August 27th, 2018
A Fork in the Road: Time to Re-think the Future of STEM Graduate Education

“Rather than squeeze everyone into preordained roles, my goal has always been to foster an environment where the players can grow as individuals and express themselves creatively within a team structure” –Phil Jackson (1)

Recently, I was reading the PECOP blog “Paradigm Shifts in Teaching Graduate Physiology” by Dr. Andrew Roberts.  His discussion focused on how we need to change the way physiology is taught to graduate students as technology has evolved.  But, one particular line caught my eyes as I was preparing my blog:  “if it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me.”   Many university faculty members believe the “If it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me” approach is the major issue with the current biomedical graduate student training system, which stands at a crossroad and is threatening its own future if appropriate corrections are not made (2, 3).

The document I read for this blog, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (4) is an updated version of the report published in 1995 (5).  It is rather large (174 total pages) and contains information on various topics about the current status of STEM graduate education and a call for systematic change. I will limit my discussion to the current status of the PhD training system and recommendations for changes in the programs.

Issues at the heart: Gap between the Great Expectation and Hard Reality

Both the 1995 and the current documents list several issues associated with the STEM graduate training programs in the U.S.  However, the common thread that runs through both documents is associated with the gap between how our graduate students are trained and what has been happening in the job market.  The current STEM graduate program still is designed with the general expectation that students will pursue a career in academia as a tenure-track faculty member at a research institution.  However:

  1. The majority of growth in the academic job market has come from part-time positions, adjunct appointments, and full-time non-tenure-track positions (i.e. instructors, lecturers, research associates) rather than tenure-track positions in research-intensive institutions.
  2. The employment trend for STEM PhDs is shifting away from academia to non-academic positions.

The gap in the expectation of the training programs and the reality of job market creates several problems, including:

  1. Those who wish to pursue a career in academia often require a longer time to secure permanent employment and often work in positions that under-employ them (i.e. part-time, non-tenure track) and/or under-utilize their training (i.e. positions that do not require a PhD).
  2. Graduates who pursue non-academic positions, especially in the private sector, lack adequate preparation to enter their positions and become successful.

Many non-academic employers have voiced concerns that current STEM education is no longer acceptable for the current job market, as it does not provide sufficient training to make students more attractive and versatile to be employed outside of academia, which is becoming more international and diverse.  In particular, employers are concerned that current STEM graduates lack skills in areas such as:

  1. Communication
  2. Teaching and mentoring
  3. Problem solving
  4. Technology application
  5. Interdisciplinary teamwork
  6. Business decision making
  7. Leadership
  8. The ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds in a team setting

Changes needed for the system: Let students discover their destiny

The major change needed in the current STEM education system is that we need to let students figure out which career path is for them and provide appropriate training opportunities, rather than trying to force them to fit into one mold. Phil Jackson, whom I quoted earlier, writes: “Let each player discover his own destiny. One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people.” (1). Jackson goes on to say: “On another level, I always tried to give each player the freedom to carve out a role for himself within the team structure.  I’ve seen dozens of players flame out and disappear not because they lacked talent but because they couldn’t figure out how to fit into the cookie-cutter model of basketball that pervades the NBA.”   We need to foster a graduate training environment that encourages each student to discover their role without any pressure, stigma, or discouragement.

Dr. Keith Yamamoto from the University of California San Francisco says that graduate training needs to be student-centered so that graduates can find their roles and meet the needs of the society (3). Faculty mentors have the responsibility of training students so that students become successful in what they choose to do.  Faculty mentors, academic departments, and institutions also need to make a concerted effort to provide opportunities for students to develop additional skills necessary to become successful in what they choose to do.  This includes teaching, especially if they want to work in a teaching-intensive institution (like the one in which I work). Faculty mentors may fear that allowing students to work on skills unrelated to the research area may hinder student success.  They may also fear that students serving as graduate teaching assistants may extend the time needed to complete their degree.  However, students need opportunities to develop these other skills, along with discipline-specific skills to become competitive in the job market and competent employees.  Again, the focus needs to be on the students and what they want to pursue, as well as what is needed for them to succeed after they walk out of the laboratory.  And, we need to trust students that they will find their paths on their own.  Dr. Yamamoto concludes his seminar by saying: “Inform/empower students to make appropriate career decision…. Students will get it right.” (3)

