Adjusting a biochemistry course for physical education majors: A case study


  • Caetano da Costa,

    Corresponding author
    1. Universidade de Ribeirão Preto, Ribeirão Preto 14030-000, Brasil
    2. Departamento de Bioquímica, Instituto de Química, Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo 05508-900, Brasil
    • Caetano da Costa, Av. Caramuru, 2730 Apto 61 Bloco 2 CEP 14030-000, Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, Brazil
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  • Bayardo B. Torres

    1. Departamento de Bioquímica, Instituto de Química, Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo 05508-900, Brasil
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  • This work was supported by Fundaçao de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de Sao Paulo, Brazil.


The purpose of this study was to investigate and analyze the events responsible for curricular characteristics that lead to positive outcomes in university teaching using a biochemistry course taught to physical education students as a model. The research was carried out as a case study, supported by questionnaires, classroom observation, document analysis, and interviews. The overall analyses of obtained data were validated by means of triangulation protocols, which proved the following reasons for the course achievements: 1) teaching staff deeply committed to the course; 2) contents adaptation to students' careers; 3) gradual adjustment of the teaching strategies and evaluation tools; 4) valorization of formative evaluation; and 5) providing a suitable affective milieu.

In the last decades, the attention to physical well-being has increasingly included young and healthy individuals as health care shifted from a therapeutical to a prophylactic approach and new esthetic patterns for the ideal body shape became accepted. As a consequence, greater importance has been attributed to the regular practice of physical activity, whose beneficial effects are universally recognized. At the same time, increasing attention is being paid to nutritional habits. These behavioral modifications have brought new responsibilities to physical education professionals, placing them in an essential position for recommendations not only to athletes, who were always under their orientation, but also to common citizens. For instance, physical educators have a strong recognized influence on the decision of many people practicing physical activities to use well-known nutritional supplements or ergogenic aids [14] such as protein and amino acids [5, 6], carnitine [7], creatine [8], sports drinks [9], and/or anabolic-androgenic steroids [10].

A substantial part of the scientific information underlying the understanding and correct utilization of oriented programs of physical exercise and supplement use, as well as the most recommended diets for each particular case, lies in the biochemistry field. Nevertheless, more often than not, biochemistry courses given to physical education majors are poorly appreciated by the students. There are many reasons for the rejection of those courses. The learning of biochemistry requires an extensive and specific terminology (names, formulae, chemical structures), a high degree of abstraction, and a basic knowledge of chemistry, a complex subject in which students bring a considerable number of misconceptions [11, 12]. Worsening the situation, by virtue of the traditional approach to the course, students hardly recognize the closer relationship between biochemistry and their professional activity.

Within this context, a biochemistry course to physical education students that shows a positive outcome is exceptional. This is the case for the current course at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (São Paulo, Brazil), resulting from remarkable improvements which started in 1991. In the last years, several indicators have pointed out its good results: i) although not obligatory, class attendance was always high; ii) each term, from three to five students applied for “Undergraduate Research Project” in the Biochemistry Department (an unusual interest among physical education students); iii) the students enrolled in 1994 officially asked for and obtained an increase in class load for the course; iv) in 1996, the course was considered by the undergraduates one of the four best among 10 courses offered by the Biochemistry Department; v) in 1997, 54% of the students enrolled in an optional summer course with biochemical contents came from physical education.


This study aimed to find out which curricular measures are effective for the improvement of a course, and on which bases they should be taken, reaching a convenient model that could be applied to other courses.


The “Biochemistry” course is offered in the second term of the first year to physical education students at Universidade Estadual de Campinas. At the moment, it consists of 60 h and is taught to 45 students, on average, by a single professor supported by at least five teaching assistants (TAs).11 A TA is an undergraduate or graduate student, selected and trained by the professor. Frequent meetings were held between the professor and the TAs in order to discuss the progress of the course.


Because this study focuses on a particular situation, it was carried out as a case study [13, 14], inserted in the qualitative research approach to physical education [15]. The study was supported by classroom observation, document analysis, and interviews. Data collection by quantitative methods (questionnaires) was also included. Informal [16] rather than formal procedure [17] was chosen for the analysis of data collected by qualitative techniques. Validation of the analyses was obtained by a triangulation procedure taken from quantitative and qualitative data.

