May 2000

Pilot study of university Biochemistry Programmes in relation to the recommendations of a Core Curriculum drawn up in 1996

Carried out by Colin Wynn on behalf of the Professional and Education Committee

Executive Summary
1. INTRODUCTION
2. SCOPE OF THE STUDY
3. PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS OF SUBMISSIONS
3.1 Balance of course content
3.2 Material taught under the main topics of the core curriculum
4. ANALYSIS OF CONTACT HOURS AND DEPTH OF COVERAGE
4.1 Methodology
4.2 Protein Structure and Function including Enzymology
4.3 Metabolism, including regulation and intracellular signalling
4.4 Molecular Cell Biology, including Intercellular Signalling
4.5 Applied Biochemistry, including relevant aspects of biotechnology
4.6 Comments on the in-depth analysis
5. CONCLUSIONS
REFERENCES

Executive Summary

The purpose of this study was to determine the currency of the present core curriculum, to suggest other criteria appropriate for comparing biochemistry provision, and to evaluate the feasibility of using existing course information for these purposes. The study was limited to Biochemistry programmes and, in order to involve Departments in the minimum bureaucracy, used data that were already available, including year handbooks as given to students and QAA self assessment documents, together with further information about practicals and methods of assessment.

Information was volunteered from twelve universities offering degree programmes in biochemistry namely Aberdeen, Bath, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Greenwich, Kent, London (University College and Royal Holloway), Salford and Stirling giving a reasonable geographical spread and varied representation of Higher Education Institutions.

The major recommendations of the Society’s Curriculum Working Party in 1996 had been:

  • A core curriculum for biochemistry.
  • A minimum of 25% of first year studies should be devoted to relevant aspects of chemistry.
  • At least 50% of the degree programme should be devoted to the study of the core areas of biochemistry.
  • An appropriate minimum of practical work over the first two years would be the equivalent of one day per week.
  • Project-type work is essential in the education of a professional biochemist in the final year

The material submitted by the 12 institutions was compared against these recommendations of the Working Party. In addition some analysis of the development of transferable generic skills within the programmes was made. Equivalence between course content and the suggested core curriculum was studied qualitatively in detail and, in a sample study, quantitative data on contact hours and depth of study were collected. Only mandatory courses taken by biochemistry students in years 1 and 2 (1, 2 and 3 in Scotland) were included in the analysis.

The results of the study were as follows:

  • Only five of the twelve programmes met the 25% chemistry recommendation completely in respect of both credits and course content. In the case of the Scottish universities no detailed chemistry syllabus was given for the Faculty course.
  • Eleven of the twelve programmes spent at least 50% of the time on biochemistry in Years 1 and 2. This percentage rose to at least 80% in year 3. The exception was a degree with a highly modular structure where the amount of mandatory biochemistry was low. Choice of appropriate modules, to be expected in the case of a career biochemist, could have brought the amount up to 50%.
  • Only three of the twelve programmes included at least one day per week practical biochemistry in Years 1 and 2; one half-day per week or fortnight was more usual in Year 1. The shortfall seemed to be attributable to the fact that modular courses were open to all biological scientists , with consequent problems of space, equipment, cost and manpower. But this also meant that biochemistry students were able to take practicals in a variety of related options e.g. physiology, microbiology on a reciprocal basis.
  • Five of the programmes allowed students, often on request and under guidance, to opt for extended information retrieval tasks or other similar activities instead of the traditional project (wet or dry)
  • Although all the institutions accepted the importance of the acquisition of transferable skills the provision made was very variable, depending on staffing availability for items such as problem solving classes or in-depth training in information retrieval. The provision of inter-personal and team management skills was patchy.
  • In general terms, all programmes covered the major elements of the existing core curriculum, particularly in the areas of protein structure and function, molecular biology, membrane structure and function, and structural biochemistry. However, considerable variability between departments was found when some of the core areas were analysed for contact hours and depth of treatment.

It was concluded that biochemistry provision could be compared reliably between institutions using data that departments should have readily available. Whilst different departments attached varying weights to particular topics in biochemistry, all programmes in the present study could be considered to cover the current core curriculum, with one or two minor omissions. The core curriculum will need to change with changing emphases in the subject, but it was adequate at the present time. The shortfalls in chemistry teaching and biochemistry practical provision give rise to concern. It does not seem likely that biochemistry practical time can be increased in Year1, particularly for modular courses. It is more feasible to recommend an increase in practical in Year 2 to compensate for the Year 1 shortfall.

None of this analysis would have been possible without the co-operation of the participating institutions. Their willingness to provide copies of handbooks, handouts, practicals, tutorials and particularly sensitive material such as self-assessments is much appreciated.

