Course: MOL214
Instructor: Notterman
S 2015

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

This course has undergone significant changes since this article was written. Talk with your instructor about what information included here is accurate--and not.

  MOL 214 is a course that builds a strong base in general molecular biology through the application of certain principles in an experimental context. Historical experiments are emphasized throughout the course as they demonstrate the mechanics of biology being implemented in a real life setting. Problem sets and exams demand the ability to construct experiments and predict outcomes using the building blocks of molecular biology. The course is organized in a hierarchical, cumulative manner where the material taught at the beginning of the course is built on with each successive class. There are three main divisions in the material of the course: DNA and the Genome, RNA processing and Cell Signaling, and Epigenetics. The course does not necessarily require any previous knowledge of biology, although it is helpful to have a background in the subject as the course moves very quickly and can become quite complicated if one does not stay on top of the lectures. It is of utmost importance to have an extremely strong grasp of the hierarchical organization within the first section of the course (DNA and the Genome), because these principles are applied with the most frequency in the other two sections as compared to any other principles. Cell Signaling and Epigenetics are highly related, therefore there is a high degree of overlap towards the end of the course. Challenging about acquiring knowledge As a subject, Biology is generally stereotyped as being the topic which requires strict memorization and regurgitation. Many students begin the class with this attitude and thus struggle to excel in problem sets, lab reports, and exams. When such a large amount of information is presented at such a fast pace, it can become overwhelming to be expected to truly master the processes and fundamental ideas of the course. A reasonable approach to this dilemma is to allow oneself to learn the material through the problem sets. That being said, one should still review the powerpoint lecture notes thoroughly in order to grasp the general idea presented. However, in order to really mentally enforce the information and ensure good comprehension, one should focus on the problem sets and take note of how one is required to sometimes think in a “backwards” manner where you are not necessarily asked what the definition of X is or what X’s purpose is, but rather you are presented with an outcome and you must deduce what processes/molecules may have caused this outcome. This type of thinking is really beneficial because it is what is most present on the exams. It tests the difference between someone who has just memorized the information versus someone who can explain processes and concepts and how they’re involved in other processes in the biological world. Students who succeed can mentally map processes and concepts and show how they are interconnected at a complicated level, a more fundamental level, or both. Hidden expectations This course did not require any previous knowledge of molecular biology. The first few lectures regarding the building blocks of molecular biology were taught in a manner that assumed no previous exposure to biology on any level. This is one of the strong points of the course because the professors understand that the students taking the course come from all different backgrounds of biology knowledge, so they teach the material in a very comprehensive way to assure that everyone can follow it easily. The closest thing to a hidden expectation in this course is extra time outside of lecture and lab to dedicate to the optional weekly review sessions. Although one may very well succeed in the course without the additional review sessions, the sessions facilitate the “understanding” portion of the course to later allow the student to dedicate more time to the “application” portion. One cannot begin to tackle the application problems without wholly understanding the themes, and this cannot be stressed enough.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

