HIEBERT , S.M.; Swarthmore College: Facts and more facts: using general principles to help students make sense of biology

In the classroom, I observe that most of my students tackle the fact-laden field of biology without a framework that allows them to sort and process these facts effectively or later to apply the underlying concepts in the solving of novel-context problems. Instead, they memorize. Likewise Biology 2010, a recent publication of the National Research Council, points out the need for increased deep-level learning at the undergraduate level and for greater emphasis on drawing connections that will make it possible for our students to enter the increasingly interdisciplinary field of biomedical research. Although textbooks and teachers may emphasize the use of general principles in understanding the diversity of biological systems, students tend to treat general principles that are provided for them as just one more thing to memorize. It is not until students learn to abstract their own general principles from a body of information that they access the power of this approach. In a weekly general principles exercise, students in my class are asked to state general principles that they have deduced by searching for patterns in the subject material, and to provide multiple biological examples of each principle. These general principles are then compiled by the instructor and posted on the web as a study tool. Although students frequently find this exercise difficult at first, test scores, learning journal entries, and course evaluations indicate the power of this approach in organizing information, reducing the need for memorization, and enhancing problem-solving ability. A further benefit of this approach is that the skills students acquire through the general principles exercise are transferable to a wide variety of fields, both within and outside the natural sciences.