the principles of signal transduction pathways, the role that adaptation plays in cell sensing, as well as how the physics of small-scale processes constrains the evolution of cellular mechanisms. We felt that teaching students how facts were discovered rather than the facts themselves would be well received. We were excited. The students were excited. This was going to be a great course. Right? Wrong!

The students absolutely hated the new course and made their discontent known loudly and aggressively. The problem, it seems, was that they did not feel that they were learning anything. The stories we told them about how concepts were discovered were interesting, they thought, but what about the facts? When they talked to the older graduate students, they felt inadequate as far as knowing relevant information. The students couldn't determine if what we were telling them was important. If it wasn't in a textbook, was it really worth learning?

The course was dropped the next year and the old, didactic offering was reinstated. The students resumed complaining about being force-fed facts, but their comfort level with our lectures was considerably higher than before. As for me, I started teaching concepts in advanced graduate courses with much better results. Students working on thesis projects were a lot more interested in scientific concepts than first-year students who were insecure about simply surviving graduate school.

This experience helped me to understand that a foundation of didactic knowledge is necessary for understanding biological concepts. Unless a student knows a fundamental set of observations or "facts" beforehand, it is difficult to explain the significance of underlying concepts. My colleagues in the fields of chemistry and physics have often remarked about the vast number of different molecules and processes that we must deal with in biology and how biologists must have great memories for facts. In many ways, they are correct. We might not like learning about zillions of molecules and pathways and cells, but I don't think we have much of a choice.

Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.




Posts: 3

February 3, 2009

In my humble teaching experience with medicine and biology students I saw that after being loaded with facts during the junior courses, the third semester students welcomed warmly hearing about concepts because it helped them in exams (but hopefully not only because of this). In the end facts do make more sense in greater contexts. Thanks to Steven Wiley for his comments on this issue. By the way, in the old days (up to the eighties) anatomy textbooks had mostly original publications as references, today the textbooks mostly cite each other. Maybe a (partial) return to the old concept of giving original references (and also reading them) would enhance the appreciation of original concept-based research by our students today.
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

February 3, 2009

When I look back at my undergrad versus grad student experience and compare it with undergrads coming in now, I must confess I'm a bit dismayed. When I slogged through Lehninger I was required to memorize the structures of all the basic molecules, the codon translation table, the entire family of aldose and ketose sugars, the TCA cycle, etcetera. And we had to apply that. Given a codon sequence and a Ramchandran chart, we had to be able to say something intelligent about the protein that would result and how it could move. Undergrads now are asked to memorize one molecule, glucose, and 70% of the class can't answer the question. Forget about the bases or the amino acids. And most of those get a passing grade. \n\nSmall wonder that first year grad students don't have enough background. Undergrad classes too easy. I like classes for grad students that cite the original literature. If first year students don't like it, that's tough. Time to deal with it. About half of our required first year courses for grad students use textbooks, the others use literature extensively with texts. \n\nThink or swim - in grad school it's time. If a first year grad student can't figure out what an experiment means and think about conflicting literature, what's the point of having them there? \n\nI also don't like this trend of citing textbooks in textbooks. It's not just lazy, it's a way of propagating things that are often wrong.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

February 3, 2009

You can't have one overshadow the other for an effective learning. Also, the students feel more comfortable with rote-memorization, despite their disdain for it, simply because that's how most of them have been taught, before coming to college and are too used to it.
Avatar of: Anthony Musci

Anthony Musci

Posts: 5

February 3, 2009

Sounds to me like perhaps you swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. I despised my undergraduate organic chemistry experience because of the factual regurgitation nature of the course. A course that balances facts and concepts is optimal but elusive and requires careful crafting.
Avatar of: Daniel Jones

Daniel Jones

Posts: 2

February 3, 2009

The words above are engraved above one of the doors to the Math building on my campus, and I have often made notice of them during my graduate teaching assistant experience. However, when enrolled in what I thought was a fantastic course during my second year of grad school, I was flabbergasted to hear about half of the students grumble loudly and forcefully that they despised the approach that emphasized critical thinking rather than fact memorization. Since then, I have paid attention to students in similar classes, and the attitude seems to break out along the same lines. I don't think that your class was a failure; I think that you heard only the loud ones. Perhaps the descriptions about the class in announcements/catalog could emphasize the nature of the exploration in order to draw people who are more interested in that type of instruction. As I recall my major professor as I began my PhD program, getting a PhD is more than taking a few more classes and writing a dissertation; it is a new way of thinking about the discipline. It is the thinkers that make the amazing discoveries.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

February 14, 2009

As always, Steven goes right to the point. I personally hate the current tendency to teach students to think. Providing them with facts and concepts is enough - their brains will adapt as best they can to the workload. Thinking really comes naturally to the Homo sapiens species. The article incited me to actually blog on this subject. Looking forward to a stimulating discussion on the subject!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 50

February 25, 2009

At Sussex University in the 1960s first years in particular were often set problems that were far too dificult.\n\nOnce we complained that we (chemists) had found the answer to some quantum mechanical problem by a stroke of luck. One of us had found the answer in a book in the library. We could hardly understand a single sentence in it, let alone the particular solution that was discussed.\n\nWe were told that the objective was simply to teach us that the subject exists, and that we'd get the marks for spending time in the library, whether or not we'd understood what we'd read. You have to break your teeth (as they say in France) on a few things before you can know about knowledge.

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