John C. Swann, Senior Lecturer, Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Technology, Sydney
UniServe Science News Volume 6 March 1997


Biochemistry Assessment Surveyed

John Swann

My study leave or professional experience program (PEP) in 1996 afforded me the opportunity to indulge a long standing interest in how we assess our undergraduate students in biochemistry. I was based for the semester in the School of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the University of New South Wales, but made visits to 25 Departments or Schools teaching biochemistry and related topics (including chemistry, physiology and pathology) in 14 Australian Universities. I discussed with academic colleagues their favoured assessment practices and inquired about how they are adapting their teaching and assessment to the opportunities offered by new educational tools and the challenges posed by dwindling resources. In several Universities I gave seminars or conducted group discussions, in others I met informally with academic staff. Through literature research and contact with university centres for educational enhancement I also looked into assessment strategies popular in non-science disciplines, and considered their potential applicability to biochemistry.

I found consensus that assessment is most worthy of attention, but usually neglected amidst the daily pressure of things required for survival and advancement in the current climate. With few exceptions, assessment in undergraduate biochemistry subjects relies heavily on a traditional written theory exam, perhaps supplemented by a semester test, these contributing around 50-80% of the mark. Practical work is recognised as important but only rated 10-30% because it needs considerable resources to assess true practical skills. The remainder of the assessment, up to 20%, generally involved assignment or project work. Within this category, and especially in the final year, fell innovative ideas such as a critique of a scientific paper within a small group, poster presentations on a group laboratory project, metabolic case studies, or critical evaluations of the biochemical bases for advertised claims about products such as nutritional supplements. Assessments involving oral presentations by students were felt to be very successful in promoting active learning by the presenter but probably not by the audience.

Assessment that is weighted towards the exam can be defended as efficient, unbiased and having good authenticity by throwing each student on his/her own resources. However, we recognise that this type of regime drives students towards undesirable forms of learning by rewarding primarily short term recall of factual information. Assignment or project tasks of the type mentioned above that can steer the student towards independent learning, critical and problem-solving approaches and self-management were set in most courses, but generally given low weighting because they are difficult to assess accurately. No department that I visited has fully embraced problem based learning, and it was generally felt that limited resources and the difficulty of being out of step with a student's other subjects militated against this practice. However, most academics teaching biochemistry agree that the subject can lend itself to incorporating elements of problem based learning.

Clearly assessment must be kept in perspective, the right tasks being chosen to harness assessable activities in support of worthwhile interaction between student and course material, whilst not overloading the student or the academic. It can be frustrating to the student who wishes to undertake deeper learning in some aspect of a course to be enslaved by the need to keep abreast of a myriad of assessment tasks; likewise it is counterproductive for academic staff to be continually deluged with correcting and marking. These factors directed my focus particularly towards exploring peer assessment, self assessment and computer-aided assessment in the search for an enlightened solution to the seemingly contradictory aims and needs of assessment.

Peer assessment was used sparingly in the places I visited, and mainly for oral presentations. Those who had tried it felt it had educational value but were reluctant to assign much weight to peer gradings. Self assessment allied to computer-aided learning is used with success in some departments. Though mainly employed for purely formative assessment, no grades being recorded, it represents a valuable learning resource for students and once set up does not require excessive maintenance. There was caution about deriving numerical grades from self assessment. Nevertheless, both peer and self assessment have undoubted potential to promote useful learning and personal development skills. Computer-aided assessment is often thought of among biochemists as synonymous with objective testing, and few expressed enthusiasm for multiple choice tests beyond their efficiency for large classes. However, I saw sufficient evidence of objective tests designed to encourage deductive reasoning rather than recall, to convince me to pursue this area further. Questions based on the applications of biochemical knowledge to the interpretation of experimental data seem particularly suited to "thinking" objective tests. A good example is given by Tamir (1991), who incidentally proposes an interesting compromise in the perennial debate about negative marking in objective tests. We are also just beginning to see the impact of the world wide web in broadening the scope of assessment tasks that students can be asked to undertake on line, and this will be an interesting field in which to be involved.

A notion that surfaced in discussions in various places was that of setting up internet links to allow biochemistry academics to disseminate assessment ideas and draw on tasks and experiences contributed by colleagues. I hope to take this idea further, capitalising on contacts made during this project.

My www version of this report provides a link to an embryonic "Directory of Biochemistry Assessments

A world wide web version of this report may be found at:


Tamir, P. (1991) Multiple choice items: how to gain the most out of them Biochem Ed 19, 188-192.


I am most grateful to Professor Ian Dawes for allowing me the resources of his School to conduct this PEP project and Associate Professor Mike Edwards, also of the School of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, University of New South Wales, for his collaboration and helpful discussions throughout. I am also indebted to academic colleagues, too numerous to mention individually, throughout Australia for hosting my visits to their departments and being so generous with their precious time.

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UniServe Science News Volume 6 March 1997

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