Attitude Questionnaire—

Questionnaires were used for the investigation of physical education students' attitudes [18], following the classical model proposed by Likert [19]. The questionnaire structure (“Appendix”) consists of alternated items with opposite statements (one favorable and another unfavorable to the investigated aspects). In each item, the student chooses the alternative that best describes his/her opinion: strongly agree (SA), agree (A), undecided (U), disagree (D), or strongly disagree (SD). Statistical analysis of numerical values attributed to each kind of response reveals the degree of coherence of the answers by means of Cronbach's alpha reliability coefficient [20], which varies from 0 to 1. The closer to 1, the more validation the measuring instrument has.

Classroom Observation—

The planning and schedule of observation followed the model of Bogdan and Biklen [17], with two distinct periods: an informal one covering the years from 1992 to 1994, during which one of us (Costa) took part in the “Biochemistry” course as a TA, and a formal observation period in 1997 involving six classes, in which Costa was a full observer. Each observation session lasted 2 h, with special attention paid to student-professor communication, TA performance, student engagement in group study, and affective milieu of the activities.

Document Analysis—

Three types of documents were selected for analysis: tests, school marks, and the standard evaluation questionnaire used by the University in all courses. This questionnaire is composed of two parts: a structured one comprising of items related to all aspects of the course and an unstructured one. In the structured part, the students assign a value from 1 to 5 (5 being the most favorable) to each item. The unstructured part is open, so the students are free to highlight up to three positive and three negative aspects of the course.


Semi-structured interviews [21] were held with eight students, three TAs, and three professors. Anonymity was guaranteed to students and TAs. The information obtained was recorded in writing during the interviews and transcribed immediately afterward.


Profile of the Physical Education Student—

Physical education students have some specific characteristics: they dress very informally, use clothes appropriate for sports or gymnastics, wear flip-flops, and are naturally agile. They have an aversion to passive activities: “ … the physical education students … are restless and do not like lectures. Thus, they have a very strong need for motivation” (professor). Also, they represent a united and demanding group. Analysis of the curricular adaptations made in the course revealed that the characteristics of these students were always taken into consideration.

The Impression, the Interest for the Course, and the Importance of “Biochemistry”—

These issues were analyzed by the answers to the attitude questionnaire (“Appendix”) applied at the beginning and at the end of the course. The coherence of the replies to this questionnaire in all classes was revealed by the high values of the Cronbach's alpha coefficient (Table I), thus validating the instrument.

The impression of “Biochemistry” was evaluated by students from items 1 and 10 of the attitude questionnaire (Table II). The percentage of students who had a good impression of the course ranged from 65 to 100%. As items 1 and 10 presented opposite statements about the impression of the course, good impression was coherently pointed out by agreement (sum of SA + A) to item 1 and disagreement (sum of D + SD) to item 10. The previous image of the course was supposedly based on information transmitted by the media and senior colleagues [22], with a strong influence of the course tradition. Nevertheless, the results indicate that direct contact with the course improved its image in every class.

The interest in “Biochemistry” determined by items 2 and 11 of the attitude questionnaire was evaluated, both of which having an unfavorable statement about the interest (Table II). The replies revealed an elevated number of discordant answers to the two statements, showing the students willingness to attend the course even if it were not obligatory. This intention is obviously related to the good image of the course prevalent among them.

The importance of “Biochemistry” to the professionals was verified in the answers to items 3 and 12, corresponding to favorable statements, and to item 8, an unfavorable statement. At the end of the course, at least 94% of the students declared to associate the quality of the physical education professional with his/her biochemical background (Table II). Coherently, there was strong disagreement with statement 8.

The standard University questionnaire asks the students to grade several items in a 1 to 5 (more favorable) scale. The questionnaire analysis confirmed the interest in the course, showing a high rate of student attendance (Table III).

