Monthly Archives: February 2016

Project-Based Learning in a Physiology Course

What is Project-Based Learning?

Solving jigsaw puzzle by ePublicist on FlickrAccording to Edutopia, “project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.” Likewise, the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) defines project-based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge”.  BIE lists a number of essential project design elements for Gold Standard Project-Based Learning:

  • Key knowledge, understanding, and success skills
  • Challenging problem or question
  • Sustained inquiry
  • Authenticity
  • Student voice and choice
  • Reflection
  • Critique and revision
  • Public product

How I use Project-Based Learning

While my use of project-based learning with my students in human physiology does not fully meet the Gold Standard, my experience and that of my students have been interesting and fun. In 2010, I designed and implemented a new team-based, student-centered learning course for pre-professional upper-level undergraduate students entitled Advanced Human Physiology (PHGY 420).  The course was an elective course that assumed students had been successful in at least one pre-requisite physiology course. Subsequently, when the new medical biology major was approved and in-place at our university, incoming students in PHGY 420 were required to complete one of three upper-level physiology courses offered by the biology department prior to enrollment in PHGY 420 (Comparative Physiology BIOL 428, Environmental Physiology of Animals BIOL 433, or Mammalian Physiology BIOL 456).

PHGY 420 concentrates on more in-depth learning in cardiovascular, renal, and respiratory physiology and pathophysiology using human experiments and case studies (PowerLab pre-medical laboratories by ADInstruments), other problem and/or case studies, open-resource take-home essay exams, and team projects.  All of these components represent the aspects designed to make the course as student-centered as possible so students may learn physiological concepts and their involvement in diseases by doing instead of by memorizing.

Since the course began in 2010, the class has been taught annually with an enrollment ranging from 2 (before it became a requirement) to 40 (now that the medical biology majors are juniors and seniors).  For the team projects, students are offered the opportunity to choose what they would like to investigate and how they would like to present their learning to their peers. Often, if someone on the team has a family member with a disease/condition relating to the system being studied, they will convince the others to help them investigate a representative case of that disease/condition.

Students are very creative in choosing their team projects for the three systems in the course.  A sampling of the variety of projects that have been carried out in the course includes several categories:  cases, problems, informational brochures, demonstrations, teaching modules for their classmates, games, etc. More specific examples of team-selected projects are listed below:

Kinesthetic activities:

  • Demonstrations of normal lung functions with balloons
  • Demonstrations of abnormal lung functions with balloons

Educational activities:

  • Brochure about the hazards of second-hand smoking (shared with the Office of Student Life)
  • Brochure for parents of children with asthma (for clinic waiting rooms)
  • Presentation on why kidney damage occurs in diabetes mellitus and what can be done about it
  • Presentation on hazards of E-cigarettes
  • Presentation on effects of marijuana on the lungs
  • Presentation on the effects of breathing cold, dry air on the lungs

Case studies:

  • Bronchitis
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Emphysema
  • Lung cancer
  • Primary ciliary dyskinesia
  • Primary pulmonary hypertension
  • Restrictive lung disease

In addition to the team project, for the renal physiology section, teams are asked to prepare a 90-minute block teaching module for high school students in either AP Biology or Anatomy and Physiology.  For a 90-minute block, it is recommended that at least 3 different activities be offered.  Thus, the undergraduate students prepare a 30-min principles of renal physiology PowerPoint lesson, a 30-min case study done by high school student teams, and a 30-min competitive game as a review of the material.  The undergraduate students have credited this learning activity as key to their understanding about renal physiology and teaching.

Now that Advanced Human Physiology has grown to 40 students (10 teams of 4 students), planning and presentations of team projects can take quite a bit of time in class.  It is important to have class time for the student teams to design and work on their projects rather than requiring the students to accomplish everything outside of class.  Team project presentations can be expedited by short times (10-15 minutes) accompanied by a peer evaluation.  All students are required to complete a rubric that asks “something new I learned”, “something really good”, and “something that could be improved” for each presentation.  As the faculty member reading and collating these evaluations, it is clear to me that the class members are using professional evaluation skills in making suggestions to their colleagues.  Thus, this aspect of the project is also an important skill for pre-professional students to learn. I have been impressed by how many times the presenters mention concepts that they have recently learned in the course as evidence.

