November 6th, 2017
The Undergraduate Physiology Lab – A New Shine on a Classic Course

The evolution of the workplace in the twenty-first century has created the need for a workforce with a skill set that is  unlike that needed by previous generations.  The American Physiological Society recognized this need  over a decade ago and with the assistance of  Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology created  a set of professional skills needed by physiologists in the workplace (1).  This effort was echoed by the AAMC, the  STEM Innovation Task Force, and professional organizations  as they composed a  set of core competency or workplace  skills (2, 3).  Subsequent surveys of US employers across multiple industrial sectors indicated that students entering the technical workforce lacked these  critical skills.  Higher education has since been  tasked to provide students with training experiences in workplace skills, as well as content knowledge.

What are these workplace or employability skills?  The APS Professional Skills are a diverse set of skills, however the generally accepted workplace skills are a subset of this group and can be distilled into the list below.

Students entering the workplace should be able to:

  1. Work in a team structure
  2. Solve problems and think critically
  3. Plan, organize, and prioritize time
  4. Manage projects and resources
  5. Work with technology and software
  6. Communicate in oral or written formats
  7. Obtain and process information
  8. Pursue lifelong learning

Many of these skills have been embedded in the program objectives of the bachelor’s  degree.  Educators have found it difficult to insert skill training experiences into the traditional lecture classroom but most can be readily embedded into a lab curriculum such as the undergraduate physiology lab.

Let us consider these skills individually and examine how they can be found in a physiology  lab.

 

Students entering the workplace should be able to work in a team structure.

This skill is easily adapted to the physiology lab curriculum because lab partners are essential in most physiology lab courses.  The workload, experimental design, or timing of the protocol demands collaboration to accomplish tasks and complete the experiment.  The question that arises is, “How can we  train students to be productive team members in the workplace?”

Let’s think about the characteristics of good team work.  First and foremost good teamwork means completing assigned tasks promptly and responsibly.  It is easy to address this on an individual level in any course through graded assignments but it can be a challenge on a team level.   In labs however individual responsibility to the team can be addressed by assigning each team member a job that is essential to completion of the experiment.

There are also a set of interpersonal skills that promote good teamwork and these translate into practices that are important in any workplace.

  • Respect your team members and their opinions.
  • Contribute feedback, criticism, or advice in a constructive manner.
  • Be sensitive to the perspectives of different
  • When a conflict arises approach the dialog with restraint and respect.

These ideas  aren’t novel but when an instructor reviews them in class they not only provide students with guidelines  but they also communicate the instructor’s expectations for team behavior.

Finally, by using the common direction “Now show your partner how to do it.” or the well-known adage “see one, do one, teach one” an instructor promotes a subtle suggestion of responsibility for one’s team members.

Students entering the workplace should be able to solve problems and think critically. 

This objective has been a long-standing cornerstone of undergraduate life science education (4, 5).  Many instructors think that a bachelor’s degree in science is de facto a degree in critical thinking causing some instructors neglect this objective in curricular planning.  After all, if you are ever going to understand physiology, you have to be able to solve problems.  However in the workplace a physiologist will encounter many kinds of problems, challenges, puzzles, etc., and the well-prepared student will need experience in a variety of problem solving techniques.

Let’s review some problem solving practices and look at  how they occur  in the lab.

  • Use troubleshooting skills: Labs are a perfect place to teach this aspect of problem solving because it shows up so many times.  Consider the situation where a student asks  “Why  can’t I see my pulse, ECG, EMG, ….  recording on the screen?”  A typical instructor response might be, “Have you checked the power switch, cable connections, gain settings, display time..?”  only to find that the students has not thought to check any of these.  Ideally we want students to progress to the point where they can begin to troubleshoot their own problems so that their questions evolve to, “I have checked the power switch, cable connections, gain settings, display time and still don’t see a  recording on the screen.  Can you help me?”
  • Identify  irregular results:  This practice is similar to troubleshooting and again,  labs are a good place to learn about it.   Consider the situation where a student asks “My Q wave amplitude is 30.55 volts.  Does it look right to you?”  Be the end of the course the instructor hopes that the student will be able to reframe the question and ask “My P wave amplitude is 25.55 volts and I know that that is 10 fold higher than it should be.  Can you recheck my calculations?”
  • Use appropriate qualitative approaches to research problems: In the workplace a physiologist may be using this skill to ask a questions like “How can our lab evaluate the effect of Compound X on escape rhythm?”  but in the physiology lab students will learn a variety of experimental techniques and on the final exam must be able answer a less complex question like “How could you identify  third degree heart block?”
  • Use quantitative approaches to express a problem or solution: While physiology labs are rich in sophisticated  quantitative analyses it seems that it is simple calculational mechanics can often perplex and confound, students.  For example, students can readily calculate heart rate from an R-R interval when given an equation but without the equation some students may struggle to remember whether to divide or multiply by 60 sec.  Instructors recognize that the key is not to remember how to calculate rates but rather to understand what they are and be able to transfer that knowledge to problems in other areas of physiology  and ultimately be able to create their own equation for any rate.  The ability to use qualitative skills for problem solving in the workplace relies on making this transition.
  • Supporting a hypothesis or viewpoint with logic and data; Critically evaluating hypotheses and data:    In many ways these two problem solving skills are mirror images of each other. Physiology lab students get a lot of experience in supporting a hypothesis with logic and data, particularly as they write the discussion section of their lab reports.  However, the typical student gets little opportunity to critically evaluate untested or flawed hypotheses or data, a practice they will use frequently in their careers as they review  grants, manuscripts, or project proposals.  One solution might be engage students in peer review in the lab.

Students entering the workplace should be able to plan, organize, and prioritize time.  Students entering the workplace should be able to manage projects and resources.

These two skills representing personal organization and project organization often go together.  They are fundamental to any workplace but a lab is a special environment that has its own organizational needs and while they are idiosyncratic they provide experience that can be transferred to any workplace environment.  For a lab scientist  these skills can be characterized as being able to prioritize project tasks, identify needed resources, plan a project timeline, and track a projects progress.

Let’s consider some organizational and planning practices and examine on how they are used  in the lab.

As students read an experimental protocol they may ask themselves “What should do I do first – collect my reagents or start the water bath?” ,  “What is Type II water and where can I get it?” or “Can I finish my part of the data analysis and get it to my lab partner by Friday?”  How can instructors teach this?  As we look for an answer, let’s consider the realities of teaching a lab course.  Often in an effort to facilitate a lab session and enable students to complete the experiment on time, an instructor will complete some of the protocol like preparing buffers, pre-processing tissue, doing preliminary stages of dissection in advance  of the lab.  How can this instructional altruism help students learn about prioritizing tasks, identifying needed resources, or planning a project timeline.  There is no clear  or obvious answer.  Lab instructors routinely juggle learning objectives with time and content restraints  but  recognizing  that these skills are a fundamental part of professional practice makes us pause and think about  when and if  we can fit them in.

Students entering the workplace should be able to work with technology

This is clearly where lab courses can provide experiences and training that lecture courses cannot but it can be difficult for undergraduate institutions to equip labs with the most recent iteration in technology.   This does not diminish the significance of the course because physiology labs support an additional programmatic goal.  They train students to work with and use technology in ways that complement and extend their knowledge of physiology.

Let’s look at how these ideas show up in the lab.  Consider the situation where a student raises their hand during the lab and says,  “I can’t see anything on my recording but a wavy line.”  The instructor goes over to their experiment, surveys it and shows the student how to adjust the gain or display time.  Voila their data returns!