1. INTRODUCTION

The question of whether or not the Biochemical Society should offer some form of ‘recognition’ of biochemistry courses to university departments has been raised on a number of occasions over the years and never satisfactorily resolved. The most recent e-mail consultation of Heads of Department, carried out during 1999, found a majority in favour but some argued strongly against (see The Biochemist, June 1999, p42; and August 1999, p58). One of the concerns raised by those opposed to course recognition was that it would involve universities in unnecessary bureaucracy. A working party set up by the Professional and Education Committee thus decided to commission the present study to determine whether information sufficient to compare biochemistry provision across departments could be gleaned from documents that departments would have readily available for student use and for Subject Review purposes. The remit of the study was ‘to determine the currency of the present core curriculum (as recommended by a Working Party in 1996), to suggest other criteria appropriate for comparing biochemistry provision, and to evaluate the feasibility of using existing course information for these purposes’.

2. SCOPE OF THE STUDY

It was agreed that the study would include:

  • distillation of basic information from course specification/details and model catalogues;
  • analysis of basic information for common curriculum elements, particularly in Years 1 and 2, and then comparison with the current core curriculum;
  • a specific analysis of chemistry content and of subject specific skills provision;’

The survey would be limited to Biochemistry programmes, and in order to involve departments in the minimum bureaucracy, the survey would use data that they already had available. Accordingly, the following were requested:

  • year handbooks or similar, as given to students or prepared for QAA;
  • information about practical classes and tutorials, if this information was not in the handbooks. Topics covered by the practicals and tutorials, and the approach to tutorials, rather than just the times allocated, would be valuable information;
  • the QAA self assessment document, as an indication of teaching and learning aims;
  • information on how topics are assessed or examined and an indication as to whether examination questions and specimen answers might be available at a later stage.

Twelve university departments responded to the invitation to provide this information: Aberdeen, Bath, Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Greenwich, Kent, London (University College and Royal Holloway), Salford and Stirling. This was considered to give a good geographical spread and to be representative of traditional, post-war and new universities.

The study had two parts. The first part was a preliminary analysis of the documents submitted to determine whether key features of the present core curriculum were present and to assess the diversity of the submissions. All departments were included in this analysis. The second part involved a more detailed analysis to assess the depth of coverage of parts of the curriculum. This was restricted to 8 departments that had submitted sufficient information and/or examination questions. In order to preserve anonymity the participating departments are referred to only by number in this report. Following completion of the study each participating department was contacted, advised of its number code, and informed as to how its provision compared with the core curriculum and with the norm of other participating departments.

3. PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS OF SUBMISSIONS

3.1 Balance of course content

For the preliminary analysis, a purely qualitative approach was adopted whereby the presence or absence of core material was noted but no attempt was generally made to quantitate this material or to analyse the depth of coverage. The exception to this was in the analysis of training in transferable skills, where there was such an obvious difference between departments that a simple yes/no record could not adequately describe the provision. In the tables Y generally indicates apparent conformity with given criteria, N indicates substantial deviation in either time or substance, ? indicates that some material may be missing.

Chemistry

The Biochemistry Core Curriculum Working Party report (1996) recommended that at least 25% of first year studies should be in relevant aspects of chemistry. In the present survey, where there was evidence of substantial chemistry teaching in later years this was taken into account in determining correspondence with the recommended core curriculum. It should be noted that the recommendation of the Working Party relied upon an adequate preparation in chemistry prior to entry to the course. In the absence of such preparation, foundation year courses can provide the necessary background, and chemistry teaching should then continue in later years to bring all students to a satisfactory equivalent level. For this analysis Y indicated that the evidence suggested that at least 25% of year 1 was devoted to chemistry topics defined in the core syllabus with adequate coverage of all topics, N indicated significant shortfall in hours of chemistry teaching, whilst ? represented adequate hours but reduced or unspecified coverage.

There were large differences between the various institutions in the provision of chemistry courses for biochemistry students, and only 5 of the 12 immediately satisfied the criteria (Table 1). The older, traditional, universities, which had established and maintained strong Chemistry departments, were able to provide courses in chemistry often in excess of the 25% recommended in the first year. The material covered was of a high standard and included all the topics deemed to be important for biochemists. However, where biochemistry was taught in a School of Biological Sciences and easy course transfer required flexibility and a modular structure available to a number of disciplines, the chemistry provision was less well-defined and may be at a level little higher than A-level. In some cases, where the teaching was undertaken by staff members in Biochemistry, all the chemistry taught was applied to biochemistry and little ‘pure’ chemistry was included.

The situation in Scotland was complex and may need to be considered carefully in individual cases. Year 1 teaching was likely to contain large elements of the normal A-level syllabus but may extend into ‘university’ chemistry. It was usual for chemistry to continue in year 2 but, as the entry into an Honours School may be delayed until the start of year 4, the material taught may not necessarily have a specific biochemical slant.

Biochemistry Core Curriculum

The Working Party considered that the following key areas were essential to any undergraduate degree course in biochemistry:

  • metabolism, including regulation and intracellular signalling;
  • molecular biology, including regulation of gene expression;
  • protein structure and function, including enzymology;
  • structural biochemistry, including the biophysics of macromolecules;
  • membrane structure and function, including bioenergetics and transport;
  • molecular cell biology, including intercellular signalling;
  • applied biochemistry, including relevant aspects of biotechnology.

