F.M. Yeong

National University of Singapore (SINGAPORE)
A challenge to teaching Cell Biology at the undergraduate level is to equip students with sufficient basic knowledge about Cell Biology. This is important for their general science education as well as for students to proceed to advanced level Cell Biology studies such as post-graduate research. However, there is an ever-growing amount of new data and information that is published each day in the field of Cell Biology research that get incorporated into textbooks. It is therefore neither productive nor useful for teachers to teach the students a collection of facts for them to learn, as students’ will react against the large quantity of information they need to learn by memorizing the knowledge facts presented in textbooks and regurgitating them during the exams.

In previous semesters, in the module on Cell Biology for a class size of about 280 for 2nd year undergraduates, I taught Protein transport to various organelles and Cell Division. As this is a large-class module, we teach in lectures and use closed-book assessments and examinations. This led to memorization of slides and lecture notes by the students and answering the assessment questions using statements from textbooks or lecture notes. I attempted to address the issue of learning by memorization by including an “open-book” essay-based assessment that required students to read primary literature to synthesize knowledge for themselves. More importantly, the material in the article bridges two sub-topics of Cell Biology that were taught in class. After going through the article, students had to answer questions related to two topics. The questions forced students to make use of knowledge from both the topics of protein transport and cell division in order to provide answers. This heightened their awareness and understanding that cellular events taught separately in class actually function together in a real cell.

The need to encourage students to learn across topics in Cell Biology is important as they get to synthesize facts for themselves that might lead to a longer retention of the knowledge. In addition, from the use of primary literature, students learn to think critically and evaluate data from which they have to make certain conclusions. This is a skill that should remain with them even after they are done with the module. Moreover, as the essay is an “open-book” assessment, students did not need to memorize facts but rather get to spend time learning outside of the lectures. The suitable use of primary literature that highlights different cellular processes functioning together in a cell could persuade students to learn with an integrated perspective of Cell Biology.