Category Archives: Technology for Teaching

May I Cut In? – A Short Dance With Social Media

1 hour, 43 minutes.  Per day.  In the United States, ~10% of a person’s waking hours are spent on social media.  And, you’d be hard pressed to find a college student who doesn’t use social media as 90% of adults between 18-29 years old use some form of it.  It’s a tremendous online environment in which people spend considerable amounts of time – a promising place for educators to expand their repertoire for teaching.

Now, some may consider it “crazy” that social media influences the way people think (about politics, for example), but it certainly has the power to affect the way we feel (for good or ill).  It also seems to increase student interest in a subject near and dear to my heart – physiology.

So, earlier this year, I experimented with social media during my block of a large (~330 undergraduate students), upper-division course on integrative cellular physiology.  This class was principally lecture-based with the online portal for the course only used for distributing slides/notes, administering quizzes, and tracking grades.

Browsing through the science education literature, I found a number of articles evaluating the benefits and burdens of using social media in the classroom.  After some reading, I decided I needed to test the waters myself and get a better sense of how to use social media as a tool to improve learning.

But, why even bother with social media?

  1. Location, location, location. I wanted to go where the students were (digitally).
  2. Beyond the lecture hall. By extending the learning environment past the walls of the classroom, I hoped to get students thinking more about physiology outside the isolated microcosm of the lecture (whether they’re standing in line at Starbucks, checking status updates during lunch, or sneaking a peek to clear the notification bubble on their app).
  3. Build rapport. If I engaged students in an online locale they were familiar with, I could help erode some of the barriers (fear of speaking in class, an “intimidating” professor, etc.) that tend to inhibit communication between teacher and student.
  4. Cultivate a sense of community. I wanted to take advantage of a hub that would help foster the formation of friendships and study groups.  I also hoped to provide a curated online environment for students to help each other with the course material – a community of learners.
  5. “Go online,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.  I saw an opportunity for myself to grow as an educator, and I wanted to challenge myself by wrestling with a tool I had yet to add to my teaching kit.

Which social media venue, though?  

A Facebook group.  Facebook has the largest active user base of social media platforms (192 million active users in the US), it’s in the top 3 most visited sites in the US, and it’s the social media site with which I have the most experience.

social media meme


Soon, I began to have feelings of self-doubt and trepidation as an onslaught of questions started rolling in.

Would students be willing to participate?  What about students who had chosen to avoid Facebook?  How many points would I need to assign to get them to buy in?  Would students have concerns about their instructor potentially seeing their Facebook profiles?  Would other privacy issues arise such as online student-to-student harassment?  How frequently would I need to post to keep students interested?  What kind of material would I post?  How would I compose posts to make them “effective”?  How would I evaluate participation and engagement?

Well, some of these questions can only be answered in execution, so I looked at this endeavor as an exploratory, two month “pilot study” and pressed on.

I announced the Facebook group during the first lecture in my block of the course, explained that it was completely optional (no associated points), listed some of the benefits (that I perceived) of joining it, and told them that all supplementary materials posted to the group would also be posted on the course website (if they didn’t have/want Facebook).  The first prompt I gave them on the Facebook group was a question I had found on an 8th grade test from 1912:

“Why should we study physiology?”

Immediately after lecture ended, I whipped out my smartphone and checked on the group.  About 30 students had joined.  This was encouraging, but really… I was hoping for more.  With less than 10% of the class on board, I began to regret not offering more carrot.

Over the next week, the students trickled in.  It climbed to 40.  60.  80.  By the end of my block two months later, 108 students had joined the group.  Close to a third of the class, which (considering I made it optional) was a success.

Ah, but were students actually participating? 

In order to get an overview of this, I turned to marketing analytics for social media.  Likes, shares, and comments are the marketing currency for businesses in this realm.  I think it’s much the same for educational purposes, though the value you assign to each currency for their contribution to “engagement” rating may differ.