It recommended that at least 50% of the degree programme should be devoted to the study of these core areas and that all of them should be covered. It is likely that most of this core material would be studied in years 1 and 2 but in the analysis any mandatory components in year 3 were also examined to determine whether they contained core material. Since year 3 was often composed entirely of optional modules, an average of 50% in years 1 and 2 was taken as satisfactory, for example 40 credits in year 1 and 80 credits in year 2.

For practical work the recommendation was that an appropriate minimum over the first two years of study would be the equivalent of one day per week, rising to two days per week in the final year. It was recommended that projects in the final year should normally be laboratory based. In the analysis theoretical projects were assigned equal validity with ‘wet’ projects. Where an institution offered alternative types of project, often after consideration of the career aspirations and laboratory potential of the individual, this was designated as Var.

Eleven out of twelve programmes (Table 1) spent at least 50% of the time in years 1 and 2 in the study of areas of biochemistry thought to be central to any adequate coverage of the subject. However, it was interesting to find a wide diversity in the manner of treatment of this core material. This ranged from the classical approach where initial chemical and physical descriptions proceeded through metabolic inter-relationships to consider function as defined at a molecular or cellular level, to those treatments that emphasised the organelle and described the biochemical components later. Only where Biochemistry was an integral part of a School with various other disciplines and where students were encouraged to take modules in many areas, was the emphasis on the core course lacking. The material actually taught under the main topics of the biochemistry core is discussed in more detail in Section 3.2.

It was unusual to find biochemistry practicals in year 1 occupying as much as one day per week. This was often less a function of time-table considerations than of class size. By and large, biochemistry modules in the first year were offered to other biologists and physical scientists, often being compulsory for such students. Space and manpower considerations dictated that practical classes associated with such modules were time-tabled on several occasions and students seemed to average one half-day biochemistry practical per fortnight. On the other hand students undertook practical sessions in a variety of related options e.g. physiology, plant science etc. on a reciprocal basis.

Whilst the norm was still for Honours students to undertake a laboratory-based project in their final year, often in a research laboratory, there is a growing realisation that such a project is not suitable for all students. Where a student expressed career aspirations outside the field of biochemistry or where some other expertise seemed more appropriate, many departments were now able to accommodate this by the introduction of extended information retrieval tasks or other similar activities. Realistically, there may be a small number of students who, through their lack of application to earlier studies, were deemed unsuitable for project training. This could be regarded as a matter of internal discipline rather than any contravention of course recognition requirement.

Transferable skills

A degree course is meant to allow students to develop their interest in an academic subject and, in the process, develop skills of analysis and critical thinking that will help them in their careers. The Working Party report, whilst acknowledging that one in three biochemistry graduates do not continue in a biochemical career, made no specific recommendations on generic skills, other than emphasizing the importance of health and safety training. Since the acquisition of transferable skills is increasingly regarded as being fundamental to ‘graduateness’, and insisted on by employers, an analysis was made of the following training:

  • Numeracy and data analysis and presentation
  • Communication skills - both written and oral
  • Problem-solving skills
  • IT skills such as word-processing, spreadsheet use, Internet etc
  • Information retrieval from primary and secondary sources and use of on-line searches
  • Inter-personal skills and team-working
  • Efficient management of time and effort.
To make the analysis somewhat more quantitative the following convention was adopted:
+++ Good provision
++ Reasonable provision
+ Mediocre provision
0 No mention in documents provided

All the institutions studied accepted the importance of the acquisition of transferable skills during an undergraduate course, but provision made for such acquisition was quite variable (Table 2). Inherent in this variability appeared to be problems of staffing levels. Problem solving classes are more expensive in staff time than didactic lecturing and similar considerations apply to in-depth training in information retrieval, particularly the use of data banks. The two areas where provision appeared most patchy were inter-personal skills and team working, and time management skills. There seemed to be little appreciation that a considerable number of students require advice on time management and the acquisition of study skills.

3.2 Material taught under the main topics of the core curriculum

In this part of the analysis the topics actually taught under the following main elements of the core curriculum were assessed:

  • molecular biology, including regulation of gene expression;
  • membrane structure and function;
  • structural biochemistry, including the biophysics of macromolecules.

Y in a table indicates simply that the topic was mentioned in the syllabus

Molecular Biology, including Regulation of Gene Expression

The aim according to the core curriculum should be to acquaint students with current ideas on the structure, arrangement, expression and regulation of genes in living organisms, both prokaryote and eukaryote. By the end of the degree, the student should be expected to understand:

  • the chemical and physical properties of nucleic acids and the role of enzymes in replicating and transcribing DNA;
  • the roles of ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum and transfer RNA in the synthesis of proteins;
  • how genes are structured, organised and expressed, and have an overview of how gene expression is regulated;
  • the practical application of molecular biology techniques including experiments to illustrate their relevance in an active research programme.

