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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Are biochemistry instructors going to treat evolution as a core concept or are they going to teach to the MCAT?

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) has recommended that biochemistry courses concentrate on core concepts rather than details. It has defined five categories of core concepts that are essential in understanding biochemistry and molecular biology [see ASBMB Core Concepts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Molecular Structure and Function].


Better Biochemistry
I strongly support the concept of teaching core concepts even though I disagree with many of the actual concepts that are proposed. Here are the five core concepts with links to my discussions.
  1. evolution [ASBMB Core Concepts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Evolution ]
  2. matter and energy transformation [ASBMB Core Concepts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Matter and Energy Transformation]
  3. homeostasis [ASBMB Core Concepts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Homeostasis]
  4. biological information [ASBMB Core Concepts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Biological Information]
  5. macromolecular structure and function [ASBMB Core Concepts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Molecular Structure and Function]
Most of the instructors I have met seem to agree that evolution is, indeed, one of the core concepts. I attended a meeting where the focus was on how to teach the core concept of evolution and there was no disagreement over whether we should be integrating evolution into the undergraduate courses on biochemistry and molecular biology.

However, I'm not convinced that most instructors really buy into the goal. A problem arises whenever they start to think about what to teach in their courses. Part of the problem is that many instructors don't really understand evolution and because of this they don't realize that it needs to be integrated into all parts of a biochemistry course.

The other part of the problem is that most instructors teach to the MCAT in American colleges. There's a conflict between teaching core concepts of biochemistry—especially from an evolution perspective—and preparing students to pass the MCAT. I sense that the average instructor doesn't realize that this conflict exists.

I was reminded of this when I read an article in ASBMB Today, the society magazine. The article focused on "Rooting student assessment in the literature" and it was written by Henry Jakubowski [ASBMB Today, April 2015]. Henry thinks that we should focus on teaching core concepts and he has developed some lessons based on recently published papers. He notes that ASBMB has outlined core concepts and so has the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). That's the group that administer the MCAT exam. AAMC's version of "core concepts" is heavily focused on human biochemistry.

It's easy to see what's required to pass the MCAT because AAMC has set up a website: MCAT pre-health: Biochemistry. Henry Jakubowski is an editor for the biochemistry submissions. (Many of the lessons are Khan Academy videos. Check out the ones on Principles of Bioenergetics to see what kind of core concepts are acceptable to AAMC.)

Here's how Henry describes his objectives ...
In line with these ideas, new initiatives by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Association of American Medical Colleges endorse and assess learning competencies and defined learning goals and objectives (instead of proscribing a list of courses) for students studying biochemistry and molecular biology and taking the new MCAT15 exam.

The new MCAT, offered for the first time this spring, has an explicit section on biochemistry, as input from targeted cohorts showed it as important for academic success in medical school. The exam also puts greater emphasis on scientific reasoning and inquiry skills. Anyone familiar with the ASBMB core concepts and associated learning objectives can see immediate congruence with the MCAT goals (figure 2).

Did you notice that evolution is the #1 core concept in the ASBMB list but it's missing from the diagram? That's because evolution is not a core concept on the MCAT exam.

If you really were to teach biochemistry and molecular biology from a core concept perspective, including an evolutionary perspective, you would probably be hurting students who want to go to medical school. That's because you would have to cover topics like photosynthesis and comparative biochemistry and that takes away from time that should be spend on memorizing the structure of the amino acids. Not only that, if you actually taught the core concept of thermodynamics correctly—the meaning of ΔG′° and the fact that most reactions have a real ΔG of zero—then you would be conflicting with what students are supposed to know for the MCAT [see this video that's recommended for the MCAT].

This is a problem. Biochemistry instructors are going to have to choose between teaching correct ASMBM core concepts, including evolution, and the other things that are necessary to pass the MCAT. I don't think that most instructors realize there's a problem.

When push comes to shove, American instructors are going to prepare students for the MCAT since that's what students expect and they are paying $25,000 a year for four years of pre-med instruction. American instructors need to stop pretending that they are going to change education according to the ASBMB recommendations. It's the AAMC that dictates what's in a biochemistry course, not scientists.


  1. I sense that the average instructor doesn't realize that this conflict exists.

    Oh they know it exists, it just doesn't create a conflict for them. As you said, they're going to teach to the MCAT.

