Students working toward Ph.D.’s develop deep expertise in their areas of research through thesis work and interactions with advisers. Students must also develop broad knowledge in related areas to formulate research questions and to identify appropriate technologies in areas not encountered during their thesis research. Breadth of training will become increasingly critical for long-term success as biomedical research becomes ever more interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. Graduate students also need to learn how to participate in and respond to peer review to become effective professionals. Learning the balance between breadth and depth and participating effectively in peer review are interrelated educational issues.
Breadth of training is obtained during the didactic part of the graduate program in advanced courses and journal clubs that use the primary literature. Typically, these formats use synchronous teaching-learning methods (1
) that are valuable because they enable direct interactions and immediate feedback between the teachers and students. However, a time-limited session greatly reduces the possibility for students to critically evaluate and integrate information. Often the discussion is between the student and the teacher with limited, if any, sustained interactions between the students. In addition, there is little opportunity for the students to reflect on and respond to comments from the teacher or their peers. Technology-based approaches can be used to address these issues in inquiry learning (2
). Web technologies such as threaded discussion forums are asynchronous formats that overcome the limitations of synchronous sessions. Because asynchronous discussions allow students to respond to a topic at any time, this feature encourages more thoughtful and in-depth responses (3
). Moreover, as the peer-review process for publications and grants uses a similar asynchronous format, we felt this format would be useful for providing students with peer-review experience. Teaching effective peer-review skills is challenging (5
) because of the many subtleties that must be considered (see below, right). We felt that making evaluation of peer review an integral part of an advanced course could enable students to learn an essential professional skill.
Effective Peer-Review Skills
Assessing students for breadth of knowledge and peer-review skills also poses challenges. Typical exams in advanced courses ask students to evaluate and design experiments. These exams, however, do not assess key aspects of graduate training, including the student’s ability to apply ideas from one field to another, to choose among multiple technologies to answer a specific question, to comment effectively on a peer’s approach, or to respond to criticisms of one’s own thinking. These deficiencies arise for two reasons: (i) Lack of feedback and responses: Once the exam is handed in, the teacher grades the exams. However, the student cannot respond to the teacher’s comments, and the teacher does not evaluate the student for her or his ability to understand and respond to constructive criticisms. (ii) Lack of peer interactions: In the typical exam format, each student deals individually with the teacher and has no knowledge of how his or her peers are thinking, much less the opportunity to comment on and respond to answers by peers. Yet scientists learn from peer interactions and are evaluated by their peers throughout their research careers.
We organize and teach an advanced course on cell signaling systems for second-year graduate students. The course, which began in 1988, originally focused on cell surface signaling molecules (heterotrimeric guanine nucleotide–binding proteins or G proteins). Over the years, as our knowledge of signaling pathways and biological processes has grown, the course has increasingly reflected facets of neuroscience, microbiology, immunology, pharmacology, and cell and developmental biology. This breadth has presented us with challenges and opportunities. Specifically, the breadth of student interests is valuable in peer interactions, because the comments made by the other students can provide useful perspectives that complement and enhance those of the instructors.