A Small-Scale Concept-based Laboratory Component: The
Best of Both Worlds
Dina Gould Halme,*†Julia Khodor,*†Rudolph Mitchell,‡and Graham C. Walker*
*Department of Biology and the‡Teaching and Learning Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
Submitted February 22, 2005; Accepted October 27, 2005
Monitoring Editor: Julio F. Turrens
In this article, we describe an exploratory study of a small-scale, concept-driven, voluntary
laboratory component of Introductory Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We
wished to investigate whether students’ attitudes toward biology and their understanding of
basic biological principles would improve through concept-based learning in a laboratory
environment. With these goals in mind, and using our Biology Concept Framework as a guide,
we designed laboratory exercises to connect topics from the lecture portion of the course and
highlight key concepts. We also strove to make abstract concepts tangible, encourage learning in
nonlecture format, expose the students to scientific method in action, and convey the excitement
of performing experiments. Our initial small-scale assessments indicate participation in the
laboratory component, which featured both hands-on and minds-on components, improved
student learning and retention of basic biological concepts. Further investigation will focus on
improving the balance between the minds-on concept-based learning and the hands-on experi-
mental component of the laboratory.
Motivation for a Small-Scale, Concept-based
A number of educators and researchers have demonstrated
the advantages of small learning environments for student
progress (Cotton, 2000; Holland, 2002; Jobs for the Future,
Kellogg Foundation, 2002; American Institutes for Research,
2003). However, in many institutions, large lecture courses
are a financial and logistical necessity. For example, at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Intro-
ductory Biology is a graduation requirement for all students,
three educationally equivalent Introductory Biology courses
serve approximately 900 students each academic year. Al-
though these students attend lectures ranging from 100 to
400 students, they also meet in recitation sections ranging
from 10 to 25 students. In this article, we argue that such
small learning environments can be effectively used if they
involve aspects of both minds-on and hands-on learning.
One of the major goals of the MIT courses, as of any
Introductory Biology class, is to create enduring under-
standing of key biological principles. We aim to provide
students with the tools with which to approach questions
related to biology that they may face as members of society.
Unfortunately, this goal is hard to achieve in a fast-paced
Introductory Biology course that requires students both to
learn many new concepts and to understand the approaches
and findings of several different scientific disciplines. While
it is clear to an expert that all the topics in the course are
connected, novice students often see the course as consisting
of “separate units.” As a consequence, they feel that each
unit, once finished, can be forgotten with no detriment to
their understanding of the material in any other unit. If they
fail to grasp the interconnectivity of the various units, stu-
dents often resort to memorizing the details of a particular
topic and thus gain a poorer understanding of the funda-
mental principles of biology.
As part of an effort to overcome the disjointedness and
emphasis on detail that many students perceive in Introduc-
tory Biology courses, we have taken the approach of orga-
nizing the concepts and details covered in the courses taught
at our institution into a Biology Concept Framework (BCF;
†These authors contributed equally to this work.
Address correspondence to: Graham C. Walker (email@example.com).
CBE—Life Sciences Education
Vol. 5, 41–51, Spring 2006
© 2006 by The American Society for Cell Biology41
Khodor et al., 2004). Our BCF is hierarchical, places details in
context, nests related concepts, and articulates concepts that
are inherently obvious to experts but often difficult for nov-
ices to grasp. Our BCF is also cross-referenced to highlight
the connections between concepts. We have found our BCF
to be a versatile tool for design, evaluation, and revision of
course goals and materials. The approach is general and can
be applied to the subject matter taught in courses at any
institution. An up-to-date version of our BCF can be found
online at http://web.mit.edu/bioedgroup/HBCFmain.htm.
In the 2002–2003 academic year, D.G.H. designed a series
of demonstrations paired with a problem or set of discussion
questions that the students worked through in groups in
recitation sections. The demonstrations consisted of the
teaching assistant performing a DNA precipitation, simulat-
ing an Ames Test for mutagens, and running an agarose gel
to separate the products of a restriction enzyme digest of
DNA. The exercises were considered a success by the teach-
ing assistants, but were limited by the amount of time in
section and the restrictions of nonlaboratory space. They were
also insufficient in scope for connecting different parts of the
course. Therefore, equipped with the BCF as a guide, we de-
signed an expanded set of activities to clarify particular key
ideas that students found confusing. We put these activities
together into a small-scale supplementary laboratory compo-
nent for the Introductory Biology courses that clarified and
connected ideas from different parts of the course.
Course Design: The Importance of Both Hands-on
and Minds-on Learning
In the last decade or so, much research has been done on the
teaching of physics that demonstrates a substantial gain in
conceptual understanding of Newton’s Laws when students
participate in hands-on activities (Hake, 1998). This empha-
sis on active student involvement has spread to biology as
well, and many reports such as the Boyer Report, Project
2061, and Bio2010 call for students to learn science by doing
scientific research (American Association for the Advance-
ment of Science, 1985, 1989; Boyer Commission, 1998; Na-
tional Research Council [NRC], 2002).
At the same time, other educators have focused on teach-
ing conceptual material through case- or problem-based
techniques that “challenge students to ‘learn to learn,’ work-
ing cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world
problems” (http://www.udel.edu/pbl/). These techniques
focus on helping students learn concepts and develop criti-
We see the merit of both of these approaches, but feel that
either one in the absence of the other may be limiting. We
have heard anecdotal evidence that K–12 teachers have
found that simply providing hands-on activities without a
strong minds-on component can lead to doing without un-
derstanding (Vandiver, personal communication). On the
other hand, research demonstrates that students benefit
from repeating cookbook labs for understanding (Sadler,
2004). We therefore designed our laboratory component to
be a hybrid of these two approaches (Figure 1). The students
spent roughly equivalent amounts of time performing
minds-on and hands-on activities. As demonstrated in the
Results section, the students valued both aspects of the
Course Objectives and the Role of the BCF
In accordance with the course-design principles formulated
by Wiggins and McTighe (2000) in Understanding by Design,
we articulated our overall course objectives before planning
the particulars. Our goals for the students’ experiences in the
laboratory are outlined in Table 1.