Or, consider the situation where a student raises their hand and says, “I know I am  recording something but it doesn’t look like my  ECG, pulse, etch”.  The instructor goes over to the experiment, surveys it and shows the student how to apply a digital filter.   Voila their data recording returns! Instructors recognize these situations as ‘aha!” moments where the lab has a tremendous impact on the student learning  but these experiences also provide students with  a long-term value – an appreciation  for knowing how to manage the technology they use.

Students entering the workplace should be able to communicate in an oral and written format

Many of the writing skills that are valued in the workplace are fundamental pieces of the physiology lab, particularly the physiology lab report.  Students are expected to organize their ideas, use graphics effectively, write clear and logical instructions in their methods, and support their position(s) with quantitative or qualitative data.

Let’s consider how writing skills are taught  in the lab report.  Instructors encourage and reinforce these skills by inserting marginal comments like “make the hypothesis more specific”,  “discuss and explain your graph”,  “discuss  how your results can be explained by homeostasis, cardiac output, etc.….” in the lab report.  Students, in the interest of  in getting a better grade on that next lab report, will ask their instructor “How can I make my hypothesis clearer?”, “I thought that I discussed that graph – what more do I need?”, or “  “I thought that I wrote about how the baroreceptor reflex explained my results – what should I have done instead?”  The typical instructor then gives their best explanation and grades the next lab report accordingly.

Some communication skills are embedded in the a lab course in a less transparent manner.  For example, one of the valued professional skills is the ability to convey complex information to an audience.  Instructors observe this in practice regularly as a student asks their lab partner “Show me how you did that?”

Finally there are some communication skills that are not so readily inserted into the lab curriculum and require a special effort on the part of the instructor.  One example of this is the ability to write/ present a persuasive argument which is a part of every  physiologists career in the preparation of  project proposals, contract bids, or project pitches.

Students entering the workplace should be able to obtain and process information

As physiologists we understand how critical it is to have these skills because much of our career is spent pursuing information or processing it.  There are however, multiple steps to becoming proficient.  One needs to be able to recognize  the what they need to know, identify resources to find it, be able to converse with experts to gain it, and finally be able to compile and process it in order to create learning or new knowledge.

The first step of this process, “knowing what you don’t know”, is the hardest for students because they often pursue and learn all the information available rather than focusing on what they don’t know or need to know.  This dilemma is faced by all undergraduate students at some point in their education and a lab course like many other courses tests them on this skill at least once or twice during the term.   The second step to proficiency is  identifying the resources needed to find information.   College libraries in collaboration with faculty inform students about institutional resources available for information gathering however they key to learning this skill is practice.  The physiology lab provides opportunities for practice each time an instructor asks a student to  “include 3 relevant  references in your lab report”, or asks a student to “describe clinical condition X in the discussion and explain how it relates to this lab, these results, etc.”.

Finally one of the objectives of most physiology labs is to teach students how to collect and process physiological information (data)  in a way that allows it to be compiled  into useable physiological information  (inferential statistics).   Students get plenty of practice with this in lab and even though it is discipline specific the general process can be applies to many other fields.

Students entering the workplace should be able to pursue lifelong learning.

Many of us teach or have taught physiology labs at one time or another  and found that not only is this an opportunity to reinforce concepts in physiology and dispel misconceptions  but also to impart to students a true appreciation for physiology and how it makes living organisms work.  Is there better way to promote lifelong learning?

This blog was not meant to be a complete presentation of professional or workplace skills nor was it intended to suggest that these skills  are the  most important in a physiologist’s career.   It was meant to reveal that fundamental professional skills are central components of most physiology lab courses and that sometimes we teach them without realizing it.

REFERENCES

  1. APS/ACDP List of Professional Skills for Physiologists and Trainees. The American Physiological Society.   http://www.the-aps.org/skillslist.aspx  accessed 10/24/2017.
  2. AAMC Core competencies for entering medical students. American Association of Medical Colleges.   accessed 10/20/2017.  https://www.careercenter.illinois.edu/sites/default/files/Core%20Competencies%20forEntering%20Medical%20Students.pdf accessed 10/25/2017.
  3. Focus on employability skills for STEM points to experiential learning. STEM Innovation Task Force.  https://www.stemconnector.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Focus-on-Employability-Skills-Paper-1.pdf   accessed 10/21/2017.
  4. Vision and Change in undergraduate biology education:  A call to action.    http://visionandchange.org/files/2011/03/Revised-Vision-and-Change-Final-Report.pdf
  5. Bio 2010 Transforming undergraduate education for future research biologists. The National Academies Press.   https://www.nap.edu/login.php?record_id=10497&page=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nap.edu%2Fdownload%2F10497
Jodie Krontiris-Litowitz is a Professor of Biological Sciences in the STEM College of Youngstown State University.  She currently teaches Human Physiology Lab, Advanced Systems Physiology and Principles of Neurobiology and has taught Human Physiology and Anatomy and Physiology.  In her classroom research Jodie investigates using active learning to engage students in the lecture classroom.  She is a long-standing member of the Teaching Section of the American Physiological Society and has served on the APS Education Committee.  Jodie is a Biology Scholars Research Fellow and a recipient of the YSU Distinguished Professor of Teaching award.
October 23rd, 2017
Stress and adaptation to curricular changes

 

 

 

…there was a teacher interested in enhancing the learning process of his students. He wanted to see them develop skills beyond routine memorization. With the support of colleagues and the education team at his university, he succeeded and chose a semi-flipped classroom approach that allowed him to introduce novel curricular changes that did not generate much resistance on the part of the students.

The change was made. The students apparently benefited from the course. They worked in groups and learned cooperatively and collaboratively. Students evaluated peers and learned to improve their own work in the process. They not only learned the topics of the class, but also improved their communication skills.

At some point the institution asked the teacher to teach another course. He happily did so, and based on his experience introduced some of the changes of his semi-flipped classroom into the new course. The students in this course were slightly younger and had not been exposed to education in biomedical sciences. To the teacher’s surprise, the students showed a lot of resistance to change. The sessions moved slowly, the test scores were not all that good, and students did not reach the expected outcomes. It was clear that the teacher and the students were going through a period of considerable stress, while adapting to the new model. Students and teachers worked hard but the results did not improve at the expected rate.

Some time ago this was my experience and as I wandered looking for solutions, I started to question the benefits of active learning and the role of stress in educational practice.

Advantages and challenges of active learning

Evidence says that active learning significantly improves student outcomes (higher grades and lower failure rates) and may also promote critical thinking and high level cognitive skills (1, 2). These are essential components of a curriculum that attempts to promote professionalism. However, it may be quite problematic to introduce active learning in settings in which professors and students are used to traditional/passive learning (2).

Some of the biggest challenges for teachers are the following:

  • To learn about backward design of educational activities
  • To think carefully about the expected accomplishments of students
  • To find an efficient way to evaluate student learning
  • To spend the time finding the best strategies for teaching, guiding, and evaluating students.
  • To recognize their limitations. For example, it is possible that despite their expertise, some teachers cannot answer the students’ questions. This is not necessarily bad; in fact, these circumstances should motivate teachers to seek alternatives to clarify the doubts of students. At this point, teachers become role models of professionals who seek to learn continuously.
  • To learn about innovations and disruptive technologies that can improve the teacher role.

