The Ideal Biology Graduate

Brian Fristensky frist at
Mon Nov 28 13:47:08 EST 1994

In article 8488 at, gingole at (Elliot Gingold) writes:
> I am writing from the other side of the Altantic where we are equally busy
> with constant reexaminations of what we teach in Biology degrees. I cannot
> agree with Brian, however, that it is all unnecessary. At least in England,
> several factors have forced the need for change onto us.
Perhaps I was being a tad emphatic. I didn't mean to imply that there was anything
intrinsically wrong with curriculum review. What disturbs me is that everybody
seems to be doing it because everybody else is doing it. (The alternative
hypothesis being that thousands of departments, all at about the same time,
decided independently that it was time for a curriculum review.)

> Perhaps the most important is the fact that we now have about twice the 
> number of students on each course, but the same number of staff and other
> resources (this is called efficiency). As a result, the time we have available
> for student contact has been greatly reduced, and class sizes greatly
> increased. There is this new concept called student centered learning,
> which is supported by educational theorists, but frequently means less 
> learning. (It is also called FOFO - work that one out). But seriously, this
> has meant that we have had to drastically revise what we teach and how we do
> it. The old methods could not be used.
> Secondly, students are coming with far weaker backgrounds and NEED more 
> teaching of fundamentals. This is due both to the increase in the numbers
> entering higher education and the fact that science is less popular, so we
> get the weaker students who cannot get in to other courses. And perhaps also
> to a poor attitude engendered by current social conditions.
To amplify this point: The university is being asked to under take provide remedial
services on an unprecedented scale, and still get the students up to speed by
the time they graduate, with LESS funding and FEWER staff than in the past.
For example, our curriculum now includes a course called 'Introduction to the
University', which includes learning how to use the library, how to study,
basics of personal computer use and other skills for coping with the 
demands of a university education. Our student newspaper did a comical review
of selections from the course catalogue, and the review for this course
said something like "if you need this course, then perhaps you really shouldn't
be here".

I am as willing as any professor to spend time with students who need extra
help, do as much as I can to be accessible and supportive. However, I believe
that too much support is a bad thing. One of the intangible things you should
learn at university is how to be an independent problem solver. You can not
go through life with some higher authority guiding you every step of the way.
You should learn how to use the library not because it is required in a
course, but because it dawns on you that if you don't, you won't be able
to conduct your studies. A competitive environment forces you to learn how
to swim, lest you sink. There is no safe substitute for this important 

A second reason that I object to the increasing proportion of the curriculum
being shifted towards remedial training is that it necessarily detracts
from the actual subject matter that must be learned to obtain a degree.
When the curriculum is 'expanded' to fit in 'Intro. to the Univ.', and 
remedial writing, and 'college math', advanced level course must be thrown
out in the final year. Additionally, we are forced to include remedial
material in many other courses to get everyone up to speed, which means,
again, less actual new material being covered. 

I wish that the universities would stand fast and not simply lower their
entrance standards as the preparation of incomming students goes down.
The strongly-motivated students will always be prepared, even if they 
did attend a poor secondary school. Those who did not have the foresight
to actually learn something in primary and secondary school may have
to spend a year or two working at a low-paying job to convince themselves
that they need a better education, and then perhaps an additional year
at a community college to bring themselves up to the level required at
a university. At the end of that process, they will be much better prepared
than they would have been if they had just jumped right into college
immediately after high school. 

This is how it used to be before a college education became a right, rather than
a goal. The problem lies in the primary and secondary educational systems,
in which no one is allowed to fail, and children are not forced to learn
the difficult lessons that come from taking responsibility for your own
actions. If we're supposed to be preparing students for the 'real world', 
then education must contain some degree of Darwinian selection. Or, as my
high school track coach so eloquently put it, "no pain, no gain".

> On the positive side, there is some recognition that science courses tended
> in the past to teach students to remember and not think, and so some revision
> might actually be for positive reasons. 
I have no argument than that. Unfortunately, most of what I've seen in 
curriculum review has involved the reshuffling of what we teach, with
little emphasis on HOW we teach. 

> +----------------------------------+------------------------------+
> | Elliot Gingold                   | Voice: +44 (0)171 815 7934   |
> | Division of Biological Science   | Fax:   +44 (0)171 815 7999   |
> | School of Applied Science        | Email: gingole at |
> | South Bank Univ., London, UK     | These opinions are mine      |
> +----------------------------------+------------------------------+

Brian Fristensky                | 
Department of Plant Science     |  Life doesn't imitate art,
University of Manitoba          |  it imitates bad television. 
Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2  CANADA    |  
frist at           |  
Office phone:   204-474-6085    |  Woody Allen, HUSBANDS AND WIVES  
FAX:            204-261-5732    |  

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