Other indicators of interest were a demand for an increase in the class load and the enrollment of many students in a summer course with biochemical contents. The demand was expressed in the evaluations by the students (30% of the students in 1994 as a spontaneous suggestion in the unstructured part of the standard questionnaire) and in the interviews: “An increase in credit hours for the course would be very fruitful” (student, 1992). This request however could not be attributed to an excess of the demanded workload, because the students accomplished all their tasks during class time.

Perhaps the most incisive evidence of the interest elicited by the course was the application for research training in the Biochemistry Department, an unusual initiative among physical education undergraduates. This choice extended to postgraduation (several students have already obtained their MSc and PhD degrees) and eventually led the Biochemistry Department to establish a new research field, the biochemical study of physical exercise [2325].

In student interviews, the importance assigned to the course increased as interviewees declared that “Biochemistry” was useful for other courses in their curriculum and that they wanted to obtain more in-depth biochemical knowledge. “The student feedback was motivating because of the high degree of interest shown. It was quite different from that observed in other courses requiring compulsory attendance” (TA, 1996).

The students confirmed the importance of the course for their future professional performance also in the standard University questionnaire (Table III) and in interviews: “knowing metabolism, it is possible to propose different types of training” (student, 1992); “ … a professional who understands biochemistry is better qualified, no doubt” (student, 1991).

Curriculum Adaptation Along the Years (1991–1998)—

A variety of adaptations concerning objectives, contents, teaching strategies, and evaluation were found to be responsible for in-depth changes that took place in the course.


The main objective of the course is to “show that the organism can respond in two ways when consuming the chemical energy contained in food: change it into readily available energy for physical exercise or store it” (official document). This general principle only presents an overall purpose that does not stand as an educational objective. The specific instructional objectives are actually presented during each class as questions that will guide group discussions. This procedure is probably the most efficient way to utilize instructional objectives [26].

Typical declarations prior to 1991, like “… there was no clear vision” [regarding the objectives] (student, 1990); “… they [the students] hated Biochemistry, for that course had nothing to do with physical exercise” (professor), pointed out the need for changes. To restructure the course, new objectives were set: “the students must understand metabolism in order … to evaluate what they will do in their practice with people … ” (professor). The concern with motivation is also clear. To bridge the basic course with professional activity (normally dissociated), the course begins with a practical class on the campus race track, with the objective: “to make it clear that the subject under study was the organism, remove biochemistry from the abstract sphere.” (professor). As a consequence, to the students of subsequent years, the objectives of the course became clear: “the objectives were attained in a different, non-traditional way” (student, 1996); “the objectives were clear from the beginning …; they were quite compatible with our objectives” (student, 1997).


Traditionally, the syllabus of a biochemistry course begins with the structure of macromolecules, followed by enzymology and metabolism. Such sequence has shown not to be motivating. Physical education students reject topics of the traditional biochemistry syllabus: “ … it wouldn't be appropriate to explore concepts such as Km of enzymes and the like for the physical education” (student, 1992); “The students did not like the initial theoretical part concerning enzyme kinetics, carbohydrate structure, buffers” (professor, before 1991); “The contents sequence was disappointing, it should have begun with metabolism” (student, 1990).

The contents selection and sequence of the course were specifically adapted to physical education. They have been reorganized every year in order to link the description of metabolic pathways to the nutritional or exercise-related situations in which they occur. Thus, the focus was metabolism, with the structural part and the most fundamental principles of enzymology being approached only when indispensable to the comprehension of the issues. Actually, the classical separation of carbohydrate, lipid, and protein metabolism was replaced by the analysis of the overall adaptation of the organism to the type of exercise: aerobic or anaerobic. The students approved the new contents organization (Table III): “Directing the contents of Biochemistry to the physical education context is important” (student, 1994).

By and large, therefore, the course adopts the spiral curriculum recommended by Bruner [27] rather than the instrumental approach used in most university courses. This curricular structure permits a gradually deeper handling of complex topics (like the concept of energy-rich molecules and the regulation of liver phosphofructokinase-1) instead of fully introducing them.

