Thursday, March 05, 2009

Depth vs Breadth

A University of Virginia press release announces ...
A recent study reports that high school students who study fewer science topics, but study them in greater depth, have an advantage in college science classes over their peers who study more topics and spend less time on each.
I have no idea if the results are reliable but it does highlight an issue that needs to be addressed. Is it better to learn a single subject in some depth than several subjects at a more superficial level? One can make a good case for both sides.

This is an important question here at the University of Toronto because we are in the middle of a huge shift away from in-depth studies to more breadth. For example, there were 50 students who enrolled in our enhanced biochemistry program a few years ago but last year that number dropped to 17. There's no indication that we have bottomed out.

Instead of taking an honors biochemistry program with advanced labs, research projects, and 4th year honors courses, our students are opting for a lighter biochemistry program that whey can combine with other programs, like economics, psychology, or physiology. This breadth can only be achieved by taking a higher percentage of lower level introductory courses.

Is this a good idea? Our students seem to think it is, and so far the university is doing everything to encourage them to abandon the rigorous honors programs. (Part of the problem is that all our students graduate with "honors" no matter what program they take and what grades they achieve.)

Is this happening at other universities? Is it better to have a broad general education in science than a specialized one? Personally, I think that specialization in one subject is essential for critical thinking and for understanding scholarship. I don't care which subject a student chooses but they should pick one and take the most advanced undergraduate courses.


  1. For me as an undergrad, I enjoy the upper division and advanced/focused classes more than the general classes that precede them.
    I hated the two semesters of general biology that was required, but enjoyed my developmental biology and evolution classes much more. Covering a myriad of topics just ends up glossing over what makes those topics interesting. I would much rather look in detail at a given topic.
    My posttranscriptional gene regulation course is simply the prof and the class reading and discussing primary literature. We begin with, for example, a lecture on HIV-1 and Rev protein, then we go back to the early 90s to a seminal paper and then track forward along this thread of research linking one paper's finding to the next.
    We're basically determining the experimental reasons for why X Y and Z are in the genetics and molecular biology text books, rather than just reading those texts.

    To me this approach is much more engaging and important for those of us you are aspiring researchers.

  2. I had this discussion recently with my wife. I was shocked, shocked I say, to learn that our local high school does require a basic science trio.

    General year long classes in:


    I cannot understand what it means to be high school graduate without at least two of those three classes.

    SO, I would answer foucs with more depth on rigrous treatment of the general course material.

    Leave out the fluff classes

  3. I can see what you are saying, and think that depth matters myself, but I think it reflects the aims of the individual. It may also reflect that a number of students have no aim to become scientists, but want a general degree suitable for other kinds of employment-?

    A few students may be trying crossing over disciplines, but are finding that to do that they have let something slip owing to time commitments, etc. (Hence, for these students, there is a risk of confusing "breadth" with "interdisciplinary".) Perhaps another wrinkle to it?

    I "crossed" computer science with (molecular) biology before bioinformatics became a popular field, but opted to do excess numbers of papers to maintain depth in both. I can sympathise with those who let something slide, but I think you need to have depth if you intend to go on in the specific interests you take, and so if you are to cross disciplines, you should to try have depth in both if possible.

    I think at lower education levels, you do need to cover all the sciences. After all, physics and chemistry have their part of play in biology, etc.

    Chris: My final year B.Sc.(Hons) biology classes were the same, basically literature criticism + a small research project running through most of the year. They were excellent.

  4. I am unsure about this issue. I myself have taken the broad route, and I find that in the more advanced courses I have taken I have a better understanding of the material than others who have spent their years specializing. Having a strong basis in all areas of science really does help in understanding the intricacies of a specialization, and, most importantly allows for more creative thinking.

    As for the drop in applicants to the biochemistry stream at U of T: I think that may due to recent acknowledgment of how ridiculous the 4th year biochemistry courses can be. Without ranting, it can be safely said that most are not even remotely concerned with actually teaching science, and the testing/marking reflects such.

  5. Well when I entered undergrad I randomly chose molecular genetics. I really didn't have any recommendation on which program of study to choose.
    From talking to people, it seems that majors are not valued any more than specialists. In fact, people appear to be more interested whem you say you are double-majoring in english literature+genetics or whatever.
    I think that what is really needed is some sort of guide that undergrads get that frankly describes the programs. The student handbook is very uninformative.

  6. I can sympathise with those who let something slide, but I think you need to have depth if you intend to go on in the specific interests you take, and so if you are to cross disciplines, you should to try have depth in both if possible.

    I think at lower education levels, you do need to cover all the sciences. After all, physics and chemistry have their part of play in biology, etc.

    I don't think there must be a conflict between breadth and depth, especially with interdisciplinary research becoming more and more common. Instead of having to chose between concentration in one area and shallower understanding of several, students should be pushed to pursue depth in several areas. It isn't impossible and it will be absolutely necessary in the not so distant future. If I had such a power, I would mandate all biologists in my department to take high level math and computer science classes, in addition to what they already study.