Based on my experience, I recommend project-based learning to be used by teams in a student-centered physiology course.  Let the students choose their own projects and their own style of presentation and they will be excited and do an excellent job.





Barb Goodman received her PhD in Physiology from the University of Minnesota and is currently a Professor in the Basic Biomedical Sciences Department of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota. Her research focuses on improving student learning through innovative and active pedagogy.


Are you ready to flip your classroom?

I was preparing my syllabus for this semester for a class that would be taught in the traditional (lecture) format during the first half and the flipped classroom style in the second half. The class schedule for the traditional format appeared a lot simpler and less busy than the one for the flipped style of teaching (a sample is shown below where the first two rows in green are for teaching two lectures in the traditional method and the next four rows shown in purple for teaching two lectures for the flipped classroom style). It is apparent from this example that planning for teaching in the flipped classroom style involves a significant amount of preparation- group formation, creation or selection of lecture videos, an activity to engage students for the active learning session in the classroom and a quiz for each lecture.

The endocrine pancreas – Insulin Secretion, Insulin Action and Signaling Pathways Reading 7
Glucose Homeostasis, Types of Diabetes mellitus Reading 7
View lecture video 1 (Pathogenesis of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes; take Q6 over lecture video 1, due Mon. 3/14, 9AM)
Review lecture, Group work 3 on Pathogenesis of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes (everyone must be in their own groups) Reading 7
View Lecture video 2 (Clinical Manifestations of Acute Diabetes), take Q7 over lecture video 2 due Wed. 3/16, 9AM
Review lecture, Group work 4 on Clinical Manifestations of Acute Diabetes (everyone must be in their own groups) Reading 7

Flipped classroom teaching is where the students are expected to utilize assigned learning resources to become familiar with the content before arriving in the classroom.  Learning resources vary depending on the course. Some examples include assigned readings, practice problems, and lectures in the form of videos, all of which can be accessed easily from anywhere. Typically teacher-created readings and videos are favored more than published ones. The issue with published resources could be the depth of the content which could be too much or too little. Provided appropriate modification, published resources could reduce the burden of creating new resources from scratch.

A quick assessment over the learning resources would help the instructor to assess if the students are in fact completing the assignment and if there are any specific areas that are not well understood. Students similarly would be more willing to complete the assignment when a grade is attached.

The main purpose of the flipped classroom approach to teaching is to create opportunities for active learning and problem solving during class while shifting lecture to outside of class. A mini lecture over the difficult concepts is how I handle the first part of my lecture period. First, the students are given an opportunity to ask questions over the assigned learning resources. We then discuss any of the quiz questions that most students missed. Next, we address any confusing or difficult concepts from the assigned learning resource before letting students begin their in-class activity. In-class activity, when designed appropriately, must reinforce their learning that started outside and it must be relevant to the content. Normally, the questions are of a higher order of Bloom’s taxonomy such as comprehension, application and analysis especially if these activities are in the team-based learning format. Students, at this point, would have been exposed to the topics before class through the learning resources followed by an assessment. The same content is then worked on in class through a variety of activities. Such repetition is the essence in this style of teaching.

It is not just the instructor who is trying to use the flipped classroom method of teaching who must be prepared with all the assignments for each and every class but students must be completing all the tasks in an orderly manner.  Without such commitment by the instructor and the students, the success of this style of teaching becomes questionable. A caution here is to start with one or a few sessions a semester to become familiar with the process rather than to flip the entire course all at once.

The advantages of this approach are such that the students are given ownership for the pace of their learning, they are accountable for completing the assigned tasks, and are engaged by activities during class time. Although students do approach this style positively, one comment from the students that is consistent is the amount of time this style of learning consumes. The grade improvement that it brings and most importantly the study habits that it instills are priceless. However, getting students to believe that their learning has been strengthened by this pedagogy may not occur until after the experience is over!







Chaya Gopalan received her PhD in Physiology from University of Glasgow and completed two years of postdoctoral training at Michigan State University. Chaya is interested in pedagogical research studying innovative teaching methodologies to include Team-based Learning (TBL), Case-based Learning and Flipped Classroom. Her current project is related to the use of recorded lectures to replace live lectures on student performance and the
impact of flipped classroom style of teaching on student performance.