Notes from the ”FEBS-IUBMB workshop on education in molecular life sciences”

I attended the ”FEBS-IUBMB workshop on education in molecular life sciences”, 18 – 19 SEPT 2015, in Oslo, Norway. Although ‘molecular life sciences’ is part of the workshop title, many of what was discussed was applicable to a much wider range of subjects.

At the workshop, I presented a poster based on my recent blog post on “Active learning strategies for bioinformatics teaching” (the first time I turned a blog post of mine into a poster…). The poster can be viewed on FigShare. I managed to make the poster a bit interactive itself, by having a small quiz on it. The results speak for themselves:

A quiz to make a poster on active learning techniques interactive

A quiz to make a poster on active learning techniques interactive

A common thread during the workshop is that there is no-one that is not convinced active learning techniques are important. In fact, the most memorable talks, that captured my attention most, had different active aspects: short quizzes, discussions with one’s neighbour etc. Many different tools were used during these talks, both online and pen-and-aper ones. “Write something down on a piece of paper, crumble it into a ball, throw it at some other part of the room, pick up someone’s piece of paper” was a really original one :-). Here I list all online tools, both those demonstrated at the workshop, as well as those that I actively use or had heard from earlier:

(Limited) list of online tools for active learning:


  1. by no means is this list intended to be complete
  2. I have not used all of the tools mentioned
  3. some tools are free, others require a fee. Your university may have an account for some of the tools allowing you to freely use it.
  • PeerWise: have students generate multiple choice questions (brilliant idea!)
  • MentiMeter: polling/multiple choice questions etc
  • Socrative: polling/multiple choice questions etc
  • directpoll: polling/multiple choice questions etc
  • responseware: polling/multiple choice questions etc
  • padlet: a wall to collect responses on

Instead of live-tweeting the workshop, I collected notes and present these here as a blog post (I see more and more people doing this, and I think it is a nice alternative to tweeting).

”How do people learn” Robin Wright, University of Minnesota, USA

Asked herself: can I teach the same way as I do science? Was embarrassed to find a whole literature on the science of learning. I’ts all about what your students do. Create environment that enables learning.

Thinks of herself more as a coach now.

Freshmen Biology: spend much time on research projects. Have students propose genetic solutions to societal problems.

If it is in the textbook, we are not going to teach it.

Society and journal on Science education research in biology. CourseSource.

Provided paper copy article on “The Science of Teaching Science”: Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right

Asks us to write down everything we know about learning in one minute. Is a teaching tool: prime the brain, even if what they write down is wrong.

Use emotion as a tool: tells stories, e.g. about cystic fibrosis, and primes brains that way to learning about it.

Take-home messages:

1 “The person who does the work does the learning” –> flips the responsibility, not the teacher that does the work of making the lecture.

“Don’t do in class what can be done as well or better elsewhere”

“The brain is social and emotional” Make students talk to each other. “Enable/demand that students work together in supportive ways to learn the material”

Have students figure out what went wrong at exam and learn from it.

3 “To enable long-term memory, the brain needs repetition, elaboration and sleep”

Have students sit at round tables sot hey face each other.

Pre-class online quizzes, open book. In class quiz which she did with us:

Multiple choice quiz: find the false statement out of four. Uses scratch-card to collect answers: scratch the option you think is the one, star appears if you picked the right one.


A multiple choice scratch card. A star appears when the answer is correct.

”Think-pair-share” and «peer instruction» Ole Eggers Bjælde, University of Aarhus, DK

Is going to argue that the lecture, if done right, is a perfect way to teach.

Ice breaker: spot the mistakes in a few pictures.

Makes us use the internet: Think-pair-share activity
Which factors are important in your lecture for it to become a success (=students learn).

Asks us to talk to neighbour for a minute, find the most important one, write it on a padlet.

From the research:

  • Variation
  • Active participation
  • Repetition

Talked about working memory and long-term memory. Adjust lecture: slow pace, chunks, not too much take-home messages.

Demonstrated another polling tool: directpoll. Showed that “learning is more efficient when one uses and interprets the material” (associating a word with another one helps memorising the list of words).

Peer instruction (Mazur 1997, Hake 1998): multiple choice question, lets us personally cast a vote and shows tally, asks us to convince neighbour of our anser, revote, explain

Repetition: the sooner after the lecture, the better!

