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Friday, October 11, 2013

ASBMB Promotes Concept Driven Teaching Strategies in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

The latest issue of BAMBED (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education) contains a series of articles on "Foundational Concepts and Assessment Tools for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Educators." The goal is to get teachers to change their way of teaching undergraduate courses in biochemistry and molecular biology.

The first paper is an introduction to "Promoting Concept Driven Teaching Strategies in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology" (Mattos et al, 2013). The authors point out that ASBMB (American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) has been advocating concept driven teaching strategies for over a decade. What they don't mention is that this advocacy has been remarkably unsuccessful The majority of biochemistry and molecular biology courses are still taught in a memorize-regurgitate format. Most American courses are taught to the MCAT. Understanding concepts won't get you a good grade on the MCAT.

The idea of teaching fundamental concepts is useful if biochemistry and molecular biology are foundational courses designed as prerequisites for more advanced study. That's not how biochemistry is seen in most America colleges. Students usually don't take the course until their junior year and many don't take it until they are seniors! These courses are not generally seen as prerequisites for other courses in the biological sciences.

That's not how it works in Canada where biochemistry is a second year course and it is a prerequisite for many third year and fourth year courses. The importance of concept driven teaching should be more obvious in Canada. It isn't, in my experience. That doesn't mean we don't talk about it—or course we do. We all think that teaching concepts is a great idea. Problem is, we don't do it in our introductory courses.

This is one of the reasons why MOOCs are seen as a viable alternative to in-class biochemistry courses. You can spew out facts for multiple choice exams just as easily on a video as you do in a classroom. If, instead, we were actually teaching a concept driven course using a student-centered approach, then MOOCs would seem ridiculous.

Mattos et al. (2013) report that ASBMB developed a three pronged approach ...
  1. Building a network of scientists and educators focused on using and disseminating evidence-based teaching best practices.
  2. Fostering both an understanding of the use of appropriate assessment, and the creation of a network of educators focused on defining the foundational concepts of the discipline, identifying key cross-disciplinary principles, and incorporating the appropriate skills necessary for students to succeed in the practice of science into the curriculum and assessment of student outcomes.
  3. Promoting best practices in the education of our students by providing appropriate teaching and assessment resources for faculty.
They applied for, and received, a grant from the National Science Foundation (USA) to address these challenges. The results of those studies are ready to be published.

The next paper in this BAMBED issue describes the foundational concepts that all biochemistry & molecular biology instructors have to teach. Can you guess what they are before I post the answer? Put your best guesses in the comments.

Mattos, C., Johnson, M., White, H., Sears, D., Bailey, C. and Bell, E. (2013) Introduction: Promoting concept driven teaching strategies in biochemistry and molecular biology. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ. 41:287–288. [doi: 10.1002/bmb.20726]


Anonymous said...

So? Are they forced to teach creationism? I don't get it. Is anybody with me? English is my frickin 4th or 5th language... Maybe I didn't get some of the idioms Larry uses. Sorry mates...Apologies...

VitaminB said...

I like this approach to teaching, and hope that it trickles down to the high school level (I teach high school bio). Checked out the ASBMB website, and will use it as guidance when planning lessons.

John Harshman said...

I think your next goal for self-improvement should be to learn how to use punctuation. This could start with learning not to end a sentence with ellipses. I'm really not sure in what language that could be considered proper.

I'd try to help with your comprehension, but I'm not sure what you're trying to say.

whimple said...

Multistep chemistry under near equilibrium conditions (I hope). That's a lot different from traditional synthetic chemistry where you are looking to strongly drive reactions in one direction.

Anonymous said...


Obviously Quest does not understand the words "concept," "science," "education," "biochemistry," "molecular biology," "teaching," "student," "centred," "comprehension," "foundational," "course," "prerequisite."

I also doubt that he understands the concepts of "self-improvement" and "learning."

Larry Moran said...

Oh dear! You are going to be very disappointed.

Robert Byers said...

