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In this issue of CDTL Brief on Research and Classroom Practices, NUS colleagues discuss ways of student engagement across various disciplines in the University.

August 2009, Vol. 12 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Major Challenges Instructors Face in Teaching
Undergraduate Contemporary Life Sciences
Associate Professor Tang Bor Luen and
Assistant Professor Yeong Foong May
Department of Biochemistry


Instructors of life sciences are often confronted with at least two major challenges—how to impart skills such as scientific knowledge enquiry and acquisition, and how to bridge the gap between the practising professional scientist and the student, especially with the rapid and exponential expansion of the scientific knowledge base. We discuss each of these challenges in turn and while acknowledging that there can be no easy or ready answers, attempt to outline some speculative, anecdotal solutions. These problems are of course interrelated, and a deep hard look at our pedagogical approaches to teaching life sciences followed by a significant revamp of our curriculum may be necessary to ensure that our graduates are competitive in today’s economic and intellectual environment.

The scientific approach

In an editorial for the January 2009 issue of Science, its editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts (formerly the president of the National Academy of Sciences) lamented that a “vast number of adults fail to take a scientific approach to solving problems or making judgments based on evidence” (Alberts, 2009). These include college-educated adults, and he suggested that the situation arose because “science teachers failed to make it clear that science fundamentally depends on evidence that can be logically and independently verified; instead, they taught science as if it were a form of revealed truth from scientists” (Alberts, 2009, p. 5). Dr Alberts was of course referring to the situation as he sees it in the USA. However, this problem is rampant in other countries as well, many of which are dependent on a science and technology driven, knowledge-based economy. To put it simply, in their attempts to cover the syllabus within a prescribed time frame, college or undergraduate science teachers often teach only the facts, without delving into how factual knowledge can or should be acquired. Reciprocally, to do well in their exams, students familiarise themselves with only the facts and how to apply them, without bothering too much about how these facts come about and how to acquire more information beyond what is already known. Hence, some students who subsequently enter graduate school quickly discover their inadequacies in this regard and attempt to adjust their learning style along the way. Those who do not may go on being unenlightened, losing countless opportunities to exercise creative and innovative thinking (which they are indeed capable of) whilst being part of the workforce, and also deprive themselves the chance to enjoy the fruits of a lifelong education.

How do we deal with this problem given the constraints of time, large classes and the modular nature of undergraduate teaching? Also, given that fact learning is a necessary component of life sciences education, how do we also teach students how to ask questions and acquire answers using the scientific approach? An obvious way is to set aside a compulsory module that ‘teaches’ the scientific method and its practice. Such a module is available but unfortunately, not to the entire cohort of life sciences majors. The effectiveness of such a module in cultivating in our students a scientific approach towards knowledge enquiry needs to be assessed, and we urge that the assessment be carried out in a systematic manner soon. We would go a step further to suggest that such a module be made available to all science majors, particularly as one of the firstyear bridging modules.

Within each module, attempts could be made to reduce fact learning, with a corresponding increase in enquiry- or problem-based learning. Depending on the subject matter, this is often easier said than done, for various reasons. One problem arises from the fact that our cohort includes students from diverse backgrounds. Students need a minimum amount of factual knowledge before they attempt any enquiry-based learning. Many students, burdened by the large number of modular credits they have to complete to graduate, may also find any extra effort required on their part to acquire knowledge beyond the ‘normal’ contact hours annoyingly demanding. It may reflect negatively on the instructor’s feedback scores, and may potentially deter them from trying ‘something different’. Despite such concerns, any attempt towards promoting enquiry- or problem-based learning should be encouraged.

Changing the mode of assessment for both students and instructors

Examination questions could also be structured in a way that focus on students’ ability to solve problems and synthesise the knowledge they have acquired, rather than plain regurgitation of facts. One effective strategy is to introduce an “open book” component in the continuous assessment, or even the final exam (Vanderburgh, 2005). Wiggins (1990) stated that “assessment is authentic when we directly examine student performance on worthy intellectual tasks.” Indeed, even questions for “closed book” exams should be designed to test students’ ability to make use of the knowledge instead of their ability to throw back facts. Assessment for project work-based modules could also utilise some form of a rubrics system1 (Tierne & Marielle, 2004) that specifically grades students based on their ability to conduct an independent scientific enquiry and not merely on whether they can execute a list of techniques in the laboratory. The change, in which student assessment rewards students who apply their minds to problem solving rather than for regurgitating facts, reinforces the idea that rote learning will not serve them well during their undergraduate studies and later in life.

Closely related to student assessment is student feedback. Feedback criteria should be modified to reflect the instructors’s effort in developing students’ thinking skills. This would provide support to instructors who step away from the easy task of merely transmitting information from textbooks.