Molecular biology and the regulation of gene expression were universally a major component of years 1 and 2 in all universities (years 2 and 3 in Scotland) and all topics above were covered (Table 3). In many cases teaching in this area was spread over the two years, and sometimes continued in year 3. In those departments where molecular biology was a less dominant research interest teaching could be concentrated in the early year.

Membrane Structure and Function

The aim should be to understand the role of membranes in cellular processes including signal transduction, solute transport, and energy transduction. The mechanisms of coupling exergonic reactions to endergonic reactions should include the role of ion gradients, redox reactions and chemical intermediates. Wherever possible, a quantitative approach should be taken.

Membrane structure and function were also well treated at all participating institutions (Table 4). However, some institutions taught aspects of membrane transport in optional units such as physiology, and quantitative treatment of membrane thermodynamics was patchy.

Structural biochemistry, including the biophysics of macromolecules

The student should become familiar with the general molecular structure and reactivity of carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins and lipids. Studies should include a description of supramolecular structures such as microfilaments, chromosomes, cells walls and viruses. In addition, the principles and applications of a suitable selection of techniques for studying macromolecular structure should be covered.

Whilst structural biochemistry as applied to macromolecules was core in all cases, supramolecular structures were sometimes considered in optional courses (Table 5). There was a tendency for taught analytical procedures to exclude some physical methods.

4. ANALYSIS OF CONTACT HOURS AND DEPTH OF COVERAGE

In the second part of the study those biochemical elements of the core curriculum not included in Section 3.2 were analysed more quantitatively to assess the extent and depth of provision, and how this varied between institutions. This analysis was possible for 8 out of the 12 participating institutions.

4.1 Methodology

In terms of depth of treatment the following classification was adopted:

1 Material covered in introductory text
2 Material covered in standard text
3 Secondary literature/Review journals
4 Research papers level

It would be expected that by the end of year 2, most courses would average >2 on this basis.

If core material represents 50% of the total in years 1 and 2, then this would represent 120 credits. The Working Party defined seven areas, in addition to chemistry, to form the basis of a core course. It recognised that these need not necessarily form the modular structure of the programme and that there is considerable scope for overlap between these areas e.g. industrial gene cloning may well be in a Molecular Biology unit rather than Applied Biochemistry. Allowing for six equally weighted modules, each would carry 20 credits and would be expected on average to contain 30-40 lectures, 30-40 hours of practical and 12 hours of tutorials etc. The number of contact hours was therefore scored as below.

Lectures
1 <20 hours
2 20-30 hours
3 30-40 hours
4 >40 hours
Practicals
1 <20 hours
2 20-30 hours
3 30-40 hours
4 >40 hours
Tutorials
1 <12 hours
2 >12 hours

Again, by the end of year 2, most courses would be expected to average >2.

4.2 Protein Structure and Function including Enzymology

Among the topics recommended for inclusion in this area of the core syllabus were:

Structure - function relationships
Study and prediction of protein conformation including computer simulation
Kinetics and molecular structure and their use in determining catalytic mechanisms
Role and nature of co-factors
Regulation of catalytic activity

All 8 institutions achieved high scores, both in terms of contact hours and depth of coverage, in this popular teaching area (Table 6). Lecture and even practical contact time assignment was mostly straightforward but some of the grades may be slightly under-estimated in view of the difficulty in assessing time spent on data analysis and tutorials. Some of the differences in contact hours were caused by the relative amounts of mandatory and optional course teaching in the final year.

4.3 Metabolism, including regulation and intracellular signalling

Topics should include:

Anabolic and catabolic pathways including key linking intermediates
The principles of flux control and metabolic regulation
The balance of the activity of key pathways to physiological demands
Comparative metabolic biochemistry of plants, microbes and animals

Individual programmes may extend into certain specialised metabolic areas e.g. mammalian metabolism.

There was a wider variation between institutions in this area than might have been anticipated, with a two-fold difference in total contact hours between the lowest and the highest, and a similar variation in the time allocated to practicals (Table 7). Whilst all the submissions showed similar consideration of basic intermediary metabolism and flux control and metabolic regulation, more detailed consideration of physiological demands, comparative biochemistry and even quantitative analysis of flux control was barely mentioned in some.

Variation was also found in the depth of coverage, with some students being expected to analyse data derived from patients with various metabolic diseases whilst others received little exposure to metabolic data. On average, the depth of coverage was about that predicted in section 4.1

4.4 Molecular Cell Biology, including Intercellular Signalling

The aim is to provide an understanding of the structure and function of the cell with examples from animals, plants and micro-organisms. Emphasis should be placed on subcellular organisation and the dynamics of cellular function. In particular, the student should be familiar with the following:

The function of major subcellular structures
The basis of cellular and subcellular organisation including problems of compartmentation
The changes taking place during cell division, cell differentiation and cell death
The main techniques used in cell biology

It was impossible to derive a meaningful contact grade for three of the eight submissions and even in the others ‘guesstimates’ were made (Table 8). In some Honours Schools this subject area was not treated as part of biochemistry but was included in optional cell biology courses. Basic teaching was often supplemented by a few lectures and practicals in a later unit. From some of the recommended texts and review articles given as suggested reading, the depth of coverage was rather greater than might be expected, but again this was patchy.

