UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999


BCHM2001 (Genes and Proteins) and BCHM2002 (Molecules, Metabolism and Cells)

Joanne Beaver
School of Human and Biomedical Sciences, University of Canberra

Many institutions are now finding the World Wide Web a useful tool for the efficient dissemination of information to students. Pages are being constructed at most Australian universities and their style of use is almost as varied as the subject matter covered. Some sites provide only administrative information, others offer lecture notes either in brief or in detail, and some provide interactive programs that allow students to manipulate molecular models on screen. By and large the construction of the subject-centred pages has been the preserve of the excited hobbyist academic without much support (in terms of time relief or technical support) from the institution offering the subject.

At The University of Sydney suites of pages related to second year biochemistry teaching in BCHM2001 and BCHM2002 have been constructed. These can be accessed through the home page of a member (Gareth Denyer) of the academic team who teach in the subject. These pages offer a range of materials to students. These include detailed course handouts, contact details of all lecturing staff involved in the courses, some lecture note summaries, sets of review and tutorial questions often with answers provided, past examination questions and answers, and assorted administrative information.

The course handout for each subject covers all the points one would expect including assessment and how students should deal with overdue or missed assessment tasks. The description of the syllabus is particularly useful as it provides a list of the main points covered in each lecture and notes which staff member will have responsibility for that lecture. There is a semester timetable that details the order of lectures but this is rather cryptic as it refers to staff involved by initials and not directly to the topic they will be presenting. One particularly wonderful part of the handout page was the quiz on "Will I pass Biochemistry?". This multiple choice quiz offered students witty choices on what they would be doing during lectures, laboratory classes and other times during their biochemistry studies. I would love to see this followed by a few pithy sentences in summation.

Many materials are provided for students as a support for their learning. These include review and tutorial questions. In most cases the answers are provided which allows students to readily assess their own progress and depth of understanding. Some lecture summaries are also provided but the nature of these is variable; some are presented as a very brief overview, a couple of paragraphs with references, whilst others are extensive. These summaries helpfully provide the student with pointers to the especially relevant sections of the recommended textbooks.

I am sure students gratefully read the past papers (with answers). When past papers are not made available, some students tend to imagine the final examination will be an even more hellish paper than we, as biochemistry lecturers, could ever devise.

Another useful feature is the inclusion of links from the 1999 second semester page, which enable the download of locally developed software modules. Also associated with these pages is a list of questions submitted after lectures. These anonymous questions are provided with straightforward answers often with a humorous twist. Humour is frequently absent from educational pages and its absence can make them dry and tedious. The 1999 page only offered the 1999 questions and answers, however access to the excellent 1997 and 1996 questions and answers presented on other versions of the BCHM2002 pages could also be incorporated to broaden the students' perception of what other questions might be asked. The addition of a threaded discussion/bulletin board might also be useful. This enables both staff and students to save time. One student will ask a question that 30 others have been wondering about. The academic answers the question once only on the bulletin board, rather than multiple times face-to-face in the office or laboratory.

The presentation of an exemplar experimental design question and a full answer is a terrific feature. The answer clearly lays out a plan of attack and follows this with a logical solution for the question. This sort of question and answer provides students with a model of best practice and some confidence that they know what is expected of them. It also allows the academic staff to deal with the same question "I don't know where to start with this assignment." from multiple students in a single electronic answer. The provision of a series of pages devoted to "Frequently Asked (administrative) Questions" is another time saver for both students and academic staff. One advantage for the students is they find out answers to questions they hadn't even thought of yet, and so solve problems before they arise.

Overall these pages offer students many useful tools for their biochemistry study. Sadly the academic value of the pages is reduced by problems of access and presentation. Unfortunately these pages for BCHM2001 and BCHM2002 are not provided within a coherent site structure. Moving through links originating in Gareth Denyer's home page I was confronted with three different versions of the second semester materials including three different course handouts (with substantial differences in syllabus). Only two of these were dated (1998 and 1999). A small amount of work would be needed to ameliorate this problem; perhaps by providing a single front page that directs visitors directly to the materials in BCHM2001 and BCHM2002, together with the location of all the materials in an intuitively named directory structure (for example It would also be useful to delete the out-of-date pages from the server and develop a consistent presentation for similar information in the first (BCHM2001) and second semester (BCHM2002) units.

In general the pages contain great information but the lack of attention to presentation and spacing means the pages are sometimes difficult to read and don't invite the reader to dwell and browse. Many of the question pages contain unnumbered questions and several contain formatting errors, for example incorrect super- and sub-scripting in formulae and units. Would these constitute grounds for a student expectation of full marks when they use incorrect formulae and units? Some academics might contend that if the page contains the information you want to know then who cares what it looks like. On the other hand, if we are in the communication business then best practice communication should be what we should aim for - good page design yields good readability and better understanding.

Overall this site provides students with very useful resources and deserves institutional support for its continued maintenance and development. The academic content of the pages is leavened with humour and imagination. Long may they prosper.

BCHM2001 (Genes and Proteins) is located at:
BCHM2002 (Molecules, Metabolism and Cells) is located at:
They are maintained by Gareth Denyer, The University of Sydney

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UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999

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