Which are our next questions?


  • Manuel João Costa

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    • Life and Health Sciences Research Institute (ICVS), ICVS/3B's - PT Government Associate Laboratory, School of Health Sciences, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal
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To whom correspondence should be addressed. Tel.: +351253604805. E-mail: mmcosta@ecsaude.uminho.pt

The importance of posing the best questions in research studies in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) is undisputed. Researchers may spend long hours reflecting and discussing with colleagues how to improve a certain question they have in mind. The best questions are always original, grounded in the existing literature and feasible to be explored under the local research circumstances (financial, technical, and expertise). The best questions catapult the advancement of science and lead to discoveries that are reported in the finest scientific journals. The best questions are communality, in the sense that they would be recognized as such by peers. In any point in history all scientific cultures have their menu of “next best questions” to be answered. Why not Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education? I would like to argue that we have not a clear menu of “next questions” in student centered education in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education (BAMBED) and that it is important to develop one as soon as possible.

Those of us who get involved in the Scholarship in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education generally enter a permanent struggle against the disproportionate competition of research in BMB, teaching and other duties. The weight of Scholarship in BAMBED in promotion decisions is often insignificant. Like our assessments tell our students what to study or not, the systems used to evaluate our work in higher education inform us that Scholarship in BAMBED is low priority. This is a serious threat to the development of BAMBED and ultimately injures the key mission of higher education of catalyzing the development of students to their maximum potential. It is also ruinous for the advancement of research in BAMBED as it drives us not to set enough time aside to carefully consider our goals or to plan our research with rigour and to do the experiment first and try to write it up next. Typical initial questions are “what teaching method should I use o make my BMB courses effective?” or “how should I teach this topic?”. Such questions are cornerstone for education and go into the heart of teaching. However, these are not the best questions to drive our field forward. If we really want to work as a community of scholars to develop BAMBED, then we should define our questions better, we should ask clear questions which require a methodologically sound scientific approach that will lead to generalizable conclusions needed to advance our field.

A very helpful framework to organize education research, which is totally applicable to BAMBED, is the one suggested by Cook et al. [1]. Their framework for classifying the purposes of education research divides studies into three categories. Description studies report educational activities, instruments, or initiatives. Examples would be a paper reporting a new teaching method or an innovation for laboratory classes. Such reports present innovations of potential use to the BMB community and are not necessarily driven by a question or concerned about identifying which are students specific learning achievements associated with using the innovation. Justification studies move one step further and try to answer the question, often not stated explicitly: “Does this innovation work?”. Such reports can, for example, introduce or compare teaching methods, laboratory approaches or other interventions. They aim to present data to argue that the innovation was fit for purpose. However, there is not enough methodological rigour in the research methodology to sustain the argument. Generally, the innovation is tested in one course, sometimes with only one class, and there is not sufficient planning to control for the biases introduced by the specificities in the education scenario, the student class, the teacher, and so on. Even though the merit and originality of the innovation may be beyond any doubt, it is not clear whether it would produce identical improvements in students in other classes, schools, or countries. The results of such studies are informative, yet mostly locally. As Cook et al. state “the results may have limited application to future research or practice.” Clarification studies follow scientific approaches to test hypothesis and originate from questions underpinned by theory. Reports of clarification studies help other scholars understand how and why this or that innovation works, and which parts are crucial to originate identical results in totally different contexts. They are also very informative in terms of the recognition of study limitations and very rigorous in drawing conclusions. The hallmark of clarification research is the presence of a conceptual framework or theory that can be affirmed or refuted by the results of the study. Naturally, clarification studies require more investment in terms of planning. The first step may be to replace the mind frame that uses questions of the type “will/ did it work?” with another that asks “which learning achievements did it bring to my students?; what were the factors that might be biasing my conclusions?; did I think it through to the level that I am sure I am doing something original that others can replicate?”

As scholars in BAMBED, it is important that we define and develop a general awareness of which are the clarification questions that we need to answer. This is not to say that it is not important to nurture the field with innovations, and report results that they have worked in the teacher's scenarios: the value of this is undisputed. However, there are already so many reports on educational innovations or laboratory exercises. We need to understand, within all those materials, which elements we can generalize to our local contexts and which ones are so biased that simply may not work under our circumstances. The scholarship in BAMBED requires us to move beyond description or justification studies. We should be conducting research studies that try to answer questions which are shared by our specific BAMBED community and that may be of interest to the science/health sciences education community in general. In summary, now that you've read this column, could you clarify “what is your next question?” about student centered BMB education?