Regardless, I used the website to give me metrics for my Facebook group. is free and quite a nice tool (despite some bugs).  The image below shows the kind of data it provides, which includes:



  1. Summary for number of unique contributors (post authors, commenters, and likers)
  2. Timeline showing activity for the group in graphical format (posts, likes, and comments).
  3. Breakdown of the types of posts that have been made (photos, videos, links, statuses, and events). also allows you to analyze posts to see which had the highest engagement ratings (which is done by summing data for likes/shares/comments for each post).



Of my posts, those that included videos were the highest rated followed by ones containing photos.  The second highest rated post for the group was from a student who posted a photo that related to a topic we were covering in class.  Perhaps unsurprising, visual content is the best bet for engagement.  Pure text-based posts and links were not very popular.

Additionally, summary stats ranking each visitor can be viewed.  This is useful for finding students in the group who are the most active or who are generating the most engaging posts.  This “visitor rating” takes into account received likes, shares, comments, and comment likes and submitted likes, posts, and comments.  The comparison between the two (received versus submitted) is what measures as “karma”.



On top of all this, each set of data can also be exported as CSV or XLS files for analysis.

That said… did this actually have a positive impact for learning physiology?

Yes, I believe so.  Based on comments from students (directly asking them or through course evaluations), using the Facebook group got them more engaged with the material.  Students seemed to like the online dynamic.  They felt that it showed that I cared about interacting with them and facilitating a different avenue for them to ask questions.

It also gave me a chance to share interesting tidbits about physiology with students without having to shoehorn them into lecture.  Social media is definitely well-designed for “hey, look at this cool thing” kind of communication.  Often, it’s those tidbits that tend to stick and motivate students to dig deeper on their own.

But, did using social media make an appreciable difference for their exam grades?

Given the way I carried out my “pilot study”, determining that with confidence is trickier.  However, students who simply joined the Facebook group scored a few percentage points higher on the block exam.  Since the group was optional, though, those who took part may represent students who usually take more initiative in their learning.

While my approach to trying out social media was a little messy, I thought it was an extremely valuable experience.  I’ve found that fumbling around is often the best way to learn.  I may still have two left feet, but I’m not going to find the rhythm without stepping onto the dance floor.

Sources for social media usage statistics:

  • Kemp, Simon. “Special Reports: Digital in 2016.” We Are Social, 27 Jan. 2016,
  • Perrin, Andrew. “Social Media Usage: 2005-2015.” Pew Research Center – Internet, Science & Tech, 8 Oct. 2015,





Scientist, teacher, and all-round geek, John Kanady earned his PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona.  He is currently a postdoctoral trainee in Dr. Janis Burt’s laboratory at the University of Arizona.  His research involves looking at how cells communicate with each other via proteins called connexins and what that communication means for cell function.  He serves as Postdoctoral Councillor for the Arizona Chapter  of the American Physiological Society where he strives to advance the three pillars of the organization: teaching, research, and outreach.  You can follow him on Twitter @JDKPhD



Simulation as a Component of First-year Medical Physiology

cardiac simulationbIf you’ve spent any time around soon-to-retire, senior physiologists, you’ve probably heard nostalgic talk of the old dog labs.  I am a member of what may be the last generation that participated in these in a medical/graduate school environment.  The old-timers will tell you that there was no better way to teach physiology than by demonstration and experimentation with an anesthetized dog.  The experience was dramatic, and the various concepts were obviously relevant.  Nevertheless, time marches on, and with changes in economics and societal values, we are unlikely to ever see the return of the dog labs in medical or graduate school.

For the purposes of teaching physiology in a medical environment, much of the impact and value of the dog labs can be obtained through simulation.  Centers that use high-fidelity manikins and other simulation technology are becoming more and more common, and if your institution doesn’t have one yet, there is probably one in the pipeline.  However, you may be skeptical of the high-price tag that the equipment carries and its relevance to bench scientists.  After all, most of us teaching physiology aren’t clinicians, and we have neither the expertise nor the experience to teach medicine.  I was firmly of that opinion when the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center first opened its simulation center, but I’ve tried to keep an open mind, and I’m happy to say that I’ve learned to incorporate these resources into my teaching.  More importantly, simulation works for the same reason the old dog labs worked:  it provides a clear and dramatic demonstration of fundamental physiological concepts.