    The entire notion of what was once called a "liberal education" is becoming much less popular in the US as the economy becomes top- and bottom-heavy. Parents want to see their children do well economically, and want college to focus narrowly on particular defined career paths, thinking that "teaching to the test" or "teaching to the profession" will accomplish that.

    I don't have enough experience or research in this area to say definitively that they're wrong. Can you share any research on economic outcomes of "liberal" versus narrowly focused post-secondary education?

    1. Can you share any research on economic outcomes of "liberal" versus narrowly focused post-secondary education?

      I don't have any data but I suspect that if the goal is "economic outcomes" then it will be better to churn out engineers and entrepreneurs instead of English majors.

      If the goal is an enlightened, literate, and informed society then Engineering Schools and Business Schools should be worried.

      With respect to the MCAT, the solution is obvious. AAMC should concentrate on asking questions about correct basic science at the appropriate university level. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could count on physicians to have an good understanding of science and how it works?

      Young Earth Creationists would complain because they could not pass the MCAT without lying and lying isn't very Christian.

    2. In Canada, there is much ado about the High Education Low Income Paradox (easily google-whacked) and how the Liberal Arts wage disadvantage may be shrinking, but for the wrong reasons. All grads are now at a disadvantage

      Ditto the USA.

      The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the country.

      In the Boston area, where more than 8,000 postdocs — largely in the biosciences.

      Ouch! These postdocs should be in a position to getting married buying homes and having children… if the past was any precedent. Where are all these postdocs going to go?

      What about PhDs?

      It could be argued that universities are in a conflict of interest as they churn out PhD students to provide cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour.

      What about any wage premium for PhDs?

      In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master's degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master's degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.

      Hmmm… Recently in my classes, I have also begun to push the option of community colleges and diplomas as another option worthy of real consideration. It is simply not true that college diplomas in technical fields are for “losers”. For example, two friends of mine with diplomas (as opposed to university degrees) are now vice presidents of companies. Part of their job description includes reviewing resumés of unemployed engineers seeking employment in the company.

      The ultimate irony is the apparent assurance that these individuals represent today’s rule as opposed to today’s exception.

    3. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could count on physicians to have an good understanding of science and how it works?

      Young Earth Creationists would complain because they could not pass the MCAT without lying and lying isn't very Christian.

      My wife experienced a Christian doctor when she was dealing with her father's final illness. He'd had a heart attack, and enough damage was done that he was in a coma and not going to improve. In spite of a legal document clearly indicating her father's instructions to the contrary, the doctor strongly desired to insert a feeding tube. Finding no satisfaction from my wife, he worked on her brother, convincing him unidentified senior citizens would learn of his "complicity" in his father's death and picket outside the hospital or worse. So my wife had to put up not only with her father's dying, but the doctor and her brother arguing with her about implementing her father's crystal clear wishes regarding medical treatment.

      Fortunately - and it's a sad situation that leads to my using the word in this context - her father settled the matter by passing away before the feeding tube could be inserted.

  2. Question:

    Since when are biochemistry teachers entitled to teach evolutionism, at all?

    The process of evolution supposed to be genetics not biochemistry.

    The biochemistry of evolution could be a topic for biochemists, or The evolution of biochemistry...

  3. IF the AAMC has their way then students entering graduate school for biochemistry will have to unlearn some stuff they learned as undergrads and they'll have to take remedial classes in topics they never covered.
    If the ASBMB has their way universities will end up 2 with tracks of courses - Biochemistry and Biochemistry for PreMed....just as we have Science classes and Science for Non-majors classes now

    1. It's always struck me as weird that we need to have dumbed-down science classes for humanities students but science students take the same philosophy and English courses as everyone else.

      Shouldn't we also have dumbed-down philosophy courses for the philosophy majors since they clearly can't handle the typical university course that science students can handle?

    2. I think there is a place for a non-science classes. We do a 2 semester Intro to Biology class that covers every topic in biology in superficial detail. While I'm unhappy that we just cram in information and make no attempt to teach the students to think an argument could be made that that will come later and now we just need to give them something to think about. The non-majors class is just the majors course watered-down to one semesters. This is ridiculous and the students get very little out of it. We have an opportunity to take some very interesting topics and explore them in one or more lectures providing more then enough detail to understand the topic at hand. I think this could be the kind of course that students remember long after they graduate and could impact their thinking for many years. This is never done though. It would require tremendous preparation on the part of the instructor. Its much easier to just order the non-majors text at the bookstore and read the powerpoints that are provided by the publisher in class.