4.5 Applied Biochemistry, including relevant aspects of biotechnology

The aim is to introduce applications of biochemistry, which have proven technological worth. These applications could include:

The industrial application of enzymes
Techniques of gene cloning and gene expression for industrial use
Biotransformations for industrial use

Increasing provision of biotechnology programmes and combined studies of biotechnology with other subjects appeared to have led to a decrease in teaching of this subject area in biochemistry programmes (Table 9). Only one university among the eight assessed appeared to provide a significant course on industrial biocatalysts, this subject not being mentioned specifically in the other submissions. Similar comments applied to biotransformations for industrial use. Microbiology units occasionally added this aspect at the end of a section on microbial metabolism but always as an afterthought. The one topic that was generally popular was gene cloning and gene expression for industrial use, for which reasonable scores for contact hours were achieved in some cases. Depth of treatment was variable but usually adequate.

4.6 Comments on the in-depth analysis

It was an onerous task to extract the information from the documents provided. Although a fair amount of care was taken in the analysis there must remain the possibility of some imprecision through misinterpretation caused by a lack of familiarity with individual courses and modules. Whilst the results probably provide a reasonable reflection of the teaching in the areas covered, the comparisons between individual institutions may give an unfair picture of their relative strengths and merits.

One of the difficulties faced was the lack of uniformity in the subdivision of the 120 credits per session. Units of 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and 40 credits were found and the relationship between teaching hours and credit awarded was quite variable. In one case credit rating was not mentioned and all units were expressed in contact time only.

Another potential source of inequality of treatment was final year teaching. In some institutions, particularly in Scotland, much of the final year was mandatory whilst in others there was a large number of optional courses to choose from. Individual footnotes to the tables indicate where this was a significant factor in producing a contact or depth score.

The most transparent documents clearly set out the contact hours for lectures, practical, tutorials and other activities. Other documents required a close perusal of practical schedules, tutorial lists and even time-tables to assess full contact hours. Whilst some institutions treated each unit as a complete teaching block with associated practicals etc, others, probably the majority, produced practical documents for the semester or session without assigning practicals to specific units. In some cases such assignment was easy to carry out but in other cases, for example the border between enzymology and metabolism, the assignment was virtually impossible. Similar considerations applied to tutorials, seminars and other teaching.

Problem classes, seminar topics and past examination questions, particularly in the final year were used as a measure of depth of coverage. On the whole this worked quite well and it was possible to gauge if students had developed some familiarity with the review and research literature. It was in the area of depth that there was the most variation between institutions.

5. CONCLUSIONS

Feasibility of using existing course information in a course recognition exercise

In the last decade the quality and quantity of information presented to students before and after entry has made a quantum leap. For the purposes of this study some institutions submitted a basic student handbook for the complete programme whilst others provided a series of handbooks which covered essay topics, problem classes and even handouts of diagrams for a single semester. Even the most basic handbook proved just about adequate for the qualitative analysis in the first part of the study. One institution did not provide an undergraduate handbook and in this case the preliminary analysis could not be fully completed. The QAA self-assessment documents, requested and usually supplied, were invaluable for highlighting departmental strengths and occasionally weaknesses. Specimen examination papers were useful for assessing the depth of coverage of particular topics. Familiarity with recent developments in university organisation, e.g. semesters, modules, credits, was undoubtedly a great help in reading handbooks and similar documents rapidly and with understanding.

The qualitative analysis performed in the first part of the study could provide sufficient information for a course recognition exercise. It identified the amount and nature of chemistry provision, whether or not the core curriculum constituted at least 50% of the mandatory biochemistry teaching, the areas covered under the 7 main elements of the core curriculum, the amount of biochemistry practical, and the likelihood of being able to do a laboratory-based final year project. The analysis also indicated the focus in different departments on provision of transferable skills. All this would be valuable information to enable a department to benchmark its provision against Biochemical Society standards and the sector norm, for Subject Review purposes, and to support internal claims for additional resources where appropriate. Provision of the documents to enable such a qualitative analysis would involve biochemistry departments in the minimum of bureaucracy. It is estimated that a trained life sciences graduate would take about two days to analyse each submission.

It is not recommended that an in-depth analysis as in the second part of the study should be attempted as part of a course recognition exercise. It would need a great deal more information to be provided before accuracy and consistency could be assured. This would involve departments in undesirable bureaucracy and effort. The in-depth part of the present study was valuable in highlighting the extent to which individual programmes have specific emphases related to the staffing and interests of the Biochemistry department. This is welcome as indicative of the uniqueness of individual programmes, provided there is adequate conformity with a core syllabus.