Although the equipment available in most simulation centers is capable of reproducing some pretty sophisticated disorders, there is little need for such advanced capability during the pre-clinical years of medical training. The basics are more than adequate, and they can be covered adequately without obtaining a medical degree.   Cardiovascular physiology was my entry point using this new approach to teaching.  There are few things in life more fundamental than a heartbeat, and nearly every simulation center will have cardiopulmonary manikins that allow the student to practice auscultation.  This is not to say that heart sounds can’t be taught with alternatives, such as good digital recordings, but the use of manikins adds an important degree of realism.  I first ask the students to practice positioning the stethoscope for optimal detection of the various heart sounds in a healthy individual.  Demonstrating where to best hear the sound associated with pulmonary valve closure, for example, draws the connection between cardiac anatomy and physiology more closely together.  I then ask the students to explore various valve pathologies and illustrate what they would expect to see on Wiggers diagrams and pressure-volume loops.  The four murmurs that are most relevant to first-year medical students, aortic valve stenosis and regurgitation and mitral valve stenosis and regurgitation, are great starting points for illustrating the relevant changes in pressure that are associated with these defects.  For example, the combined use of auscultation and Wiggers diagrams make it easier to appreciate the excessive pressures developed in the left ventricle as a consequence of aortic valve stenosis.  It also makes it easier to understand how the high velocities of flow and resulting turbulence can cause the distinctive murmur.  In my class, I follow up the auscultation activity with standardized patients and ultrasonography, allowing the students to correlate the sounds that they hear with the coordinated movements in the heart, as visualized with the ultrasound probe.

The cardiopulmonary manikins provide a great resource for showing the practical relevance of hemodynamics to the clinical setting, but we must turn to high-fidelity manikins if we are truly to recapture the drama of the old dog labs.  I remember vividly the effects on an anesthetized dog when, as a student, I infused a sympathetic agonist or antagonist.  Now, as an instructor, I achieve a similar memorable effect with a full-blown simulation of hemorrhagic shock.  This is the capstone event in the cardiovascular physiology section of our course, when the students must recognize the problem and come up with a solution.  Our simulation center has rooms like you would find in the emergency department in which we place the manikins.  The potential “treatments” available for use by the students include a muscarinic antagonist, a sympathetic agonist, and the infusion of normal saline.  As I did with the dogs back in the day, today’s students apply various drugs or treatments to the manikin, and, from the attached control room, I can simulate the appropriate physiological response.  There are few things that bring home the importance of preload and stressed volume like the “recovery” evoked by rapid infusion of saline, especially if this follows unsuccessful attempts at treatment with various drugs.  Later in our class, we have additional simulations that illustrate fundamental principles associated with respiratory physiology and endocrinology.   I admit that it took some persuasion to convince my bench-investigator colleagues that they had sufficient experience to facilitate these activities.  However, after trying it a time or two, they usually find that the activities require more physiological knowledge and deductive reasoning than clinical skill, and, as an added bonus, they have fun.

So why not take advantage of that high-priced center that your medical school just built or is in the process of developing?  You’ll find that simulations provide hard-to-ignore demonstrations of physiology’s relevance to the clinics.  If my experience is any indication, your dean will be happy that you’re trying new things, and you’ll be rewarded by students who respond enthusiastically.

The nitty-gritty to get you started:

My colleagues and I have boiled down the use of simulation to a few key points that can provide a good start to your own efforts.

1)  Keep it simple.  You’re teaching physiology, not a subspecialty.  As described above, we require the students to recognize a loss of blood volume as the fundamental problem in hemorrhagic shock.

2)  Require a decision or intervention.  The students must follow a problem logically, putting into practice the physiology that they are learning.  In the hemorrhage scenario, they treat the “patient” with a rapid intravenous administration of saline.

