Digitizing The Problems Book: An Interview with Tim Hunt and John Wilson

What happens when you take a pen-and-paper assignment and translate it to an online environment? What do you and your students give up and what do you gain? Norton Biology recently sat down with Tim Hunt and John Wilson, authors of the beloved Problems Book that accompanies Molecular Biology of the Cell, Sixth Edition, which generations of students use to learn molecular biology. For the past few years, Tim and John have been translating the text into an online format and have been grappling with these questions.

Photo Credit: Keith Roberts

Norton Biology: Why digitize The Problems Book?

John Wilson: Part of the reason we wanted to digitize The Problems Book is because classrooms are evolving. They are getting bigger and moving online. I have taught classes with 70–200 students, and they didn’t lend themselves to paper homework because the grading was time intensive. In this case, having the questions in a digital format can be helpful for instructors. Having something online makes it easy for the instructors to see how the students handle the questions and whether they understand the material. For students, having our questions in an online homework system gives them immediate feedback, which can help them as they are working through the questions and ensure that they are on the right track.

Tim Hunt: Adding digital components to classes is the future. There is no way around that, especially now during the pandemic. But beyond that, having our problems online makes them more accessible. And if there is a possibility that even more students can be exposed to the problems we created—and can interact with and work through them—we would want that.

Norton Biology: You have been working on this project for the last five years. How has it evolved?

Wilson: Slowly! But considerably. This project poses two major challenges. First is the task of digitizing the questions for an electronic platform. Fortunately, Norton has an outstanding platform called Smartwork. It really is terrific. Smartwork is very easy to use, with robust capabilities for instructors and students. But it has taken us a while to learn how to take full advantage of those capabilities, and we’re still learning. The second challenge is to achieve our teaching goals, which are to assess what the students know and to help them think about cell biology. We want to know what the students remember about what they’ve read, how well they understand it, can they apply it in a new situation, and can they use their knowledge to analyze data. We are designing questions that test each of these levels of learning—remembering, understanding, applying, and analyzing—with the idea that instructors can tailor their quizzes to their students’ needs.

Hunt: The slow evolution of the project is apparent even if you just look at one part of it—the figures. When I look back at the Chapter 6 figure log—one of our early chapters—I see how our style has evolved. Quite considerably actually. Writing questions online is not the same as writing questions for a book. It is one of those situations where you need to simplify without throwing everything away. But the nice thing is that we are able to add many more figures to the questions.

Wilson: When you work in a book, you are limited by space and so you only put in the essential figures. In Smartwork, if there is a figure in the book that highlights what you are trying to say, you can include it because space is not an issue. So, we have more than doubled the number of figures that are associated with our questions.

Hunt: And it is much to the benefit of the educational exercise.

Wilson: We find when looking at it, we like the questions more when they have pictures. Maybe it’s just because I loved comic books as a kid, but I think it’s universal. Now when a question doesn’t have a picture, we ask ourselves if we can add one that will help. It has greatly improved the problems, but we’ve only come to understand how important this is over the last six or seven months.

Norton Biology: You’ve been diligently writing questions in Norton’s online assessment platform, Smartwork. Is there anything about Smartwork that lends itself well to The Problems Book?

Hunt: Smartwork has a very clean interface. It looks nice, and it is very easy to insert figures wherever you want. We haven’t really plumbed the depths in terms of things we could be doing in the system, since right now we are just laying down the basics when it comes to writing the questions. We’ve had a lot of help from Norton, and the latest thing that has come in is that we have instructor reviews of the questions. This is something we never had before. Sometimes I disagree with the reviewers, but they are very helpful to have.

Wilson: The instructors are definitely making the questions better. They pick up little things that passed us by, but caught their attention. And from there we can modify the questions to resolve the issues and ultimately make them clearer for the students.

Norton Biology: Have you faced any unexpected challenges translating the problems into Smartwork?

Wilson: A general problem I would say is to reformulate the open-ended questions in The Problems Book so they have definite answers. The majority of our questions are multiple choice, but there will be ranking, labeling, sorting, and other types of questions, as well, but they will all have definite answers. And just formulating a definite answer is a big change, and a big challenge to do it well. Science is not really so definite until down the line when you know a lot.

Hunt: This is the one thing that bothers me actually. We haven’t found a way to ask an indefinite question. But inventing plausible wrong answers is fun, though challenging. And to some extent they reflect an important aspect of the scientific process—finding the reason why things are the way they are, having ideas and testing them.

Wilson: We suspect that the major users of The Problems Book are instructors, who use our problems directly or modify them to fit a format that is useful to them. That’s fine with us. But students have always been our primary focus. In the past, students could buy the book, puzzle over some problems, and something of our way of thinking would be communicated to them. But right now, in digitizing The Problems Book, our major focus is instructors. We are trying to build a resource for instructors that will let them assess their students’ abilities in an easier, less time-intensive way. But we would also like to connect to the students. And we are having an ongoing discussion about how to do that. It would be terrific if we could somehow put a fraction of this digital resource in students’ hands.

Norton Biology: The Problems Book is both beloved and respected by instructors and students. What is the most important thing you hope to preserve in the new digital format?

Hunt:  We want to preserve the flavor of the original.

Wilson: Yes. In the sense that we want students to pause and think about the question before they look at the answer. In writing The Problems Book, it was always our goal to get students to think about an interesting fact, a puzzling observation, or a clever analysis to try to push them to learn actively, rather than just pull facts out of a book. And if the Smartwork questions get students to think about what they are learning, I will be happy.

Hunt: One of the things that we learned while doing this was how much fun it was to learn. We each have our specialties, but when writing these problems we had to cover the whole field of cell biology. It was interesting having to think about completely foreign areas, work out how people thought and what the evidence was, and what the major questions were and how they were addressed. I hope some of that sense of exploration communicates to the students.

Wilson: Tim and I have been working on these problems for 35 years. We have become very good friends and we both have a deep interest in learning. When you read a textbook, sometimes you see something that doesn’t quite make sense, or something you don’t understand the basis for. When this happened, Tim and I would read the literature to find out what the basis of that was, and then write a question about it. And with the questions, we hoped to transfer that thinking process over to the students.

Hunt: And an example of that, which is currently very topical, is that we discovered that nobody knew why people tend to get the flu in the winter. And we started looking into it, and the answer was that nobody knows! There are lots of theories, and almost every theory can be disproven by some fact. That is what is interesting, that you can ask a very simple question and the answer is not known. But you get some clue about how you might go about answering it. Textbooks try to give the impression that everything is absolutely known. It isn’t like that, but it has to be presented that way, otherwise students get terribly confused. They want things they just learn, because they want to convert the process of thinking about things into a memory exercise. So, we have to try to make thinking fun for them, and that is at the heart of the problems we create. And that is what we want to translate over into Smartwork.

Leave a Reply