Some of the challenges for students include:

  • Understanding their leading role in the learning process
  • Working hard but efficiently to acquire complex skills
  • Reflecting on the effectiveness of their learning methods (metacognition). Usually reading is not enough to learn, and students should look for ways to actively process the information.
  • Trusting (critically) on the methods made available by the teachers to guide their learning. For example, some tasks may seem simple or too complex, but teachers have the experience to choose the right methodology. A work from our team showed that strategies that seem very simple for the student (clay modeling) have a favorable impact on learning outcomes (3).
  • Seeking timely advice and support from teachers, tutors and mentors.

Working to overcome these challenges may generate a high level of stress on students and teachers. Without emphasizing that stress is a desirable trait, I do find that some disturbance in the traditional learning process and risk taking motivate teachers and students to improve their methods.

Intermediate disturbance hypothesis and stress in education

In the twentieth century, the work of Joseph H. Connell became famous for describing factors associated with the diversity of species in an ecosystem (4). Some of his observations were presented in Charles Duhigg’s book “Smarter Faster Better” which discusses circumstances related to effective teamwork (5). Duhigg reports that Connell, a biologist, found that in corals and forests there might be patches where species diversity increases markedly. Curiously, these patches appear after a disturbance in the ecosystem. For example, trees falling in a forest can facilitate the access of light to surface plants and allow the growth of species that otherwise could not survive (5). Connell’s work suggests that species diversity increases under circumstances that cause intermediate stress in the ecosystem. In situations of low stress, one species can become dominant and eradicate other species, whereas in situations of high stress, even the strongest species may not survive. But if, an intermediate stress where to appear, not very strong and not very weak, the diversity of species in an ecosystem could flourish.

I propose that the hypothesis of the intermediate disturbance can also be applied in education. In traditional learning, an individual (ecosystem) learns to react to the challenges presented and develops a method for passing a course. In situations of low stress, memorization (evaluated at the lower levels of Miller´s pyramid) may be enough to pass a course. In high stress level situations, students may drop out or feel inadequate. However, courses that involve active learning may include moderate challenges (intermediate disturbance). These well-managed challenges can motivate the student to develop more complex skills (diversity of species) that lead to effective learning and a broader professional development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Intermediate disturbance hypothesis in education.

 

In the book “Problem-based learning, how to gain the most from PBL”, Donald Woods describes the challenges and stresses associated with the incorporation of active learning (PBL) in a curriculum (6). He describes the stages of grief that a student (and I add, a teacher) must go through while adapting to the new system. This adaptation can take months and generally is characterized by the following phases:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Strong emotion (including depression, panic and anger)
  • Resistance to change
  • Acceptance and resignation to change
  • Struggle to advance in the process
  • Perception of improvement in the expected performance
  • Incorporation of new habits and skills to professional practice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. Performance adjustment after curricular changes. Adapted and modified from (6).

 

Properly managing stress and finding strategies to advance in the process are rewarded by achieving better performance once the students become familiar with the new method of active learning. However, to better adapt to curricular or pedagogical changes, it is important for all the education actors to recognize the importance of deliberate work and to have clear goals. In addition, students and teachers should have access to institutional strategies to promote effective time, and anger and frustration management.

Stress is not ideal, but some stress may motivate students and teachers to reevaluate their methods and ultimately work together for a classroom focused on professional excellence. The critical question is how big is the intermediate disturbance needed to improve learning outcomes. As is commonly concluded in papers, more research is needed to answer this question, and we can learn a lot from the theories and methods from our colleagues in Biology.

References

  1. Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, et al. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(23):8410-5.
  2. Michael J. Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Adv Physiol Educ. 2006;30(4):159-67.
  3. Akle V, Pena-Silva RA, Valencia DM, Rincon-Perez CW. Validation of clay modeling as a learning tool for the periventricular structures of the human brain. Anat Sci Educ. 2017.
  4. Connell JH. Diversity in Tropical Rain Forests and Coral Reefs. Science. 1978;199(4335):1302-10.
  5. Duhigg C. Smarter Faster Better: Random House; 2016.
  6. Woods DR. Problem Based Learning: How to gain the most from PBL. 2nd. ed1997.
Ricardo A. Peña-Silva M.D., PhD is an associate professor at the Universidad de los Andes, School of Medicine in Bogota, Colombia, where he is the coordinator of the physiology and pharmacology courses for second-year medical students. He received his doctorate in Pharmacology from The University of Iowa in Iowa City. His research interests are in aging, hypertension, cerebrovascular disease and medical education. He works in incorporation and evaluation of educational technology in biomedical education.

He enjoys spending time with his kids. Outside the office he likes running and riding his bicycle in the Colombian mountains.

October 9th, 2017
A reflection of my first three months as new teaching faculty

I got the job offer over a phone call at 9 pm on a Tuesday evening at the end of May. I wasn’t really expecting it and I sent the call to my voicemail because I didn’t recognize the number. It took a total of about 10 seconds before I fully processed that the area code was from the D.C. area and that I probably should have answered it. By that point the voicemail had already buzzed in and after listening to a vague message, I called back and got the news that they wanted me to become a professor. After I hung up I stood there in my living room (I had been pacing while on the call) for about 5 minutes before the reality started to sink in.

In all honesty, I shouldn’t have felt scared because, over the three months that I’ve been here, I’ve gotten to know my fellow faculty and started to really find a groove in the work. There is definitely a learning curve. You do your best as a postdoc to prepare for moving up to a professorship, but there comes the moment when you’re the one left holding the ball for some of these things… problems with exam questions, creating course syllabi, student questions about lectures, and all other manner of things that go with the territory.

There are moments that have left me feeling overwhelmed (my first student with a serious mental health issue), more than a few moments where I felt a little exasperated (how did you miss that question on the test???), the occasional bits of confusion (where is that building on campus…), but overall, it has been a lot of fun and one of the best learning experiences I’ve had up to this point in my academic career.

As I reflect back on the past few months, these are the things that have really made a difference in making sure that my transition has gone more-or-less smoothly. And really, I think these are tips that would work well for any transition.

  1. Identify your mentor(s).

I think I’m lucky that I’ve never felt alone during this period of transition to being new teaching faculty. The other members of my department have been supportive and welcoming. What has truly made a difference, though, is when I really started developing a closer working relationship with one of the senior faculty. Learning can take place one of two ways. You can bang your head against the wall and figure it out for yourself, or you can learn from someone else and figure out how to improve on what they’ve already done the hard work on. Having a mentor gives you place to go when things get tough, when things are just a little bit too overwhelming, and when you really have no idea w

hat is going on. More importantly, that mentor is a great source of backup when the really tricky situations come up.

  1. Ask questions.

There’s no way that anyone could have expected me to know everything the day I walked in. After a rigorous process of doing a Google search, checking the department and program websites, reading the faculty handbook, and tossing the Magic 8-Ball around (Reply hazy try again), sometimes I just had to find someone that already knew the answer to some of my questions. I would say the most important part of the process is attempting to find the answer on your own first. It may be cliché to say this now that I’m faculty, but did you read the course syllabus before coming to ask me a question?

  1. Stay organized.

The start of any sort of transition like this is going to get busy and a little bit crazy. New employee orientation, setting up benefits with your HR representative, creating slides for your first lectures, remembering to eat dinner… it all adds up. This is the time to be meticulous with your schedule keeping and time management. You also want to stay on top of all the paperwork that is coming and going right now as you don’t want to miss out on having one of your benefits because a box didn’t get checked or a detail that you had discussed verbally with your department chair didn’t get added to the final version of your offer letter and contract. Details matter all the time, but especially right now.

