Helping students see biology within a broader context

Should educators help students understand their chosen subjects within a broader context of learning? Mark Coleman has been experimenting with this in his biology course and shares his findings so far

Mark Coleman's avatar
22 Aug 2022
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The idea of teaching context

It is easy when teaching a subject to focus only on our specific discipline and to exclude broader context. If students come to us to study biology, and we perceive ourselves to be biology teachers, then naturally we design programmes in which students study living organisms, their structure, physiology, behaviour, interactions, origins and so on, potentially to the exclusion of context.

Mea culpa: I know this to be true of my own teaching. I organise a first-year (Level 4) module called “Molecular Biology and Genetics”, and after a brief housekeeping introduction we’re straight into it: DNA and inheritance, nucleic acid structure, DNA replication, transcription and translation, on through chromosomes and genomes, prokaryotic and eukaryotic genetics, with some biotech and synthetic biology to finish. This is all right and proper of course, but perhaps in learning, as in life, a step back to reflect on what we’re doing, a little more from the outside than the inside, is a beneficial thing. I've begun this year to explore this idea of providing context to the biology we teach our students. To that end I have developed two lectures that aim to get students, early on in their studies, to think about the learning process in which they are engaging.

The theory of knowledge

The first lecture, “Knowledge and how we make it”, is a brief history of the philosophy of knowledge, with a super-basic introduction to rationalism, empiricism, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the scientific method. The last third of the lecture is devoted to the last topic, and students are guided through the process in an interactive way – they formulate a hypothesis, design and virtually conduct an experiment, analyse some data and draw conclusions. The idea is to introduce students to the scientific process and key concepts, like testable, falsifiable hypotheses and the importance of controls. But also for them to see the scientific method as a thing in itself, a thing that sits within a tradition of rational thought.

Threshold concepts

The second lecture, “Threshold Concepts in Biology”, aims to provide students with an understanding of the idea of threshold concepts. They are introduced to threshold concepts in biology and learn a little bit about each of the concepts. The intention is that students take a step back and think about the processes in which they are engaged. The hope is to enable learning by recognition of these key concepts as they appear recurrently though the programme. The importance of the concepts is emphasised by saying from the outset that they are important.

The students are first introduced to the idea of the threshold concept:

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress” (Jan Meyer and Ray Land, 2003).

The lecture then goes on to suggest the following as threshold concepts in biology:

  1. Evolution
  2. Structure and function
  3. Information flow, exchange, and storage
  4. Pathways and transformations of energy and matter
  5. Systems

These are the core concepts from the 2011 report Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Their interpretation in the lecture is informed by the Vision and Change BioCore Guide created by Sara Brownwell and colleagues. Students are taken through each of the five threshold concepts in turn, using the “Overarching Principles” from the BioCore Guide.

The approach is to introduce the concept and for selected principles to ask one question using polling software such as TurningPoint, with follow-up in-class questions and discussion. For instance, for the threshold concept “Structure and function” and the overarching principle “Natural selection leads to the evolution of structures that tend to increase fitness”, students are asked to consider a puffin and answer the question “What aspects of a puffin’s structure contribute to its fitness?” At first there is a preponderance of answers about bill shape – we had just looked bill shape in Darwin’s finches – but with prompting, they soon come up with much more broadly drawn suggestions.

Is this a good idea?

Since 2021-22 is the first time these lectures have been given, I don’t yet have good measures of their effectiveness, but anecdotally they were well received. The lectures were given in-person and simultaneously streamed, with 189 (84 per cent) of students recorded as attending the “Knowledge and how we make it” lecture and 193 (86 per cent) recorded as attending “Threshold Concepts in Biology”. The fact that attendance in the second lecture was higher than the first perhaps suggests that the experience of the first was positive – or at least not sufficiently negative to disincentivise attendance at the second. Engagement with quiz questions was quite good. In the “Threshold Concepts in Biology” lecture, 111 of the 193 students were active participants – that is, they logged in to the TurningPoint session.

Having developed the lectures last year, the challenge for this year will be to more robustly assess student experience of them, and involve the first cohort in a longitudinal study to begin to assess effectiveness.

Tips for delivering this sort of content

Having delivered these lectures just once, it is somewhat presumptuous to offer advice, but the approach employed might be of interest. The lectures were delivered to biology students, so while some familiarity with rational thought can be assumed, few of them will have studied philosophy, and this content will have been substantially new to nearly all of them. I therefore adopted the following strategies.

Keep it simple, assuming little and explaining the most basic of ideas, for instance what we mean by “reason” and “experience”.

Keep it interactive, with lots of quiz questions in particular – keep them easy to begin with to build confidence. For example:

What can we conclude from these two premises? Premise 1: Socrates is a man.
Premise 2: All men are mortal.

92 per cent of respondents got some version of a correct answer to that one.

Make it light in tone, even fun. For instance, to illustrate that deductive reason can be only as good as the premises on which it is based:

What can we conclude from these two premises? Premise 1: Bob is a man.
Premise 2: All men are mortal.

The catch here is that Bob isn’t a man at all, and premise 1 is wrong and so this reasoning tells us nothing about the world. Bob is in fact my cat, and of course there’s a picture, and (of course!) the students seem to like that. 

In the same way, the threshold concept “systems” at the whole organism level is illustrated with a picture of my wife next to the eponymous tree at sycamore gap, costal ecosystems are illustrated with my holiday photographs from Hermaness nature reserve on Unst in the Shetland Isles, and puffins (more holiday photos) appear with considerable regularity. As former White House director of media relations Merrie Spaeth said: “The minute you make people laugh, you get them to listen.”

Mark Coleman is an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia.

This advice comes from a presentation by Mark Coleman given at a Heads of University Biosciences (HUBS) funded workshop, “Fundamental Biosciences: what foundations do students need for success in their study of Biosciences?”,  hosted by the University of East Anglia.


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