Teaching cell biology in the large-enrollment classroom: methods to promote analytical thinking and assessment of their effectiveness

Cell Biol Educ. Fall 2003;2(3):180-94. doi: 10.1187/cbe.02-11-0055.


A large-enrollment, undergraduate cellular biology lecture course is described whose primary goal is to help students acquire skill in the interpretation of experimental data. The premise is that this kind of analytical reasoning is not intuitive for most people and, in the absence of hands-on laboratory experience, will not readily develop unless instructional methods and examinations specifically designed to foster it are employed. Promoting scientific thinking forces changes in the roles of both teacher and student. We describe didactic strategies that include directed practice of data analysis in a workshop format, active learning through verbal and written communication, visualization of abstractions diagrammatically, and the use of ancillary small-group mentoring sessions with faculty. The implications for a teacher in reducing the breadth and depth of coverage, becoming coach instead of lecturer, and helping students to diagnose cognitive weaknesses are discussed. In order to determine the efficacy of these strategies, we have carefully monitored student performance and have demonstrated a large gain in a pre- and posttest comparison of scores on identical problems, improved test scores on several successive midterm examinations when the statistical analysis accounts for the relative difficulty of the problems, and higher scores in comparison to students in a control course whose objective was information transfer, not acquisition of reasoning skills. A novel analytical index (student mobility profile) is described that demonstrates that this improvement was not random, but a systematic outcome of the teaching/learning strategies employed. An assessment of attitudes showed that, in spite of finding it difficult, students endorse this approach to learning, but also favor curricular changes that would introduce an analytical emphasis earlier in their training.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biology / education*
  • Cells*
  • Educational Measurement / methods
  • Educational Measurement / standards
  • Humans
  • Problem-Based Learning / methods
  • Psychology, Educational / methods
  • Students / psychology
  • Students / statistics & numerical data
  • Teaching / methods*
  • Thinking
  • Universities