Revamp Biology at UCI

The School of Biological Sciences claims to be one of the strongest science programs in the nation. As a result, it aims to educate students to be leaders, educators and researchers. By the time a diploma is in hand, students won’t be timid of analytical discourse or novel thinking. They will possess, with all its distinctions, a university education.

However, that image needs to be scrutinized, since it assumes the current curriculum indulges analytical discourse and encourages novel thinking. But even a cursory review will reveal otherwise. Most classes stray from higher-level learning and rely on rote memory over understanding, archaic problem sets over penetrating analysis and accepted paradigms over an embrace of alternative ideas –  all of which leaves students at a loss and discontented.
The problem stems not from what is taught in biology, which is an engaging field, but from what is tested. In the world of undergraduate education, what is tested and how tests are structured determines the mode of learning that students practice.

In the most basic sense, a test that emphasizes facts will encourage rote memorization, while a test that emphasizes broad questions, which rely on logical justification and is open to multiple correct answers, will encourage analytical thought.

It’s important to note that students are not prone to one mindset over the other. Instead, they gravitate toward the most effective means of achieving the highest academic results.  The institution, not the student, determines the mode of learning.

In many biology classes, tests feast on facts. Numbers, terms and names are extracted from lectures and tested to differentiate students based on their grasp of subject matter – a euphemism for bulimic learning and post-study regurgitation. Some tests require students to memorize the composition of an enzyme, the genus of a virus, the family of a bacteria and the names of eminent scientists of bygone days.  All of which beget one analytical challenge: determining the educational value in settings not named “Jeopardy.”

In some of the same classes, the reuse of old exams compounds the problem. Students, aware of the indolence of an exam maker, egregiously circumvent learning and simply memorize previous tests.  Little analysis is required to succeed. Students who memorize lecture notes and previous tests fare better than students who challenge themselves to read assigned textbooks, which provide a wider and more in-depth overview of a subject. An ironic and sad reality ensues where conceptual thinking will enlighten a student but cost him academically.

Another salient problem is that science is taught as an idyllic, forward-flowing stream, with the latest interpretation being labeled as hard fact and taught as an immutable law. As a result, the bedrock of scientific education-questioning theories and scrutinizing research is neglected.  Science is a dynamic field that inches forward through debate and disagreement, and leaps forward with dramatic shifts in paradigm. The preeminent scientific minds ask questions and refuse to be complacent with contemporary justification of natural events.

This mindset needs to be encouraged in undergraduate education. Instructors should push students to question the literature behind the facts, to probe unanswered questions, to recognize technological and structural limitations and to review critical studies. Many may question the push for scrutiny in undergraduate curriculum because students possess only an elementary background in science, and one needs a threshold of understanding before being able to ruminate over the merit of facts.

Although this question is warranted, it assumes the exercise to be more demanding than it is. The aim is not to disregard accepted theory, but to identify its weaknesses through the art of scrutiny and logical thinking; the idea is to learn a theory alongside its limitations.

Professors should lead and help students identify any incongruities.  Imagine if a study was introduced in the classroom to discuss questions it left unanswered, or to review debate it galvanized in the scientific community.  Further, imagine if instructors encouraged and accepted multitude of answers, the criteria being solely data-driven logic. Imagine the stream of analytical thought that would ensue. Wouldn’t that educational experience supersede the status quo, where natural inquisitiveness is extinguished during a four-year trek towards graduation?

Science is not absolute; it is not etched in stone. Students should recognize the biology they’re absorbing today might dramatically shift a century from now. What’s important is how one marches toward a conclusion, not the conclusion itself.

Albeit the aforementioned is a common theme, a minority of professors eschew the norm and render a classroom more conducive to analytical thinking. They do so by jettisoning accepted classroom procedures. They dramatically reduce the breadth of information covered to give depth to each topic learned.  They encourage student involvement by periodically pausing for questions and facilitating debate, because they recognize more is learned from active than passive learning.  They structure tests that contain sparse memorization, and that contain many passage-based questions with all relevant information provided in the passage. Students must integrate information and bridge conceptual understanding to succeed. Sometimes, students are tested on material not explicitly covered in class, but can be answered by parallel thinking and cross application of learned concepts. The School of Biological Sciences should recognize these professors and push for others to emulate their pedagogical philosophy.

As we approach UCI’s 45th anniversary, we should celebrate without being content. The UCI School of Biological Sciences has much to improve on in critical areas it can’t ignore. It should adopt a mindset that befits any premier institution, one noted by the American historian Samuel Elliot Morrison, in 1936:  “Her 300th birthday found Harvard in a normal state of self-dissatisfaction, thinking of numerous things she would like to do better, rather than boasting of what she had done well.”

The UCI School of Biological Sciences needs to do the same to distance itself from mediocrity, and the first step is to realign the quality of education to meet the mission statement drafted by its leaders.

Ali Saadi is a fourth-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at