Lectures Lectures are the core component to learning in MOL 214. At the beginning of each lecture presentation, the learning goals for that lecture are outlined; these give you a clear guideline of what concepts you should understand by the end of each lecture and when you are studying. Also, these are especially helpful to review before you attend the next lecture. The lecture slides themselves break down more general concepts into specific subsections. The titles are the subsections of the learning goals/general concepts and often feature keywords. The slides tend not to have many words but rather rely on a visual component to explain concepts. It is important to note, however, that the few words that are mentioned will most likely be words you are expected to know and use on exams, unless explicitly told otherwise. Although a lot of information is thrown at you in lecture, if you understand how the slides are broken down, then it is much easier to keep up in class. Also, don’t be afraid to stop the professor and ask questions. Finally, another important feature of lecture is the iClicker questions distributed throughout the lecture slides. These questions tend to be application-based and preview the type of questions that are asked on problem sets and exams. In terms of note-taking, the method you choose greatly depends on what helps you most to remember and study large amounts of information. Handwritten notes make it easier to draw diagrams and you have ample space to mark down questions you might have in margins. Typed notes can be easier to read and format, and pictures can be added in online. Finally, many people opt to print out the slides and take notes directly on the slides so that they know exactly what information corresponds to each slide or concept. No matter which method you choose, make sure you write down as much as you can, even if it does not make sense. You can always ask questions and organize your notes later, but you do not want to miss out an important detail. Recording lectures may make note-taking in class less stressful so you can focus on listening and general understanding during class. Even if you record the lectures, however, taking notes is a definite must. Labs Other than lectures, labs are great ways to apply the concepts you discuss in class. The labs begin with a simple lab quiz for which you are expected to have reviewed and understood the pre-lab material posted on Blackboard. There is no need to memorize the procedure, however. The best way to prepare for the quiz is to simply read the manual and background information a few times and note down important figures or procedures that stand out to you. Labs that are done over a period of a week, for example, may have a pre-lab question that asks about what day X will require. Labs are done in partners and there is a lab manual at each desk. You are also expected to keep a bound lab notebook that outlines the purpose, general procedure, and experimental observations and data. Though they tend not to be incredibly long, it is recommended that you do not do lab reports last minute as there are many graphical components that can be time-consuming. Lab reports are great ways to synthesize concepts learned in class in an experimental setting. Classroom Expectations Other than being prepared for lab, the only real expectation of MOL 214 is to seek help when needed. The professors are very vocal about the resources available and are always willing to help. Do not wait until the week before the exam to ask the questions you have had all semester and to finally review previous lectures, because other students will also have the same idea. If you stay on top of the lectures, you should be coming up with questions on a weekly basis for the pertinent lecture. Getting these questions answered within the same week is more beneficial than waiting until the week before the test because the material is still very fresh in your mind.

Learning For and From Assignments

Problem sets The problem sets are one of the most valuable resources for this course. They are designed in a manner very similar to that of the exam, so fully understanding the problem sets as well as being able to complete them without any outside help or hints is a good indicator of whether or not one will be able to succeed in the exams. The problem sets are the perfect opportunity to practice one’s application skills of the material learned that week in lecture. As the course heavily emphasizes the ability to think an experimental manner and deduce cause-effect patterns within processes/experiments, the problem sets allow one to not only drill the information for the week, but also to guarantee that one knows the information both backwards and forwards. As previously mentioned, “backwards” thinking is a common skill that is necessary in the course. If one completes the problem sets without any external help, they will begin to adjust their thinking patterns to become more like those of the professors. The problem sets are like a glimpse into the professor's’ mind. Although the problems themselves will not be repeated in the exam, the type of thinking required to solve these problem set problems will most definitely be used with much frequency in the examinations. Lab reports Lab reports are another opportunity to cultivate the necessary thinking skills for exams. The questions proposed for each lab report force students to use the same skills that they would in both the problem sets as well as the exams. One should go through the lab manual before each lab and understand why each step was taken. This is critical in answering the questions at the end of the lab for the lab report. Lab reports are similar to exams and problem sets in the sense that a question is proposed and several steps are enumerated. The student’s job is to understand why each step must be carried out in order to solve the problem, as well as be able to predict what will happen after each step is conducted. The specific labs that are conducted throughout the course will not necessarily appear on the exams. Once again, however, the student becomes conditioned to think in a manner that applies the concepts learned in lecture to a more experimental context. Lab TA’s are very specific graders, and one must follow the instructions of the lab report word for word. Points are taken off for small details such as missing units, unlabeled axes, etc. For this reason, it is essential to be very precise in every lab report. Several lab reports will actually ask for an explanation of why a certain step was taken, so if one takes the time before the lab to internalize the purpose of each step, these questions can be answered with much ease. Exams As emphasized throughout this guide, the course places a large importance on the application of principles to an experimental context. Students should be prepared to design experiments, predict the outcome, and thoroughly explain results in practically every exam question. The exams tend to have about 15 multiple questions at the beginning that drill your understanding of the material at hand. In order to best prepare for these questions, strict memorization will not be sufficient. Once again, one must be able to not only explain a concept or process, but apply it to other processes learned in the course. Because the course is cumulative, the multiple choice questions could expect you to recall past information from previous lectures in order to arrive at the answer, but it will not explicitly state this. Therefore, being able to mentally map the concepts and interconnect them is very helpful because it allows one to see the connections between each topic. The rest of the exam will be short answer questions where one will be presented either with an experiment or a certain situation. These questions are graded on whether or not you have key words present in the answers along with whether or not they are used in the correct fashion to describe the situation. Many times if a key word is not included, one will lose points. Therefore, when taking the exam, be sure to either mentally or physically make a quick list of important key words related to your potential answer. Here is a list of the types of things that one would most likely have to do for the short answer questions on an exam:
  • Design an experiment and justify each element of the procedure and materials
  • Predict an outcome of an experiment and justify
  • Explain an outcome of an experiment
  • Predict what would happen if a certain element of the experiment was changed
  • Explain a phenomenon in the human body due to one of the learned principles<
  • Draw diagrams to explain a process
The lecture slides and problem sets should be the main sources of test preparation material. The textbook reading is listed as optional and is not completely necessary to succeed in the class. It is recommended to read the book only if attending review sessions and reviewing lectures notes are not successful. The textbook is actually quite dense and gives more information that one really needs for purposes of the class. Therefore, the textbook could actually confuse the student more than help the student understand the principles better. Going through each slide of the lecture notes is of utmost importance. Key words are usually present on each slide, and these should be understood well not only in the context of the given slide but also within the lecture as a whole. Diagrams present in the slides are key in reviewing processes. A helpful method is to look at a diagram and try to explain it to a friend, paying close attention to the key words and weaving them into one’s explanation. Certain lectures will provide mental maps of concepts recently learned. Recreating those maps on a separate piece of paper but adding in one’s own personal notes is very helpful because it forces one to organize all of the information that they have mastered onto something more visual and concrete. Although the problem sets are what really reflect the questions on the exam, one cannot begin to study from the problem sets before making sure that all the concepts in the lectures have been understood very thoroughly. Problem sets should always be reviewed before exams. One should try and rework the problems without looking at the solutions or previous methods of approach in order to test whether or not one can think in the appropriate manner on the spot. After completing the problem and checking the answer, one should “unsolve” the problem -- or rather, think backwards -- in order to guarantee full mastery of not only the concept but the application of the concept and its significance on a larger scale within the biological world. In this class, it isn’t very often that there are different solutions to a given problem, but there are most definitely many ways to express an answer. This is key, because reading an answer from another student or professor may allow one to think about the problem in a different light, revealing a helpful way to approach other similar problems.