  1. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

As a grad student and postdoc, I’ve joked around that the best way to make sure I wasn’t bored was to go talk with my PI because my to-do list was guaranteed to get longer. At this point, my to-do list seems to be mostly self-driven, but there are at least a dozen things that need my attention at any moment. From answering emails to completing that online training module that HR forg

ot to add to my new employee checklist, to the student at my door right now to ask a question about this morning’s lecture — hold on a minute, I’ll be right back — there are always tasks competing for your attention. I’m constantly finding myself looking at my list of things to do and asking, what is the next thing that has the highest priority for being completed. It definitely plays back into the previous point of staying organized.

  1. Say no (when you can).

Part of the prioritizing above comes with the responsibility of saying no. Time has long been my most precious commodity, but it feels like it has gotten more valuable lately. Of course I can review something when the associate editor of the journal emails me specifically about an article sitting in their queue. And when my department chair needs a thing done, absolutely. But there are things that I just have to say no to. Sometimes it is work related things like the 3 other journal article reviews that showed up in my inbox today that I had to decline, sometimes it is personal things like the dinner last night with some other new faculty because I still had work to do on my lectures for today.

  1. Focus on one thing at a time.

Humans are really bad at multitasking. No matter how hard we try, there is a bottleneck in our brain processing capabilities(1) that keeps us from effectively multitasking. There are limits to the cognitive load that we can handle (4) and studies have shown that learning and performance decrease with increased load handling (2, 3). So what can we take away from the science? Put away the phones and close the web browser window with your insta-snappy-chat social media account on it and focus on the highest priority item on your to-do list. You’ll finish you better and faster than if you let yourself be distracted.

  1. Remember that there is life outside the office.

At the end of the day, it’s time to shut down your computer and go home. Read a book for fun, get some exercise (at least a minimum of 3 times per week for at least 30 minutes per bout of exercise). Go have dinner with friends. The work will be there tomorrow.

On that note…

 

Seven tips feels like a good number. It’s a nice odd number. No matter if you’re a brand-new grad student in your first semester or a new faculty, I hope these tips will serve you well. And is there something that I missed? Comment below and let us know what you recommend for making sure that your transition to a new position easier.

 

References:

  1. Gladstones WH, Regan MA, Lee RB. Division of attention: The single-channel hypothesis revisited. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A 41: 1–17, 1989.
  2. Junco R, Cotten SR. Perceived academic effects of instant messaging use. Computers & Education 56: 370–378, 2011.
  3. Junco R, Cotten SR. No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education 59: 505–514, 2012.
  4. Mayer RE, Moreno R. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist 38: 43–52, 2010.
Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Associate Program Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He teaches the cardiovascular and neuroscience blocks in the graduate physiology courses. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise and in improving science pedagogy. When he’s not working, he is a certified scuba instructor and participates in triathlons.
October 2nd, 2017
Five lesson design tips to help your learners find their Happy Place (…with some help from Dr Seuss)

We’ve all been there, that unhappy place at the pointy end of some badly designed learning material. You know the place – it’s grim and grey and jammed full of text-laden power point slides, complicated jargon, and at least one terrifying pie graph with microscopic labeling. It’s a place that’s confusing, generic, and entirely unengaging for you as a learner. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.”[1]

And dark these places are. The challenge can be even greater when you’re creating online lessons for students to use away from the classroom. But that’s where thoughtful lesson design helps: it switches on the floodlights, clears the way, and points your students in the right direction by putting them at the center of the learning experience, whether a teacher is in the room with them or not.

So, here are five simple design tips for creating effective and engaging online lessons, so you can help your learners find their happy place and stay on track:

 

Tip 1: Keep it simple!

  • Define your learning outcomes and post them in the lesson.
  • If content doesn’t support your instructional goals, delete it!
  • Make notes of relevant, contextual examples that could bring “life” to the learning outcomes, and help students understand why they are learning it.
  • Some hacks specifically for Life Science teaching:

 

Tip 2: Break up the text

  • Use your learning outcomes to help guide you in dividing up / chunking your text.
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short and simple.
  • Highlight the focal points using headings, text formatting, color, and contrast.
  • Intentionally leave blank space on your lesson pages – it can be a powerful design tool to give important concepts some buffer space to call attention to their importance.
  • Make use of lists, bullet points, and tables to present information:

 

Tip 3: Make it visual

Did you know the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is backed by neuroscience? Research suggests that we remember more of what we see than what we read.[2]

Try these:

  • Use icons as virtual “signposts” for extra information. You can use these in multiple lessons to add cohesiveness.
  • Turn information into graphs or infographics for your lessons – you could even turn this into an assessment for students. This works especially well for conveying relationships or showing steps in a process:

Here’s another example of a complementary visual element:

 

These are some of our favorite free resources to help you create or add public domain or Creative Commons media to your lessons:

Note: While free, most of the sources above require proper attribution. Don’t forget to give the creator a virtual high-five by adding a citation to their media!

 

Tip 4: Ask questions

Adding practice and feedback to lessons is the most effective way to enhance the retention and recall of new material [3,4,5]. It also enables students to check their understanding and self-monitor for misconceptions early on in the learning process.

Test it out:

  • Distribute formative questions with feedback throughout lessons, not just at the end. (By making questions formative, the emphasis is placed on learning rather than earning or losing points.)
  • Mix up question types: categorizing, matching, ordering, and labeling exercises, MCQs, completing tables, free recall, etc. Variety in quizzing strengthens the ability to recall information down the road.
  • Are there still big blocks of text in your lessons? Try turning text into interactive questions! Students can order steps in a process, match terms and definitions, correct false statements into true statements, categorize by function, characteristic, etc.
  • Ask questions and create activities that check knowledge about the most important aspects of the instruction. Use your learning objectives to guide you!

 

Tip 5: Connect & reflect

Ask students to draw out new questions, connections, and conclusions through reflective activities. Actions like summarizing information into words or diagrams help students organize new information into preexisting schema, aiding the conversion of long-term memory [3,4].

 

Some reflective ideas:

  • Teach a new concept to friends or family members.
  • Brainstorm analogies that link new topics to well known ones.
  • Create a mind map or other visual or auditory representation that highlights the main points and connections between concepts.
  • Ask students how they would respond in a series of scenario-based questions.
  • Design a research project or critique a research paper.
  • Brainstorm what questions they still have about the subject, to encourage curiosity and further self-directed learning.

________

Ultimately, even simple tweaks to how you display information will have a big impact on students’ attitude toward and engagement with course materials. To help, download this cool infographic of our lesson design tips to keep handy when designing your lessons!
These design elements are a way to shift from instructor-led lessons to ones where the student is the center of the design and learning experience. If you can spend a small amount of time and effort on lesson design it can greatly enhance student motivation and increase time on task – turning them into the brainy, footsy, mountain-moving achievers they are destined to be.

 

The only question now is…will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) [1]

 

References:

[1] Seuss, Dr. (1990). Oh, the places you’ll go! New York: Random House.

[2] Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle: Pear press.

