Desirable difficulities


Welcome back to “EdCommversations” with Liam Hallada (a graduate student interested in teaching) and Alison Dell (Associate Professor at a teaching-focused institution). Today Liam’s question leads to resources for incorporating primary literature and problem solving into STEM teaching.

[When Liam joined the Zoom, Alison was finishing a meeting with a student sharing a DNA sequence, confirming an expected PCR product size for a mutational analysis.] 

Alison: That student was in the lab with me last week and literally screamed with happiness when the PCR product on the gel was the same size as predicted. When this student did the PCR the first time, it didn’t work. They were so disappointed in their blank gel, and now they’re really happy because they got it and know they did it themselves. 

Liam: Can navigating these challenges be learned sooner? Or are there resources for teaching this? I think that many students are afraid to ask questions and afraid to get it wrong. And I remember experiencing that myself.

Alison: I hear you. Before graduate school, I worked in a big lab and on the way to the first lab meeting, my postdoc mentor said, “Don’t ask any questions. People will be very nice, but they will think you’re an idiot, so just don’t.” (For the record this otherwise excellent mentor is now horrified that they said that.)  Unsurprisingly I asked zero questions. I didn’t know that asking questions and reading papers are learned skills that take practice.

Teaching Resources: As scientists, we are often called on to solve problems, but traditional courses don’t make room for teaching this critical skill set. If you’re looking for a place to start, ASCB has a great resource on problem solving in the classroom. It talks about the idea of “desirable difficulties”—something that might be challenging at first but ultimately contributes to learning. How can we facilitate these experiences without adding to classroom disparities? A recent study found that 74% of students reported that they struggled in their gateway courses, and that many struggles are related to different levels of preparedness to take the course. 

My classes usually have a journal club component focused on figure analysis. That’s because taking apart a scientific paper presents many different challenges but is a key skill in being a scientist.

Incorporating primary literature in undergraduate teaching can promote persistence in STEM. If you’re getting started, Science in the Classroom is a great resource that annotates journal articles to help students with the vocabulary and structure of scientific literature. It’s organized into collections with additional teaching resources such as activities from HHMI’s Biointeractive. The Explorer’s Guide to Biology’s guided papers is particularly great for cell biology. In my class, some students read the paper and use the resources, and inevitably others will not. I tell those students that it’s also a valuable skill to be able to look at a graph and figure out what it’s saying without reading the paper. Everyone can and does participate in the analysis.

Students work in teams knowing that someone in the class will be called to analyze the figure through a framework of questions. What is the question the figure asks? What’s the method and how does it work? What did the researchers observe? What did they conclude? Does the student agree with the conclusion? By the end of term students are consistently much better at answering data-focused questions. My framework is homegrown from teaching myself to read papers. I encourage my students to find a way that works for them. From a teaching standpoint, there are many validated variations, such as the CREATE method, where students take a similar approach reading a series of papers from the same lab. Students can parse figures on paper or tablet using Two Photon Art’s Journal Article Notebook, which was created to introduce undergraduates at UC Berkeley to primary literature analysis.  

Whatever you do, don’t just pick a paper and throw it at your students. Provide a framework, and let students teach each other by working together. In education speak, this is called collaborative learning, and if you’d like to build more of it into your future classes, LSE has a guide on this too.

Next time: growth mindset, tools for teaching students to give and receive meaningful peer feedback 

About the Author:

Alison Dell is an associate professor of Biology at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY and member of ASCB’s Education Committee. Twitter @dell_alison
Liam P. Hallada started in the mountains of New Mexico and travelled to the river in Memphis, TN, to earn a PhD studying developmental neurobiology at the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.