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Who Else Thinks Biology Teaching Methods are Wrong?

Who Else Thinks Biology Teaching Methods are Wrong?

I shudder to think of the way I was taught about metabolic pathways as an undergrad. Lists of mysterious names connected by arrows – all to be memorized, with little reference to how the processes actually worked on a chemical basis.

Even worse – and perhaps embarrassingly for me – I was almost at the end of my first year as a biochemistry undergrad before I understood how functional proteins arose from DNA. Having already studied biology for 5 years I knew about the functions of some proteins, and I knew about transcription and translation as isolated processes, but the fact that proteins folded spontaneously and that they way they folded, and their consequent function, was dependent on their amino acid sequence had never been pointed out to me.

This sort of “top down” teaching is typical in biology, and it’s easy to see why. Traditionally, biology has involved the study of “black box” processes – processes whose fundamental basis was unknown. Early teaching had to be superficial since so little was known about the underlying mechanisms of the processes they described. In covering metabolism for example the names and arrows approach was valid since the chemical basis of the enzyme functions were unknown.

Over the years as our understanding of biological processes has evolved, basic teaching methods have not. Textbook and teachers still tend take the top-down approach that their predecessors had to, focusing on higher order processes and treating the underlying chemistry almost as an aside.

But this is not the best way to do things. Biology is just complicated chemistry so, where possible, the teaching of biology should start with the chemical basics and build on them logically to reach an understanding of higher order processes.

In a 1998 Journal of Chemical Education paper, Jakubowski and Owen suggested a new way of teaching biology that does just that. They call it the “chemical logical” approach and their online textbook delivers a first semester biochemistry course based on chemical logic as a demonstration.

Starting with lipids as a simple example of how small molecules can give rise to biological stuctures they build on this principle to explain how protein, nucleic acid, carbohydrate and glycoprotein structures arise. From structures they move to function, explaining it in terms of basic chemical principles such as binding, dynamic equilibria, reaction kinetics and reaction mechanism. Finally, they deal with enzymatic reactions, signal transduction and energy. The result is a more logical and comprehensive approach than any other textbook I’ve seen.

So will this be adopted in the future? Not being an educator, I don’t know, but a more logical approach to the teaching of biology is certainly warranted. My advice would be that when learning biology (and we are always learning) that you try to take a chemical logic approach yourself – and that means learning a bit of chemistry. Difficult if you don’t have much of a chemistry background, but well worth it.

Here’s a personal example: From my sketchy undergrad training in metabolism I now work in metabolic pathway engineering and I can tell you that reading the biological molecules section of a good organic chemistry textbook gave me a better fundamental understanding of the basis of metabolism than any biology textbook ever did.

So do you think that a change is needed in the teaching of biology? Yes or no, let me know.

Photo: Ntwobike


  1. kevin griffin on October 6, 2019 at 8:56 pm

    i agree, kind of, since you are basically advocating teaching from first principles. However, my experience with biology teaching is that the surefire way to kill motivation is to start with basic chemistry stuff (properties of water, etc). it is also puts out a lot of information that won’t find a home (in their learning of biology) until way down the line. yes, this is all essential for full understanding but putting it all up-front is the problem. Students will learn be motivated to learn material and concepts when they understand their relevance (to them and the subject). I think it is better to introduce those kinds of things when they are clearly relevant to a particular subject. I suspect that your experience with the chemistry textbook re-metabolism is an example of that. I doubt you would have been as receptive if this material was presented to you during your undergrad biology class

  2. java on April 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    I’ve been in biophysics since my BSc, and now working on my PhD. I took organic chem, biochem, bio, and physics at the undergrad level, and must say drawing arrows to show where electrons came and went (org chem), and memorizing pathways and cycles of this and that (biochem), certainly didn’t help me learn a thing about DNA, proteins or lipids (which is what I work with these days). Not to mention, it was all very boring. It is amazing that I am still interested in these molecules.

    On the other hand, there were always more students in my org chem and biochem classes than my physics classes. And certainly, more people claim to hate undergraduate physics than biochemistry. Makes you wonder.

  3. Ed from PA on January 26, 2008 at 9:32 pm


    I am a HS science teacher from PA. I have a BS in Bio and a MS in science education. More importantly, I have 18 years experience teacher many different sciences .
    I agree with “Skippy”, inquiry-based learning ” is being pushed by administrators and professors.
    Over years of teaching, I have seen many such trends come and go. Often, the new methods have some use, if used sparingly. For example, I tried a no lecture approach in an honors HS bio class. We made protein models out of paper, we did webquest and viewed molecular images. We read articles about proteins. We did HS level labs related to proteins. We constructed amino acid models and small proteins. The students did not pull it all together until I lectured about proteins. I think the sum of all these strategies is the answer. I think they undertand best when a key molecules is studied in depth, like hemoglobin.
    Consider too that college profesors do not typically put much effort into instruction. They
    lecture and then set up lab activities. They are working on research projects. HS Teachers use many more alternative teaching strategies and alternative assessments. They are concentrating on instruction. So, basically, I think college professors could use some in-service time to improve their teaching methods.

  4. shannon on January 17, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Hi Nick,
    Organic chemistry was a full year program and a prerequisite for biochemistry at my undergraduate institution of choice- and for good reason, their biochemistry course was quite heavy on the chemistry side, a natural continuation from where the second half of organic ended- and a splendid unfolding of insight into the structure-function relationships in living systems. Looking back, biochemistry courses have been my favorites- and the most internalized and used material over a career in immunology that now spans over 35 years.

  5. Skippy on January 17, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    I read your blog and had to comment. As someone with a BS in Biology and MS in secondary science education I can more than relate. It is this disconnected teaching style combined with the “inquiry-based learning gone awry” style of teaching that I chose not to go into the profession I studied.
    I was taught most science processes as separate entities without any clear connection between them in college. Interestingly, this is very similar to the type of inquiry-based education that today’s science teachers are being told to use. In my teacher-education classes, I was essentially told to give my student bits of information or various supplies to conduct whatever experiement they wanted and “let them figure it out, ask questions and make connections on their own”. I wish that I was kidding, but I’m not. During one of my education courses we were told to experiment with various acids and bases – one woman (who has an MS in Chemistry) created a spontaneous reaction releasing ammonium chloride gas into the room because of mislabeled chemicals! If it doesn’t work for adults, it is not going to work with adolescents!

  6. Nick on January 17, 2008 at 5:54 am

    Hi Shannon,

    I think learning organic chemistry and biochemistry at the same time is the best way to do it. Studying organic chemistry allows you to fully grasp the chemistry of the biochemistry.

    The problem is – in my experience at least – that you study biochemistry alone it is far to light on the chemistry side.

  7. shannon on January 17, 2008 at 2:47 am

    When I learned organic chemistry and biochemistry, they brought order and beauty to the biological world… they were taught at the second and third year undergraduate level, though, and after graduation, a properly folded protein was sensed almost by touch, cells formed aggregates and latex beads agglutinated while you watched. Pathways? -my five-year-old nodded in acceptance when I offered the game of Mousetrap as a metaphor for coagulation- and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the immune system (I call myself an immunologist). Maybe it’s time for some reinvigoration of the old-fashioned analog way of teaching.

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