As can be seen in Table 1, some of the goals can be
achieved by either hands-on or minds-on learning, but in
order to achieve all six goals, the laboratory required a
combination of hands-on and minds-on activities. Having
students design (minds-on) and perform (hands-on) con-
trolled experiments in a laboratory environment is an im-
portant first step in achieving goals I–IV. To achieve goal V,
we provided the students with discussion materials (minds-
on) about several top-level concepts from the BCF in each
minds-on and hands-on learning.
Concept-based laboratory section is a hybrid of
Table 1. Goals of the voluntary laboratory component
I. Make abstract concepts tangible.
II. Encourage learning in nonlecture format.
III. Expose the students to scientific method in action.
IV. Convey the excitement of performing experiments.
V. Make top-level concepts from the BCF explicit.
VI. Highlight connections between different topics in the course.
Achievement of some of the goals requires hands-on learning techniques, whereas achievement of others requires minds-on learning
D. G. Halme et al.
CBE—Life Sciences Education42
In designing each class session, we chose the relevant key
concepts from the BCF and structured the session to address
these concepts, their connections to each other, and their
connection to material previously covered in the course. For
example, in some sessions, we discussed how one cell re-
peatedly divides to become a colony, thereby highlighting
the top-level concept “Cells are created from other cells.”
The top-level concepts from our BCF that were used as
guiding principles in designing the laboratory sessions are:
2. At the molecular level, biology is based on three-
dimensional interactions of complementary surfaces.
3. The cell is the basic unit of life.
4. All cells share many processes/mechanisms.
6. Cells are created from other cells.
7. DNA is the source of heritable information in a
8. A gene is the functional unit of heredity.
12. Proteins perform many varied functions in a cell.
13. Recombinant DNA technology allows scientists to
manipulate the genetic composition of a cell.
is basedon observationaland
(Khodor et al., 2004, Table 1, p. 115)
The numbering of the concepts is in accordance with our
BCF as previously published. Numbering is for practical
purposes and does not indicate relative importance.
To achieve goal VI, we designed most of the laboratory
exercises so that they interwove to tell a story over multiple
sessions and highlighted the connections between different
topics within the course (minds-on). Although the sessions
involved different topics, techniques, and questions, most
involved investigating some aspect of the biosynthesis of the
amino acid cysteine. Also, concepts from the BCF were
featured in multiple sessions and in different combinations.
This helped to transform seemingly discrete topics into more
of a meshwork.
The goal of the laboratory component was not for students
to achieve mastery of the laboratory techniques. MIT’s Biol-
ogy Department offers a separate semester-long sophomore
laboratory course to achieve that goal. We describe the ex-
ercises further and provide a sample lesson plan in Materials
and Methods below.
In this article, we describe the supplementary voluntary
laboratory component as it was implemented in the fall
semester of 2003, as well as concurrent and subsequent
assessment of student attitudes and understanding. We dis-
cuss what we learned from both the experience of teaching
the laboratory and the student assessment data, as well as
the implications of these new understandings for future
versions of such a laboratory component.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Laboratory Students and Schedule
Three educationally equivalent versions of Introductory Biology are
offered at MIT (7.012, 7.013, and 7.014; http://web.mit.edu/7.01x/).
The course in which this laboratory component was implemented,
7.012, was offered in the fall of 2003 and drew ?475 students. 7.012
covers biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, gene regulation,
recombinant DNA technology, immunology, cancer, the nervous
system, and genomics. The course consists of 1-h lectures, delivered
by professors three times per week, and 1-h small group recitation
sections, led by graduate student teaching assistants twice per week.
The faculty are assisted by a full-time, postdoctoral-level instructor
who plans recitation section, problem set, and exam materials.
The students who participated in the laboratory component were
volunteers and did not receive any credit for participation, but were
encouraged to continue attending throughout the semester. The
laboratory sessions described in this article met for 90 min on nine
Mondays that were neither school holidays, nor the same week as a
7.012 exam. There were 21 students who participated in the labora-
tory exercises. These students were divided into two groups of 7
and 14, respectively; the first group met from 1:00–2:30 pm and the
second group met from 3:00–4:30 pm.
Laboratory Supplies and Lesson Plans
An example of an abridged lesson plan is presented below.
Abridged Lesson Plan for Session 3—Mutant Hunt
The Main Idea: Geneticists use mutants to figure out how a biological
system is supposed to work. First you identify a trait (phenotype)
that you are interested in studying. Then you find an individual that
does not have that trait. If you can then figure out which gene is
different in your mutant, you have found the gene that is respon-
sible for the trait.
1. How are genes responsible for traits?
In this set of experiments we are interested in studying the ability
of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to make the amino acid cysteine.
2. Why would we be interested in cysteine biosynthesis?
3. Why would we choose to study this process in yeast?
Stage 1: Making Mutants. Reminder: we did this stage the first week.
A yeast culture was grown up overnight in SC liquid medium at
30°C with vigorous shaking.
I. Protocol to prepare cells for irradiation. The protocol includes
the following question:
1. How do we decide how many colonies to plate?
II. Protocol for irradiation
III. Protocol for plating
Stage 2: Screening for Mutants. We are going to perform this step
today. Yeast have been mutagenized and grown for 3 days on com-
plete medium agar at 30°C as described in Stage 1.
1. What is in complete medium?
2. What is in minimal medium?
3. If you wanted to make media on which to grow a strain that
was unable to synthesize cysteine, what would you need to
put in it?
