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

A Kinesthetic Modeling Activity to Teach PCR Fundamentals




Shelley E. Haydel and Valerie Stout



Most molecular biology and biological sciences students understand that the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to amplify DNA. However, we have found that some students experience conceptual misunderstandings, a lack of detailed comprehension of the PCR process, or difficulties with troubleshooting and predicting the effects of alterations to the standard PCR process. We hypothesized that a problem-based learning approach that incorporates a kinesthetic modeling of the PCR process could address these problems. During this hands-on learning activity, students “amplified” a specific region of template DNA through three cycles of PCR using a “toolkit” composed of a) intertwined, supercoiled, and double-stranded yarn representing template DNA, b) short wax sticks representing primers, and c) long wax sticks representing the PCR products. Instructors can introduce a variety of assessments, including real-time image capture of the models, pre- and post-activity assessment quizzes, and homework assignment to gauge student learning. We administered identical four-question quizzes worth 12 points to 28 undergraduate students before and after the activity. The mean score on the post-quiz was three points higher than the pre-quiz score, demonstrating a 75% increase in score. Moreover, we found that students who began the activity with lower levels of understanding experienced the most significant learning gains. This hands-on, student-centered, kinesthetic activity allowed students to (i) visualize PCR processes, (ii) construct a model of the PCR process, (iii) correct common misconceptions and sources of confusion, and (iv) actively engage in the learning process.


Genetics Concept(s) Addressed:

Methods and Tools in Genetics: What experimental methods are commonly used to analyze gene structure, gene expression, gene function, and genetic variants?


Core Competencies Addressed:

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

Students should be able to critique large data sets and use bioinformatics to assess genetics data.



Intermediate to advanced undergraduate; biology/genetics majors

Activity Type:


Activity Length:


50- 75 minutes




Haydel, S.E. and Stout, V. 2015. A Kinesthetic Modeling Activity to Teach PCR Fundamentals. CourceSource. 00:xxx. doi:00.0000/journal.cs.000000

Article in CourseSource