[3] Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[4] Malamud, C. (2016, Oct 6). Strategies For Effective Online Instruction: A Conversation with Michelle D Miller. The eLearning Coach Podcast. [Audio podcast] Retrieved from http://theelearningcoach.com/podcasts/36/

[5] Larsen, D. P, Butler, A.C., and Roediger, H. L. (2008). Test-enhanced learning in medical education. Medical Education. 42: 959–966. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2008.03124.x

 

Ellen Crimmins (MS) is an instructional designer and ocean enthusiast. She loves studying how people learn and working with educators to bring their online lessons to life. Away from the computer screen, you can find her exploring nature trails and 50s themed diners with her better thirds (husband and dog).
Sina Walker (MSciComm) is a writer and former natural history filmmaker. She has three little boys so doesn’t have time for many hobbies, but enjoys taking mom-dancing to new levels of awesome.
Marissa Scandlyn (PhD) is a product manager at ADInstruments by day, and a netballer by night. She’s researched new drug treatments for breast cancer and children’s leukemia with her pharmacology background, and was previously the coordinator of ADI’s team of Instructional Designers. Marissa enjoys reading, movie watching, and being mum to the cutest dog in the world, Charlie.
September 25th, 2017
12 years of teaching technology to physiology educators

When I was approached to write a blog for PECOP I thought I could bring a slightly different perspective on classroom technology as I am not a full-time classroom educator.  My primary role for the past dozen years with ADInstruments has been to work with educators who use our products to get the most from their investment in our technology.  This has led to thousands of conversations about use and misuse of technology in the classroom and teaching laboratories.  I would like to share some of my insights here.

Early in my academic career I was tasked with a major overhaul of the introductory Biology curriculum at Louisiana Tech, and incorporating technology was part of this mandate. I have always been a bit of a tech geek, but rarely an early adopter.  I spent quite a bit of time and effort taking a good hard look at technology before implementing it in my classrooms.  I was fortunate enough to participate in T.H.E. QUEST (Technology in Higher Education: Quality Education for Students and Teachers). Technology was just beginning to creep into the classroom in the late nineties. Most courses were traditional, chalk and talk; PowerPoint was still a new thing, and this three-week course taught us how to incorporate this emerging technology appropriately.  PowerPoint worked better for many of us than chalk and talk, but also became a crutch, and many educators failed to use the best parts of this technology and applied it as a panacea.  Now PowerPoint has fallen out of favor and has been deemed to be “Killing Education”(1).  When used improperly, rather than curing a problem, it has backfired and reduced complex concepts to lists and bullet points.

I was fortunate enough to have been on the leading edge for a number of technologies in both my graduate and academic careers.  Anybody remember when thermocyclers were rare and expensive?  Now Open PCR can deliver research quality DNA amplification for around $500.  Other technologies became quickly obsolete; anybody remember Zip drives? Picking the tech that will persist and extend is not an easy task.  Will the Microscope go the way of the zip drive?  For medical education this is already happening (2).  While ADInstruments continues to lead the way with our PowerLab hardware and software packages for education (3); there are plenty of other options available.  Racks of very specialized equipment for recording biological signals can now be replaced with very affordable Arduino based electronics (4,5). As these technologies and their supporting software gets easier to use, almost anyone can collect quality physiological data.

One of the more interesting technologies that is evolving rapidly is the area of content delivery or “teaching and learning” platforms. The most common of these for academia are the Learning Management Systems. These are generally purchased by institutions or institutional systems and “forced” upon the faculty.  I have had to use many different platforms at different institutions. Blackboard, Desire 2 Learn, Moodle, etc. are all powerful tools for managing student’s digital records, and placing content in their “virtual” hands.  Automatic grading of quiz questions, as well as built in plagiarism detection tools can assist educators with large classes and limited time, when implemented properly.  This is the part that requires buy in from the end user and resources from the institution to get the faculty up and running (6).  While powerful, these can be cumbersome and often lack the features that instructors and students who are digitally savvy expect.  Many publisher digital tools integrate with the University LMS’s and are adopted in conjunction with, or more frequently now instead of a printed textbook.  McGraw Hill’s Connect and LearnSmart platforms have been optimized for their e-textbooks and integrate with most LMS’s (7).  Other purpose-built digital tools are coming online that add features that students expect like Bring Your Own Device applications; Top Hat is one of these platforms that can be used with mobile devices in and out of the classroom (8).

 

So what has endured?

In my almost 20 years in higher education classrooms and labs, lots of tools have come and gone.  What endures are passionate educators making the most of the technology available to them.  No technology, whether digital or bench top hardware, will solve a classroom or teaching laboratory problem without the educator.  While these various technologies are powerful enhancements to the student experience, they fall flat without the educator implementing them properly.  It’s not the tech, it’s how the tech is used that makes the difference, and that boils down to the educator building out the course to match the learning objectives they set.

 

 

 

My advice to educators can be summed up in a few simple points: 

  • Leverage the technology you already have.
    • Get fully trained on your LMS and any other digital tools you may already have at your institution. The only investment you will have here is your time and effort.
    • Check the cabinets and closets, there is a lot of just out of date equipment lying around that can be repurposed. Perhaps a software update is all you need to put that old gear back in rotation.
  • Choose technology that matches your course objectives.
    • Small and inexpensive purpose-built tech is becoming readily available, and can be a good way to add some quantitative data to the laboratory experience.
    • Top of the line gear may have many advantages for ease of use and reliability, but is not necessarily the best tool to help your students accomplish the learning objectives you set.
  • Investigate online options to traditional tools.
    • eBooks, OpenStax, and publisher’s online tools can be used by students for a lot less money than traditional texts and in some cases these resources are free.

References:

1) http://pdo.ascd.org/lmscourses/pd11oc109/media/tech_m1_reading_powerpoint.pdf

2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4338491/

3) https://www.adinstruments.com/education

4) http://www.scoop.it/t/healthcare-medicine-innovation)

5) https://backyardbrains.com/

6) http://www.softwareadvice.com/hr/userview/lms-report-2015/

7) http://www.mheducation.com/highered/platforms/connect.html

8) https://tophat.com

 

Wes Colgan III is the Education Project Manager for ADInstruments North America. He works with educators from all over the world to develop laboratory exercises for the life sciences.  He conducts software and hardware workshops across North America, training educators to use the latest tools for data acquisition and analysis. He also teaches the acquisition and analysis portion of the Crawdad/CrawFly courses with the Crawdad group at Cornell. He has been a Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience member since 2007, and was named educator of the year for 2014.  Prior to Joining ADInstruments, he was an assistant professor at Louisiana Tech University where he was in charge of the introductory biology lab course series.
September 11th, 2017
Making the most of being a new instructor: Learning that collaborative learning is my silver bullet

When starting my first semester as an associate instructor in graduate school, I felt nervous and anxious, but also excited and privileged. I went to graduate school with the intention of not only performing experiments and learning about physiology and behavior, but also with the strong desire to learn how to teach and mentor students at all stages of their undergraduate careers. Many of my colleagues had very similar reactions to the first few weeks of teaching. I spoke to a few of them about these feelings recently. Here is what they had to say:

“The first week always felt a bit awkward. Students are still getting comfortable with your presence and getting to know you.”

“I felt curious about a new system, nervous about giving the students what they needed out of the class, and excited to lead a class for the first time.”

“I remember not feeling prepared and incredibly nervous! I wish I had known what I know about teaching now, but the nerves haven’t gone away either…I think I’m now able to better apply “what works” as far as classroom techniques.”

In thinking about all of these ideas, what particularly resonated with me was the notion that the nerves haven’t quite gone away, but I too have learned that there are techniques I can now implement in my classroom, helping to hide some of those feelings. I began my graduate career helping to teach an Integrative Human Physiology course, where I was able to teach teams of students in a case-based classroom. In this course, students engaged in collaborative learning (team-based learning) in every class period (something I had not witnessed myself during my education thus far). Collaborative learning is a technique in which students engage in problem solving with their peers, using the different skills and expertise of the group, as well as resources and tools that are available to them [1,2].  Students in this course were put into teams, and members of each team were responsible for their own learning and for assisting in the learning of their teammates. In this kind of classroom environment, the team’s culture and how they interacted with each other were key elements of their success. While a graduate student instructor for this course, I met with the teams regularly to facilitate a discussion, of not only the course material, but also their strategies for working collectively and how to approach their assignments as a team.

