A group of PhD postdoctoral fellows (postdocs, including authors CWH, SMN, and EN) in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Utah School of Medicine (UUSOM) identified a gap in their training: there was no way for them to gain meaningful experience in curriculum design and teaching while pursuing biomedical research. They recognized their need to build their educational skillset, in addition to acquiring scientific accolades in order to be competitive for, and ultimately successful in, faculty positions. While they had functioned as teaching assistants in graduate school, and there were local opportunities to participate in existing courses, none of these options provided an experience to create a new curriculum or develop skills in learner-centered instruction.

The postdocs’ objective to attain educator training aligns well with the need for faculty having these skill sets. Most medical schools invest significantly in faculty development initiatives for enhancing teaching effectiveness [1] and in sending faculty to educational conferences to learn these skills. Medical school administrators are grateful to work with faculty who already understand the basics of student-centered learning and instructional design (including author JEL).

In order to address both the needs of the postdocs and medical educators, we developed a new postdoc training experience based on frameworks of learner ownership [2] and collaborative learning [3]. Ownership is an implicit element of constructivist learning theory; educational programs based on ownership focus on the needs, interests, and experiences of the learner while giving them the responsibility, autonomy, and power over their outcomes [2]. Research mentors often describe successful graduate students and postdocs as “taking ownership of their projects.” Research labs also depend on collaborative learning, with lab members helping each other develop new skills and evaluating each other’s ideas. The foundations of this experience are therefore readily understood by all participants.


In spring of 2018, we initiated a pilot postdoc training experience in curriculum design and student-centered teaching. The biology department at our university had identified a need for new summer senior-level courses and therefore welcomed our partnership. We utilized Kern’s model for curriculum design [4], with an emphasis on backwards design principles [5, 6], to create both the new postdoc training experience and a new undergraduate biology course designed and taught by the postdocs, summarized in Table 1. The postdocs therefore functioned alternately as learners, teachers, and co-creators [7, 8].

Table 1 Application of Kern’s curriculum design steps to both the postdoc training experience and the biology course creation

The postdocs and education mentor met weekly to design the curriculum. The emphasis of these meetings was always backwards design and careful alignment of all assessments, session objectives, materials, and teaching methods to course goals. The team set aggressive deadlines for drafting and finalizing design phases, with the education mentor providing extensive feedback initially and the postdocs providing increasing amounts of peer feedback during the process. Once the course goals and objectives were clearly defined, the final assessment was designed: the undergraduates would individually give an oral presentation about a new primary literature research paper and respond to instructor questions. This ambitious target provided clarity on what the course would need to accomplish, both in terms of content and process. Other primary literature articles were chosen to have specific sections slowly analyzed during the course in a scaffolded progression. Team-based learning (TBL) [9] and Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) [10] were chosen as the primary tools based on the published evidence of their effectiveness in helping students reach higher level cognitive skills [11, 12]. The mentor provided a mini-workshop on TBL, the template utilized for creating medical student TBLs at the UUSOM, and examples of JiTT. Session objectives were finalized; lesson plans, pre-session homework, and specific pre-session learning objectives were created. The learning management system (Canvas) site was designed for clarity and ease of use by students, with each session module set up identically. To help with JiTT, each pre-session assignment included prompts for students to submit questions about what confused them and what they found most interesting in the pre-work.

Following this intensive design phase, the postdocs taught the 5-week, 6-h per week, 2-credit course entitled Understanding Peer-Reviewed Literature: Focus on Mitochondrial Metabolism. Four senior Biology majors registered for the course. The education mentor observed an early class session and facilitated a discussion with the postdocs afterwards. After each session, the postdocs critically reflected about their experiences and identified potential ways to improve before the next session. Postdocs also provided peer feedback to each other after each session.

Kirkpatrick’s framework for curriculum evaluation was used to evaluate the success of both the postdoc training experience and their biology course (see Table 2). While no formal certificate is provided to postdocs completing this experience, the mentor provided detailed letters of evaluation for the postdocs.

Table 2 Application of the Kirkpatrick framework for learning evaluation

Results and Discussion

Based on the evaluation measures utilized (see Table 2), the postdocs successfully designed and taught their own course. The undergraduate students were engaged throughout and performed well on the final oral assessment and throughout the course (Table 2). The final course ratings by the undergraduate students were high, well above the departmental average. The postdocs felt that their learning needs were met and that the intensive and relatively short (about 4 months total) nature of the experience prevented excessive disruption to their biochemistry research. Several months after the experience ended, one of the postdocs received a faculty position offer from a prestigious college that specifically referenced his unique curriculum design and student-centered teaching experience.

The biology and biochemistry departments, as well as the education mentor, also found the experience to be successful. The initial pilot program is now an official training opportunity for bioscience postdocs at the UUSOM. The biology department curriculum committee approved a regular course to be offered each summer (BIOL 5800 – Advanced Topics in Biochemistry and Cell Biology: Developing Skills in Reading and Interpreting Primary Literature with a Focus on X). During the summer of 2019, two postdocs participated, designing and teaching a course to 9 undergraduates on apoptosis and autophagy.

In addition to the standard academic measures of success, the participants in this experience found it deeply satisfying. Just like in their scientific research projects, the success of this experience depended on the postdocs owning the biology course [2]. Their initial struggles with clearly defining the course goals and aligning all activities with these goals paid off in the joy of helping students achieve challenging expectations. The education mentor enjoyed the opportunity to work with a team of postdocs. This experience created a sense of community, based on both a shared purpose and the fun of working creatively together in a safe and supportive team. Given the prevalence of burnout and its relation to feeling isolated [13], this outcome should not be overlooked.

The need for postdoc training in education has been well documented [14], and several programs already exist to address this need [15,16,17]. The postdoc training experience described here differs from these other programs in several ways. (1) Our training experience is for postdocs in a medical school and is led by a medical school curriculum dean, while the postdocs teach an undergraduate biology course. Therefore, the postdocs are exposed to the perspectives, methodologies, and cultures of both medical school and undergraduate STEM teaching. (2) Our training experience is a short and intense work-based opportunity, with postdocs jumping right into curriculum design with no didactic preamble. (3) Other than the time invested by the postdocs (about 200–260 h) and the teaching mentor (about 30 h/year), there is no cost associated with this experience and the biology department gains a well-designed and effectively taught course at no cost. It should be possible to create similar training experiences at other medical schools that have bioscience postdocs with academic goals and undergraduate campuses located nearby. The limitations of the experience include its impact on a relatively small number of learners (to date five postdocs and 13 undergraduates over 2 years) and its implementation at only one US-based university and medical school.

In conclusion, we describe a low-resource, highly authentic postdoc curriculum design and teaching experience that utilizes design, evaluation frameworks, and teaching methods commonly used in medical education. These postdocs learned how much work goes on behind the scenes of an effective course, and should be well prepared for the educational portion of their academic careers.