Off thread but has all these concepts in the last 30 years produced great inventions or discoveries in these subjects generally or in Canada ???
What has any person/lab done that will get their name remembered by people reading lists of achievement in these subjects 30 or 60 years from now??
Is there innovation or just plain smart sharp new ideas or just ordinary nest stepism in these subjects?
My impression is relative or at all not much has happened to make any researcher famous.
Off thread a little but the purpose of the thread is to discuss teaching/learning aids for progress.

Rosie Redfield said...

Why the knee-jerk attack on MOOCs? My Coursera course, Useful Genetics, is at least as concept-focused as standard genetics courses (also as rigorous). In fact students have to focus more on concepts, since everything is open-book and there are no 'plug-and-chug' problem-solving rubrics.

Larry Moran said...


It's not a knee-jerk attack. I'm basing my opinion on those MOOCs that I've seen, especially the biochemistry and molecular biology ones.

Useful Genetics, is at least as concept-focused as standard genetics courses (also as rigorous)

This does not address my criticism since I clearly stated that the problem with MOOCs is that they are no different than the courses that are currently being taught in university.

Rosie, what is your course going to offer that's not already in the best genetics textbooks? Is your course going to cover population genetics? Are you going to lecture about the importance of sex?

John Harshman said...

Overuse of ellipses is a big problem for me. What can I say? I don't read Piotr's blog, nor could I correct his Polish, but I don't find any frequent problems with his writing here. If I did, I might mention it to him.

Now, if I could figure out what Quest was talking about here, I might respond to it. But I can't.

You, by the way, are probably the last person posting to Larry's blog who should comment on childish games.

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

I could correct his Polish not to mention his poor attempts to write in so-called-high-society-English.

From what I've learnt about you here, you are at best qualified to correct people's hair styles.

prove Quest wrong

He's not even wrong.

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

1. I'm not in North America, so why should I care? Please tell me more about North American English. Do other North Americans also write don's and shoul?

2. I didn't say or imply he was right.

Anonymous said...

So John Witton, an ignorant imbecile who needs six persons to send a single e-mail, an imbecile who writes in a Spanish that would get him mocked, or worse, at downtown LA, comes and tells us that another ignorant imbecile, Quest, has valid questions. Now that's convincing.

AllanMiller said...

I'm rather fond of the terminal ellipsis. I can trail off, and stare meaningfully into the sunset, wondering ...

steve oberski said...

It's... the... non... terminal... ellipsis... that... irritate... me.

Rosie Redfield said...

Hi Larry. The course has been taught once already - the next session starts Nov. 1. You can sign up for the new session here (, but email me if you'd like to take a look at the whole course now.

Useful Genetics doesn't cover theoretical pop gen, but we spend a lot more time considering natural genetic and phenotypic variation than textbooks or typical genetics courses do. We also spend more time on the molecular biology underlying such phenomena as dominance and crossing over, so the consequences are understood from the causes rather than being memorized as 'rules'.

The reasons for this new approach are spelled out in my PLOS Biology piece Why do we have to learn this stuff - a new genetics for 21st century students ( In this Coursera course I'm putting my money where my mouth is.

Anonymous said...

Are you, and others for that matter, in cahoots, or...did I just wake up in the twilight zone? Please tell me you don't wanna get rid of me this way for asking too difficult questions. If this is the case, I am over-fucking-whelmed ... Do you know that idiom? Seems Diono-junk knows some slang but he always questions my American integrity.

Anonymous said...


You don't ask difficult questions. You don't even know what you're asking. Your questions reflect a deep lack of understanding of logic and science. From basic chemistry to abiogenesis research and evolution. So, if it was about "difficult questions," we would treat you with far more respect. Instead your questions make little if any sense. You come through as ignorant, stupid, self unaware, and arrogant. So, all I'm left to do is try and make you aware of your stupidity. Maybe to no avail, but that's as far as I can expect you to understand. My advice would be for you to get an education.

See ya.