4. What medium could we use to screen for cysteine auxo-
5. What is a selective condition?
6. Why don’t we plate the mutagenized yeast directly on
7. How should we find the rare mutant yeast that cannot
synthesize cysteine within the large collection of yeast col-
onies we have on the plates?
IV. Replica plating protocol. While an instructor demonstrates
proper replica plating technique, discuss why the plates need to
be properly marked and tapped lightly while on the replica
Stage 3: Identifying Mutants. We are going to perform this stage
today with plates that are replica plates (replica plating done by
instructors) of the yeast that were plated the first week of class.
1. When you “screen” the plates, how do you identify the
V. Mutant screening protocol
Concept-based Laboratory Component
Vol. 5, Spring 200643
2. If we find some colonies that grow on CM but not MM, can
we determine which amino acid they are unable to synthe-
3. How might we figure this out?
Thought question for this lesson can be found in the Thought
Question section of the Discussion.
For access to all our lesson plans and answer keys, please refer to
our Web site at http://web.mit.edu/bioedgroup/labsnapshot.htm.
The sessions were titled: 1) DNA Isolation and Mutagenesis; 2)
Biochemistry—Proteins; 3) Mutant Hunt; 4) Identifying Mutant
Genes—Complementation; 5) Library Construction—Component
Visualization by Agarose Gel Electrophoresis; 6) Complementation
by Cloning. Gene Therapy. Genetic Diagnostic Assay; 7) Ames Test
for Mutagens and Carcinogens; 8) Ames Test II; and 9) Pizza Party
All of the supplies used are commercially available (e.g., Sigma-
Aldrich, VWR, Carolina Biologicals, EUROSCARF), except for some
of the strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Salmonella typhimurium,
references for which can be found on the lab component Web site.
Laboratory Session Design
In designing this laboratory component we sought to expand the
number and complexity of concepts covered by the small set of
demonstrations designed and implemented by D.G.H. for use in
recitation sections and to create a set of experiments that high-
lighted the connection between areas of the course. We used the
BCF as a guide to help determine which concepts to cover and
designed the experiments to correspond to the order in which topics
were introduced in lecture.
The idea of using the BCF to design our course is supported by
previous educational research. A number of studies indicate that
models of cognition and learning need to be at the center of course
design and assessment processes (NRC, 2001, 2003). By using the
hierarchical structure and cross-references in the BCF, we sought to
provide useful cognitive structures that would facilitate meaningful
acquisition of knowledge by the students and confront any of their
misconceptions head-on (Novak, 2002).
The learning environment of our laboratory component was de-
signed to conform to NRC best-practice guidelines (NRC, 2000).
First, it was learner-centered, in that it was designed to be contin-
ually adjusted by taking into account the “knowledge, skills, atti-
tudes, and beliefs that learners bring to educational setting” (NRC,
2000, p. 133). Second, the learning environment was knowledge-
centered, in that each session’s and the overall course content was
designed to help students acquire knowledge in ways that “lead to
understanding and subsequent transfer” (NRC, 2000, p. 136). Third,
the environment was assessment-centered, in that informal forma-
tive assessments used throughout the course were designed to
“provide opportunities for feedback and revision. . . ” and were
“congruent with [the] learning goals” (NRC, 2000, p. 140). And
finally, the environment was community-centered, in that the
course, with its focus on experimental data, was well suited to
establish “social norms that value the search for the understanding
and allow students (and teachers) the freedom to make mistakes in
order to learn” (Brown and Campione, 1994; NRC, 2000, p. 145).
Each 90-min laboratory session was designed around several key
ideas from the BCF and consisted of four main parts: discussion of
the Thought Question from the previous laboratory session, discus-
sion of the biological concepts related to that session’s experiments,
discussion of the techniques used in that session’s experiments, and
the performing of experiments.
The Thought Question for each laboratory session was designed
to help students integrate the concepts illustrated by the experiment in
that session by addressing a question that was superficially unrelated
but conceptually similar to the topic that was explored. In some cases
the question asked the students to explicitly connect a seemingly
unrelated topic and the experiment from that session. In other cases,
Thought Question from the previous session. For a few examples and
further explanation, please see the Discussion section.
The students were provided with a handout that contained a
series of discussion questions for each session. Working through
these questions as a group allowed the instructors to link the con-
ceptual material that had been covered in lecture to both the BCF
and the experiments that would be performed by the students. For
example, in the “Mutant Hunt” session (see Laboratory Supplies and
Lesson Plans, above, in Materials and Methods), this discussion period
not only reviewed and reinforced the concept of genes being re-
sponsible for phenotypes (concepts 7-3, 8, 8-1, and 8-9 from the
BCF), but used this idea to help the students figure out why the
technique of replica plating would allow one to detect and isolate
mutants. This discussion period also provided the structure in
which to clarify the technical details of the experiments. For exam-
ple, the students needed to understand not only why you would
transfer cells from the colonies from one plate to another, but also
practical laboratory matters such as why it was necessary to align
the plates, not press too hard, and label everything carefully.
In each laboratory session, students carried out experiments in-
terspersed with the discussions outlined above. Much of the setup
was performed by the instructors ahead of time. The instructors
chose which parts to prepare and which parts should be performed
by the students as explored in the Discussion section below, in order
to maximize the amount of time that could be spent doing the
“interesting” parts of the experiments.
Regardless of the time allotted per aspect of each session, we
always structured the discussion segments of the class to make sure
to emphasize, often repeatedly, the key concepts from the BCF that
were central to each session. We believe that this organization is
what makes our course distinct from the many other laboratory
courses and, at least partially, accounts for our success in achieving
our educational goals. See Results for more discussion on this.