These strategies are not novel, and most have been practised by individual instructors with varied results. What we urgently need, however, is the organised and systematic implementation of enquiry- or problem-based learning pedagogy in the teaching of life sciences.

Closing the gap between the practising scientist and the students

The knowledge gap between an instructor who is a practising scientist and the students can be immense, particularly in knowledge pertaining to the instructor’s field of research. This knowledge gap can be obstructive in teaching and learning. A set of notes, diagrams, or verbal delivery style which may seem sufficiently clear from the instructor’s perspective could be incomprehensible to some or understood by only a few in class. In advanced life sciences, this problem is not simply about the level of difficulty at which the material is pitched. The gap can also be due to the instructor’s technical know-how and experience compared to the students. Acquiring knowledge in the life sciences requires consistent empirical experimentation and analysis. Contemporary life sciences experiments are sophisticated in both approach and the level of technology. The devil is in the details, and students who lack exposure to the practical aspects of scientific enquiry are impossibly handicapped in understanding, interpreting and learning from scientific findings or facts. Omitting such experimental details brings us back to the problem of learning facts without comprehension of how such knowledge is acquired, and how to assess scientific evidence or acquire further knowledge.

With the explosion of data and information in life sciences research, it is no longer realistic to expect students to appreciate the subject by merely offl oading the information on them. A useful approach could be to draw their attention to the historical experiments that have led to key discoveries that shaped our ideas on life sciences. More importantly, highlighting the kinds of questions pioneer researchers asked that led them to the experiments and subsequently, the answers to their questions allow students to appreciate the process of scientific enquiry and may trigger their curiosity and interest in the subject. Getting students to think about the problems in biology and showing how early scientists solved key questions by inventing new techniques and methods will provide them with insight into the fundamentals of adopting the scientific approach.

An interesting point to this method is that one can start with fairly simple experiments performed by early researchers that often relied more on their ingenuity than sophisticated equipment. As such, students do not need much prior knowledge in laboratory techniques and methodology, especially for the introductory modules where their background knowledge of the subject matter may vary. The module’s main outcomes should then be to enable students to:


ask a reasonably important biological question which is testable (either in practice or as a thought experiment),


come up with hypotheses that could potentially provide answers to the biological question and


design a series of experiments which could support or exclude their hypothesis.

Once they have been exposed to the basic concepts of the scientific approach, they may be more prepared to handle the facts presented to them. More importantly, the approach will serve as a basic skill for those who plan to pursue advanced courses in life sciences. By developing their thinking skills, students who go on to pursue careers in non-science related fields will also carry with them the attitude of critical thinking that would help them solve problems and make decisions effectively. However, some educators have found that although students resent learning and memorising facts, they may not necessarily be receptive to being taught how facts were discovered either (Wiley, 2009). Striking a good balance between the two modes of teaching may be the key.

In the context of our system, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme in Science (UROPS) has offered interested students a chance to conduct guided research. Again, only a fraction of the student cohort have joined UROPS. Given the tremendous learning opportunities, particularly in terms of knowledge enquiry, which a UROPS stint could offer, it may be time to make UROPS a compulsory module for all life sciences majors, or as a prerequisite to reading Honours. However, there are two major logistic obstacles to resolve.

The first pertains to students’ workload. The total number of modular credits required for graduation would need to be reduced to allow them a relatively ‘free’ semester for UROPS research. The second and more difficult problem concerns the availability of laboratory supervisors, laboratory bench spaces and related resources to cater for the large number of students. At the moment there is no simple resolution for this, unless federal research funding agencies (e.g. A*STAR and the National Research Foundation) could be convinced that serious and systematic undergraduate research training could go a long way towards solving the problem of expert manpower shortage and cultivating a skilled workforce, which would be essential for a competitive economy in generations to come.


Alberts, B. (2009). Redefining science education. Science, 323(5910), 5.

Tierney, R. & Marielle, S. (2004). What’s still wrong with rubrics: Focusing on the consistency of performance criteria across scale levels. Practical assessment, research & evaluation, 9(2). Retrieved 14 April, 2009 from

Vanderburgh, P.M. (2005). Open-book tests and studentauthored exam questions as useful tools to increase critical thinking. Advances in Physiological Education, 29, 183–184.

Wiggins, G. (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical assessment, research & evaluation, 2,(2). Retrieved April 14, 2009 from .

Wiley, S. (2009) Facts first. The scientist. 23(2), 29.


See Rubistar.


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Inside this issue
Action Research in Teaching
Major Challenges Instructors Face in Teaching Undergraduate Contemporary Life Sciences
Small Group Teaching—Get and Give 100% the ‘Old-fashioned’ Way: Perspectives from the Pathology Classroom
Two Strategies to Facilitate Active Learning in Large Classes
Using Short Stories as an Instructional Tool for Teaching Human Anatomy in the Classroom
Customising Continuous Assessment Exercises