The currency of the existing core curriculum, and provision across departments

In general, the subject-related material specified by the 1996 Working Party as being core to any degree in biochemistry was adequately represented in all the submissions. Whilst there clearly needs to be a mechanism to enable the core curriculum to change with changing emphases in the subject, the existing core remained appropriate at the present time. There were no new elements common to a number of departments that would fall outside the core. Some variation was seen between departments in the coverage of physical techniques for macromolecular structure determination, and in the application of quantitative techniques to biochemical problems such as the thermodynamics of redox reactions. It was also surprising to note that certain aspects of molecular cell biology were offered as optional rather than mandatory topics by some departments. There is, perhaps, a need for debate about the relevance of these observations to the core curriculum.

The areas that do cause concern and may require the Working Party to consider again are (a) the amount and depth of chemistry provision and (b) the time devoted to practical biochemistry, particularly in year 1. The recommendations of the core curriculum in both of these areas appear optimal, and provide an objective to which all programmes should aim but which may not be achievable. The shortfall in chemistry is a concern at a time when research at the interface between chemistry and biology is becoming increasingly important, and because the focus on chemistry is what distinguishes biochemistry from other life sciences disciplines. The shortfall in biochemistry practicals comes at a time when the pharmaceutical industry, in particular, is vociferous in its criticism of the lack of practical skills of new graduate recruits. Further work may be warranted to examine to what extent the opportunity for practicals in related disciplines such as physiology, in modular courses, compensates for the lack of biochemistry practical. It seems unlikely that biochemistry practical time can be increased in Year1, particularly for modular courses. It is more feasible to recommend an increase in practical in Year 2 to compensate for the Year 1 shortfall.

REFERENCES

Curriculum Working Party report on the Core Content of Biochemistry First degrees. Biochemical Society internal report, 1996.


Table 1 Balance of Course Content

Institution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
>25%
Chemistry
? N N Y ? N Y Y Y ? N Y
>50%
Core Syllabus
Y Y ? Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Practical
1 day/week
? Y ? ? Y Y ? ? ? ? ? ?
Laboratory
Project
Var Y Y Y Var Y Var Y Y Var Var Y
Footnotes A,B   C,D E F G H,I,J K L M N,O P

A Two chemistry modules (out of eight in the first year) represents 25%. However one of these modules was only compulsory for students with weaker A-levels. No evidence of surface and colloid chemistry or natural product chemistry.

B The practical time was slightly light but this was more than compensated for by workshops, which are presumed to be used by chemists and biologists to demonstrate techniques to large classes.

C Of the 24 courses (360 credits) taken by each student, only 7 core courses were clearly identifiable with the core syllabus. However 6 option courses, of which it was possible to choose 5, contained mainly core syllabus material.

D 25% of the first year was spent on practical skills and experiments. In the second year this fell to 12.5%. Overall the practical component was somewhat short of 1 day/week.

E Although the credit rating of biochemistry practicals at 20 credits in year 2 was probably approximately 1 day/week the amount of practical in year 1 was not specified and would appear to be considerably less

F The course content of years 1 and 2 (Scottish) were not provided and it was difficult to assess the breadth of coverage, particularly as these years were faculty taught before entry into Honours. Chemistry courses could account for 80 units of the 240 in these two years and this would appear to be adequate chemistry exposure. This conclusion is supported by the depth of chemistry assumed in later biochemistry modules.

G The sole chemistry content of this course was provided by two 10-credit modules in Year 1. These were entitled Molecules of Life, which covered a great deal of basic chemistry in 22 lectures including application to biological molecules, and Fundamentals of Biochemistry, which spent 7 lectures on spectroscopy. Any thermodynamic content seemed to be absent. This paucity of chemistry was reflected in the omission of methods of structural analysis.

H In Year 1, 30 credits were devoted to chemistry and at least 20 credits in year 2. Coverage was difficult to assess since syllabuses were not provided.

I There was no specific course of ‘applied biochemistry’ but the material was inherent in several modules.

J The timetables were very complex and it was difficult to assess practical hours easily, but the number appeared about right.

K Only in semester 6 (Scottish) was there at least one day of practical per week in biochemistry. In semesters 3-5, a half day of practical was usual. However throughout the first two years and extending with options into the third year, there was a solid component of chemistry practical.

L In year 1 the size of class appeared to dictate that all students spent approximately ˝ day per week in the laboratory in biochemistry/cell biology. One day/week was the norm in year 2.

M A literature-based research project was given as an alternative to laboratory-based. It is difficult to assess the structure of the course adequately since student handbooks were not provided. While one day per week was spent on practical in year 3 (Scottish) in other years the practical content was of the order of ˝ day per week.

N Only 20% of year 1 was spent on chemistry which lacked any reference to natural product or bio-organic chemistry.

O Very limited practical in year 1. The unit catalogue did not specify amount of practical associated with each unit. There was one unit of purely practical work in genetic engineering.

P 1st and 2nd year courses in chemistry were mandatory with much illustrative material of a biochemical nature. Applied biochemistry was the subject of a 15 credit optional course in year 3. Practical classes occupied 1day per fortnight in year 1 and an average of 1 day per week in year 2.