Both quantitative and qualitative assessment methods were used to
evaluate the success of this laboratory component. Likert scale pre-
and postsurveys were administered to the students who partici-
pated in the laboratory component to assess their attitudes toward
the experience as a whole and the relative impact of each of its
aspects. Quantitative data from these surveys can be seen in Tables
2 and 3. Interviews of students, both those who participated in the
laboratory component and those who did not, were conducted in
May 2004 (five months after the end of the course).
With the exception of the supplementary laboratory component,
the nonlab students received the same instruction as the lab stu-
dents (same lectures, recitation sections, problem sets, and exams).
The nonlab students were chosen to each match a particular lab
student with respect to final grade in the course. We acknowledge
that this matching does not presuppose that we have matched for
ability, motivation, knowledge, and the many other factors that
contribute to a student’s performance in a course because of the
matching fallacy (Hopkins, 1969). However, we do feel that it was
the best approximation available.
The interviews were conducted by a visiting professor, Brian
White, who had previously been a postdoctoral instructor for the
Introductory Biology courses. Therefore, Professor White was famil-
iar with the way that Introductory Biology is taught at MIT but had
not previously met the students. We felt that this would encourage
the students to be honest in their critique of the laboratory compo-
nent and avoid interviewer bias. The interviews were ?30 min in
length and consisted of questions about attitudes toward the course
and biology in general. The students were also asked to make concep-
tual connections between different elements of the course. In addition,
the laboratory students were asked questions about the laboratory
exercises. The interviews were audiotaped and professionally tran-
D. G. Halme et al.
CBE—Life Sciences Education44
scribed. Qualitative data from these interviews can be seen in Appen-
dix A. See Appendix B for complete list of interview questions.
As discussed in Materials and Methods, our course design
focused on communicating central concepts from our BCF
and used various tools to achieve that goal. We designed the
sequence of class sessions into a story line focused on a
particular gene/protein across species; emphasized not only
key concepts from the BCF for each class session, but also
the connections between these concepts and any concepts
discussed in other sessions; and interlaced discussion of
concepts and performance of key parts of the experiments.
As discussed below, these uncommon features contributed to
our success and distinguished the course from many other
laboratory courses. We strongly believe that this approach to
course design would be beneficial to any laboratory class,
because it would help students create a conceptual framework
for the subject material and relate experimental techniques to
the concepts within the framework.
We recruited students for the laboratory component by ad-
vertising it to the whole Introductory Biology class. Thirty
students volunteered to participate for the entire semester
and receive no credit. We were only able to accommodate
the schedules of 21 of those students. Of these, two students
dropped out in the first 2 wk, but the remaining 19 students
continued to attend most of the time.
Table 2. Attitude questions regarding the voluntary laboratory component of Introductory Biology
Presurvey (n ? 21)
Postsurvey (n ? 17)
p valueSD SD
Rate agreement with the statements below on a scale of 1–5 (1 meaning you disagree completely to 5 meaning that you agree
I think that ?participating in/having participated
in? these labs will:
1. help me in my further studies at MIT.3.850
2. help me in my future career. 3.500
3. help me better understand science-related
issues when I vote.
4. help me critically evaluate science coverage in
5. improve my grade in 7.012.3.100
6. improve my understanding of the material
covered in 7.012.
7. improve my retention of the material in 7.012.4.300
8. help connect the concepts from different units
9. help ground concepts in the reality of
4.6501.131 4.294 0.9200.8143
Pretest/posttest averages, SDs, and two-tailed, paired t test results.
* Below the critical p value of 0.05.
Table 3. Student attitudes toward relative importance/value of the different components of the voluntary laboratory component
Postsurvey (n ? 17)
Rate the contribution of the activities listed below to improving your understanding of the material covered in 7.012 on a scale of 1–10
(with 1 being none and 10 being highly significant).
A. Performing experiments7.3531.998to B
B. In-class discussion of concepts8.1181.867
C. In-class discussion of experimental techniques
D. Spending more time with 7.012 staff
Posttest averages, SDs, and two-tailed, paired t test results.
* Below the critical p value of 0.05.
Concept-based Laboratory Component
Vol. 5, Spring 200645
A diverse mix of students signed up including freshmen,
juniors, seniors, and graduate students from other depart-
ments. This alleviated our concern that the only students
interested in participating would be freshmen interested in
pursuing a major in biology or a biology-related field or
premed students. Only 6 of the 21 students in the laboratory
had declared, intended to declare, or considered declaring
biology as a major.
Students in the laboratory had a wide range of motiva-
tions for taking the course. More than a quarter identified
themselves as hands-on learners or as interested in learning
in nonlecture format; most were looking for laboratory ex-
perience either as preparation for a laboratory course, un-
dergraduate or graduate research, or to tie course concepts
to the reality of experiments; and a number believed that the
laboratory would help them understand and retain concepts
or other material from lectures.
Comparing final grades of the laboratory students with
those of the class as a whole shows that the students in the
lab as a group received slightly higher grades, with 31.6% of
the lab students getting A’s (vs. 26.2% for the class as a
whole) and 15.8% getting A?’s (vs. 10.3%). Although some
students performed better than average, it is important to
point out that there was still a wide spread of student
grades: 26.3% of the lab students received a B (vs. 27.5% of
the class as a whole), 15.8% received a B? (vs. 8.5%), and
10.3% received a C? (vs. 3.3% of the class as a whole
receiving C’s and 15.7% receiving C?’s). It is difficult to
draw any firm conclusions because the laboratory group
was self-selected for motivated students, and the numbers in
the laboratory group are so small that a change in just a few
students’ grades would have a large impact on percentage
The following anecdotes illustrate the range of students in
the laboratory. One student had a number of learning dis-
abilities and had started and dropped the course at least
twice before Fall semester of 2003 when she also signed up
for our laboratory. Although her final grade was a C?, she
was happy to have completed and passed the course. In
addition, she felt that the lab was beneficial to her under-
standing of course material. On her exit survey she wrote:
“The labs tied nicely to the material being covered in lec-
tures, the problem sets and most importantly, the exams.