What I feel to be the most important part of teaching physiology is that we have to be able to adapt to the changing environment and have the courage to try new techniques. Students learn at their own pace, and each student learns in a slightly different way, therefore it is important to have flexibility in how we teach [1]. What I hadn’t realized until spending time using collaborative learning in my own classroom is that it can be adapted for so many disparate situations. I’ve found that it will work for a diverse range of students, and that with careful thought and planning (though sometimes on the fly), it can work well in a host of teaching situations and for a number of different types of learning styles.

 

A few examples for an introductory course:

  1. Taboo

    1. This game is similar to the actual game, “Taboo,” in which the goal is for students to get their teammates to guess the word at the top of the card. He or she can say any word to try to make the teammates guess, except for the words written below it on the card. The game can be played by a small team of about 3-5 students. It is important to emphasize that teams should discuss the cards after playing them, so they can master the connections.
    2. You can make these cards beforehand, so students can immediately start playing, or you can have the teams make their own cards, which will also help them think of the connections between the words before starting.
  2. Affinity Map

    1. This game has to do with making connections between key words. In many introductory classes, students must master lots of vocabulary, but “mastering” should mean more than just memorizing. This activity gives students the opportunity to discuss how these important terms create an understanding of a concept.
    2. This can be used for many different concepts, but here is an example for the properties of water: Each student in a group receives 3 or 4 post-it notes. Ask each student to write down one property of water. They might draw the molecular symbol, write a fact about the universal solvent, discuss how much of our body is composed of water, hydrogen bonds, etc. It doesn’t really matter what they write, and some will write similar things, but that’s okay. After they have all finished, students will go up to the board and place their post-it notes on the board where everyone can read them. Then the group, together (and out loud), will organize their statements about water, putting them into groups (affinities). They should categorize the affinities, noting what is the same and what is missing and can label the affinities. Some may feel like adding additional post-its to make more connections, and that is okay too.

 And one for the more advanced course:

  1. Case Study

    1. This can be used throughout a semester to help students synthesize many physiological concepts in a single activity with their team. It helps to stimulate discussions about many different concepts rather than a focused discussion on just one concept they may have learned.
    2. Provide a case study to each team of students (they can be all the same or different). Allow the students to work in their teams to analyze and synthesize their case. You can have them write important aspects of the case either on paper or on a large white board (if available). Once students have completed their case study, have teams share their analysis with the whole classroom, providing the opportunity for questions and discussion. You can also have teams make their own case studies for other teams in the class. When students take the time to create their own case studies, they often learn even more!

Throughout all of these activities, I always walk around to make sure students are both on task and making connections.

 

Moving Forward

As I continue in my graduate career and beyond, what is most important is that I try to be flexible enough to see the possibilities that there are in every new classroom. Each classroom that I am in is a little different than the next, so understanding that collaborative learning can help students with a range of concepts, and having the courage to adapt collaborative learning in a way that will work for my classroom has been very helpful (and will continue to be useful). It is almost as if each classroom has its own personality that might change from day to day, so knowing that I have a set of key techniques that I can fine-tune for each classroom is helpful as I continue in my teaching career and can hopefully be helpful in yours!

 

References

[1]       J. Bransford, A. Brown, R. Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 2000.

[2]       D.B. Luckie, J.J. Maleszewski, S.D. Loznak, M. Krha, Infusion of collaborative inquiry throughout a biology curriculum increases student learning: a four-year study of “Teams and Streams”., Adv. Physiol. Educ. 28 (2004) 199–209. doi:10.1152/advan.00025.2004.

 

Kristyn Sylvia received her B.S. in Biology from Stonehill College, and is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology at Indiana University (IU) and a NIH Common Themes in Reproductive Diversity fellow where she studies how the neuroendocrine system interacts with the reproductive and immune systems early in life in Siberian hamsters. She worked as a clinical research associate in Boston, MA, before coming to IU. She is also a graduate student instructor in Biology, where she has taught a number of courses, including Human Integrative Physiology, and she serves on the Animal Behavior Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, where she collects and analyzes data on the major and addresses potential changes to the curriculum as it grows. She also serves on the APS Teaching of Physiology Section Trainee Committee.
August 28th, 2017
Teaching Backwards

 

Generating new ideas and cool learning experiences has always been natural and fun for me. My moments of poignant clarity often came during a swim workout or a walk with my dog as I reflect on my classes. As I visualize this activity, my students are as enthusiastic as I am and are learning. Then, reality returns as I grade the next exam and see that less than half of the class answered the question related to that activity correctly. Accounting for the students who learn despite what I do, I quickly see that I only reached a quarter of my students with this great activity. Why did this happen? What can I do about this?

Well, my life as an instructor changed the day I walked into my first session of University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) Learning Fellows at Case Western Reserve University.  This program is a semester long session on how learning works where the focus is on evidence-based learning practices and provides an opportunity to discuss successes and failures in teaching with peers.  It was here that I learned about “Backwards Design”1.

What is Backwards Design?

Essentially, it is designing your course with the end in mind. I think of it as “Teaching Backwards” – that is, I visualize my students 5-10 years from now in a conversation with a friend or colleague discussing what they learned from my class. I ask myself these questions:

  1. How do I want them to describe my class? Hansen refers to this as the “Big Idea” or broad objective. An example from one of my classes is provided in Table 1.
  2. What do I want them to be able to tell their friend or colleague that they learned from the class in 5 to 10 years? Hansen has termed this as “Enduring Understanding” (see Table 1).

The next phase is to write learning objectives for each of the enduring understandings (see Table 1). We continue the journey backwards into linking learning objectives to assessment methods and developing the details of each class session. During this process, we must always take into account the student’s prior knowledge (refer to How Learning Works2).

Table 1: Example of Backwards Design Concepts for “Exercise Physiology and Macronutrient Metabolism” class.

Class: Exercise Physiology and Macronutrient Metabolism
Big Idea Enduring Understanding Learning Objective
Exercise-Body Interaction Substrate utilization during exercise depends on type, intensity, and duration of exercise. Students will be able to describe substrate utilization during exercise.
Fatigue during exercise has been associated with low glycogen levels, but scientists are not in agreement as to the underlying cause of fatigue. Students will be able to debate the theories of fatigue.

What did backwards design do for me?

Backwards design provided me focus. It allowed me to step back and ask myself: What are the key take-aways? Does that cool, creative idea I have help to achieve my end game for the course? Is there a better way to do this? Overall, the framework has helped me develop a higher quality course. With that said, I still run into exam questions where I thought I did better at teaching the material than represented by the students’ responses.  So, while there is always room for improvement, this has definitely been a step in the right direction for better learning by my students.

