November 2011

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

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.

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