The material in 7.012 builds onto each other and the labs did
the same thing. The thought questions were a great way to
recall the previous lab and tie it into the new lab. [Instruc-
tors]. . . took the time to make us understand what we were
doing, by asking questions and making us recall previous
concepts. . . ”
A second student was a graduate student studying Com-
putational Biology. He signed up for the laboratory compo-
nent because he believed the laboratory experience would
benefit his graduate studies. When we discovered that he
was not registered for the course, he explained that he was
under a units cap and had to audit the class. Thus, even
though he was not receiving credit or a grade for the course,
this student attended the laboratory sessions regularly
throughout the semester.
A third student (referred to as student G in Appendix A)
was a senior who also received a C? in the course. How-
ever, in his follow-up interview he displayed a higher level
of understanding of the concepts than his grade would
indicate. In addition, this student asked us how he, as a
person who is about to graduate and enter the work force in
an unrelated field, could go about trying to keep learning
We found that having a heterogeneous group of students
was a benefit to the group. On more than one occasion, we
observed that the questions posed by the less knowledge-
able students led to a discussion that illuminated important
concepts not only for the student who originally posed the
question, but also for many of the more advanced students.
Students Were Highly Satisfied with the Experience
To determine student attitudes and possible changes in at-
titudes about potential benefits of participating in the labo-
ratory component, we administered surveys to the students
before the first session and at the end of the term. These
surveys consisted of Likert scale questions. The data are
displayed in Table 2. We draw two major conclusions from
this data: one, the students had high expectations for the
laboratory component and two, in all cases their expecta-
tions were met or exceeded.
Interestingly, there was a statistically significant (p ?
0.0058) increase in student assessment of whether participat-
ing in the lab sessions would improve their grades in the
accompanying lecture course (Q.5). As the Bonferroni in-
equality would suggest, the multiple t tests present the
problem of a possible overall inflated ?. However, given the
exploratory nature of the study, the p of 0.0058 for Q.5 is
sufficiently low to permit hypothesizing about the implica-
tion of the value. It is also worth pointing out that the
laboratory component received very high marks (4.294 or
higher out of 5) with respect to helping students to understand
concepts (Q.6), retain concepts (Q.7), connect concepts (Q.8),
and ground concepts in the reality of experiments (Q.9).
Perhaps the best indicator that the students found partic-
ipating in the laboratory component worthwhile is that even
though it was voluntary, the vast majority of students at-
tended the sessions regularly and continued to do so
throughout the semester. Some students admitted in their
surveys that when many demands were being placed on
their time, they stopped attending lectures of some of their
courses but continued to attend our voluntary lab.
Assessment of Major Goals
In the interviews, conducted five months after the end of the
course, students who participated in the voluntary labora-
tory component were asked a variety of questions (Appen-
dix B), including the following questions:
1. How do you feel about the lab in general?
2. Were there some experiments that were particularly
memorable? Why did you do them?
3. Were there some experiments that you particularly
4. Were there some experiments that you think were not
Below we evaluate the laboratory component with respect to
A contains excerpts of student responses to the four questions
above, sorted as they relate to the six goals. It is noteworthy
D. G. Halme et al.
CBE—Life Sciences Education 46
that the students made these comments without being directly
prompted to evaluate our attainment of the goals.
I. Make Abstract Concepts Tangible, II. Encourage Learning
in Nonlecture Format, III. Expose the Students to Scientific
Method in Action, and IV. Convey the Excitement of Per-
forming Experiments. All four of these goals were met by
bringing the students into a laboratory environment where
they participated in discussions and performed interesting
and well-controlled experiments.
Some of the abstract concepts covered in the lecture por-
tion of the course became tangible realities for the students
when they were able to see and touch many of the reagent
and apparatuses discussed in lecture. The students also ex-
perienced the excitement of performing experiments when
they isolated their own DNA and “cured” yeast that “suf-
fered” from cysteine auxotrophy.
All of the learning in the laboratory sessions consisted of
either discussion (minds-on) or experimentation (hands-on).
Because there were no lectures and the students felt that they
the goal of encouraging learning in a nonlecture format.
During the discussions and performing of experiments the
students were exposed to the scientific method in action. The
students learned to always design and implement controls
and to use these controls when interpreting the results of
their experiments. The students were also exposed to the
reality of experimental failure—some experiments did not
work for some students, and one partially failed to work
altogether as described in the Discussion. We found that
discussing why experiments failed without attaching edu-
cational consequences to this failure was a very effective
educational tool that contributed to creating an educational
community in the laboratory (as defined in NRC, 2000).
Student thoughts on the aspects of the course related to
these goals can be found in Appendix A.
V. Make Top-Level Concepts from the BCF Explicit and VI.
Highlight Connections between Different Topics in the
Course. Unlike the other four goals, which can be achieved
through a well-designed and implemented laboratory
course (hands-on), the related goals of making top-level
concepts from the BCF explicit and highlighting the connec-
tions between different topics in the course required a sec-
ond type of learning (minds-on).
We wished to investigate whether the students gain an
appreciation for the connectedness of different topics in the
course. Therefore, during the interviews they were asked to
explain “Why does the course include both biochemistry
and genetics?” Answers varied widely and so the inter-
viewer used the prompt “Is there a connection between
biochemistry and genetics?” to try to elicit the concept that
genes encode proteins. If this was unsuccessful, the inter-
viewer used a second prompt: “How would you explain the
genetic terms gene and allele using biochemical terms?”