Mentions STREAM Godsk 2013.

”Story of a paper. The value of coming to know how bioscience research is done” Jane Saffell, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College, London, UK

Wenger 1999: Community and Practice (link?)

Story of a paper: researchers tell the story of how a paper the have authored came into being. Not a journal club, but about the story behind the paper. Shows socio-politics aspects of research. comfortable framework for academics. Suitable for all academics, not just the stars (MSc, PhD as well as postdocs, professors).

Interaction between student and the storyteller is crucial.

Points to discuss:

  • who are you know
  • who were you then (at time of paper)
  • why this paper
  • who are all the authos
  • how was it funded
  • scientific context
  • content
  • how did you get it published (reviewers, resubmission etc)
  • consequences
  • most frustrating and satisfying aspects of publishing

Well-received, enjoyable experience for presenters. Engaged students.

”Student wishes for efficient education” A representative from student council of IBV/BIO and Estefania Mucino Castillo, The German Society of Biochemistry, DE

What effect do new teaching methods have on students? Sendt survey to Life Science students EU/US.

More than 88% think these points are important:

  • Peer reviewing
  • Digital lecturing
  • Scientific writing
  • Flipped classroom
  • Managing a research project
  • Public speaking

90% of students said they didn’t like traditional lecturing…
Finds a big gap, as digital lecturing is hardly offered but very much wanted by students.

«The Bologna Process and the ECTS system, how to calculate credits» Trine Meza, NOKUT, Oslo, NO

The Bologna process: “is a series of ministerial meetings and agreements between European countries designed to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher education qualifications” (wikipedia).


  • ECTS: credit transfer and accumulation system widely impplemented. Makes it easier for students to move their degrees and credits between countries.
  • ESG: European standard and guidelines (quality assurance in higher education).
  • European Qualifications Framework: mapping between qualifications, for job mobility.


  • full-time academic year is 60 ECTS, 1500-1800 hours, i.e. 25-30 hours per credit
  • these hours include everything, all work/classes etc, needed for the credit(s)
  • ECTS user guide (link from here)

Talked about design of courses and study programs. Important issue is workload estimation, often no data collected on actual workload versus estimated workload. Suggests using surveys after first (all?) course edition(s).

Mentions Constructive Alignment, Biggs 2003

”Flipped lectures” and “recorded lectures” Jeremy Pritchard, University of Birmingham, UK

Makes us use responseware, another tool for polling. It nicely integrates with slides, no need to switch between two programs. Upload a set of slides and add the quizzes. Not free.

Learning outcomes: should be written up front right at the start.

Describes a final year flipped module. Recorded lectures. Flipped with ‘seen’ assessment, where students know exam questions in advance.

Why started flipping? Was his own boredom with giving the same lecture again and again.

  • students read government report
  • in a flipped session, students had to pull out top list of issues from report
  • that list became the curriculum
  • develop seen exam questions
  • sessions with
  • decide on the topic
  • pod cast/review delivery
  • flipped session

Develop seen exam questions:

  • each student writes an exam question
  • student groups chooses ‘best’
  • class as a whole identifies best question
  • put on google docs
  • students continually edit
  • teacher finalises

Students are anonymous while editing, as is teacher, so teacher can moderate ‘unseen’.


  • group work and presentation
  • journal club
  • visiting lectures/seminar
  • added a lecture because students really wanted it, “weren’t getting information”
  • ended with MCQ quiz

«Problem-based-learning and the Manchester Experience» Keith Elliott, University of Manchester, UK

Already in the 1910’s professors complained that there is too information much to learn for students. Problem-based learning (PBL) started in the 1950’s. Rationale:

  • information overload
  • question whether traditional education is effective, active learning as alternative

Average retention rate from a lecture is 5%, from teaching others 90%

What is PBL (paraphrased): ‘learning through working towards understanding of, or resolution of, a problem’ Barrows and Tambling 1980.


  • triggers discussion
  • ‘real-life’ situation
  • guides critical thinking
  • group work
  • students need to identify their own learning needs

Implemented PBL for medical students in the 1990’s.

Instructor becomes facilitator, not teacher. With a good group, as a facilitator, you should say nothing – which is hard for professors.

