November 2011

Changing the way we focus on student-centered gains in understanding

A revolution is under way in educating students in the molecular life sciences. For a number of years, there has been a series of reports and white papers talking about how the education of students in the life sciences needs to be revamped for the 21st century. The most recent, released earlier this year, is “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action”(1), a report of a national discussion by the American Association for the Advancement of Science with support from the National Science Foundation. The report is centered on several basic premises represented by the first three chapters: undergraduate biology education for all students, cultivating biological literacy, and student-centered undergraduate biology education. It concludes with two important chapters about implementation of the ideas in the report.

The principal focus of the second chapter is the need for education to focus on core concepts of the biological sciences and core competencies and disciplinary practice rather than simply breadth of knowledge. The chapter, in part, emphasizes understanding what students have mastered and suggests that three questions (2-4) should be considered in course or program design:

1. What knowledge and skills are relevant to the subject area? What should students know and be able to do at the end of the unit or course?

2. What do proficiency and mastery in the subject area at this level in the curriculum (e.g., an introductory course or capstone seminar) look like?

3. What evidence would I accept that a student has achieved proficiency or mastery across the relevant content and skills identified in item 1? What evidence would convince my colleagues?

On curricula and accreditation

These three questions helped inform the Research Coordination Networks – Undergraduate Biology Education project “Promoting Concept-Driven Teaching Strategies in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology through Concept Assessments,” which the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology received funding from the National Science Foundation to implement (5). Now in its second year, the project is at the center of many of the society’s undergraduate-education initiatives, dovetailing with the work of the Education and Professional Development Committee on both accreditation and revision of its curricula recommendations (6).

Two key features of the project involve developing a consensus concerning

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