References and additional resources:

  1. Jackson P, Delehanty H (2013). Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (Penguin, New York).
  2. Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Vermus H (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaw. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111(16):5773-5777.
  3. Yamamoto K (2014) Time to rethink graduate and postdoc education. https://www.ibiology.org/biomedical-workforce/graduate-education/
  4. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2018) Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).
  5. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (1995) Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).
Yass Kobayashi is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS.   He teaches a human/mammalian physiology course and an upper-level cellular biology course to biology majors, along with a two-semester anatomy and physiology sequence to nursing and allied health students.   He received his BS in agriculture (animal science emphasis) with a minor in zoology from Southeast Missouri State University in 1991.  He received his MS in domestic animal reproductive physiology from Kansas State University in 1995.  After a brief stint at Oklahoma State University, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Columbia in domestic animal molecular endocrinology in 2000.  He was a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Arizona for 2 years and at Michigan State University for 4 years before taking an Assistant Professor of biology position at Delta State University in Cleveland, MS in 2006.  He moved to Fort Hays State in 2010 and has been with the institution ever since.
August 20th, 2018
In Defense of the “Real” Thing

Society has moved into the age of virtual reality.  This computer-generated trend has wide-sweeping implications in the classroom.  Specific to anatomy, impressive 3D modeling programs permit students to dissect simulated bodies pixel by pixel.  It is exciting and often more cost-effective.  Virtual dissection, without doubt, can play a significant role in the current learning environment. However, as stated by Rene Descartes, “And so that they might have less difficulty understanding what I shall say about it, I should like those who are unversed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading this, of having the heart of a large animal with lungs dissected before their eyes (for it is in all respects sufficiently like that of a man)”. This idea leads me to my argument; there is no replacement for the real thing.

 

We as teachers must incorporate a variety of learning tools for a student to truly understand and appreciate anatomical structure. Anatomical structure also needs to be related to physiological function. Is there anyone reading this that has not repeated the mantra “form determines function” hundreds or thousands of times during their teaching?  The logistical and financial restrictions to human cadavers, necessitates the frequent incorporation of chemically preserved specimens into our laboratory curriculum. Course facilitators often employ a cat or a pig as a substitute for the human body. I am not advocating against the use of preserved specimens or virtual programs for that matter (and kudos to my fellow facilitators who have learned the arduous techniques required to dissect a preserved specimen). However, it is my opinion that it is a time consuming assignment with limited educational end points. Not to mention the rising specimen costs and limited vendor options. The cost of a preserved cat is now ~$40, while the average cost of a live mouse is only ~$5. Two very important components necessary to understand the concept that form determines function are missing from preserved specimens (even cadavers). These two components are: texture and color. With respect to color, the tissues of preserved specimens are subtle variations of gray, completely void of the Technicolor show of the living organism. Further, texture differences are extremely difficult to differentiate in a preserved specimen. Compare this to a fresh or live specimen and the learning tools are innumerable. You might argue that mice are much smaller, but dissecting microscopes can easily enhance the dissection and in my experience far outweigh the noxious experience of dissecting a chemically preserved organism.

 

To further convince you of the value of dissecting fresh tissue I would like to present a couple of examples. First, why is the color of tissue important? One of the most important bodily pigments is hemoglobin. Hemoglobin, as we all know, is the pigment that gives blood its red color. Therefore the color of a tissue often reflects the level of the tissue vascularity and often (but of course not always) in turn the ability of that tissue to repair or regenerate. Simply compare the color of the patellar tendon (white) to the red color of the quadriceps. Muscles being highly vascularized have a much greater ability to regenerate than non-vascular connective tissue such as the patellar tendon. In addition, muscles contain myoglobin, a red protein very similar to hemoglobin. Two clear examples of teaching opportunities that would be missed with the traditional use of preserved specimens.