Teaching Strategies—

The course has adopted educational strategies based on small groups (five or six students) [2830], providing a collaborative type of teaching/learning, starting with some problem situations. The small extent of each proposed problem, the exploration limited to the biochemical contents, and the mode of guidance that leads to its solving make this strategy different from problem-based learning. In contrast to what occurs in the lectures, the students were encouraged to help one another, minimizing competitive feelings; the professor was no longer the focus of attention, but became a guide and facilitator. The professor listened, encouraged the expression of ideas, avoided controlling the discussion, and could devote her attention to the groups with greater difficulties. Thus, the learning rhythm was more flexible and the opportunities for training communication skills were increased, promoting a more significant learning than traditional strategies, as noted elsewhere [3133]. The group work is guided by instructional objectives, questions, problems, and, at times, some theoretical-practical information. During their work, the students are advised by the professor and by TAs. Throughout both observation periods, a friendly atmosphere allowed the group activities to continue with a warm relationship among students, TAs, and professor. “The TAs provide fundamental support to the constant changes experienced in the course … and their role, similar to that of the professor, is to guide the study, taking advantage of their age proximity to the students to facilitate communication” (professor).

New teaching strategies were also adopted. On the first day of class, the students received a questionnaire designed to survey their previous concepts on biochemical issues. Initiating the training for group work, the replies to the questionnaire should be discussed in small groups, favoring the free expression of ideas and eliminating the burden of giving right answers. As with the use of especially developed software adopted later, this activity generated a great number of questions [23] that helped the conduct of the whole course. Another link between basic biochemistry and the major interest of the students was obtained through a practical class consisting of lactate and glucose determination in blood samples collected from volunteer students before and after aerobic and anaerobic exercises. The data raised curiosity and the need for understanding the metabolic pathways that produce and clear those metabolites. The pool of data and questions represented an advance organizer for the teaching of metabolism. Furthermore, specially developed advance organizers [34, 35] have been used.

The lectures used in the course were given mostly with bidirectional information flow. Taking into account the characteristic of students' restlessness, the noninteractive lecture time was reduced. Interacting with the students by asking questions, the professor stimulated their participation and curiosity, inducing them to think “biochemically.” At those brief lectures, on all days of observation, there was a great wealth of dialogue among students and the professor.


Besides conventional written tests, alternative evaluation tools, like mini-tests, drama, and mini-symposium, were introduced in the course. The final mark for the students was obtained by the mark's mean in the written tests (two or three), the mark's mean in the mini-tests (one per class, with a value equal to 1/10 of a written test) and the mark's mean in the drama or in the mini-symposium (with a value equivalent to that of the written test).

Written tests were applied in a conventional manner. Forty percent of the test questions in 1994 and 50% in 1997 were categorized in the application, synthesis, and evaluation levels of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives [36]. In order to commit the students to their progress, tests were submitted to double correction: above and beyond the professor's correction, students also corrected their own tests [37]. In the words of a TA in 1997, “only professors who are not authoritarian compare their marks with those assigned by the students.” Besides these regular tests, mini-tests were applied at the end of each day, containing one or two questions about the contents worked upon that day.

The technique of drama is of high training value because it joins cognitive and affective educational aspects as pointed out by Reyes and Santos [38], who pioneered the use of this resource in biochemistry courses. This kind of evaluation was applied for the first time as a final evaluation in 1993 with stimulating results [22]. The students were divided into groups, and each group took the responsibility for the representation of a part of the contents worked upon in the course, led by a script elaborated by the teaching staff. The themes were articulated by a situation of interest to the physical educator profession. The evaluation was performed by the students themselves, by their professor, and by a guest professor, taking into account the contents and the creativity of the performance. In general, the marks obtained were quite high. The frequent student consultations with the professor when preparing the presentations attracted the attention of the teaching staff because they deal with conceptual items already covered in tests in which the same students had good performance. Therefore, drama was showing to be even more effective as a teaching strategy than it was as an evaluation tool. In fact, the change in language required by a theatrical presentation induces concept internalization and re-creation; if it is possible to repeat correct sentences related to the contents, it is not possible to re-create concepts in another language, i.e. the acting one, without understanding them. The drama and mainly its preparation eventually acquired a new status inside the course: instruction resource, applied many times along the course.

