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Lifelong learning has become an imperative for people living in the 21st century. This CDTL Brief on Lifelong Learning discusses various issues on the subject and why it is a necessity for self-preservation and survival.

August 2005, Vol. 8, No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Lifelong Learning and the Study of Cell Biology
Dr Tang Bor Luen & Dr Yeong Foong May
Department of Biochemistry

When we were undergraduates, cells seemed much less complicated than they are now. In reality the subject was not any simpler 10-15 years ago, but the burst of knowledge in recent years has made the current image of cells more sophisticated. The knowledge gap on cells is even more apparent when we look at first images of cells obtained in 16th and 17th centuries. It is conceivable that the complexity of that image will increase steadily in years to come, and undergraduate students two generations from now may be looking at a more detailed picture (see Figure 1).

In view of the above, it would be fair to say that we have much more factual and conceptual knowledge to impart to our students than our teachers. Herein lies a problem-how do we teach students this vast body of knowledge (both new and old) without overloading them with information?

Figure 1: Light microscopy picture of mammalian cells (left) and bakers' yeast (right), the respective cell models used in the authors' research. These are nothing more than narrow views of some of the physical features of the cells. An even cursory description of a single physiological process, such as cell division (right), could be very complex.

The simple answer is we cannot and therefore, should not be expected to. What we can do however, is to illustrate clearly to the students, the principles and general rules regulating the essential functions in cells. We can present a broad survey of all the important advances, the most significant experiments and the most obvious shift in knowledge paradigms in cell-related studies. Furthermore, students should be made aware that cells also function beyond the boundaries of their membranes, and that this has implications on how complex multi-cellular organisms are generated. When students are equipped with knowledge of these fundamental concepts, we can then help students synthesise a basic chemical and biological picture of cells that will enable them to explore further and expand their knowledge on their own. Subsequent learning will be left to the students themselves. In other words, as teachers of cell biology, we must not only be able to impart to students core knowledge that can facilitate continuous learning of the subject, but we must also find ways to encourage students to further their knowledge on cell biology through lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is possible when students develop a lifelong interest in the subject. An indication that students have developed lifelong interest is when they start engaging in related undergraduate research projects or embark on graduate work after they have been through their first courses in cell biology (typically in their second year). These students, driven by their interest in the subject, will constantly update their knowledge on the subject and appreciate the value of new information which may occasionally aid their occupational duties either directly or indirectly. With a positive attitude towards lifelong learning, students will be capable of assessing critically, the massive amount of information they face in this information age long after they have left the educational institutions.

Perhaps one key factor in ensuring that students adopt a positive attitude towards lifelong learning is to impress upon them that knowledge is never static. Knowledge could evolve due to either technological breakthroughs that offer means to re-investigate and explore certain ideas in greater depths and details, or the emergence of new ways of thinking that challenge existing ideas thus resulting in different perspectives. A survey of the history of cell knowledge will reveal that initial ideas about cells have been subsequently revised and updated. The present state of cell knowledge is dynamic. On-going work and research by scientists will certainly result in new data which will modify or refute older ideas and refine our understanding of biological processes in cells. In turn, new ideas may pose yet additional questions, prompting further studies that would yield even deeper insights.

More importantly, students should be made aware that a positive attitude towards lifelong learning can help them 'survive' the information age and 'avoid' the unfortunate fate of being left behind or becoming obsolete. This is particularly crucial for students who just want to pass examinations and get a degree. They must be made to realise that learning does not stop when they receive their scrolls.

A positive attitude towards lifelong learning can also be driven by a simple curiosity about the things (not necessarily related to our specialisation) around us. Therefore, we should inculcate in students, the habit of reading widely to expose themselves to different fields. This is useful as ideas from other fields can help us look at problems from different angles. Progress in the way we understand how cells function came about through the advent of other fields. As such, while students may not be experts in a field distinct from their professional training, they are nonetheless aware that perhaps an alternative approach to solving a problem exists elsewhere. More importantly, we should build up students' confidence in applying principles they have learned in attempts to understand difficult facts or scenario. We should also teach them not to be fearful of details, for they are paths to the most important aspect of knowledge-application.

Finally, in these modern times, it is imperative that cell biology teachers be given a free hand in our teaching approaches and be allowed to set our own standards. This is crucial given the rate at which the field is advancing. Rapid advances can only be effectively followed and taught by teachers who are lifelong learners themselves. Any attempt to normalise teaching standards, module difficulty, or factual content in order to be more comparable to classical disciplines in biology would be undesirably counterproductive. It may stifle both teachers' and students' interest, resulting in little motivation for lifelong learning. The teaching of cell biology requires a multidimensional approach, be it the teaching of concepts (Khodor, Halme & Walker, 2004), the use of illustration aids (Heyden, 2004) or mock practical training (Kitchen, Bell, Reeve, Sudweeks & Bradshaw, 2003). The ways to go about these are best left to the cell biologists themselves.


Heyden, R.K. (2004) 'Approaches to Cell Biology: Developing Educational Multimedia'. Cell Biol. Educ. Vol. 3, pp. 81-84.

Khodor, J., Halme, D.G. & Walker, G.C. (2004). 'A Hierarchical Biology Concept Framework: A Tool for Course Design'. Cell Biol. Educ. Vol. 3, pp. 111-121.

Kitchen, E.; Bell, J.D.; Reeve, S.; Sudweeks, R.R. & Bradshaw, W.S. (2003). 'Teaching Cell Biology in the Large-enrollment Classroom: Methods to Promote Analytical Thinking and Assessment of their Effectiveness'. Cell Biol. Educ. Vol. 2, pp. 180-194.

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Inside this issue
Lifelong Learning and the Virtual University
Lifelong Learning: Continuous 'Nourishment' for the Mind
Lifelong Learning and the Study of Cell Biology
Lifelong Learning: The New Imperative for Living in the 21st Century