SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.5 número2Academic Manpower Training Policy in Israel in the Area of BiotechnologyThe role of Mn++ ions for high and consistent yield of citric acid in recycling fed-batch bioreactor system and its novelty on kinetic basis índice de autoresíndice de materiabúsqueda de artículos
Home Pagelista alfabética de revistas  

Servicios Personalizados




Links relacionados


Electronic Journal of Biotechnology

versión On-line ISSN 0717-3458

Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.5 n.2 Valparaíso ago. 2002


EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 2002 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Encouraging generic skills in science courses

Elizabeth Johnson*
Department of Biochemistry
La Trobe University, 3086
Tel: 613 9479 1350
Fax: 613 9479 2467

Susanna Herd
Department of Biochemistry
La Trobe University, 3086
Fax: 613 9479 2467

Judith Tisdall
Department of Agricultural Science
La Trobe University, 3086
Fax: 613 9471 0224

*Corresponding author

Keywords: class presentation, practical class project, problem-based learning.


Generic skills are skills that are common to all graduates rather than specific for a particular field of study. They include communication and problem-solving skills and the ability to work successfully in teams. To produce graduates with these skills, university courses must include exercises that encourage development of these skills and assessment procedures which reward achievement in these areas. This paper describes three simple exercises designed to develop generic skills that can easily be incorporated into existing courses.


Industries employing graduates in applied science are looking for individuals with a range of skills. Successful graduates should be familiar with the vocabulary and concepts of their chosen field but also need generic skills that will allow them to adapt and learn in the workplace and to communicate their work to others (Oblinger and Verville, 1998). Increasingly universities want their graduates to show they can work in teams, communicate effectively with both colleagues in their field and the public, research and develop new areas of expertise and use effective problem-solving skills.

Traditional university science courses are based around a lecture course with accompanying practicals. They are often assessed primarily by written examinations at the end of the course. Lectures are not an effective way of stimulating students to think or to develop the skills described above (for review see Bligh, 2000) and the examination often concentrates on recall of content. In response, students often concentrate on developing skills to pass examinations that emphasize short-term and limited understanding (Biggs, 1999). If we wish to develop a range of skills then both the curriculum and the assessment must reflect these aims.

Reliance on a very limited teaching and assessment repertoire also ignores the variation in student learning styles and the previous experience that every student brings to each problem (Prosser and Tigwell, 1999). In the workplace graduates will be expected to work in teams that make best use of individual areas of expertise. We should encourage our students to value different approaches and to draw on all the available experience.

In our courses, we use a range of different learning tasks and assessment methods to demonstrate to our students that we value generic skills and to encourage further development of these skills. To allow staff to make incremental changes, we have chosen to do this alongside the traditional lecture course. This approach also allows the students to gradually adjust to new expectations. The contribution of each task to the course is tailored for each student cohort so that an introductory subject may use more lectures and take a more structured approach to open-ended assignments than we would select for a more advanced class.

In this article we will outline three learning tasks we use in courses for introductory studies in biochemistry and in advanced courses for applied science students. Our aim for each of these tasks was to foster skills in gathering information, problem-solving and communication and to demonstrate to students that we believe these skills are valuable. All of these tasks are nested within a course based around the traditional mix of lectures and practical sessions.

Open-ended practicals - how do researchers test and investigate ideas?

The laboratory course that accompanies the introductory biochemistry course at La Trobe University was designed to introduce students to fundamental techniques in biochemistry and to experimental analysis. In 1997, we introduced a new set of laboratory classes which asks the students to consider experimental design in enzyme kinetics. In this series of classes the pairs of students work together to define a small experimental question, design an experiment that gives them information about the problem, perform their experiment and then report on their results and the success of their design. These classes have been successfully run for the last six years.

At the time when they begin these laboratory classes, students have only been studying in the biochemistry department for 6 weeks and are familiar with only a very limited repertoire of techniques. We use the first session to introduce the experimental system and then ask the students to base their design around the same system. In the second session students develop the design of their own experiment and perform some preliminary trials to ensure their method is going to generate results. In the third session students perform their complete experiment and calculate the raw data through to its final form. In the final session students present their results to other members of the class and staff and comment on the success of their design.

Students draw on information from the lecture course and from textbooks in deciding what question to investigate. Staff may provide suggestions to some students but all students are encouraged to find their own ideas even if these prove impractical after consideration. Some of the popular topics chosen over the last three years include substrate specificity, pH stability, thermal stability and differences between alcohol dehydrogenase homologues from different organisms. Students discuss their design with staff who ensure that all the reagents and equipment required are available. Alcohol dehydrogenase was chosen because it is well-studied (Branden et al. 1975) relatively stable and easily measured. It is also easy to purchase a wide range of reagents for the students to use. The list of possible experiments is only limited by the resources of the laboratory. This class is run with a group of 80 students in each session.

In course questionnaires students have reported that they enjoyed the practical and often find their mistakes as instructive as their successes. Students find this practical more memorable because they have been involved in the construction of the practical as well as in performing the experiment. These classes model the behaviour of researchers for students at an early stage of their study.

Investigating a new topic using class presentations

Research skills and presentation skills can be developed by asking students to gather information about a novel topic and to present it to their peers who assess their efforts. This is a simple assignment to write and implement but encourages a series of generic skills. Students investigate novel information sources, synthesize a coherent discussion of the topic and effectively communicate their findings to an audience of their peers. Again this models tasks performed by active scientists.

The difficulty of the task can be modified to match the skills of the students. We have used this exercise with introductory biochemistry courses, advanced courses and in service courses where the students had little background in science. We provide a framework for the presentation and a broad area from which the students may choose their own topic. We find that students often choose topics that relate to previous experience either from study or from their personal background. This approach stimulates interest in the topic and encourages them to bring together information from diverse sources.