References:

  1. Hansen EJ. Idea Based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding. Sterling VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC; 2011.
  2. Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett M, Norman MK.How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Points for Teaching. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

 

Lynn Cialdella-Kam, PhD, MBA, MA, RDN, LD joined CWRU as an Assistant Professor in Nutrition in 2013. At CWRU, she is engaged in undergraduate and graduate teaching, advising, and research. Her research has focused on health complications associated with energy imbalances (i.e. obesity, disordered eating, and intense exercise training). Specifically, she is in interested in understanding how to alterations in dietary intake (i.e., amount, timing, and frequency of intake) and exercise training (i.e., intensity and duration) can attenuate the health consequences of energy imbalance such as inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance, alterations in macronutrient metabolism, and menstrual dysfunction.  She received her PhD in Nutrition from Oregon State University, her Masters in Exercise Physiology from The University of Texas at Austin, and her Master in Business Administration from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.  She completed her postdoctoral research in sports nutrition at Appalachian State University and is a licensed and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).
August 14th, 2017
Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

 

A few mornings ago, I was listening to a television commercial as I got ready for work.  “What is critical thinking worth?” said a very important announcer.  “A whole lot” I thought to myself.

But what exactly is critical thinking?  A Google search brings up a dictionary definition.  Critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue to form a judgement.”  The example sentence accompanying this definition is “professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking among their students.” WOW, took the words right out of my mouth!

Have any of you had the following conversation? “Dr. A, I studied and studied for this exam and I still got a bad grade.  I know the material, I just can’t take your tests!”  The student in question has worked hard. He or she has read the course notes over and over, an activity that has perhaps been rewarded with success in the past.  Unfortunately re-reading notes and textbooks over and over is the most common and least successful strategy for studying (4).

In my opinion, as someone who has been teaching physiology for over 20 years, physiology is not a discipline that can be memorized.  Instead, it is a way of thinking and a discipline that has to be understood.

Over the years, my teaching colleague of many years, Sue Keirstead, and I found ourselves during office hours trying repeatedly to explain to students what we meant by thinking critically about physiology.  We asked the same probing questions and drew the same diagrams over and over.  We had the opportunity to formalize our approach in a workbook called Cells to Systems Physiology: Critical Thinking Exercises in Physiology (2).  We took the tough concepts students brought to office hours and crafted questions to help the students work their way through these concepts.

Students who perform well in our courses make use of the workbook and report in student evaluations that they find the exercises helpful. But we still have students who struggle with the critical thinking exercises and the course exams.  According to the comments from student evaluations, students who struggled with the exercises report they found the questions too open ended.  Furthermore, many of the answers cannot be pulled directly from their textbook, or at least not in the format they expect the answer to be in, and students report finding this frustrating.  For example, the text may discuss renal absorption and renal secretion in general and then the critical thinking exercises asks the student to synthesize all the processes occurring in the proximal tubule.  The information is the same but the organization is different.  Turns out, this is a difficult process for our students to work through.

We use our critical thinking exercise as a type of formative assessment, a low stakes assignment that evaluates the learning process as it is occurring.  We also use multiple choice exams as summative assessments, high stakes assessments that evaluate learning after it has occurred.  We use this format because our physiology course enrollment averages about 300 students and multiple choice exams are the most efficient way to assess the class.  We allow students to keep the exam questions and we provide a key a couple of days after the exam is given.

When a student comes to see me after having “blown” an exam, I typically ask him or her to go through the exam, question by question.  I encourage them to try to identify how they were thinking when they worked through the question.  This can be a very useful diagnostic.  Ambrose and colleagues have formalized this process as a handout called an exam wrapper (1).  Hopefully, by analyzing their exam performance, the student may discover a pattern of errors that they can address before the next exam.  Consider some of the following scenarios:

Zach discovers that he was so worried about running out of time that he did not read the questions carefully.  Some of the questions reminded him of questions from the online quizzes.  He did know the material but he wasn’t clear on what the question was asking.

This is a testing issue. Zach, of course, should slow down.  He should underline key words in the question stem or draw a diagram to make sure he is clear on what the question is asking.

Sarah discovers that she didn’t know the material as well as she thought she did, a problem that is called the illusion of knowing (3). Sarah needs to re-evaluate the way she is studying.  If Sarah is cramming right before the exam, she should spread out her studying along with her other subjects, a strategy called interleaving (3).  If she is repeatedly reading her notes, she should put her notes away, get out a blank piece of paper and write down what she remembers to get a gauge of her knowledge, a process called retrieval (3).  If she is using flash cards for vocabulary, she should write out learning objectives in her own words, a process called elaboration (3).

Terry looks over the exam and says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.  I saw something about troponin and I picked it.  This really frustrates me. I study and study and don’t get the grade I want.  I come to lecture and do all the exercises. I don’t know what else to do.” It is a challenge to help this student.  She is not engaging in any metacognition and I don’t claim to have any magic answers to help this student.  I still want to try to help her.

I feel very strongly that students need to reflect on what they are learning in class, on what they read in their texts, and on the activities performed in lab (3).  I have been working on a project in one of my physiology courses in which I have students take quizzes and exams as a group and discuss the answers collaboratively.  Then I have them write about what they were thinking as they approached the question individually and what they discussed in their group.  I am hoping to learn some things about how students develop critical thinking skills.  I hope I can share what I learn in a future blog posting.

  1. Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett M, Norman MK. How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Points for Teaching. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
  2. Anderson LC, Keirstead SA. Cells to Systems: Critical Thinking Exercises in Physiology (3rd ed). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Press, 2011.
  3. Brown PC, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014
  4. Callender AA, McDaniel, MA. The limited benefits of rereading educational text, Contemporary Educational Psychology 34:30-41, 2009. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0361476X08000477/1-s2.0-S0361476X08000477-main.pdf?_tid=22610e88-61b4-11e7-8e86-00000aacb35e&acdnat=1499281376_e000fa54fe77e7d1a1d24715be4bbf50 , June 22, 2016.

 

 Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. She completed training in muscle physiology at the University of Minnesota. She collaborates with colleagues in the School of Nursing on clinical research projects such as the perioperative care of patients with Parkinson’s disease and assessment of patients with spasticity. She directs a large undergraduate physiology course for pre-allied health students.  She also teaches nurse anesthesia students, dental students and medical students.  She is the 2012 recipient of the Didactic Instructor of the Year Award from the American Association of Nurse Anesthesia.  She is a co-author of a physiology workbook called Cells to Systems: Critical thinking exercises in Physiology, Kendall Hunt Press. Dr. Anderson’s teaching interests include teaching with technology, encouraging active learning and assessment of student reflection.
August 1st, 2017
Report from the Inaugural Physiology Majors Interest Group Meeting

When I first heard about the Physiology Majors Interest Group at the APS Teaching Section Symposium entitled “What’s Your Major? The Rise of the Undergraduate Physiology Degree” by co-chairs Erica Wehrwein and John Halliwell at Experimental Biology in 2015, I was immediately excited.  I’m primarily an undergraduate educator and strongly identify as a ‘physiologist’ and hope some of my students do as well.  Yet, I wasn’t entirely sure.  As an assistant professor in a department of Health and Sport Science who primarily advises students in the Exercise Physiology major who want to be physician assistants and physical therapists, was I “enough” physiology?  After attending the first stand-alone conference for this group in East Lansing earlier this summer, I’m not only confident that I was right to be excited about this APS interest group but also that as Erica Wehrwein, organizer of the conference has previously reported, physiology really is alive and well at the undergraduate level.

 

What is a Physiology Major?