«Application of Problem-based-learning, the Izmir Experience» Gül Güner, Dokuz Eylul University, TR

Also medical school. Went through their approach and sessions for each problem. Problems created by case committee. Build a case bank, thus different sets of cases each year. Updated regularly.

«Effective feedback in the Biosciences: Challenges and Opportunities» Julian Park, University of Reading, UK

Asked us to stand up for a minute (as we have been sitting for an hour and a half), great suggestion!

Works done with Anne Crook. Huge amount of literature on assessment and feedback. Take home message: try changing one small thing.

Makes us write down a major challenge for assessment on a piece of paper, roll it up into a ball and throw it to some other part of the room. Then, pick up someones else’s piece…

3 P’s of feedback:

  • Prompt
  • Personal
  • Positive and encouraging

Need for clear assessment criteria that are given to the students in advance.

Mentions Engage in Feedback and Engage in Assessment from the University of Reading.

Personal take-home message: assessment, and feedback on it, is something I should pay more attention to…

«Excellence in eduction: Natural selection or breeding» Vigdis Vandvik, University of Bergen, NO

Centre of Excellence in Biology Education (bioCEED): educate tomorrow’s biologists. Started recently. First action as a survey, 700 students, >200 professors, administrators.

High numbers of drop-outs, students also answer in survey that have considered quitting, but didn’t. Students are motivated by biology itself, but struggling with math (and such), fail to see relevant.

See the need for focus on teaching methods. Also, start with the teachers.

The two academic cultures.

The two academic cultures.

Mentions Wieman’s paradox, “Stop lecturing me”.

Academic teachers are both researchers and teachers, in one person.

* work in groups, social
* collaborate
* specialise
* continuous development
* sharing/open
* uses latest technology

* alone in front of class
* distribute teaching tasks
* everyone does everything
* material stays constant
* closed/non-sharing
* stuck with lecture format

bioCEED: Teacher retreat, very successful.

Mentions students becoming customers. When a group said ‘it is 2014, we want an app for species determination’ they said ‘OK, go make them’, giving them resources to do it.

Skills training, e.g. bioSTATS, codeRclub.  Students work short periods at companies, and blog about it.

Seminar with a psychologist on ‘learning to learn’.

Organise workshops about teaching back-to-bask with scientific societies.

Mentions Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

«A beginner’s course in cell biology and genetics. Experience with different pedagogical measures» Tone Fredsvik Gregers, University of Oslo, NO

270 students (max that fits the auditorium), on of the 3 courses they take in the first semester. Traditional setup: lecture, compulsory lab exercises, compulsory group work. 12-15 teachers. 10 points.

Students come from different backgrounds: biology, medical, teacher students. Different motivations. 30% has no biology from secondary school.

Tried a few pedagogical measures.

Clickers for MCQ, nowadays smartphone apps. Spot misconceptions. Effect was high student attention later in the semester.

Added midterm exam as other courses have it, and a course without was given a lower priority by students (‘believe it or not’).

From 2014 introduced podcasts, audio and video. Teachers feel strange looking back at themselves. Was really appreciated by students. Did not reduce student attendance, students also more relaxed, stop taking notes, experience the lecture and use video to study. Views peaked toward exam.

«Flipping practicals: promoting active learning in the laboratory», eBioLabs, Gus Cameron, University of Bristol, UK

Mentions Chickering and Gamson 1989 Learning Gains in Higher Education.

Flipping the practical. Replaced a one-pager on how to balance a centrifuge: interactive pic of a centrifuge with a few tubes, ask student to place the next tube, starts spinning and either breaks or goes OK.

All course material digitised, online, video’s etc. Online gradebook. Now added students designing their own experiments.

«Engaging students in STEM using Next-Generation Gamified Virtual Laboratories» Maaroof Fakhri, Labster ApS Copenhagen, DK

Simulations used a lot in aviation etc. Lobster develops this for science. Showed videos of their laboratory simulators. Can zoom in to the eppendorf tube to see what goes on. Interactive, with quizzes, e.g. ‘what happens next’.

30 modules already, increasing speed of making new ones. Built in-house, quality assured by academic staff.

In R&D
* measuring emotion from video’ing the students face, adapt the simulation to the eomtion
* Virtual Reality: VR glasses that you plug your smartphone in

Adding chemistry and physics.

Impressive stuff!

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