Biology texts geared toward pre-med students, analysis finds

Sep 04, 2013 by Jeff Grabmeier

College biology textbooks cater to the needs of pre-med majors and not those of the majority of students who take introductory science classes, a new study reveals.

A text analysis of eight commonly used biology textbooks found that all of them closely follow the curriculum suggested for pre-med students by the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

That means the texts put a heavy emphasis on , while giving less attention to the big issues that have more relevance to students who don't plan on being , said Steven Rissing, author of the study and professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at The Ohio State University.

Rissing said his concern is for what he calls "general education" students. These are students who may take an introductory biology class to fulfill a science requirement for graduation, but have no intention of becoming a doctor or majoring in biology.

"These general education students are getting a lot about cell division mitosis from their textbooks when they really should be learning about things like personalized medicine, evolution and the impact of climate change," Rissing said.

"We need to have for citizens and voters, not just for future doctors."

The study was published this week in the September 2013 issue of the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education.

For the study, Rissing analyzed eight textbooks published by McGraw-Hill and Benjamin Cummings that are commonly used in introductory college biology classes. Some were designed for biology majors, while others are marketed for students outside of biology who are fulfilling a general science requirement.

Rissing wanted to see how much these texts followed specifications established by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which designs and administers the MCAT.

The AAMC has developed MCAT Important Ratings (MIRs) which tell instructors which topics are most important for pre-medical students to know.

The result of the analysis showed that all the textbooks—those for biology majors and pre-medical students as well as those for general education students—closely followed the MCAT specifications.

Rissing found that the sequence of topics in the texts closely followed the AAMC importance ratings for the topics. All texts included at least 50 percent of the primary MCAT biology content specifications within the first 30 percent of text.

That means that cellular and molecular biology came first in the books. Biology of body systems, and developmental, organismal and population biology came last in the books, where it is more likely to be skipped if instructors don't have enough time over the course of the semester or quarter.

Rissing also analyzed how often the books used MCAT topic terms in their texts. These are terms like "chromatids" or "mitosis" that the AAMC says pre-med students should know about to prepare for the MCAT.

Results showed that in the texts ostensibly designed for general education students, the density of these MCAT terms equaled or many times even exceeded that of the texts designed for biology majors and pre-medical students.

"Students who have no intention of going to medical school are primarily learning what they need to know for the MCAT exam," Rissing said.

"That means other biology topics that may be more useful to them are going to be left out."

Not only do the general education texts present topics in nearly identical sequence to the corresponding texts for majors, they also use very similar wording, Rissing said. In many cases, all the publishers do is abridge the content slightly.

But the way the content is abridged for general education students is not always helpful, and may unintentionally support common biological misconceptions, Rissing said.

For example, Rissing compared how different textbooks handled visual timelines of hominid evolution. In one text for biology majors, the timeline showed 13 ancestors and close relatives of modern humans. But in a comparable general education text, five of the human ancestors and close relatives had been taken out.

"Based on that timeline, some students may believe the evidence for evolution is not as strong as it really is," Rissing said.

He said general education need to have an overview of the big issues in biology that will make them more informed citizens, voters and patients of health care.

"Personalized medicine has become a big issue as scientists learn how to tailor drugs to individuals. But people need to know biology in order to understand and follow directions of their health care providers," he said.

Students also need to understand how climate change will affect humans and ecosystems around the world.

"This isn't the same education you would necessarily give to future doctors," he said.

"We need a more scientifically literate public, but we're not doing a very good job. Our textbooks are one important reason why we aren't succeeding."

Explore further: A bad biology grade sticks around

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A bad biology grade sticks around

May 31, 2013

Don't let low grades haunt your students. A new study in the Journal of Animal Science shows that performance in foundational biology courses is a strong predictor of performance in high-level animal science courses.

Online dermatology education effective among students

Aug 24, 2013

(HealthDay)—An online dermatology curriculum significantly improves dermatology knowledge among medical students taking an introductory dermatology clerkship, according to research published in the August ...

Schools shift from textbooks to tablets

Mar 06, 2013

(AP)—Schools no longer have to wait for textbook companies to print new editions to get the latest events. In some cases, it's as simple as a teacher hitting "refresh."

Recommended for you

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

15 hours ago

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

18 hours ago

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Ferky
1.4 / 5 (11) Sep 05, 2013
In most large American universities, science/premed majors and general education students (e.g. a fine arts major who takes a biology class to fulfill the natural science requirement) do not sit in the same biology class, therefore Rissing's complaint is inapplicable and petty.

As for the suggestion that the biological effects of climate change be taught in an INTRODUCTORY biology class--well, that's just stupid.

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Chronic inflammation linked to 'high-grade' prostate cancer

Men who show signs of chronic inflammation in non-cancerous prostate tissue may have nearly twice the risk of actually having prostate cancer than those with no inflammation, according to results of a new study led by researchers ...