Biochemistry Experience on the Border

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Hello, and welcome back to my second blog about chemistry education in the tri-border region of California, Arizona, and Mexico. In my last I described the area and students who attend the two institutions in Yuma, AZ- Arizona Western College (AWC) and Northern Arizona University-Yuma (NAU). In this second post I will talk briefly about my experiences teaching an upper-division biochemistry course. I presume that what I observe in my classes is not much different than what you observe in your classes. 

Recall that there are no stand alone four-year universities in Yuma and that an overwhelming majority of NAU-Yuma students are community college transfers (the other 10% are typically spouses of military that recently moved here, or students who moved back to Yuma from attending university elsewhere), overwhelmingly from AWC.

At NAU-Yuma I teach a one-semester upper division biochemistry course, with typically 12-20 students/section. The bachelor degree program in Biological and Natural Resource Sciences (similar to a traditional biology degree) requires General Chemistry 1 and 2, Organic Chemistry 1 (only), and the one-semester upper-division biochemistry course (with Organic Chemistry 1 as a prerequisite); some students come into the biochemistry course with a full year of organic chemistry, having complete Organic Chemistry 2 for a minor in chemistry. Overall, I get reasonably seasoned students, which is not to say that they know what they are doing but rather that they are familiar with the layout of college/university courses.

In the biochemistry course the topics covered are those covered in a one-year biochemistry majors course but just not as in-depth. From a biology student's perspective it seems like a lot of material to know and/or understand. And it's common for students to try to memorize it all. This learning approach though brings up a challenge that many students face in the transition from community college to university level courses (upper division as well)- memorizing to pass. Why do many students still resort to memorizing (rather than understanding and comprehending)? Well, why not as it got them this far in school after all. I imagine this is probably true for a lot of the classes we teach. Memorizing takes precedence over comprehension. Since the biochemistry course is upper division level, I expect students at this point in their education to not need me to explain (as opposed to simply reviewing a topic briefly) basic foundational chemistry knowledge seen or covered previously. Isn't that what the book is for and lower-division courses? In lecture I use the time to present and discuss new concepts that are more complicated and require more thought and attention than they have previously seen. But truly understanding the new concepts is dependent on students having a solid understanding of the prerequisite concepts. 

Unfortunately, I observe many students struggle because they rely solely on the material/ideas discussed in lecture (“because that worked before in my previous classes”) and completely ignore reading the textbook and avoid doing End-of-Chapter problems that are designed to reinforce concepts covered in the chapter and lecture. Doing the necessary work outside of lecture is not common. Some though do decide to “read” the textbook when studying for an exam, perhaps a couple of days before the exam. Realistically though a couple days before an exam is not enough time to mentally absorb and comprehend the copious amount of material they need to know and understand.

Given this reoccurring situation, what am I now doing to address this? How have I adapted? How have I changed my expectations? My old answer for my students was that they weren’t studying enough and that they needed to study more, to which a student asked me, in all seriousness, what that means. At the time I didn’t have a non-nebulous answer. This past semester I experimented the first day of class talking about what I meant to study and do well in this class (e.g. how to approach and use the textbook, when to read, what I meant by taking notes, how to work problems, etc.). Some of this I had taken for granted when I was an undergraduate, but what I am seeing with my students is that they did not have it explained often enough to them for it to sink in and/or had it required of them to do in order to pass the class with at least a C grade. Not to say they didn’t study or do things that helped them but they really hadn’t at that point been required to be independent learners. I am still trying to figure out and look into helping my students get to this point.