An extract from one of these learning tasks is shown in Figure 1. In this case students were asked to present information about inborn errors of metabolism. Some students chose to investigate a genetic problem that had been identified in their own family.

We have used the same assignment to ask the students to prepare posters on their selected topic which require different presentation skills. Some students were very creative in design of their posters. Figure 2 shows an example where the students presented their report as the front page of a local newspaper.

We also asked the students to assess the presentations given by other students in their group. We limit the total number of marks available to award to a set of presentations so that students cannot assign uniformly high or low marks and provide a set of limited criteria for students to use to make their assessment (i.e. Did you understand the presentation? Did you learn from the presentation?). Using this scheme, we find that the average mark awarded by peers closely matches that awarded by staff. Brown and Glasner, 1999 have gathered a number of papers that examine issues in peer assessment.

Problem-based learning (PBL) cases

Problem-based learning is an open-ended learning process where students are given a practical problem or situation and asked to investigate it (Charlin et al. 1998). The students collect, discuss and analyse information as it is required to explain the case. The students must develop skills to define and think creatively about a problem, to research new topics and to work in a group to advance analysis of the problem. Cannon and Newble, 2000 give an excellent practical overview of using PBL to produce student-centred learning. PBL is a powerful tool to encourage development of generic skills.

Many PBL courses have been implemented by complete replacement of traditional curriculum and represent a significant investment of staff resources (Aldred et al. 1997). It is possible to realize some of the benefits of this approach without designing an entire new course. We have developed a model for using PBL cases within a traditional lecture course so both staff and students have a gradual transition to the PBL teaching mode (Johnson et al. 2002).

The PBL approach has also been used for advanced students in the Bachelor of Science (Viticulture) at La Trobe University. One of the cases used for this course is based on the use of biotechnology in the wine industry and is an example of possible case studies in biotechnology. Figure 3 gives two extracts from the notes given to the students. In the first session, students are given Case Notes 1 and asked to find out more about the scenario provided. In the second session the students are given Case Notes 2 and begin a more specific task.

One of the primary motivations in using PBL exercises in our classes is to require the students to integrate together material supplied in different areas of the curriculum. We find that students studying in traditional courses tend to compartmentalize even closely related subject matter. This is reinforced by an examination system that restricts the material covered in the exam to that provided in the course synopsis. In this situation there is no incentive for students to use and incorporate material that comes from outside the course. Students report that the PBL format forces them to use novel resources in their quest to decipher the set problem.


The primary motivation for many students in tertiary study is to achieve a high score in their results. Lecturers cannot assume that students will be primarily motivated by a passion for understanding the subject matter and must acknowledge that assessment influences learning (Ramsden, 1992). If lectures and written examinations are the primary form of instruction and assessment, students will aim for a narrow range of skills and will concentrate on rote-learning and examination technique. We want our graduates to have much more work-friendly skills. To encourage this we must ask our students to develop problem-solving and communication skills by giving them appropriate exercises and then reinforce the value of these skills by rewarding achievement with suitable assessment.

It is not difficult to include specific exercises that focus on problem-solving, communication or research skills. It is possible to do all this within the framework of a traditional lecture/practical timetable and with your current resources. The most rewarding outcome is to see how innovative and creative your students can be.


The student poster reproduced in Figure 2 was the work of four talented students; Ben Archer, Ben Evison, Belinda Smirk and Damian Spencer. We would also like to thank all our students who have taught us so much about student learning.


ALDRED, S.E.; ALDRED, M.J.; WALSH, L.J. and DICK, R. The direct and indirect costs of implementing Problem-Based Learning into traditional professional courses within Universities. Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 1997. 86 p. ISBN 0642236585.        [ Links ]

BIGGS, John. Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Birmingham, The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1999. 250 p. ISBN 0335201725.        [ Links ]

BLIGH, Donald A. What's the use of lectures?, 2nd ed. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000. 346 p. ISBN 0787951625.        [ Links ]

BRANDEN, Carl-Ivor; JORNVALL, Hans; EKLUND, Hans and FURUGREN, Bo. Alcohol Dehydrogenases. In: BOYER, Paul, ed. The Enzymes, 3rd ed. New York, Academic Press, 1975. 658 p. ISBN 0121227111.        [ Links ]

BROWN, Sally and GLASNER, Angela (eds). Assessment Matters in Higher Education. Birmingham, The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1999. 210 p. ISBN 033520242X.        [ Links ]

CANNON, Robert and NEWBLE, David. A Handbook for Teachers in Universities and Colleges. 4th ed., London, Kogan Page, 2000. 234 p. ISBN 0749431814.        [ Links ]

CHARLIN, Bernard; MANN, Karen and HANSEN, Penny. The many faces of problem-based learning: a framework for understanding and comparison. Medical Teacher, 1998, vol. 20, no. 4, p. 323-330.        [ Links ]

JOHNSON, Elizabeth; HERD, Susanna; ANDREWARTHA, Kathy; JONES, Steve and MALCOLM, Susan. Introducing problem-based learning into a traditional lecture course. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 2002, vol. 30, no. 2, p. 121-124.        [ Links ]

OBLINGER, D.G. and VERVILLE, A.L. What Business wants from Higher Education. Phoenix, The Oryx Press, 1998. 188 p. ISBN 1573562068.        [ Links ]

PROSSER, Michael and TIGWELL, Keith. Understanding Learning and Teaching: the experience in higher education. Birmingham, The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1999. 194 p. ISBN 0335198317.        [ Links ]

RAMSDEN, Paul. Learning to Teach in Higher Education. New York, Routledge, 1992. 290 p. ISBN 0415064155.        [ Links ]Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network   

Creative Commons License Todo el contenido de esta revista, excepto dónde está identificado, está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons