by Seemay Chou, Molecular and Cell Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009
When grading the first exam for MCB110: Advanced Biochemistry, I immediately noticed a problem that surprised me. Many students who consistently attended and participated in discussion section as well as office hours performed poorly on essay questions. This was startling for I knew, through my many conversations with them, that they did understand the concepts. This was frustrating to me as the instructor and also to the students who scored low grades despite their hard work and mastery of the material. To understand the problem, I sat down with several students to go over their exams. We discussed missed questions, and I compared what they verbally expressed to me with what they had actually written on their exams. I found that the problem was not rooted in lack of comprehension but an imprecision in their scientific language, owing to their lack of experience in the field. They felt that they knew the answers but could not express what they were trying to say. In fact, according to the students, this was a common issue for them in their science courses and discouraged their work ethic. They needed to think and speak in the same language as scientists.
To test this hypothesis, I began setting aside 15 minutes at the end of each discussion section to attack this specific issue using two different approaches. First, I would divide the section into three groups and give them a test question from a previous year that covered the same material discussed that day in section. After the teams worked for five minutes to answer the question, I would write each team’s answer on the board and proceed to grade the answers aloud. In this way, the students could observe all the different ways their words could be misinterpreted and how critical the proper use of scientific language is. Over the course of the semester, I noticed that students began to critique each other’s language more and put more thought into each word they wrote during this activity.
The second activity I used was fashioned after the game Taboo. One member of each team would be given a card with a key word listed at the top as well as several other “forbidden” words below. The objective was to utilize very careful and descriptive language without saying any of the forbidden words in order to get their team to say the key word listed at the top. For example, one card for the key word “transcription factor” forbade the student to say the related words: promoter, transcription, RNA, polymerase, and expression. This forced the speaking student not only to understand the role and mechanism of a transcription factor but also to describe the process in great detail without carelessly using other key words they had come to rely on. I found that this activity encouraged students to think about the importance of their words and also engaged even the more passive participants because the students were having fun.
Although some students began the semester believing that their missed exam answers were unfair because they actually understood the material, several students came to me at the end of the semester to let me know that they felt it was an important lesson they needed to learn. Looking back at the first exam, they realized the vast disconnect between their ideas and their written responses. I believe this issue should be addressed more explicitly for it is an issue that affects many future endeavors. Writing grant proposals, medical school application essays, and research publications all require an acute awareness of the subtlety of language. The ability to properly communicate their thoughts with others is essential to success and the spirit of learning, not only in science but also in any other field they may choose to pursue.