“Indole positive or negative?”

If you asked me whether E. coli was indole positive or negative, I wouldn’t have a clue.

Despite being told the answer many times over the years, the answer just doesn’t stick. I simply don’t care..

My colleagues must despair of me.

It is a wonder that I managed to pass any exams at all…

Which brings me to college microbiology exams and my increasing disillusionment with them.

Formal exams in general have not changed much in style over the past few hundred years. They essentially test knowledge that can be held in the head. (I hold very little in my head..)

But most young people have an I-Phone in their back pocket…

The skills that young microbiologists need nowadays are not related to hoarding large amounts of microbiological facts. This is becoming increasingly irrelevant. They need to be able to problem-solve and troubleshoot. They need to be computer savvy and innovative. They need to be observant and be able to spot the unusual. They need to have the patience to tolerate a degree of repetitive work, and they need to be able to get on with their colleagues and build a rapport with lab users.

Do the microbiology exams of today really test these skills?

If it were up to me, I would get the students into the microbiology lab on day 1 of their training (so they can see if they really enjoy it) and keep them there as much as possible. I would pay them part-time for doing some simple tasks in the laboratory (so they don’t finish their degree in lots of debt). The academic part of the course would be primarily online, with occasional small group tutorials. I would ban large group didactic lectures altogether. I would focus on the diagnostic microbiology of today and tomorrow, not of yesterday. I would not have a formal written exam at the end, but rather continuous assessment throughout the training period. I would however advocate an oral examination at the end to ensure the student has a good understanding of the basic concepts of microbiology and has good safety awareness in the laboratory. I would be brutally honest with them in terms of future job prospects and where I see future work opportunities within clinical microbiology.

There are too many people within academic institutions who have too much of a self-interest in keeping things the way they are at the moment.

This has got to change…

Modern microbiology degrees are needed for modern microbiologists.


I see that most E. coli are “indole positive”. I have just checked Google on my smartphone…

11 thoughts on ““Indole positive or negative?”

  1. You,Ve just described the old style of training more or less. I’ve always felt the students neede to spend time in the lab before committing to the full 4 years of training .

    1. College is too much of a money making exercise these days, at the expense of the students. You are probably aware Mary that I am far too young to remember the old style of training!

  2. I agree with you. I remember that E.coli is indole positive ONLY because my lab has recently acquired chromagar for enterobacteriaceae. Any pink colony on plate and you are expected to do indole strip test to confirm that it is indeed E.coli.

    1. Pink on chromagar should be sufficient, particularly on urines. We don’t confirm them. Challenge dogma at every opportunity!

  3. This is all good, but how slow would someone be if they had to pull out their iphone and look up every second bit of information like this? The information in your head is accessed much faster.

    1. Thanks for your comment Karen. You are right, everybody needs a base knowledge, but I believe this is better gained by experience and conceptual understanding, as opposed to rote learning of facts.

      1. Of course experience is best, but none of us are born with experience or even graduate with much experience.
        No one in their right mind is going to advocate memorizing fermentation patterns of arabinose, trehalose, raffinose, etc. But, having committed to memory certain key reactions is useful, in my opinion.
        Using Enterics as an example, by knowing expected reactions for lactose, H2S, urease, and perhaps citrate and motility , one can do a mental reality check with the resulting ID. A motile Klebsiella or 4++++ gas-producing Shigella would raise red flags and warrant a second look.
        Plus, it is amusing to impress medical Residents who tour the lab. Just by glancing at a strip or panel and noting a few key reactions (by color), one could casually point out “there’s a Proteus!” Or, “probably a Citrobacter”. Their eyes grow wide with amazement. Lots of fun!

  4. What you describe Collette, is an issue right across STEM and humanities subjects at tertiary level. Applied instructional design and pedagogy has changed very little. Having Google docs and presentations available online is not enough. If there was more thought given to shifting the way student time is spent – using asynchronous environments for working through the necessary structural data and the majority of the time involved in collaborative problem-based learning and in ‘doing’ – then uni’s could produce knowledgeable, keen and versatile students. If tertiary ed doesn’t change, they will eventually find themselves out of a job – as more and more MOOCs spring up and people are able to study online without the institution at all.

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