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
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
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.