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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 06 | Mar. 22, 2001

Genetics in book's makeup

Science educators transform the teaching of genetics

"Every educated person must have an understanding of genetics," says Botany Prof. Anthony Griffiths. Easier said than done.

In the early '90s he lectured to 500 students in the compulsory Biology 334 course and worried that too many were failing.

Enter Education Assoc. Prof. Jolie Mayer-Smith, who had earned a PhD in Science before switching her focus to science education.

"We had talked about how to solve the problem and in the fall of '92 I began attending the lectures," she recalls.

Lengthy periods of observation, discussion and analysis followed as strategies and activities were developed with students, teaching assistants, faculty and staff in collaborative study group meetings.

Nearly a decade later, their intense, ongoing partnership has produced the landmark text, Understanding Genetics: Strategies for Teachers and Learners in Universities and High Schools.

"In the past I did the teaching and students did the learning," says Griffiths, who describes himself as a convert to constructivism.

In simplified terms, constructivism is a way of thinking about the formation of knowledge and understanding.

Learning involves construction of knowledge by students engaging thoughtfully with information.

"Knowledge isn't a commodity to be transferred," explains Mayer-Smith. "It's a product of students processing and making connections between new information received and knowledge previously constructed."

"Prior knowledge and experiences are very important -- they mediate how students view, accept, process and construct new understanding," says Griffiths, who abandoned `mug and jug' education when, among other things, he concluded his biology students were confronting complex data analysis for the first time.

"I'm convinced that genetics teachers have an obligation to help students change from regurgitation -- useful in some courses -- to a metacognitive or self-questioning mode," he says.

"Our goal as teachers," says Mayer-Smith, "must be to create a shared, active learning environment in which students demonstrate critical thinking and skills at problem-solving and transferring learning to new situations."

This challenge requires fundamental changes in the roles and actions of teachers and students Griffiths and Mayer-Smith say.

An end to lecturing as some know it?

"Traditional lecturing is a medieval form which has outlived its usefulness and must be redesigned to promote active learning rather than just transfer information," they conclude.

See also: More authors than ever honoured at annual event, Author flies high, Pianist's work in the key of Beethoven, UBC Authors 2000.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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