In 1997, a mini-symposium replaced the drama as final evaluation. This kind of assessment consisted of lectures and discussions by student groups about different aspects of an extensively researched topic. The mini-symposium theme was “Correlation between metabolism and nutritional supplements.” The students were divided into four groups, each being responsible for one of the following topics: amino acids, carnitine, sports drinks, and anabolic-androgenic steroids.

Overall Evaluation by the Students—

In the unstructured part of the standard questionnaire for course evaluation by the students, the percentage of students that pointed out positive aspects of the course was greater than the percentage that indicated negative aspects for all the years analyzed (Table IV). The positive features spontaneously cited for highest frequency were: i) the linking of the biochemical contents to the occupation of the physical education professional; ii) the teaching methods (interesting classes, guided study); iii) the professor (good teaching skills, attention, and availability for extra class support); and iv) the TAs (attention to the students).

Most of the negative comments were related to insufficient credit hours. This student dissatisfaction was formalized in a petition to increase the credit hours of the course by 30%, later deferred by the University. Other negative aspects raised were: lack of formal theoretical introduction, group activities, and insecurity about the correct answers to the questions presented as a study guide.

Several declarations confirm the quantitative evaluation. “The course scheme helps the test, facilitates the student-professor interaction, and thus improves the exchange of information … ” (student, 1992); “Group study is important, forcing the students to look for information” (student, 1993); “The teaching strategies were different … leading the student to think” (student, 1996); “From my experience, a student who works during the class retains the information much more than those who only listen” (TA, from 1994 to 1996).

The students rated the TAs' performance in a highly positive manner: “The TAs' performance was excellent. There was a commitment to the course” (student, 1994); “The TAs' performance was great” (student, 1996).

The high level questions in written tests was recognized: “The tests were well elaborated” (student, 1992); “The tests demanded reasoning … the metabolic maps were available” (student, 1993); “ … the test did not require memorization, it was cool” (student, 1996).

In 1993, the introduction of drama for evaluation caused great impact, being very well received by students: “The drama made possible a greater contact between students and professor preceding the presentation” (student, 1993); “The drama was very productive, cool, remarkable … it was a unique moment … I will always remember the drama” (student, 1996). The professor properly summarized the reason for such a wide acceptance: “ … the drama was the bridge between biochemical knowledge and the ‘corporal’ daily routine of the students.”


Overall analysis of the obtained data permitted us to conclude that: i) the interest of the students was significant—the search for “Undergraduate Research Project” by physical education students in the Biochemistry Department began with the curricular changes; ii) learning occurred, as demonstrated by the high cognitive level of the test questions in association with the increase in average marks and the decrease in failure (data not shown); and iii) the students evaluated favorably all curricular components.

The main reasons for those achievements were:

1. Professors' Commitment and Special Attention to Motivation—

The professors were responsible for course planning and execution as well as for guidance, striving to motivate the students and to attract their attention to each curricular component. The main motivational strategies were: a) the clear definition of the intended objectives, with the contents divided into specific objectives for each class; b) contents adaptation, with a clear connection to the future professional activity of the students; c) replacement of extensive lectures with shorter classes based on dialogue and with guided study in small groups, taking maximum advantage of in-class work; d) the inclusion of practical classes providing data to be used as guidelines for the study of metabolism; e) the use of innovative strategies of evaluation; and f) the use of a spiral curricular framework.

2. Gradual Adjustment of Methods and Evaluation—

After consulting the students, lectures were replaced by a short dialogue-based class and most of the time would be dedicated to in-class group study. Such a scheme came to be adopted in the following years with the students' approval. The traditional written tests were maintained in the evaluations, gradually including questions with a high cognitive level and increasingly applied to the daily practice of the physical educator. The evaluation lost its merely classifying role and came to include more qualitative aspects such as appreciating the reasons why students had a good or poor performance. The adoption of test self-correction was decisive for this purpose. Also, the students had an extra opportunity of learning through the change in language offered by the drama and through the search for information needed for the mini-symposium.