    It could only be a problem for the people who have to fill a lot of gaps in their general education. Which reminds me that a huge part of the problem is that students essentially don't learn anything in school. For a lot of them, this is a wasted decade of their life in which they could have learned a lot more if they were given real education, and what is most important, have learned that their learning is their own responsibility and nobody else's so they should explore as many areas as they can on their own.

  7. there should be no problem with a minor norm being made up of low level courses, but a major should not be watered down and by default should be gered towards training prospective graduate students, in the sciences. In US high schools there is a different sort of problem, neither one of depth nor breadth. It is the way in which students are forced to leap from a paper thin program in middle school to a 1-year advanced program in high school. While some states such as New Jersey require high schoolers to complete 1 year or even two of basic courses before they are allowed to tackle an Advanced Level course, mst of them don't care. This is v. different from what I went thru in India. We began our science studies in grade 7 and went through progressively deeper studies all the way through Gr.12. That coupled with a v.intensive prep for college entrance exams, gave us a v.sold grounding for college.

    In the US despite the so called Advanced courses in high school, freshmen in college need a basic course to get them prepped up for the upperclass years. So we shd either drop one year from high school or one from college. A 3.5 year college program for normal students and a 4 year program for grad students with the last semester being devoted to grad applications would be a better option. Like anyone is interested in what I have to say!

  8. Over here in the UK, we are very much more focused. Having been an undergraduate in the UK and the US, the difference was often pretty noticeable. UK students often seemed more advanced than their American counterparts. However, I think this gradually evens itself out, particularly by senior year. Eventually I think the breadth of the North American system is a benefit. As a starting grad student, I noticed that American grad students had a much greater knowledge base to draw from. So ultimately I think it's a good thing in the long run.

  9. I had a fairly broad-based undergrad. It has both its ups and downs.

    The biggest downside to the broader program is that I find myself spending a lot of time checking things up while my peers from more focused programs tend to have a much more detailed knowledge of the same things.

    For example, I'll know the major players in most biochemical pathways, while some of my peers know each and every enzyme, co-factors, intermediary products, and regulatory details. Meaning, they often grasp some ideas and implications faster than I do. So while they're working, I'm often digging through the pages of my old biochemistry text.

    And, for the record, it is your text Dr. Moran, that I dig through...

    Advantage-wise, I have a much broader scientific base to draw from - for example, the couple of software engineering courses I took as an undergrad gave me the ability to develop advanced image-analysis routines which has greatly increase my productivity (I do a lot of microscopy). My understanding of fluid dynamics (i.e. physics) has allowed my to design microfluidic devices to further my own research. The additional math courses I took have allowed me to invoke much more quantitative and analytical methods of analysis in my work.

    So the broader based of knowledge has its advantages and drawbacks. I think the key - if you're in a broader based program - is to pick options that will actually be useful later on. For science students, courses in things like communications, engineering, mathematics, computers, and other sciences are good choices. English lit, political sciences, religious studies - not so much.

    As for which I think is better - I don't know. It probably depends on what you're planning to do in the future.

  10. I wrote a post about this some time ago, as it pertains to undergrads.

    I think that this issue is probably somewhat field specific. In my own work as an evolutionary biologist-in-training, the fact that my undergrad and M.Sc. were in Biochemistry has been a huge boon, because I've had a broader knowledge base from which to draw upon (my minor in Arts has been of constant aid in my writing as well). But evolution is a very broad and general field, in my experience, as compared to things like intracellular signaling. Through speaking with various colleagues in that field, it seems that a very detailed knowledge of key papers and pathways is an absolute must (though I do think that sometimes it can lead to tunnel vision).

    Our undergrad programs here in Biology at Mac have ~5 different 'specialization streams', which I'm opposed to because I think that someone entering an M.Sc. needs a broad base. In terms of the highschool to university transition, I can see how focusing on a few topics would be helpful in classes where memorization is key. But that doesn't help at the graduate level, as we're all painfully aware.

  11. The first author of the "depth versus breadth" study, along with his colleagues, have organized the National Testing Survey ( It's a great way to make a statement about testing.

  12. I chose a Biology major, as opposed to declaring more specifically, because of its general nature; I figured it looked better on a resume because I could better tailor it to different situations. I think it's a good thing I did, since it allowed me to discover a proper appreciation for Ecology. I never appreciated my Genetics, Cell Biology or Biochem courses, and did worse in them overall, but they did provide different knowledge bases for me to draw on that I consider useful.

    However, now I am into the difficult part of having a more general degree, although all the courses I myself could choose were Eco-related. Jobs I apply for ask for rather specific experiences that I do not have, nor would not have been able to gain with the number of coursew I could take. Since knowledge in that ONE field seems to be more important to getting that first post-grad job, I am a little stuck.