February 2011

Accreditation 2011 – turning the corner

ASBMB Receives Teagle Grant

The Teagle Foundation has awarded $40,000 to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to construct and pilot a concept-based exam suitable for assessing the core knowledge and fundamental skills of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology. Development of this assessment instrument is a direct outgrowth of the 2008 white paper, “Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and Liberal Education,” published by ASBMB and funded by Teagle. The long-term goal of this pilot project is to establish the experience and expertise necessary to construct and verify an assessment instrument suitable for use in the outcomes-based accreditation of bachelor’s degree programs in biochemistry and molecular biology and certification of the performance of individual students.

The two principal investigators on the grant are Peter J. Kennelly, chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee and professor of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Adele J. Wolfson, professor of chemistry at Wellesley College.

The pilot accreditation model is designed to emphasize outcomes over form. To receive an ASBMB-certified degree, each student must graduate from an ASBMB-accredited program and exhibit a satisfactory performance on ASBMB’s assessment instrument. Students whose performance is deemed outstanding will be recognized as graduating with distinction. No attempt will be made to specify a sequence of required courses. On the other hand, the requirement of a substantive experiential learning component and support for undergraduate research reflects the high priority placed by our society on these components of BMB education.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to be faced by the pilot program will be the design of an assessment instrument. The sheer number of students to be evaluated renders the use of a standard examination virtually inevitable. Ideally, such an exam should require students to display well-developed analytical and quantitative reasoning skills and to utilize several core defining concepts in biochemistry and molecular biology to synthesize their answers. Our goal is to incorporate this into an exam that is composed of roughly 10 questions answerable within a typical class period of one hour. While it should prove challenging to come up with a set of 10 questions each year that collectively possess the requisite range and balance, this approach will greatly deflate the value of rote memorization and render it difficult to teach to the test. Detailed rubrics will be provided to guide scoring by faculty members from participating institutions.

A community effort

Our proposed model for degree certification and program accreditation is unique in its reliance on community participation, its flexible approach to required curricula and its abandonment of the traditional omnibus multiple-choice examination. The next several months should determine whether assessment of student performance can be accomplished using a relatively small set of high value questions. If so, we should find ourselves poised to move forward as a society to play a more active and assertive role in shaping college-level science, technology, math and engineering education in general and BMB in particular.

J. Ellis Bell (jbell2@richmond.edu) is a professor of chemistry and chair of the biochemistry and molecular biology program at the University of Richmond. Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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