Yesterday I joined oCUBE in their online journal club to discuss a paper from CBE-LSE that discussed biology students' misconceptions about the central dogma of DNA being transcribed into RNA which is then translated into protein. It was rather shocking to read the confusion that many students displayed despite using the molecular jargon in the correct context. It seemed to me to be another case of students memorizing without understanding or memorize/regurgitate/purge which seems to be the typical learning cycle of many current students. What was interesting in the paper was students' misunderstanding that rather than DNA directing the synthesis of RNA, DNA was either chemically changed to RNA or that RNA existed before being transcribed and somehow interacted with DNA to produce protein. And that as biological educators we may be assuming too much when we use the notation of our discipline. Specifically, students confuse the meanings of arrows in chemistry and concept maps with the arrows used to indicate biological information transfer.
So, there is some biological jargon up there that will be of interest to the biology teachers reading this blog post. However, there are some observations here that are of interest to educators in general. One, is that before I teach, I need to assess what my students think they know about what I am about to teach. A number of teaching strategies do this, such as Just in Time Teaching and Team-Based Learning. I know this, but it was still eye-opening for me to consider how wrong I can be about what I assume from students' use of disciplinary jargon.
The other thing that I thought about during the discussion, was the need to decrease the amount of information we shovel down students throats without completely understanding the underlying concepts. This is something I have been thinking about this summer since reading Maryellen Weimer's 2013 edition of Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. In there, Weimer advocates for a change in how we view the content we teach in our classes. She doesn't want to do away with the content of our courses but she does want us to change our relationship with it as educators. Rather than teaching the content for the sake of the content, use the teaching of the disciplinary content as a vehicle to teach students transferable general education skills. For example, at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, thinking, researching, and communicating are the underlying gen ed skills implicit in our programs. How to make them explicit will be a future post.
I have long advocated that we cannot do away with the content in our courses and still do believe that - students need to know the language in order to think in the discipline. But I wonder if we need to give students the time, practice and guidance to also learn how to think and speak with the language of the content we teach them. This is what so attracts me to flipping the classroom using educational strategies such as Team-Based Learning. These teaching approaches have students interact with the content before coming to class where they can then practice using that language to solve problems while we guide them in their thinking. This doesn't mean we won't still need to explain some things to a class to clear up common misconceptions. But if what we desire is that our students will be able to think in the discipline then I think we need to construct a supportive educational environment in which students can practice rather than always leaving them on their own to do it as homework outside of class.
The other idea that came up for me was that perhaps we can pare back on the amount of content we deliver to our students by focusing on the threshold concepts of the discipline. The list of concepts list in the Vision and Change document may represent biological threshold concepts but I haven't heard of that list discussed in those terms. Here is one article that discusses evolution as a threshold concept. I'll have to investigate more and post back here what I find.
Finally, we also discussed during the journal club what may have changed since we were students. None of us ever remembered having this sort of difficulty when introduced to the central dogma of biology. Some of us suggested that we were simply particularly brilliant as students :) . Others thought, maybe we simply have bad memories of what it was like to learn this the first time. I wondered if maybe the way we assess is contributing to students' superficial learning. The prevalence of multiple choice exams may contribute to the memorize-regurgitate-purge learning cycle because in an effort to construct objective assessments, we construct our exams to test the lowest level of Bloom's learning taxanomy which is memory. This is something I struggle with. I appreciated hearing Eric Mazur speak at the STLHE conference in Kingston this past June and understand the need to make our assessments authentic and better mirror how students will use the knowledge after graduation. However, I still struggle to move past constructing an assessment that is easy to objectively grade by focusing on memory. But that is one of my challenges in becoming a better teacher.