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.


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