Students’ answers were evaluated according to the follow-
ing criteria: A) Did they acknowledge a connection? B) Did
they realize that the biochemistry and genetics were occurring
in the same cell? C) Did they explain that biochemistry and
genetics were connected via genes encoding proteins? D) Did
they explain that genes encode proteins that then carry out
functions in the cell, thereby generating a phenotype? The
grading of these responses was performed by a course instruc-
tor who knew neither the students’ names nor which students
had participated in the laboratory component.
Criterion A: four of the eight nonlab students thought that
biochemistry and genetics were in the same course because
they are connected. Two of the remaining four thought there
might be a connection, and two saw no connection at all. In
contrast, all seven of the laboratory students thought that the
topics were connected. Criterion B: only four of the eight
nonlab students demonstrated an understanding that bio-
chemical and genetic processes occur in the same cell,
whereas all seven lab students demonstrated this under-
standing. Criterion C: six of eight nonlab students explained
that the connection between biochemistry and genetics was
that genes encode proteins, whereas six of seven lab stu-
dents gave this explanation and the seventh hinted at it, but
did not give a complete answer. Criterion D: only four
students took their explanation to the point of discussing
that genes encode proteins and proteins function to create
phenotypes. Three of these students participated in the lab
and one did not.
Because the sample size is so small and the question was
so open ended, it is difficult to draw any statistically signif-
icant conclusions from the data. However, there is a striking
and consistent trend demonstrating that the students who
participated in the laboratory component were better able to
see the connections and articulate the top-level ideas that
were inherent in a discussion of why the course might
include both biochemistry and genetics than students who
did not participate in the lab component.
We conclude the students who participated in the class
had a better comprehension of top-level concepts, because in
order for the students to explain the connection between the
principles of biochemistry and genetics they must under-
stand top-level concepts 2, 7, 8, and 12 (see Introduction). If
the students did not understand these concepts, they would
have been unable to link biochemistry and genetics through
the central dogma of molecular biology.
Relative Contributions of Four Aspects of Each
Based on our initial small-scale assessments, it seems that
students who participated in the laboratory component
demonstrate some improvement in their understanding and
attitudes. However, in principle it is possible that such gains
would result from any intervention, rather than from the
particulars of our laboratory component. To try to determine
what led to the student improvement, students were asked
to rate the contribution of the four aspects of the laboratory
component: performing experiments, in-class discussion of
concepts, in-class discussion of experimental techniques,
and spending more time with 7.012 staff. The results are
presented in Table 3. As discussed previously, multiple t
tests present the problem of possible inflation of the overall
?. In that the sample size is small and that the study is
exploratory in scope, review of t test results is instructive as
long as one remains mindful of the Bonferroni inequality.
On average, students ranked discussion of concepts as the
most important aspect of the class. Further, when the rela-
tive contributions of the four aspects are compared pair-wise
using the two-tailed t test, there is a statistically significant
Concept-based Laboratory Component
Vol. 5, Spring 200647
(p ? 0.033) difference between the student-perceived value
of discussing the concepts and actually performing the ex-
periments. In the other two pair-wise tests involving discus-
sion of concepts, the concept aspect of the course rated
consistently higher, although not below the p ? 0.05 statis-
tically significant cutoff. Because several t tests were run, the
Bonferroni inequality applies. However, the data suggest
that class discussion played a leading role. Given the explor-
atory nature of the study and small sample size, further
study is necessary to verify this claim. We, therefore, con-
clude that discussion of concepts was a key element of the
course, from the students’ perspective.
This assessment is of particular interest to the instructors,
since the original idea of designing this course was to focus
on the concepts in the context of experiments. We, therefore,
feel that this concept-centered blending of the minds-on
aspect of discussion and the hands-on aspect of performing
experiments succeeded, at least in impressing upon the stu-
dents the central role that understanding the concepts plays
in modern biology. In the interview one student (student A
in Appendix A) talked about the importance of concepts in
the course this way: “And the fact that we talked about
things and I did the experiments instead of just doing the
experiments was, I think, a really good thing. . . . if you don’t
understand the background, and you just do the procedure,
it’s going to mean nothing.” Another student (student E in
Appendix A) pointed out the need for blending approaches
when she said “I think that just being able to do what you’re
learning about [in class] grounds it in reality.” These quotes
highlight the combination of hands-on and minds-on activ-
ities as an effective mechanism for teaching biology.
On the basis of the surveys and student interviews, we
conclude that the laboratory component was a success on
two levels. One, the students gave it very high marks and
continued to attend the sessions despite the fact that this was
completely voluntary and they would receive no credit for
participation. Two, the students who participated in the
laboratory component are better able to articulate key con-
cepts from the BCF and identify the connections between
Our voluntary laboratory sessions bore many resem-
blances to other laboratory courses. However, there were
five key features that we believe contributed to its success.
Here, we report and discuss an example of the efficacy of
each feature. Materials and Methods includes an abbreviated
example of one of our lesson plans. Some particular exam-
ples in the discussion below come from the lesson plan in
Materials and Methods.
Use of a Story Line
In agreement with the NRC report, How People Learn (2000),
we feel that reviewing important concepts as they arise within
the story line of investigating cysteine biosynthesis should
enhance learning and retention of concepts. We chose to use
the yeast CYS4 gene and protein as the lead player in a story
that continued over many sessions, because cys4 null mutants
have easily identifiable phenotypes in yeast and humans
and Cox, 1994; Kabil et al., 2001). In addition, access to a mutant
protein with characterized changes in size and activity (Jhee et
al., 2000) and the existence of a yeast assay for the functionality
of various human alleles of CBS (human analog of CYS4;
Kruger and Cox, 1995; Shan et al., 2001) made cysteine biosyn-
thesis a versatile choice for the story line.