3. TAs' Commitment—

To participate in the course as true professors, TAs were appropriately trained and actively involved in discussions related to curricular planning. In weekly meetings held during the course, the activities and the best way to deal with the students were discussed.

4. Setting Up a Suitable Affective Milieu—

Inside and outside the classroom, the relationship among the professor, the TAs, and the students was always friendly, relaxed, and noncompetitive. This atmosphere also contributed to facilitating access to the professor, who was always ready to receive the students at her office.

Table Table I. Cronbach alpha coefficients of the attitude questionnaire
Class/yearNumber of students enrolledApplication timeRespondents (%)Alpha coefficient
Table Table II. Percentage of favorable answers related to the “Biochemistry” course
Attitudes related toItem of attitude questionnaireClass/YearBeginningEnd
  • a

    a Sum of SA + A answers.

  • b

    b Sum of D + SD answers.

Impression1. I have a good impression of this course.aDaytime/19966596
 10. The impression I have of this course is negative.bDaytime/199682100
Interest2. All I want is to pass this course.bDaytime/19968684
 11. If this course were not obligatory, I would not attend it.bDaytime/19966882
Importance3. I would be a better professional if I had a basic knowledge of biochemistry.aDaytime/19969898
 8. The quality of the physical education professional is independent of his knowledge of biochemistry.bDaytime/199688100
 12. “Biochemistry” can provide important information to the physical education professional.aDaytime/199698100
Table Table III. The overall answer's average of the students in a 1 to 5 scale to the structured part of the standard questionnaire for course evaluation
 Daytime 1994Evening 1994Daytime 1997Evening 1997Daytime 1998Evening 1998
Number of students enrolled514151566050
Respondents (%)945080759187
Logical syllabus sequence4.
Coherence between evaluation and class contents4.
Analysis with the students of their performance in tests4.
Class attendance4.
Participation in classroom activities3.
Interest in the course as professional education4.
Table Table IV. Percentage of spontaneous comments in the standard questionnaire (unstructured part) for course evaluation by the students
 Daytime 1994Evening 1994Daytime 1997Evening 1997Daytime 1998Evening 1998
Number of students enrolled514151566050
Table APPENDIX: ATTITUDE QUESTIONNAIRE. Each statement in this questionnaire contains attitudes or expectations related to the “Biochemistry” course. In order to manifest your opinion, mark one of the alternatives that follow each statement: SA, strongly agree; A, agree; U, undecided; D, disagree; SD, strongly disagree.
1I have a good impression of this course.SAAUDSD
2All I want is to pass this course.SAAUDSD
3I would be a better professional if I had a basic knowledge of biochemistry.SAAUDSD
4Dramatizing the contents of biochemistry should be enjoyable but does not contribute to learning.SAAUDSD
5The image I have of “Biochemistry” was the result of conversations with students who had already attended this course.SAAUDSD
6I believe that I will obtain important knowledge by attending the “Biochemistry” course.SAAUDSD
7Theatrically presenting the contents of biochemistry should contribute to understanding the subject.SAAUDSD
8The quality of the physical education professional is independent of his knowledge of biochemistry.SAAUDSD
9At the end of the course, I prefer to be evaluated on the basis of a dramatization instead of a traditional written test.SAAUDSD
10The impression I have of this course is negative.SAAUDSD
11If this course were not obligatory, I would not attend it.SAAUDSD
12“Biochemistry” can provide important information to the physical education professional.SAAUDSD
13A dramatization is not a procedure capable of evaluating biochemical knowledge.SAAUDSD
14The image I have of “Biochemistry” was the result of information obtained from broadcasts, newspapers, television, and so on.SAAUDSD


We thank all students and TAs who took part in this research. We also thank Fernando Lang da Silveira for help with statistical analyses. We are especially grateful to the professor responsible for the “Biochemistry” course, Denise Vaz de Macedo, for invaluable support.


  1. 1

    The abbreviations used are: TA, teaching assistant; SA, strongly agree; A, agree; U, undecided; D, disagree; SD, strongly disagree.