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

1) the foundational concepts from biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics that underpin the molecular life sciences as well as unique foundational concepts of the molecular life sciences and the requisite skills and competencies that a student graduating with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology should have and

2) developing appropriate assessment tools that can be used both formatively and summatively to determine whether a student has benefitted from his or her education, whether in a given class or from the curriculum as a whole.

On student assessments

One of the goals of the Vision and Change initiative is to move students away from rote memorization of facts and toward a deeper understanding of the concepts and processes of science to better prepare them for the many challenges they face in the future. Many would argue, and I have myself (7, 8), that this means changing the way we educate students, but often missed in the discussion is the reality that it also means changing the way we assess student outcomes.

In addition to using validated assessment approaches and instruments, I believe we need to completely rethink when and how frequently we assess student outcomes. If we are interested in students acquiring long-term conceptual understandings of material and competency with skills, it makes no sense to focus our grade giving on frequent quizzes and tests (although students love those because they know exactly when to study – i.e., the night before – and what to memorize), as these foster exactly the wrong type of learning.

It is far better to use a variety of forms of continual assessment that build to give a picture not only of what a student really understands (summative assessment) but also of where an instructor may be failing to get the message across (formative assessment) over time to not only re-emphasize key points but also try other strategies. Of course, in a curriculum that really works, topics and skills can, in true Aristotelian fashion (9), be introduced, developed in detail and reiterated, all with appropriate assessment. I suspect that one of the hidden premises of Vision and Change is that by focusing on foundational concepts and skills, we should be able to carve out time in a course or curriculum to allow students to master material and not simply memorize.

Quick recap

The first year of the ASBMB’s RCN-UBE project involved both regional and national gatherings and focused on initiating network-building and discussion of the foundational concepts and competencies of the molecular life sciences. The first year’s activities culminated with a workshop and core working-group meeting held in conjunction with the meeting titled “Student-Centered Education in the Molecular Life Sciences II” sponsored by the society and held at the University of Richmond in July.

After the meeting, the working group met for another day and a half to assess progress and plan the project’s second-year activities. The working group consists of the primary investigators and co-PIs of the grant and 12 other members: Joe Provost, Ann Wright, Kristin Fox, Ben Caldwell, Terry Platt, Cynthia Peterson, Peter Kennelly, John Tansey, Teaster Baird, Brenda Kelly, Jason Sello and Takita Sumter. All were chosen to represent different interests and geographical diversity.

Looking ahead

During the coming year, five physical meetings and one virtual meeting are planned together with a symposium and workshop at the 2012 ASBMB annual meeting in San Diego.

Regional RCN-UBE workshops will be held at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and in the San Diego and Knoxville, Tenn., areas over the next six months or so. A virtual meeting will be held in May.

At the ASBMB annual meeting in April, there will be a symposium the morning of April 24 featuring talks on “Defining Foundational Principles and Concepts,” “Developing Assessments for Foundational Concepts,” and “Helping Students to Access and Assess Knowledge” as well as short talks selected from submitted abstracts. The symposium will be followed in the afternoon by an RCN-UBE working group meeting and workshop (open to anyone) that will focus in more detail on assessment-tool development.

A call to action

So, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan (10), “Come gather ’round, people” – after all, the project is all about network building for a common cause – “for the times they are a-changin’.”

Vision and Change is a call to action, and we need everyone interested in student-centered education in the molecular life sciences to join the discussion. If you are planning to be at the ASBMB annual meeting in San Diego, submit an abstract on your ideas of how to assess student understanding and take the opportunity to get involved in the RCN-UBE project.


1. “Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action,” AAAS, 2011.
2. Handelsman, J., S. Miller, and C. Pfund. 2007. Scientific Teaching. W. H. Freeman, New York. Hartberg, Y., A. B. Gunersel, N. J.Simspon, and V. Balester. 2008.
3. Development of student writing in biochemistry using calibrated peer review. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2: 29 – 44.
4. Wiggins, G., and J. McTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design, 2nd edition. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia.
5. Bailey, Cheryl, Ellis Bell, Margaret Johnson, Carla Mattos, Duane Sears, and Harold B. White. “Student-centered education: commentary: biochemistry and molecular biology educators launch national network,” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education.
6. Voet, J.G., E. Bell, R. Boyer, J. Boyle, J.K. Zimmerman and M. O’Leary, “Recommended curriculum for a program in biochemistry and molecular biology,” 31: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 2003.
7. Bell, Ellis: “Ability to recite fails to excite.” Times Higher Education: 14 July 2000.
8. Bell, Ellis. “The future of education in the molecular life sciences.” Nature Reviews, Vol. 2, 221 – 225, 2001.
9. Aristotle. “Rhetoric.” BC 350. 
10. Bob Dylan. “Times They Are A-Changing,” 1964.

Ellis-BellJ. Ellis Bell ( is professor of chemistry at the University of Richmond. 

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