One of the overarching topics of discussion at the meeting, in formal sessions and during breaks revolved around this central question regarding physiology education at the undergraduate level.  From the first introductions onward, it was clear it wasn’t going to be a simple answer.  Of the 45 in attendance, a number of different departments and/or majors were represented: physiology, biology, health sciences, human biology, and kinesiology to name a few with 24 to 2274 students in these different majors.  When we talked about the students we teach, advise, and mentor, they are future physicians, nurses, physical therapists, researchers, physician assistants, and many other professions.  Still more diverse, when we compared curricula as reported in a pre-meeting survey, we saw ranges of required courses in basic sciences, anatomy, physiology, and associated laboratories.  Yet, among these differences, there were striking similarities as well.  Sessions sparked discussions of the core concepts (a topic discussed previously on this blog) of physiology we emphasize, required skills that we want our graduates to have and how we try to build these, and common employment trends when students leave our programs and the challenges this can pose for advising.  In regard to the original query of what is a physiology major, as can often be the case in our discipline, it was less about the answer itself, and more about the discussions we had along the way.

 

An integrative discipline, an integrated community

One of the most valuable aspects of the meeting was being able to spend two days with other passionate physiology professionals.  Just as I see integration of physiology and other scientific disciplines, similar to integrated body systems, I was making connections with others from large, research-intensive universities, to small, liberal arts colleges and still others that like myself, fit somewhere in the middle.  Everyone was extremely willing to share their thoughts and ideas on how to best push physiology forward and increase its value in the ever-competitive landscape of higher education.  Conversations ranged from curriculum design to specific teaching strategies and there was a free flow of information with both newer and more seasoned participants engaging in the learning process.  In a sense, the meeting modeled what we often strive to achieve in our programs and classrooms- critical thinking, grounded in evidence, with a creative application towards future improvements or development of new knowledge.

 

What does the future hold?

As the meeting ended, we went our separate ways, armed with new tools and ideas we can implement or consider in our own programs.  A sampling of the ideas I took home:

  • In teaching materials, identify the conceptual model or core principle that is being taught and ask students to do the same when completing assessments.
  • Include teaching about T-Shaped professionals in my Introduction to Health Professions course.
  • Use Khan academy YouTube videos to demonstrate to students how they can concept map while studying.
  • Help students identify transferable skills and knowledge from non-health related job (such as a cashier or server) through ONET.
  • Consider departmental membership in the American Kinesiology Association to further connect with similar programs.
  • Use and contribute to the resources I already knew about, such as Advances in Physiology Education, this LifeSciTRC, and other APS resources.

The interest group will continue, and future meetings are already being planned.  The next meeting will be held in June 2018 at the University of Arizona.  To stay in the loop, join the listserv by contacting Erica Wehrwein (wehrwei7@msu.edu).  To keep physiology education a priority, we will continue to meet, discuss, and inspire the next generation of those who identify with physiology, just as I have and will continue to.  I’m grateful to Erica and the work of the planning committee for putting together an event that focused on this important aspect of the work I do as a physiology educator.

Anne Crecelius is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Dayton.  She teaches Human Physiology and a Capstone Research course.  She returned to her undergraduate alma mater to join the faculty after completing her M.S. and Ph.D. studying Cardiovascular Physiology at Colorado State University.  Her research interest is in the integrative control of muscle blood flow.  She is a member of the American Physiological Society (APS), serving on the Teaching Section Steering Committee and the Communications Committee.
July 24th, 2017
Who’s Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers?

Have you ever had a colleague say to you:

 “They want me to teach in this new integrated physiology course, but no one has ever taught me how to be an effective teacher!  I’ll be so nervous and probably make embarrassing mistakes, like saying the “love hormone”, oxytocin, is synthesized from cholesterol in the adrenal medulla.”

Being asked to teach first year medical students can certainly be intimidating, but that assignment is not actually akin to being thrown to the wolves. It is true that medical students are often over-achievers, but it’s been my experience over many years that these students are respectful and anxious to learn.

 

Maybe I can offer you a few tips that will help you avoid or prevent these first time  ‘teaching jitters’:

  • Know your subject and relevant scientific facts inside and out
  • Take advantage of teaching skills, workshops, and faculty development programs at your institution or through professional organizations
  • Ask your colleagues for constructive criticism of your first presentations
  • Remember that practice makes perfect, at least most of the time
  • Remember that a good sense of humor goes a long way, but bad jokes rarely help the situation
  • Don’t be afraid that you will make a couple of mistakes- we all make them but not all of us learn from them
  • Work to create effective visuals which may include human interest stories, physiology in the news, and even masterpieces by your favorite artist

Another more proactive approach is to offer programs that will encourage students to pursue their interests in teaching and help them develop the communication skills and understanding of different learning styles and pedagogies that are so essential to becoming an enthusiastic and dedicated educator. Many medical students want to ultimately incorporate teaching into their future careers as clinicians, either by formally teaching in an academic medical center or more informally through their communication with patients and with the community at large.

Here at the Carver College of Medicine at The University of Iowa we encourage our students to pursue one of our specific distinction tracks, which include research, teaching, global health, service, humanities and healthcare delivery science and management, while they are pursuing their medical degree. Although the whole concept of “teaching medical students to teach” is certainly not unique to my institution (ref 1), I do believe that our Teaching Distinction track is unique and has succeeded in terms of achieving the desired outcomes.  I’ve been very fortunate, not to mention honored, to serve as the faculty mentor for several of our previous and current students who have selected to pursue their MD with a Distinction in Teaching. It has been very exciting for me to have the opportunity to impact a student’s learning, not only in the classroom, but also in terms of their own experiences and development as educators. It has also been very gratifying when a former mentee tells me that they learned so much from me- not just endocrinology and cell biology, but also how to convey passion and enthusiasm as a teacher.  Certainly this has been a win-win experience because I’ve learned so much from these students!  Maybe Henry Adams was right when he concluded that “A teacher affects eternity; he/she can never tell where his/her influence stops.”

In order to graduate with a Distinction in Teaching our students must meet a number of requirements that include a minimum of 60 hours of relevant teaching experiences that may include: tutoring and didactic teaching; creating new educational materials; serving as a small-group facilitator; and participation on medical education committees (ref 2).  These students are also required to develop a teaching portfolio and to successfully complete a 4-week teaching elective with a capstone project (ref 2).  Since this distinction track was fully implemented in 2010, approximately 60 students, or 7-8% of all graduates, have graduated with a Distinction in Teaching.  We’ve also heard anecdotally that some students have decided to attend medical school here at the University of Iowa because they specifically wanted to pursue this track, and that having this distinction track on their resume gave them a competitive advantage during their interviews for residency positions.

Great teachers are not always born with that potential, but frequently discover their passion at some point in their careers.   I hope that through this Teaching Distinction track we’ve trained and inspired some excellent teachers who will have major impacts on all of their future students.

References

  1. Soriano RP, Blatt B, Coplit L, CichoskiKelly E, Kosowicz L, Newman L, Pasquale SJ, Pretorius R, Rosen JM, Saks NS and Greenberg L. Teaching medical students to teach: a national survey of students-as-teachers programs in U.S. medical schools. Acad Med. 2010;85:1725-31.
  2. Schmidt TJ, Ferguson KJ, Hansen HB and Pettit JE. Teaching distinction track for future medical educators. Med. Sci. Educ. 2015;25:303-06.
Thomas Schmidt is a Professor in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at the Carver College of Medicine, The University of Iowa. He is a Fellow of the American Physiological Society and has served on the Education Committee and the Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee.  He has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards including: The President and Provost Award for Teaching Excellence (The University of Iowa); Master Teacher Award (International Association of Medical Science Educators); and most recently the Arthur C. Guyton Educator of the Year Award (American Physiological Society).  He has served as a mentor for a number of medical students who have graduated with a Teaching Distinction.