When using a story line, ideas are introduced “just in
time,” helping the students appreciate the applicability of
the new knowledge and make sense of it. In addition, when
instructors repeat previously covered material in a slightly
different context, it should enhance students’ abilities to
transfer that knowledge to a new situation (NRC, 2000;
Anderson et al., 1996). For example, during a class session
students were initially stumped when asked to explain a
genetic phenomenon in biochemical terms. However, upon
consideration of the cysteine auxotrophs they had isolated
and the mutant protein they had run on a gel, the students
were able to appreciate and articulate why and how every
genetic phenomenon must ultimately have a biochemical ex-
planation. The story line helped the students make connections
between concepts from different units of the course. Student
comments on their perceived benefit of the story line are listed
in Appendix A. Others researchers have also documented the
positive effect of theme-based curricula on the development of
student skills and attitudes (Norton et al., 1997).
Emphasis on Discussing the Concepts
Compared with learning environments that stress memori-
zation, a learning environment in which the students’ un-
derstanding of relevant concepts is explored and challenged
improves learning, retention, and transfer of those concepts
(NRC, 2000). Discussing concepts also allows us to uncover
connections between various concepts and topics in the
course. For example, discussing why we UV irradiate yeast
and plate them on complete media as the first step in an
auxotrophy screen allowed us to explicitly articulate how
clonal colony formation is based on the concepts of DNA
being the genetic material in a cell and cells being produced
from other cells. Discussion of the concepts behind the ex-
periments also allowed for multiple opportunities for infor-
mal formative assessment. In addition, research has shown
that class formats combining concept discussion with exper-
iments (minds-on hands-on hybrid) seems to increase stu-
dent appreciation for the nature of the subject as well as the
connected nature of the concepts in it (Laws, 1991).
Benefits of Discussing the Techniques
We perceived great value in discussing the concepts behind
the actual experimental techniques involved. Research has
shown that approaches such as this aid in improving trans-
fer (Anderson et al., 1996; NRC, 2000) as well as concept
retention, and the understanding of connections between
concepts (NRC, 2000). For example, cloning by complemen-
tation and the use of different media for screening colonies
were assessed on a midterm exam after being discussed both
in the lecture and recitation section portion of the class. The
logic of the exam question (which we did not write) fol-
lowed a flow similar to our planned laboratory session on
the topic. Many laboratory students felt that if only they had
D. G. Halme et al.
CBE—Life Sciences Education 48
that laboratory session before the exam, it would have
helped them master the concepts and they would have been
better able to answer the exam question. We think that this
approach of discussing the concepts behind laboratory tech-
niques also helps remove student apprehension about “do-
ing the lab right” as discussed below.
Student Performance of Key Parts of the
We did not have enough time in each laboratory session to
have students perform the experiments in their entirety. Our
solution was to focus student attention on performing only
the most interesting, fun, or instructive portions of the ex-
periment. For example, students did not pour agar plates,
but they did plate the yeast, identify and pick potential
mutant colonies, and streak them onto new plates.
However, we made sure to discuss the unperformed as-
pects of the experiment. Students did not pour their own
denaturing protein gels, but we did discuss what such a gel
consists of, how and why it works, and what else is needed
for electrophoresis to work. The goal of this design, which
was well received by students, was to ensure understanding
of the concepts behind the laboratory techniques and to
promote understanding of the connections between various
concepts behind the techniques. One student (student F in
Appendix A) commented in her interview that she “didn’t
like [her] previous labs because [she] was nervous about not
doing it right, [she] was worried about finishing.” In this
laboratory class, “[the instructors] do all of the crunch work
for you” and thereby eliminate this nervousness about time
and mistakes. The concept of limited laboratory exposure
targeted to improve student understanding is not new. Since
1992, CityLab at Boston University, and now their Mobile-
Lab, have had great results serving tens of thousands of high
school students with short discovery-based laboratories
(Franzblau et al., 2001).
As described in Materials and Methods, we ended each labo-
ratory session by posing a Thought Question that was de-
signed to help the students integrate the concepts illustrated
by the experiments in that session, and a discussion of the
students’ answers was used as the start of the next session.
Below are Thought Questions for laboratory sessions 3
and 4, in which students identify mutant yeast that are
unable to synthesize cysteine (Session #3) and then mate
yeast strains to determine which strains harbored mutations
in the same complementation group (Session #4).
Session #3: In 1908 a physician in London named
Archibald Garrod had some new patients with an
unusual condition: when their urine came into
contact with air it turned black. Compare his
quandary to the lab we did today.
i) In both cases (our lab and Dr Garrod’s clinic) who
Is the wildtype phenotype?
Is the assay?
Is the mutant?
ii) By calling something or someone a mutant what
assumption have we made?
iii) What else would you want to know about Dr
Garrod’s patients to determine if this assumption is
Session #4: Two patients who both suffer from the
disease in which their urine turns black upon
contacting air meet in Dr. Garrod’s office. They fall
in love, get married, and have a child. The child
does not have the black urine disease. What are the
The first of these questions asks students to draw direct
parallels between the experiment they performed and a
classic study (Garrod, 1902). In the next question, the link to
the experiment performed by the students is not as explicit,
but continues with the experimental scenario. However,
discussing the actual results of the complementation exper-
iment led to the formulation of an unanticipated answer to
the Thought Question. Because there was a contaminant in
one of the yeast strains used in the complementation assay,
the controls gave conflicting results. On discussing how
possible contamination confounded our interpretation of
results, one of the students thought back to our discussion of
the Thought Question where parents who both had black
urine disease had a child who did not have the disease and
exclaimed “Maybe Mrs. Black Urine was unfaithful!” This
demonstrates not only an ability to understand the experi-
ment and its interpretation, but to apply this understanding
to new situations.