3)  Provide some background material.  You’re providing a value-added experience that goes beyond simple lecture, but the students need some guidance to prepare.   For the shock simulation, they study a 20-minute online presentation focusing on low cardiac output the night before the activity.

4)  Do a debrief.  If things work well, there will be a lot of excitement and keyed-up emotion.  You’ll want to give the students a chance to talk things out and assess their performance as a team.

Good luck!

Pressley head shot


Thomas A Pressley is a Professor in the Department of Medical Education at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. After earning his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University, he entered the graduate program in biochemistry at the Medical University of South Carolina. His postdoctoral training was in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He was recruited by the University of Texas Medical School in Houston in 1987, and he transferred to Texas Tech in 1995. Tom has served as an interim dean, a visiting professor at multiple institutions, a member of grant review committees, and the chair of the Education Committee of the American Physiological Society. He is the current chair of the APS Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee. He has also developed numerous courses, and he has reviewed degree programs at several institutions.

Technology in the Classroom: A Double-Edged Sword?

studyAs I sat down at the end of the summer to write this blog post, I was in the midst of revising syllabi and planning out my fall semester.  For me, this tends to be a very reflective time.  What worked last year?  Or more importantly, what didn’t work and needs to be revised?  Which activities did the students like?  Which ones did I like?  What new case studies, problem sets, or online models should I add?

Over the last few years, I have been incorporating more computer simulations, online demonstrations, and website resources into my physiology courses.  I often send emails to students reminding them to bring a laptop or tablet to class because we will be using an online Nernst-Goldman simulator, creating cell-signaling animations in Power Point, etc. I receive positive feedback from my students about these interactive exercises, and I am always on the lookout for new ones.

And it appears that I am not the only one. Each new issue of Advances in Physiology Education features an article on a new technology aid – interactive iPad apps for acid-base physiology, increasing physiology interest through Facebook, or the effectiveness of online quizzes.  These technological advances allow us to provide additional self-assessment tools to our students and give them instantaneous feedback.  Models and simulations help engage visual and experiential learners.  Perhaps most importantly, these tech tools attempt to clarify hard to explain or challenging physiological concepts through interactive interfaces and dynamic models.

However, I worry that technology in the classroom may be a double-edged sword.  At the same time that I have been embracing and encouraging these technology tools in class, I have noticed some disturbing trends about improper technology use during class. No teacher is immune from the angst of a ringing or vibrating cell phone during a lecture.  Under the desk texting has become ubiquitous. Several years ago, I team-taught a course with a colleague.  I sat at the back of the classroom during her lectures and vice versa.  Over half the students in the course “took notes” on their laptops during lecture.  I use the term “took notes” loosely because my back-row observations indicated that these students were spending a considerable amount of the lecture time updating their Facebook status, looking at Power points for other class (e.g. studying for an upcoming O-Chem test), or online shopping.

This trend of multi-tasking and web-surfing during class has been noted across the country and at all levels of higher education and has driven many professors to include penalty clauses in their syllabi or ban laptops altogether.  Moreover, recent studies suggest that note taking on the computer is not as effective as traditional pen and paper.  Students who type their notes tend to do less processing of the material and simply transcribe the lecture verbatim.

So what’s the answer?  Accept technology warts and all, banish it from the lecture hall altogether, or seek some middle ground? To be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure. But I would love to hear your opinions and experiences….


PECOP Blythe headshot cropped





Sarah Blythe is an assistant professor of Biology at Washington & Lee University University in Lexington, VA. She received her PhD in Neuroscience from Northwestern University. She teaches anatomy and physiology, vertebrate endocrinology, neurophysiology, and nutrition courses. Her research interests focus on understanding the effects of diet-induced obesity on the brain and the reproductive system. She is a strong advocate for undergraduate research experience both in and out of the classroom. She was recently awarded a Jeffress Trust Interdisciplinary Research grant along with two of her W&L colleagues, which allowed the team to fund three summer research fellowships for undergraduates.