Student Learning in a Project-Based Molecular Biology Course

By Regassa, Laura B.; Morrison-Shetlar, Alison I. | Journal of College Science Teaching, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Student Learning in a Project-Based Molecular Biology Course


Regassa, Laura B., Morrison-Shetlar, Alison I., Journal of College Science Teaching


Have you ever undertaken a major curriculum reform and later wondered whether it was worth the effort? This report seeks to answer that question for a molecular biology course by using long-term learning assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of an innovative, inquiry-based curriculum. The overall goal for curriculum revision was to prepare students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. This goal is of particular importance in the instructor's department, where faculty members actively engage undergraduate students in their research programs.

The revised course used project-based learning to provide a context for molecular biology concepts and techniques (Markham, Larmer, and Ravitz 2003). Traditionally, molecular biology tools have been taught in a course where students learn the individual techniques without a contextual link to a larger scientific question. This approach can make it difficult for students to move beyond rudimentary understanding. Hands-on, project-based learning is an appropriate approach to systematically engage students in their own learning of molecular biology skills and techniques. Students learn through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks (Markham, Larmer, and Ravitz 2003). This approach shifts the pedagogy from one focused on presenting individual methods to guided discovery (Chin and Chia 2004; Mayer 2004) and is consistent with Project Kaleidoscope and National Research Council standards that focus on creating an environment that promotes understanding of concepts, problem-solving skills, and hands-on activities (NRC 1996, 1999; PKAL 2002, 2006). The pedagogy is aimed at student engagement, which has been shown to be an essential component for student success in the classroom (Turner and Patrick 2004). Some institutions have successfully implemented project-based strategies for teaching science (e.g., Barak and Dori 2004; Cruickshank and Olander 2002; DiPasquale, Mason, and Kolkhorst 2003; Heppert et al. 2002; Wimmers 2001). This report examines a similar initiative at a primarily undergraduate institution where students have traditionally had limited access to hands-on molecular biology in their courses. The course described in this report was developed to enhance student learning in molecular biology.

Course overview

The curriculum design and assessment were completed to meet the specific objectives of increased student active learning, confidence in skills, and application of learned concepts to relevant, real-world, and novel problems. The course format was an integrated laboratory/ lecture environment (studio course) that used an active student-learning pedagogy. The materials for the course were adapted from a number of resources and have been described in detail previously (Regassa and Morrison-Shetlar 2007). Briefly, the course began with a five-period introductory section that covered basic laboratory skills including laboratory safety, equipment use, solution preparation, record keeping, agarose gel electrophoresis, and restriction enzyme analysis. Following the introductory segment, students completed a long-term subcloning project that encompassed a large number of molecular biology techniques. The long-term project helped students learn individual techniques within the context of a relevant problem. Students were given detailed protocols, but they used a research notebook to record working protocols, data, and conclusions. The final four to five class periods were devoted to completion of a mini-grant proposal, which allowed students to use the knowledge that they had gained and apply it to a complex, novel scientific question. When background information or clarification was needed, the instructor gave short presentations or provided time and space for discussion. In short, the class was delivered using a pedagogical methodology that engaged students in the research process similar to that found in any research laboratory. …

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