As illustrated by the above example, Thought Questions
provided continuity from one session to the next, allowed
students an additional chance to learn and retain the con-
cepts covered in the previous week’s laboratory, to see how
that knowledge can be transferred and applied to a new
context, to make connections between various concepts from
the previous labs, and possibly to build a bridge to the
concepts in the new lab, all of which is consistent with
contributing to improved student performance (NRC, 2000).
In addition, Thought Questions allowed us consistent op-
portunities to practice formative assessment and to provide
students with feedback and additional clarification of the
concepts from previous sessions, which is critical to student
success (NRC, 2001, 2003). Finally, because these questions
mostly described real-world situations they created an op-
portunity for students to notice and appreciate the role
biology plays in their world.
Interestingly, time spent with the course staff received the
lowest average value of the four elements considered as
contributing to student success in the course (Table 3). These
results are encouraging to us because they indicate that it
was the course design, using the principles of the BCF as a
guide, rather than the personalities of the instructors that
contributed to student success. Although initial course de-
sign, individual session design, procurement of materials,
and first-time experiment preparation took a significant in-
vestment of our time and energy, the lesson plans are now
available to all who are interested in implementing our labo-
ratory component at their institutions (http://web.mit.edu/
Concept-based Laboratory Component
Vol. 5, Spring 200649
bioedgroup/labsnapshot.htm). The data above indicate that
using this laboratory component would be beneficial in any
environment where a focus on concepts is desired.
We feel that many of the laboratory sessions we have
designed and tested are highly transferable because the
topics chosen would likely be found in any undergraduate
Introductory Biology class. Ultimately we feel that our ap-
proach is highly transferable because most large lecture
classes already have a small learning environment compo-
nent in the form of a lab or recitation section. We argue that
these sessions can be used very effectively if they are mod-
ified to become a hybrid of both hands-on and minds-on
activities guided by a concept framework.
We thank Brian White for conducting the interviews, Michelle
Mischke for scoring the answers to the question about the
connection between biochemistry and genetics, and Kimberly Tanner
for helping us to think about how to analyze our work and
construct the manuscript. This work was funded by a Howard
Hughes Medical Institute Professorship awarded to G.C.W.
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D. G. Halme et al.
CBE—Life Sciences Education50
EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEWS OF STUDENTS PERFORMED
FIVE MONTHS AFTER THE END OF THEIR PARTICIPATION IN
THE VOLUNTARY LABORATORY COMPONENT OF INTRODUCTORY BIOLOGY
Interviews were performed by a visiting professor who was
familiar with the course material but had no previous con-
tact with the students. A full list of interview questions can
be found in Appendix B.
I. Make Abstract Concepts Tangible
Lab student A: It’s very easy to try to say in the lecture that
UV radiation causes mutagenesis. When you actually go in
a lab and you look and you say, okay, this is the plate
originally, this is the plate after I’ve subjected it to UV
radiation. Wow it does not look the same.
Lab student F: [I]t was kind of like the picture just sink in
my head and then like, sometimes when I was sitting for the
exam, in the exam, [the picture] would just come.
Lab student C: [I]t was interesting to see . . . you can
actually change cells just by inserting something in them.
Lab student E: I just think being able to do what you are
learning about grounds it in reality.
Lab student B: It’s interesting to see how stuff is actually
done. You know, like you read about in all these magazines
II. Encourage Learning in a Nonlecture Format
Lab student A: [I]t was a chance to clarify in a smaller
environment, where you could actually see and understand
Lab student E: I think it’s a lot easier to understand what’s
happening after you actually do the experiment.
III. Expose Students to Scientific Method in Action
Lab student C: You can’t expect to be perfect all the time, and
no one’s going to have it work out all the time, and you’ve just
got to look for what went wrong and figure[it] out.
IV. Convey the Excitement of Performing
Lab student G: I think that whole atmosphere that it—I
know this sounds as hokey as it sounds—but biology as a
science of discovery.
Lab student A: [I]t’s really, really cool to see your DNA in
this little tube.
Lab student E: I particularly liked to isolate your own
DNA. I just thought that was fun.
Lab student B: [I]t was interesting. It wasn’t mind blow-
ing. but it was cool.
Lab student G: Yeah, so that was cool because you have a
little vial of [DNA].
Students Recognizing and Valuing the Story Line:
Lab student A: I think that it was very helpful because they
had this sort of constant line that they were looking at and
they were trying to attach different subjects on each point,
which was a lot easier when you had something to attach
Lab student F: What made them memorable? The reason
I remember those [experiments] is because we had talked at
the end about how what we were looking at was like a
whole system. That’s why we used cysteine the whole time.
THE INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Questions labeled with an asterisk were asked only of stu-
dents who participated in the laboratory component. All
students were asked the unlabeled questions.
1. Why did you take 7.012?
2. In what ways did the course meet your expectations?
3. In what ways did the course not meet your expecta-
4. What in the class engendered good attitudes about
biology (as a science or a thing to study)?
5. What in the course turned you off to biology (as a
science or a thing to study)?
6. Were there any take home messages in the class?
7*. How did you feel about the lab?
8*. Were there some experiments that were particularly
memorable? Why did you do them?
9*. Were there some experiments that you particularly
10*. Were there some experiments that you don’t think
were worth doing?
11*. What in the lab engendered good attitudes about
12*. What in the lab engendered bad attitudes about biology?
13*. What is the relationship between the lab and the class?
14. Why does the class include both biochemistry and
15. What do you think it means to be a biologist? What do
they do all day?
Follow-up questions to parts of the survey:
16. Cold virus experiment - Can the virus be spread
through the air?
17. Cold virus experiment - Is spreading through the air
the most efficient way?
18. What ideas/concepts from the course come to mind
when reading the AIDS article?
Concept-based Laboratory Component
Vol. 5, Spring 200651