When I was an undergraduate there were two things I hated more than anything else. First, I hated being forced to memorize and regurgitate. The best example of this was Intermediate Biochemistry 101 in my second year as a biochemistry major. I was essentially handed a huge book as thick as telephone book and told to memorize it. It was one of the most boring courses I ever had to take. Lectures consisted of writing out all the steps of the Kreb’s cycle, glycolysis, glycogenesis and other pathways. I don’t ever recall being taught what these pathways were for. Our professor wrote out all the steps of the pathways and talked about carbon backbones and proton transfer. Our exams required we precisely regurgitated the complex diagrams and pathways. Marks were deducted for every letter and sign we did not put on the paper. No matter how hard I tried I could not regurgitate those diagrams without mixing things up. I literally cried over the pages I practiced on as I wrote it out again and again and again. I always failed.
If I had not gotten lucky about something else I probably would have given up biochemistry. I had to juggle day care needs of my children with my class schedule so I asked for permission to take a third year biochemistry course as a co-requisite that same year. This course was taught in totally different fashion. It was called Nitrogen Fixation. I loved this course! It was so fascinating! The professor gave us the diagram about nitrogen fixation and we learned about the role of fixation in the life cycle of plants. We studied where and how nitrogen fixation takes place. We learned wonderful things such as how farmers cultivate floating plants that can fix nitrogen in rice paddies to increase yield. We also studied how the system worked as whole including what the effect of specific mutations of genes for enzymes. My final exam had a two sentence questions.
“The enzyme GlnA in a specific legume is mutated so the efficiency drops to 15% of normal. What happens to the plant?”
Even more amazing, we actually had a diagram of the cycle to consult!
I ended with the term two things that were stunning and depressing. I got an A in Nitrogen Fixation and I got a C in Intermediate Biochemistry. My kindly nitrogen fixation professor saw me struggling to regurgitate those diagrams for Intermediate Biochemistry and he told me that he thought I had a learning disability similar to his daughter’s. She had dyslexia. He referred me to student services. After testing, it turned out I did indeed have a genuine, measurable, real, learning disability so that I flipped groups of atoms at random on the carbon backbones of those diagrams. It wasn’t my fault. I was not stupid, sloppy or lazy!
For the rest of my undergraduate career I would have to go to the department head at registration time and ask for an exemption. All the subsequent biochemistry courses I took required a C+ in Intermediate Biochemistry and I only had a C. I would pull out my official diagnosis of a learning disability with my proof of a need to be accommodated. Each and every time the department head would look at me and shake his head in wonder and ask me “How could you get a C in Intermediate Biochemistry and an A in Nitrogen Fixation? Everyone knows that the Nitrogen Fixation is a much harder course and hardly anyone ever gets an A.” Then he would sign the waiver for me.
How indeed. It was many years until I figured it out. It was partly my learning disability. The Intermediate Biochemistry course was based entirely on the ability to memorize and regurgitate a set of diagrams and I just couldn’t do it. No understanding was required to pass that course. No ability to think was needed. You just needed an ability to reproduce diagrams which I did not have. You don’t even have to be able to speak English. You just needed to be able to draw the pathway precisely as laid out in the textbook. After you have completed that “essential” learning step, then and only then can you, as a student, move on to learning real stuff.
Nitrogen fixation was taught in a manner that required I really understand how the whole thing worked. The professor who taught it complained (and warned us) that many of the student who took the course would write out the diagrams for him in the exam but they would fail. He was not interested in having us write out the diagrams. He was interested in knowing we understood the content he was teaching in the context it operated in. No wonder it was such a fascinating course!
My Introduction to Embryology course was much the same though not as bad (for me) as Intermediate Biochemistry. I was required to memorize and regurgitate all the proper labels of diagrams on stages of embryogenesis. This included correct spelling of terms like coelom, archenteron, and blastocoel. If you had a single letter wrong you got a zero score. This did nothing to increase my understanding of embryology. There was a really great lab with three dimensional models and time lapse movies. We also got to study carefully prepared serial section slides of stages of development over time. I learned the anatomy of the embryo from those labs, not the lectures. I got almost nothing out of the lectures. For the exams I got lucky because I have always been fascinated by Latin and Greek elements in words. I even took an optional course in it simply because I liked the topic. That made it much easier for me to reproduce that arcane language correctly because I knew the roots all the horrid words came from. My fellow students without such a background struggled terribly and most left the course with a C for poor spelling and hating embryology as a topic.
So why do we make students go through the pain and suffering of memorizing and regurgitating in the first courses they take in a topic? It can’t be because it helps students learn. It does the opposite. It bores them and drives them away. It can’t be because it helps understanding. There is no understanding required. It can’t be to give them “a solid grounding in the basics” because I have never encountered a need to have the entire Kreb’s cycle memorized or the correct spelling of “gastroceol” in any work I ever did. Active researchers use databases and computer programs of such things and always check their memory against real data. Memory is unreliable and not something to be trusted. The greatest metabolic geneticist I ever knew, Dr. Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg, had the pathways she encountered most often in the clinic memorized but I still saw her consulting a text book more than once. We would be working on something and she would get telephone calls from clinicians from all over the world. We would pause while she took the calls and I would sit and listen. She would often pull out a textbook and consult it in her conversations. It was fascinating to watch her really using biochemistry but she did not count on her memory. I kept asking my question about why we do this to students but no one had a good answer. When I got a little more senior in my studies, when I was closer to being ‘one of us’ as a PhD student, I still kept asking. Why do we make students memorise and regurgitate diagrams?
Finally one professor literally snarled at me and said “I had to do when I was an undergraduate and they are all damn well are going to suffer through it too!”
That’s when I finally understood. This is a form of hazing. We make students do this horrible useless exercise in order to make them prove they really want to be “one of us”. We force students to learn and then adopt the special language we use. This special language keeps “us” as an exclusive group that outsiders can’t join easily because they can’t understand our private conversations. You want to be an embryologist? You have to first prove you deserve to become one of us by proving you will let us make you spell every arcane, old fashioned word there is in our special secret language. You want to be a biochemist? You have to memorize a textbook of stupid diagrams to show you really want to belong to our special club no matter what we do to you. This hazing creates a nice camaraderie within the profession. It also drives away some of the best and brightest at their first exposure. Worse, it stifles those who think independently and who might therefore challenge the current consensus of whatever is considered the great truth scientific of the day. It helps explain why scientific breakthroughs resulting from paradigm shifts take so long to occur and meet so much resistance before they are accepted.
When I taught engineers and mathematicians embryology, I did not use diagrams with all those arcane names and labels. I used models with clay, and pictures and movies and live embryos. I explained how the embryo changed over developmental time giving them only a few key terms. I never mistreated them for a misspelling. I did not make them memorize anything. I allowed as many questions as they wanted to ask. I noticed these students learned much more quickly and understood much more thoroughly than the poor biology student who is forced to memorize and regurgitate diagrams. And my students never got bored with either biochemistry or embryology. And I don’t see why an engineer should be prevented from applying his skills to development because he hasn’t been forced to prove he can correctly spell “syncytiotrophoblast” or “integumentary”.
This is also why I am not bothered by the criticism that I did not use the standard nomenclature and terminology of embryology in our book. We wanted a book that was accessible to as broad an audience as possible, and one that reveals the miraculous beauty of embryogenesis without the stultifying jargon. We don’t want embryology to be a closed society with a secret language. We want everyone to love embryology as much as we do.