Table 2 Provision of transferable skills

Institution

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

Numeracy

+++

++

++

+++

++

++

+++

+++

+++

+++

+++

++

Communication

+++

++

++

+++

+++

++

+++

+++

+++

++

+++

++

Problem-solving

+++

++

++

+++

++

+

+++

+++

+++

++

+++

++

IT skills

+++

+++

++

+++

+++

++

+++

++

+++

++

+++

++

Information

+++

+++

+

+++

+++

+++

+++

+++

+++

++

++

++

Inter-personal

+++

+

+

+

++

++

++

++

+++

?

++

+

Management

++

+

++

++

+

0

++

++

++

++

+

+

Footnotes

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

J

K

L

A This institution had spent a lot of time and effort in ensuring that all students have excellent exposure to transferable skills. To that end all modules were assessed for their contribution to the development of such skills and certain modules were designed with novel aspects of communication in mind..

B The School document had a detailed general statement about generic skills. Although the individual modules did teach some transferable skills, these were always treated as incidental to the subject matter and rarely emphasized.

C Specific modules on study skills in Year 1 set the scene. However in subsequent years, the development of generic skills was side-lined and rarely concentrated.

D This institution took the area of transferable skills very seriously in that at least 40 credits in years 1 and 2 depended on modules solely devoted to areas such as numeracy, data analysis, IT usage, information retrieval and communication skills. Subsequent modules relied to some extent on these skills.

E An interesting addition to communication and team work training was the ‘Reading Party’ where students and staff spent some time away from campus presenting oral communications.

F The information provided was relatively compact and complete. However it did make the analysis of areas such as problem classes extremely difficult. Having good IT facilities is not the same as teaching students to use these facilities and demonstrating the wide range of usage that is possible.

G It was particularly impressive to note that when a departure from normal performance in Year 1 was noticed, immediate steps were taken to advise students in time management and study skills.

H This institution seemed to have adopted a standard form of words for each module in describing generic skills associated with that module. In some of the early modules this seemed to be mere lip-service but in later modules there was substantial evidence of excellent provision particularly in data analysis, problem solving and information retrieval. Although team-work was mentioned in several places, it was not emphasized. General study problems such as time and effort management seemed to be left to central administration, although a substantial course was provided.

I There was a great deal of emphasis on transferable skills and this was highlighted in individual course handbooks and course design.

J No specific reference to team-working.

K Most skills were the subject of at least one 6 credit unit. Time management was mentioned but no specific instruction included.

L There was no obvious attempt to relate courses to the development of generic skills.


Table 3 Topics covered under Molecular Biology and Regulation of Gene Expression

Institution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Nucleic acids, Replication etc Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Protein Synthesis Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Gene structure and expression Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Practical Applications Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Footnotes           A            

A Some of the coverage of gene expression and its potential practical application appeared a little sparse


Table 4 Topics covered under Membrane Structure and Function

Institution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Chemical & Physical Structure Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Signal Transduction Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Solute Transport ? ? Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Energy Transduction Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Coupling etc   Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Quantitative Approach Y ? N ? ? Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Footnotes A B   C D              

A Solute transport was dealt with in detail in a module not taken by biochemists

B Solute transport was dealt with in a recommended optional course. Quantitative approach was not evident.

C No obvious training in quantitative thermodynamics applied to energy transduction

D No obvious training in quantitative thermodynamics applied to energy transduction


Table 5 Topics covered under Structural Biochemistry and the biophysics of macromolecules

Institution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Carbohydrates Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Nucleic acids Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Proteins Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Lipids Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Microfilaments Y Y Y Y ? Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Chromosomes Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Cell walls Y Y ? ? ? Y Y Y Y Y Y ?
Viruses Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y ? ?
Chemical methods Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Physical methods ? Y ? ? Y N Y N ? Y Y Y
Footnotes A   B C D       E   F G

A Some mention of physical methods in several sections but little consideration of hydrodynamic methods

B Cell walls were included in an optional course. Hydrodynamic methods apparently not covered.

C Hydrodynamic methods not explicit. Cell walls only in optional course.

D When ‘?’ is used, it denotes the fact that either the information provided did not allow accurate analysis of the content of this area or the material was covered in an optional course.

E Some mention of physical methods in first year courses but these did not seem to be elaborated in later core courses.

F No specific mention of viruses.

G Both cell walls and viruses occurred in an optional microbiology course.


Table 6 Depth of cover of Protein Structure and function

Institution   1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10
Lectures (h) Year 1 6+10 4+12 6+8 12 11+17 3 3+3 5+12
  Year 2 3+34 36+13 20+18 10+10 15+8 10+34 29+3 12+23
  Total 53 65 52 32 51 47 38 52
Practicals (h) Year 1 5+18 12 6+6 7 3+15 12+4 18+3 3
  Year 2 5+20 12+15 15+10 48+36 6+12 40+32 24 40
  Total 48 39 37 91 36 88 45 43
Tutorials/Seminars Year 1 6+4       10   6+8 2
  Year 2 4+9 5 5 6+10 2 11+9 6 4+12
  Total 23 5 5 16 12 20 20 18
Total Contact (h)   124 109 94 139 99 155 103 113
Contact Grade   4 4 3.8 4 4 4 4 4
Depth Grade   4 3 3 4 4 4 4 4
Footnotes   A   B C D E F G

 

A The scoring in this section includes marks for third year courses, which were all mandatory.

