High-Frequency, Low-Stakes Assessments in Biochemistry

Roger L. Miesfeld is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Arizona where he has taught biochemistry both in person and online for 36 years to thousands of premed biochemistry students. Roger has integrated active learning modules and everyday biochemistry into his course, which helped earn him the University of Arizona Honors College Faculty Excellence Award. He coauthored the Second Edition of Biochemistry, where he has implemented his teaching pedagogy to help students understand and apply biochemistry. For more information about RL Miesfeld, visit his teaching website

Roger Miesfeld
Image Credit: Elizabeth Miesfeld

After arriving at the University of Arizona in 1987, I was faced with the challenge of teaching medical students the metabolism of proteins and lipids, something I had never done before. I struggled to find a way to connect to these high-achieving students, and I remember thinking to myself, “What is teaching anyway? Can’t the students just read the book and then come to class with questions that I can answer?” It eventually became clear to me: my role is to inspire students to understand biochemical concepts, rather than simply memorize biochemical processes. My challenge then became: How do I inspire them? 

Over my 35+ years of teaching biochemistry to medical students, graduate students, and undergraduate students at the University of Arizona, I developed a teaching style based on three key elements that I have found to be essential to inspiring students:  

  1. I need to challenge students to answer the question “How does it work and why does it matter?” (this could be a pharmaceutical drug, a multi-subunit protein machine, or an allosteric enzyme that controls metabolic flux);   
  2. I need to provide students with a compelling example of biochemical processes in everyday life, especially in the context of human health and the world around us;  
  3. I need to convince students that it is a poor use of their limited study time to memorize a pathway or chemical structure if it comes at the expense of understanding the molecular mechanisms of the process.  

The approach I use to teach these three elements is rooted in the careful selection of high-frequency, low-stakes assessments that use critical thinking skills, first in group study and then in proctored exams, that together guide students through the subject matter. 

Based on the type of student in the course, and the degree of difficulty of the topic, I develop a set of weekly quizzes, group homework assignments using SmartWork online assessment, active learning exercises based on everyday biochemistry case studies, and assigned textbook readings to guide students through 12 learning modules in my 3-credit course.

I use a flipped classroom format that relies on lecture videos that students watch on their own time. There are ~50 lecture videos (~20 mins. each), all of which include embedded PlayPosit quizzes. Since students do reading and learn from lecture material outside of class, I am able to use class time for a daily 20-minute selective content presentation—which often includes in-depth explanations of a textbook molecular exploration video—active learning case study exercises, and an open period in which students complete weekly quizzes with the help of peers, learning assistants, a graduate TA, and myself.   

I use the following breakdown of percentages for each type of assessment: 

Assessment type Frequency Format Percent of grade 
Midterm exams (4) Every 3.5 weeks Proctored with a crib sheet provided that contains equations and selected figures from the textbook. 70% of the grade 
Cumulative final exam (1) During Final Exam week; it replaces one midterm exam if the student chooses. Proctored exam based on a bank of 250 MC questions from the publisher’s test bank that is made available a week before the exam. Random questions are drawn from the set. Included in total exam percentage of 70% 
Smartwork quizzes (12) Weekly Open book, open note, group study encouraged; quizzes are open for 2 weeks before the deadline. 7.5% of the grade 
Exam-level quizzes (12) Weekly Open book, open note, group study encouraged; quizzes are opened during class with deadline at 6pm on the same day. 7.5% of the grade 
Case Study quizzes (12) Weekly Open book, open note, group study encouraged; quizzes are opened during class with deadline at 6pm on the same day. 7.5% of the grade 
PlayPosit video quizzes (36 for the course) Weekly (3 videos per week) Open book, open note, group study encouraged; videos are open for 2 weeks before the deadline. 7.5% of the grade 
Everyday biochemistry extra credit assignment (optional) Available all semester  Students choose an example from the chapter openings in the textbook, describe how they relate to it, and suggest an alternate example. Bonus points contributing an additional 1.5% 

Everyday biochemistry extra credit 
Lastly, there is an extra credit assignment that students can submit worth 1.5 percent of the total course points. This extra credit opportunity is submitted in essay form (300–600 words), evaluated by plagiarism software, and scored by myself or a graduate TA based on a grading rubric provided to the students. This extra credit assignment consists of four parts: 1) choose an everyday biochemistry example used in the textbook as a chapter opening (there are 23 such examples), 2) describe the take-home message from the example and how it fits in with the main themes of the corresponding chapter, 3) describe why they chose this particular example using a personal experience or interest, and 4) suggest an alternative everyday biochemistry example for the chapter opening from elsewhere in the chapter or from a research source they cite, and importantly, explain why they think this alternate everyday biochemistry example is appropriate for that chapter.  

Thoughtful assessment questions 
Because I teach very large courses of 200–400 students, all of the assessments in the course need to be evaluated by auto grading through the online LMS (UArizona uses D2L) or W. W. Norton’s Smartwork functionality. Writing thoughtful multiple-choice exam questions that assess student understanding using critical thinking or quantitative skills developed through the high-frequency, low-stakes assessments is nontrivial. My approach to this challenge has been to first write the question as if it were a short-answer question to be graded by hand, and then write a focused unambiguous answer as the correct multiple choice. I then modify the correct answer in such a way that the alternate statements are incorrect for reasons that assess the student’s understanding of the concept.  

Student feedback 
Based on anonymous student responses in course surveys, many students comment on the value of this structured approach using high-frequency, low-stakes assessments as a way to keep up with the material. In addition, they also often comment on the value of the flipped classroom, the dropped quizzes and exams, and the opportunity to submit the everyday biochemistry extra credit assignment. Flipping the classroom using frequent assessments has worked for me, and I hope that it will inspire you to try the same with your students. 

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