Personal genomes may help students learn genetics

A new paper in PLoS ONE presents a small-scale study of the effects of personal genomics on learning genetics in the classroom Salari:2013: “Evidence That Personal Genome Testing Enhances Student Learning in a Course on Genomics and Personalized Medicine”.

The title of the paper really telegraphs the results, but the discussion gives some interesting connections to other work:

We also found evidence specifically suggesting that PGT [personal genome testing] positively impacts learning for those students who self-select to undergo it. The majority of genotyped students felt they acquired a better understanding of the principles of human genetics on the basis of undergoing PGT and that the genotyping was an important part of their learning in the course. Substantiating these beliefs, genotyped students significantly improved their knowledge scores by an average of 31%, while non-genotyped students showed no significant difference in knowledge scores. The performance of non-genotyped students is similar to that described in the study of students in our core medical school genetics course without PGT, where only a modest improvement was noted between pre-course and post-course knowledge scores [15]. Together, these data suggest that some students derive greater educational benefit by undergoing PGT and using personal genotype data in the classroom than students who strictly use publicly available data or no data at all. As has been suggested in other educational contexts [12], [13], [14], analyzing and interpreting data with personal relevance may encourage students to be more engaged with the material, leading to greater understanding and retention of knowledge.

This last part drew my attention (and I bold-faced it) because it aligns with some of the interactive elements of the MOOC I’m busy creating. My development team is really excited about our potential to make students active participants in research by giving them chances to contribute small, crowdsourced data. By giving a personalized report on the data, we hope to increase engagement without drowning students in work.

In the meantime, this study of personal genome testing was very small, with fewer than 50 students. It will be important to replicate this result in larger samples of students, particularly those in groups where motivation to learn biology varies more widely. Seems to me that nontraditional learners may be most affected by the availability of personalized data, and I am very interested in learning tools that apply much more widely than college classrooms.