B Some final year courses were mandatory and are included in the analysis.

C Significant optional teaching in this area in the final year has not been included.

D Data handling and tutorial hours were difficult to evaluate accurately.

E All final year courses were mandatory and are hence included.

F This institution continued the teaching of the protein structure area extensively in an option based third year.

G Included some final year teaching which was mandatory.


Table 7 Depth of cover of metabolism, including regulation and intracellular signalling

Institution   1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10
Lectures (h) Year 1 15+1 17 12 12 8+10 10+9 14 2
  Year 2 22+5 9+4 20+4 5+10 30+8 10 14+8 16+10
  Total 43 30 36 27 56 29 36 28
Practicals (h) Year 1       7 6+10 12 7 9
  Year 2 12 16 5 48+12 0 8+9 30+12 4+20
  Total 12 16 5 67 16 29 49 33
Tutorials/Seminars Year 1 1       5   3  
  Year 2 6+8 2   6   4+5 2 3
  Total 15 2 0 6 5 9 5 3
Total Contact (h)   70 48 41 100 77 67 90 64
Contact Grade   2.8 1.9 1.6 4 3.1 2.7 3.6 2.6
Depth Grade   >2<3 2 2 3 3 >2<3 2 >2<3
Footnotes   A   B   C D E F

A Includes third year courses, which were mandatory.

B Tutorial information was not explicitly included in the handbook.

C Data-handling and tutorial work difficult to allocate and evaluate.

D All final year courses were mandatory and included.

E A very detailed optional course was available in year 3. Although very mammalian in outlook, relationships to plant and microbial metabolism were considered.

F There seemed to be a metabolic course missing and an enquiry was not answered. Mandatory final year courses were included.


Table 8 Depth of cover of Molecular Cell Biology, including Intercellular Signalling

Institution   1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10
Lectures (h) Year 1 8   4   8 10 13 4+8
  Year 2 24+15 10   5+10 10+5 10+24 6 8+15
  Total 47   4 15 23 44 19 35
Practicals (h) Year 1 6   6   3 12 10 5
  Year 2 5           0  
  Total 11   6   3 12 10 5
Tutorials/Seminars Year 1         4   3  
  Year 2 2         5 0  
  Total 2       4 5 3 0
Total Contact (h)   60   10 15 30 61 32 40
Contact Grade   2.4 ? ? ? 1.2 2.4 1.3 1.6
Depth Grade   <2 2 2 >2<3 2 3 2 2
Footnotes   A B C D E F G H

A Very difficult to separate biochemistry and physiology in some places.

B There was a recommended optional module of cell biology in year 2 which would score contact grade 2 and depth grade 2.

C A great deal of the molecular cell biology and molecular biology was taught in optional courses and not included.

D Had an extensive optional cell biology course in year 2. Of 30 year 2 modules, only 12 could be selected and of these only 4 were mandatory.

E Depth and amount of this topic were partly hidden in other courses.

F All final year courses were mandatory and have been included.

G Some molecular cell biology was in courses given by the Biology department and the full syllabus was not given.

H Difficult to assess in the absence of detailed course structure.


Table 9 Depth of cover of Applied Biochemistry

Institution   1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10
Lectures (h) Year 1 1   2     5 0 4+5
  Year 2 3+5 8 4+9 8+12 8+10 12 8 5
  Total 9 8 15 20 18 17 8 14
Practicals (h) Year 1 12   6     16 0 9
  Year 2 4 10   24+24 9+8   24 10
  Total 16 10 6 48 17 16 24 19
Tutorials/Seminars Year 1             0 1
  Year 2       10   4+3 3 1
  Total 0 0 0 10 0 7 3 2
Total Contact (h)   25 18 21 78 35 40 35 35
Contact Grade   1.0 0.7 0.8 3.1 1.2 1.6 1.4 1.4
Depth Grade   2 >2<3 >2 3 2 >2<3 2 2
Footnotes   A B C   D E F  

A A third year ‘topic’ course on industrial biocatalysts was about the only specific mention of this area.

B Very difficult to identify specific teaching on the applied side except in gene cloning and transgenic work.

C A great deal of molecular cell biology and molecular biology was included in optional courses and not included.

D Detail of tutorial work not included.

E Final year courses were mandatory and included.

F Very little applied biochemistry was taught explicitly. This may reflect the presence of a Biotechnology degree programme


The Biochemical Society,
59 Portland Place,
London W1B 1QW;
Tel: 020 7580 5530; Fax: 020 7637 3626;
E-mail: genadmin@biochemistry.org