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Preparation for Introductory Biology: DNA to Organisms

Through this class you should be able to explain basic concepts in cellular and molecular biology using correct terminology, as well as develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that can be applied to all of your studies of biology.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

This course is designed for students who are taking or about to take introductory biology at the college level.  Its focus will be providing the repeated practice and critical thinking activities that will enable students to be successful in the class in which they are formally enrolled.

WARNING: This course is more "strict" than many Coursera courses:

  • It makes heavy use of peer assessment assignments. They are required to earn a Distinction certificate.
  • Quizzes are timed
  • All quizzes and peer assessments have weekly due dates

This course will cover the foundational concepts of cell biology and chemistry:

  • Parts of a cell and its membrane
  • Polarity, charge and water
  • Membrane transport, rearranging the cell and  cell movement
  • Biological macromolecules and their functional chemistry
  • Manufacturing and transporting of proteins
  • Membrane potentials and action potentials
  • Genes, alleles, mutations
  • Cellular respiration, photosynthesis as redox reactions

This course is part of a research project to study student learning at UCI. The study information sheet is posted here. You can opt out of your data being used as part of anonymous analysis by contacting Dr. Sun as listed on the information sheet.

Course Syllabus

  • Week One: Molecules, polarity, cell membranes and water movement
  • Week Two: Protein synthesis and localization
  • Week Three: Neurophysiology, genes and mutations
  • Week Four: Redox reactions, respiration and photosynthesis

Recommended Background

No background required.
Students who have had high school biology and algebra will find the class much easier.

Suggested Readings

A college-level introductory textbook will be highly beneficial.

The UCI course that begins in the Fall uses the 10th edition of Biology, Campbell and Reece. Benjamin Cummings. This new edition can be difficult to find cheaply before Fall. Any older edition will work fine for this course.

Another option is to use the free, online OpenStax Biology text.

Course Format

There will be four units in the course.  For the first three units, you will:

  • Watch basics videos and take online quizzes
  • Answer short essay questions within the Peer Assessment tool
  • Study classic and current biological research projects and answer questions about them in the Peer Assessment tool
The fourth unit contains only videos and quizzes.


Will I get a certificate after completing this class?
Yes. Students who successfully complete this class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment from Coursera.

The class is pretty easy, right? Because it's a "preparation" class?
Actually, no. This class is quite difficult.
As instructors for an introductory biology course for majors, we find students are good at memorizing, but struggle with problem-solving and working through puzzles. So we provide enough basics to allow us to ask really interesting, difficult questions for you to work on. If you pursue the Scholars Track, you will likely need to work together to answer the problems. This is how good students succeed at UC Irvine.

Why are the quizzes timed?
The quizzes are timed to encourage you to memorize the basic material before moving on to the next topic. You should be able to respond from memory, not from your notes.

Is a book required or necessary?
You will likely benefit from a reference biology book. The two most common options are:
1. Campbell's "Biology" text by Pearson (go to the UCI Bookstore web page to purchase the custom edition if you are a UCI student)
2. The free text "Biology" by OpenStax. This can be downloaded as a pdf or epub.

Peer assessments are a pain. Why not use more quizzes?
It's true that quizzes are common. But we have found that when a student has to justify their chosen answer, they find it difficult to explain why they chose "B." Students often say "it seemed like the best answer," or "the other answers weren't as good." By having students write out an explanation for each option: "B is true because...," they are FORCED to explain using biological terms why this is true and the others are not true. 
We've tried this technique both in the on-site introductory biology course AND in this course, and students agree that these activities caused them to learn more deeply.
We have to make them peer-assessed because, well, there are 30,000 of you.