Facts First

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

Steven Wiley
Feb 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...

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.

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