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CourseSource articles linked to the GSA Genetics Learning Framework cross-posted here with permission    

Why do Some People Inherit a Predisposition to Cancer? A small group activity on cancer genetics




Michelle K. Smith and Scott Merrill



Before undergraduate students take a genetics course they generally know cancer has a genetic basis and involves the proliferation of cells; however, many are uncertain about why only a subset of people have a predisposition to cancer and how that predisposition is inherited from one generation to the next.  To help students learn about these concepts, we designed a teaching unit that centers on a small-group, in-class activity.  During this activity students learn how to:

  1. determine inheritance patterns for different types of cancer,

  2. explain why a person with or without cancer can pass on a genetic predisposition to cancer, and

  3. distinguish between proto-oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. 

In addition to participating in the small-group activity, students watch short video clips from a documentary about breast cancer, answer clicker questions, and engage in a whole-class discussion.  A combination of pre/posttest results, clicker question answers, and performance on subsequent exam questions suggests that this unit helps students learn about the hereditary basis of cancer.


Genetics Concept(s) Addressed:

Transmission/ patterns of inheritance: How can one deduce information about genes, alleles, and gene functions from analysis of genetic crosses and patterns of inheritance?

Transmission/ patterns of inheritance: What are the mechanisms by which an organism’s genome is passed on to the next generation?

Evolution and Population Genetics: What are the processes that can affect the frequency of genotypes and phenotypes in a population over time?


Core Competencies Addressed:

Students should be able to generate and interpret graphs displaying experimental results.

Students should be able to communicate experimental results effectively, including writing research papers and giving presentations.

Students should be able to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science.

Students should be able to identify and critique scientific issues relating to society or ethics.



Introductory, upper level undergraduate; biology/genetics majors and non-majors

Activity Type:

Lecture/ In-class activity

Activity Length:


Two class periods (50-60 minute and 75-90 minute course options)




Smith, M.K. and Merrill, S. 2014. Why do Some People Inherit a Predisposition to Cancer? A small group activity on cancer genetics. CourceSource. 00:xxx. doi:00.0000/journal.cs.000000


Article in CourseSource