BioSysBio:abstracts/2007/Catherine Hack

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Can Systems Biology be taught ?

Author(s): Catherine Hack and Gary Kendall
Affiliations: University of Ulster
Keywords: 'Bioinformatics education' 'problem based learning' 'higher cognitive skills'


The past decade has seen a rapid expansion in provision of postgraduate courses in Bioinformatics, and more recently in Systems Biology. The majority of these advanced courses include a major conversion component (i.e. not based on undergraduate qualification) whilst developing higher cognitive skills such as the critical evaluation and synthesis of knowledge and information. Evidence suggests that these skills are not well developed when delivery utilises traditional lecture-tutorial pedagogy. In a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach students learn through acquiring the knowledge and skills required to solve a particular ‘ real world’ problem. This paper evaluates the use of PBL within the teaching of Systems Biology in a postgraduate bioinformatics programme, and explores the associated benefits and issues.


There was no significant difference between the marks that students achieved in the PBL assignment compared with the traditional coursework. All of the students felt that PBL was either as demanding or more demanding than traditional learning, however the majority of students also felt that it was more enjoyable. Almost 90% of the students felt that they had gained a better understanding of the theoretical concepts and the majority felt that the learning method had improved their key skills, such as finding information, communication and working in teams.


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Systems Biology was taught using a PBL approach to two cohorts of students enrolled on the MSc Bioinformatics Programme at the University of Ulster, in 2005 and 2006. Evaluation was carried out through a questionnaire and by comparison of marks obtained in PBL and other coursework.


Problem-Based Learning has been used across a wide range of academic disciplines. It is particularly appropriate for Systems Biology as it:

  • addresses the context of a dynamic fast moving field
  • facilitates a practice-based approach
  • supports the development of life-long learning skills
  • and promotes personal development.

The coupling of a team-based approach to problem solving means that each student can bring their own experiences and knowledge to bear. A problem-based learning environment fosters peer learning and team building and provides students with a practice-based approach that necessitates integration of knowledge from diverse disciplines; these are valuable skills that will readily translate to the workplace.


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