Critical Thinking Skills: How to Get Your Students to Think Like a Biochemist

September 13, 2019 John Tansey

"How do you know that?"

Probably once a year a student in class will ask this question or some variation of it. It's both a simple question and one that is quite complex; How is it that I know how to start solving a problem or how to analyze a complex diagram or pathway? Sometimes there is necessary prior knowledge, but students are often left with the impression that they should possess some sort of intuition about a problem or scenario as if by magic or instinct. Unfortunately, we, as faculty, sometimes compound this issue by telling a student or class, "Well, you should know this."

Early on in my math education, I was given the impression that "knowing" something like the equation for the quadratic formula was intuitive, and I should've just been born with this ability. So, I understand how a student feels. We're not trying to give our students the wrong idea when we say, "You should know this." Instead, we're letting them know that through earlier experiences and learning, they should've mastered a particular topic.

Everyone Wants Critical Thinking or Higher-level Learning, But What Do They Mean?

Everyone from public leaders to private accrediting agencies is asking educators to foster critical thinking and higher-level learning skills in their students. But what exactly are those skills, and what do they mean in our discipline? Is merely teaching them the steps of a biochemical pathway enough, or is there something broader or deeper that we seek to instill within our students? 

In 1956 the educator Benjamin Bloom developed six categories for classification of knowledge. These categories are known as Bloom's Taxonomy. The taxonomy is often used to create and categorize learning outcomes and objectives. The first three categories (knowledge, comprehension, and application) form what is considered lower-level knowledge. The remaining three (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) form the upper level. For this discussion, I use a slightly different definition. I'm going to divide critical thinking and higher-level learning into three parts: observation, analysis, and synthesis.

1. Observation

Observation involves gathering all the data, both apparent and hidden. When we hear the word "observation" in the sciences, we often default to thinking about lab exercises. Students, when participating in lab work, are expected to note things such as when a rate or temperature changes or if a solution changes color. These are observations, of course, but, as scientists, we don't relegate observation to the lab; we observe all the time. If we depict a protein molecule in class, yet fail to note any distinguishing features, students are left with the idea that the structure isn't important.  If we were to show 50 protein molecules in a textbook, all different, but depicted in the same way, without the labeling or coloring of notable features, we drive the above misconception home. In the lab, students are primed to look for changes in rate, temperature, or color. Likewise, illustrations play an important role when it comes to observation outside of a lab environment, pointing out what features are essential, and why.

2. Analysis

Analysis puts things into context and lets students make judgments. When students think of analysis, they may think of data analysis, and clearly, that would be a great fit for this category, but it isn't the only one. If students are asked to compare two different solutions to a problem, doing so requires analysis. If a student needs to assess the quality or validity of a source of information, that also requires analysis. If a student is asked to criticize a work, the exercise involves analysis. Analysis is a higher-level process, requiring students to draw on a variety of different skills to do it well; however, analysis is a skill that's learned. Questions that need students to go beyond describing a pathway or process and instead ask them what happens if a piece is missing begin to build these skills.

3. Synthesis

Synthesis validates and extends knowledge further. Like observation and analysis, synthesis has a distinct meaning in science. Here, students may think of an organic synthesis or a biosynthetic pathway, but again, broadening the category gives them a different insight into what it means to synthesize information. Synthesis could involve proposing a complex solution to a novel problem, designing an experiment to test a new hypothesis, or proposing a treatment based on several symptoms.  All of these solutions are creative, requiring students to take the next step, and build from observation and analysis.

Wrapping It All Up

Collectively, these three habits of mind are useful not only in biochemistry, but in numerous fields including medicine, science, and just everyday life.

If we genuinely believe that observation, analysis, and synthesis are not instincts but are learned skills, then they can be taught as such.  However, to teach these means that we need to think about how we present material, the material we emphasize for students to study, and what and how we assess their work. This requires re-examining some of our teaching methods and questions we ask of our students. Much of what we do in the classroom and lab is more than likely fine. But perhaps, there are things we may want to modify in a way that focuses student learning on a higher- or critical-thinking level.

My book uses all of the above elements in a one-year biochemistry course.  The illustrations were designed to assist students in visualizing pathways, macromolecular processes, and complex molecules. The organization, flow, and labeling of diagrams helps develop observational skills. The text integrates worked problems, data analysis, and experimental design throughout every chapter to help students analyze scenarios, biomedical examples, and raw experimental data. Students then make critical decisions on the validity of an approach or source. 

Finally, in each chapter, students are asked to draw conclusions and propose something new—either in designing an experiment or by offering a unique solution to a complex problem. These skills help with the critical thinking and higher-level thinking skills that everyone wants.  They help them to think like a biochemist.


Find out more by visiting: Biochemistry, Volume 1 by John T. Tansey

Previous Article
Using the Rule of Three to Improve Your Lecture
Using the Rule of Three to Improve Your Lecture

Using the Rule of Three can help make lecture content more engaging, enjoyable, and memorable.

Next Article
7 Essentials for Instructors for Engaging Presentations
7 Essentials for Instructors for Engaging Presentations

Educational research provides useful information about what constitutes an effective lecture presentation, ...