A philosophy on teaching the one-semester undergraduate

United States Military Academy, West Point, NY 10996. Teaching Biochemistry in one semester is a formidable task. The professor is faced with the chal...
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provocative opinion A Philosophy on Teaching the One-Semester Undergraduate Biochemistry Course Paul V. Lemley United States Military Academy, West Point, NY 10996 Teaching Biochemistry in one semester is a formidable task. The professor is faced with the challenge of providing students with enough background to have properly exposed them to the subject without overwhelming them. Ifstudents become convinced that the subject is too complex and difficult to m a w (''No one understands all of this."), there is a excuse themselves from further studylattentendency tion. On the other hand, the student must not be deceived into believing that Biochemistry is any less complex than it truly is. Whatever specific topics are chosen for consideration in the course, the following ideas for teaching those topics merit consideration: Students should not be required ta memorize anything. The course should he developed around three central themes, and any new problem that the student faces should be viewed and analyzed in the context of these themes. Creativity should be encouraged and evaluated. Memorlzatlon Students should not be required to memorize anything. A common student complaint about Biochemistry is that it re~resented a meanineless memorization of structures. names, cycles, pathways, enzymes, intermediates, and diseases. Testine for the retention of "the riehts of ~assaee"for ~iochemist; does not differentiate between siudents in a wnv that is useful. All of the facts that are in the hook are accessible, and a student's ability to reproduce this information independently is a poor measure of their grasp of Biochemistry. Students will appreciate this point if you tell them "If you know only what is in this book, given a choice between hiring you a t $35,000 per year or buying the book, I'll invest in the hook." The general information must be available to students: open book and open notes. The important concepts can be tested bv askine ouestions for which the answer is not directly or expressly k ;he book. The important distinction is that the test is for the concept with an emphasis on application and not merely for retention. The student should perceive that the test is not a memory check but rather that a real problem can be resolved by applying the appropriate concepts.


The Three Themes The scope of Biochemistry is broad and becoming broader all of the time. A one-semester survey course will necessarily leave out a great deal of important information. A valuable contribution to the students' future educations would be a framework or context in which to analyze or view new infor934

Journal of Chemical Education

mation. A course can be designed to provide this framework by emphasizing three themes: Chemical structure is related to biological function; hiological function is related ta chemical structure. All biological substances have a relationship to the Central Dogma. All biological substances are regulated andlor regulating. With the introduction of each new topic in the course, the framework provided by these three themes gives the students a focus. All topics can be discussed in the context of this framework. The last five lessons can be dedicated to topics that the students select. In teaching these lessons, the instructor can reinforce the idea that any new topic can be evaluated in the context of the course themes. Students who might have left disappointed in the courses are afforded an opportunity to give the course direction: cholesterol and LDL receptors, chemotherapy and anticancer drugs, AIDS, virus, etc. Any topic that is chosen by the students can be related to the course material that has been covered earlier and discussed in the context of the three themes. Creatlvliy Creativity has become the focus of courses in literature and expository writing but is too rarely the focus of science courses. Science lends itself to being a collection of known facts that are transmitted from instructorltext to student, then the student is checked for retention. Since Biochemistry is a field spawned and kept alive by creativity, this creative fire deserves recognition. Biochemistry is an excellent course for students to appreciate the clever and thoughtful posing of the question, design of the experiment and interpretation of results. Then, with creativity, there can be the posing of the next question and design of the next experiment. There is more to creativity than merely appreciating it. Although it is certainly true that "background knowledge" is required before creativity can reasonahly be expected, it is the students' creativity that should be evaluated on tests. Rather than evaluate mere retention, the test should evaluate a student's ability to synthesize two or more ideas and enable the student to solve a problem. The emphasis becomes an application of the concept and a marked increase in relevance of the course material follows from this. There is too much focus on what should be included or excluded when a one-semester survey course in Biochemistry is taught. The principal goal should be to interestlchallenge students with the subject and provide students a context in which to evaluate hiochernical phenomena/processes that they will encounter in the future. The elimination of memorization will enhance a student's enjoyment of the

subject, while the encouragement/evaluation of creativity will make the course intellectually more challenging. In addition to providing a "thread of continuity" to the hiochemical topics in the course (which might otherwise seem disjointed), the reliance on three themes also provides students

a context in which they can evaluate any new topic that they face in the future. No matter what is included or excluded and no matter what academic level the course is designed for, these suggestions on how t o conduct the course merit consideration. I t is not what you teach; it is how you teach it.

Volume 66

Number 11

November 1989