Using Online Resources to Enhance Learning in Biochemistry

The course we addressed with our ITEL initiative in the spring 2014 semester was Biochemistry (Biol 151), a mid-level course in the Department of Biology. This course comes after the first year Foundations of Biology series, but in turn serves as a requirement for several of the upper-level courses in molecular and cellular biology. In Spring 2014 Biochemistry had 96 students, 72 undergraduates and 24 post-baccalaureate students (students who are taking courses to qualify for entry to medical school; these requirements include at least 2 Biology courses, along with 4 Chemistry courses, 2 Physics courses, and 2 Mathematics courses). Of the undergraduates, most were pre-med biology majors, but many were also pre-med students majoring in other disciplines or non-pre-med biology majors, mostly juniors and seniors, but also a few sophomores. From this description, it is clear we have a diverse clientele in this course.

The course has an associated laboratory run by a laboratory director, a PhD-level teacher/scientist who oversees each of the 4-5 sections, each with 15-25 students, and the associated staff of graduate students and undergraduates who serve as teaching assistants. Dr. Erica Gerace, who had just joined the department in December 2013, served in this role for the semester.

One of the major things we attempted to do was to insert more problem-based learning into the class. We therefore substituted several of the older labs where the students previously did “cook-book” experiments with case studies available on the Internet. Most of the cases came from Kathleen Cornely at Providence College (these can be viewed here: In addition to using some of the Cornely cases, we also incorporated several that we wrote ourselves and one that we obtained from Dr. Erin Dolan, then at the University of Georgia.

There were a few other changes that we instituted as well. Because we placed an emphasis on problem solving, we pointed the students to an Online Learning Initiative Biochemistry course available through Carnegie-Mellon University. This course works well because there are short readings followed by problems to solve. If the student misses the problem, s/he can go back and revisit that material. We did not assign points for this however, so few students took advantage of this practice space, particularly at the beginning of the semester. When some of them had done badly on an exam, they were encouraged to try the site again for more practice.

We also wanted students to gain more facility with reading the primary scientific literature, especially learning how to interpret graphs, etc. for data visualization. Several of the laboratory sessions included primary papers for the students to read and discuss, always with an associated case for directed problems to address. The paper-based cases were included towards the 2nd half of the course, when the students had gained some facility with the basic underpinnings of the discipline.

At the end of the semester, we asked the students to fill out a survey about their experiences with the cases. Unfortunately, only 18 of the 96 did so, but 16 of the 17 students who answered the question about whether they were useful said they were “somewhat useful” or better. More of these students said they liked a mix of experiment-based labs and case studies, rather than exclusively one format or the other. Few of these students used the Carnegie-Mellon OLI course. Most of these students felt that faculty used technology at least “somewhat effectively” or better.

The changes we made to the laboratory portion of the class were reasonably successful and we have thoughts about how to improve next year based on this year’s performances. For next year, we will tweak the current protocols to make them more streamlined.

But there are other improvements I would like to make, specifically to the lecture part of the class, which was just that: lecture and lecture only. I hope to incorporate much more active learning into lecture time, including group problem-solving exercises, cases here as well as in lab, perhaps even flipping some of the lectures, because there is a great deal of information online (YouTube videos, problem sets, etc.) that can be employed, freeing time in lecture for more interactive learning. All of this is in keeping with the data from Freeman et al., “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics” PNAS (