December 2009

Bringing Active Learning to the Biochemistry Classroom One Step at a Time


In one of his recent President’s Messages (“A Teachable Moment,” October 2009), Gregory A. Petsko reflected on the potential of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to lead the way in revitalizing biochemistry and molecular biology education. In response to findings and directives from the Teagle working group (1), Petsko suggested that the time is right for our community to broaden educational goals within the BMB major. This is also a current priority for the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences (2). In addition to increasing student engagement in the classroom, teaching strategies that promote active learning help students improve skills such as writing, speaking, critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork. Although our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences bear some responsibility for helping our students to learn these skills, ultimately, if we expect future biochemists and molecular biologists to have these competencies, we need to step up our teaching efforts in those areas.

College and university science teachers long have considered the laboratory the most appropriate arena in which to help students develop the thinking, communication and social skills necessary to succeed in scientific and medical professions. Focusing on scientific skills during lab is effective, but, as we try to elevate performance so that students can compete on a global level, teaching skills in the classroom is essential. Fortunately, a number of resources already exist for those who are interested in doing this.

For more information

• For more on POGIL materials, locations of upcoming workshops and contact information for people using POGIL in your area, e-mail Jennifer Loertscherat

• For two POGIL activities you can use in your classroom, go to


Process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) is one approach that aims to help students build

an understanding of scientific concepts while simultaneously developing skills such as oral and written communication, problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork (3). A typical biochemistry POGIL activity includes three parts: a pre-class assignment, an in-class activity, and a post-class homework assignment (4, 5). The preclass assignment helps to prepare students for the activity so that they are ready to fully participate during class time. The purpose of the in-class activity is to help students learn concepts and skills. Those activities consist of a series of questions related to one topic, and they become progressively more challenging throughout the class period. In practice, the process by which students work through activities under faculty guidance resembles Socratic questioning. The questions in the activities lead students through a logical thought process that asks them to analyze information and question their own assumptions (6). Students continue to develop knowledge and skills in the homework assignment. Although other active pedagogies such as problem-based learning (PBL) and case-based learning are effective and well established in BMB education, POGIL has some characteristics, described below, that could make it more amenable to implementation in a variety of classroom settings.

In 2007, my colleague Vicky Minderhout and I received funding from NSF to improve, assess and disseminate POGIL materials for biochemistry. An ongoing aspect of our project is assessment of prerequisite chemistry and biology knowledge that students bring to biochemistry courses and evaluation of learning that takes place in biochemistry classrooms using POGIL materials. Even more important, given the recent call to action by Petsko and others, is the part of our project aimed at broad and effective dissemination of POGIL materials for the biochemistry classroom. To accomplish this, we have communicated with a variety of colleagues, including those who teach in biology, biochemistry or chemistry departments, those who teach large classes and those who have experience with other active learning approaches. As a result of these interactions, we have a greater understanding of the barriers that prevent faculty members from making changes in their classrooms and have begun to identify strategies to overcome those barriers. Some of these ideas are described next.

Overcoming POGIL-usage Barriers

Modular activities can be introduced gradually and mixed with existing course structures: Those of us in the active learning community sometimes have failed to communicate the versatility of active learning approaches. As a result, many instructors who are new to POGIL are under the impression that the only effective way to implement it is to convert an entire course from lecture to POGIL. In our experience, very few people have the time and support to make sweeping changes in their classrooms and more often than not, major changes are not necessary. There is a growing consensus that the effect of many people making incremental changes in their classrooms is greater than a small number of people making radical changes. Therefore, in preparing POGIL biochemistry materials for dissemination, we were careful to create free-standing modules that could be interspersed in an otherwise lecture-based course. Many core collaborators and faculty beta testers have used our POGIL activities in combination with a number of other approaches, including lectures, PBL, cases or literature-related projects.

Workshops have helped faculty members recognize and develop their natural inclinations and abilities in the classroom: Workshops have been instrumental in helping faculty members move from theory to action with regard to active learning. Workshops are powerful because they bring together diverse people with common interests and give them a forum in which to explore and wrestle with new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. It is striking how often faculty members at workshops realize that their personal teaching philosophy has much in common with POGIL and that they already have much of what it takes to implement POGIL.

Establishing faculty networks is essential for increasing and sustaining classroom innovations: Feedback from participants in our project has convinced us that obtaining materials or attending one workshop is not enough to foster real and lasting changes in teaching. Connections with like-minded faculty members at one’s home institution or elsewhere are necessary to ensure implementation of new approaches and their future growth and adaptation. Therefore, societies like ASBMB have the potential to make or break teaching innovations, given the leadership roles professional societies can play in shaping the direction of a field. ASBMB can help connect and support networks of faculty members researching teaching innovations by maintaining databases of instructors using specific pedagogical methods, by prominently featuring education symposia and poster sessions at national meetings, and by actively promoting institutional changes that lead to innovative education research and practices that are now more highly valued at colleges and universities.

Two years into our efforts to disseminate POGIL materials for biochemistry, a diverse community of biochemists using POGIL materials in their classrooms has become well established. However, we still need your help— the greatest changes in BMB education will happen when we all do what we can to improve learning, one step at a time.


  1. Wolfson, A. J., Anderson, T. R., Bell, E., Bond, J., Boyer, E., Copeland R. A., Gordon, B., Kresge, N., and Rubenstein, P. (2008) Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and Liberal Education: A Report to the Teagle Foundation. 
  2. Fairweather, J. Linking Evidence and Promising Practices in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education. A Status Report for The National Academies National Research Council Board of Science Education. Last accessed October 26, 2009.
  3. Process-oriented Guided Inquiry Learning. Last accessed October 26, 2009,
  4. Minderhout, V., and Loertscher, J. (2007). Lecture-free Biochemistry. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 35, 172–180. 
  5. Loertscher, J. and Minderhout, V. (2009). Foundations of Biochemistry. Pacific Crest, Lisle, IL.
  6. Minderhout, V. and Loertscher J. (2008).Facilitation: The Role of the Instructor in Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (R. S. Moog and J. N. Spencer, Eds.) American Chemical Society Symposium Series 994, Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Loertscher ( is an assistant professor of chemistry at Seattle University.


found= true366