Preparing Bioscience Undergraduates to Write and Speak Biology

experiences for students, as reflected by this student comment on an evaluation of the writing assignments: “My thoughts have become more organized, which is extremely important in scientific writing. Also, the assignment to explain the article to a layperson prepares pre-med students for the work they will do with patients.”

Traditionally, students of biology memorize what they’re told and answer test questions. A BIOS discussion group allows a student to take Biology to another level. Within a close setting and surrounded by peers, students can look at Biology critically. They can take what facts they know and attempt to explain new processes that they were never lectured on.”

-Steve Xu, group leader of the BIOS 201 discussion group, the Mighty Chondrias.

Doing It All - Writing, Presenting, and Discussing in 201: 2005–2007
Recently, Dr. Gustin and Dr. Dan Wagner, the new co-instructor for the course, have shaken up the course again—this time with an innovative technique that is rarely used in large lecture science classes. They replaced eight of the regular class meetings with small-group discussion meetings. The class is divided into 16 groups of about a dozen students each; each group selects its own name and meets in a small conference room or lab space. The groups discuss a pre-assigned topic covered only superficially in lecture. Group members prepare for discussion by referring to lecture notes, reading the textbook, web articles, or other sources, and relating the discussion topics to other courses, personal experiences, or potential research applications.

The groups are student-led, with one student responsible for presenting a short explanation of the topic, while another mediates the discussion as a discussion leader. A trained group leader (who has taken BIOS 201 in the past) observes the process, keeps each group on track by correcting any inaccuracies, and assesses individual participation and group performance. The group leaders are not mini-instructors, however—they let each group work through its own process.

Most students seem to enjoy the discussion process and have reported that it helps them keep up with the material, understand concepts more deeply, and raise interesting questions. The process could become a model for teaching biology elsewhere. As one student wrote on an end-of-semester evaluation, “It was an active form of learning that sets a good example for other courses at Rice as well as other universities around the country.”

Today BIOS 201 discussion groups learn how to research a topic, present information to teammates, and work through problems in a collaborative environment. BIOS 202 students continue to delve into the scientific literature, reading and summarizing original research. Their experiences in the 201 discussion groups prepare them for independent response to articles. As a result of this year-long communication-intensive course, bioscience majors will be better prepared to solve research problems, work as part of a laboratory team, and contribute to publications and presentations. Introductory Biology is preparing Rice bioscience majors for their bioscience careers at Rice and beyond.


“Most students seem to enjoy the discussion process and have reported that it helps them keep up with the material...”


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