External Resources

Weekly Review Sessions - These 2 hour sessions are held twice a week. Each session covers the same material, but they are simply on different dates to accommodate others’ schedules. They cover the previous two lectures, providing clearer explanations and images to concepts discussed in morning lectures. The pace is much slower than in lecture so it does not go into as much detail except for crucial processes. The lower attendance and slower pace make it less intimidating to ask questions. Also, this is where you go to get the problem sets. To be clear, these sessions are not replacements to attending lectures; they are just supplements. - Office Hours - The professors and TAs clearly mention all of their office hours on Blackboard and on their lecture slides. There are so a ton of  office hours offered during the week and less people tend to attend these compared to the review sessions, so if you prefer one-on-one help, these are for you. However, make sure you come with specific questions because they will not simply go through the whole lecture like in the review session. - Textbook - Although recommended and required reading is assigned, the exam and problem sets will prioritize concepts discussed in lecture. For detailed multi-step concepts and processes, the textbook can supplement what you have learned in lecture with more detail and visuals. This is especially true for processes such as replication, transcription, and translation. Also, although the course is lecture-heavy, the required reading is there for a reason and will probably be featured in a question or two on the exam. Even if it is a concept discussed in lecture, make sure you flip through the textbook explanation as well. The beauty of this course is that no external resources are truly necessary in order to succeed. All resources are already listed within the lectures or posted on Blackboard in order to allow for easy access. The materials provided by the professors are more than enough to fully master the material of the course.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

Other than lab reports, there are no regular problem sets or weekly assignments for the class. However, MOL 214 is still an intensive class so you should be sure that you can keep up with the content on a regular basis and have time in your schedule to attend office hours and review sessions outside of the two 1.5 hour lectures and the 3 hour lab section. The labs can also take more than the 3 hour period because one may need to come back during the week to either finish up an experiment or conduct necessary steps that must be carried out at a later time.
Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology

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