 

Texture is completely lost with chemical preservation as tissues become hardened and rubbery. My students are always blown away by the fact you can completely eliminate the overall structure of the brain by pressing it between their two fingers. The tactile experience of holding the delicate brain allows students to explore how form begets function begets pathology. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a hot topic in our culture. We no longer see children riding bicycles without helmets, the National Football League has new rules regarding tackle technique and my 8-year-old soccer player is penalized for headers during game play. What better way to educate a new generation of students just how delicate nervous tissue is than by having them “squash” a mouse brain? Regardless, of the amazing skull that surrounds the brain and the important fluid in which it floats, a hit to the head can still result in localized damage and this tactile experience emphasizes this in a way no virtual dissection could ever accomplish.

 

Finally, I would like to discuss a topic close to my heart that does require a non-preserved large animal specimen. The function of arteries and veins is vastly different based on the structure of elastic or capacitance vessels, respectively. For example, the deer heart allows easy access to the superior or inferior vena cava (veins that are thin and easily collapsed) and the aorta (thick and elastic artery) permitting valuable teaching moments on vessel structural variability for divergent physiological function. These structures on a preserved specimen are usually removed just as they enter the heart making them very difficult to evaluate.

 

These are just some elementary examples. Numerous concepts can be enhanced with the added illustrations of texture and color. When presented with both options, my students always choose the fresh tissue!  The wonder and excitement of handling fresh tissue has become a hallmark of our Anatomy and Physiology course and is regularly mentioned as student’s favorite example of hands-on learning in the classroom.

 

I have to end this with a special shout-out to my dear lab adjunct Professor Elizabeth Bain MSN, RN. Liz has made access to deer heart and lungs an easy task for me.

April Carpenter, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Health and Exercise Physiology Department at Ursinus College. She received her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and completed two postdoctoral fellowships at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Her research interests include the molecular regulation of endothelial function and its impact on all phases of skeletal muscle injury.  Dr. Carpenter currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology, Research Methods and a new Pathophysiology course.
August 6th, 2018
Paradigm Shifts in Teaching Graduate Physiology

From years of experience teaching physiology to graduate students, I found students learn best when they have a good grasp of basic concepts and mechanisms. As we are well aware, the lecture format was used to disseminate knowledge on various topics.  Students took notes and were expected to reinforce their knowledge by reading recommended texts and solving related questions that were assigned.  Some courses had accompanying laboratories and discussion sessions where students learned about applications and gained practical experience.  The term “active learning” was not in vogue, even though it was taking place in a variety of ways!  Successful teachers realized that when students were able to identify the learning issues and followed through by searching for what they needed to understand, this process enhanced learning.  The idea of a “flipped” classroom had not been described as such, but was occurring de facto in rudimentary ways with the ancillary activities that were associated with some courses.  As you are reading this, you are incorrect if you think it is an appeal to go back to the way things were.

 

By coincidence, one evening after work, I was listening to the radio about the story of a professor at an elite college.  My colleagues and I had just been discussing new teaching ideas and technologies!  As an acclaimed and accomplished educator he was surprised to learn that his students did not do as well as he expected on a national exam in comparison to other students being tested on the same subject. I was mesmerized and had to stop and listen to this teacher’s thoughts about how he changed his methods to improve student learning and their ability to apply knowledge.  This is also when I heard the expression, “if it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me.”  This humorously illustrates an extreme case of someone who doesn’t want to incorporate new ideas, different knowledge and new developments.  As you are reading this, you are incorrect if you think it is an appeal to go back to the way things were.  Obviously, we can and do find new ways to teach, but this doesn’t mean abandoning methods that work.  In listening to debates on topics such as integrating the curriculum, we acknowledge that other systems also work if used properly.  However, they should be well thought-out and appropriate for the group of students you are teaching.  So, how does this apply to teaching graduate physiology to today’s students?

 

Creative teachers have always found a way to engage their students. From what I have come to understand, today’s students seem to prefer a classroom environment that combines lectures with some form of a multimedia presentation and exercises such as team-based learning, where they can interact with fellow students and instructors.  This keeps their attention and works well with students who grew up with technology.  While technology also makes it easier for instructors to make slides and use multimedia, care must be taken to avoid oversimplifying.  A tendency of modern media is to compress information into sound-bytes and that is a dangerous mindset for a graduate level course.

 

Instead of just acquiring knowledge for its own sake, today’s students want to learn what is relevant for their future endeavors.  In my opinion, it is very important to show them how and why what they are learning relates to practical “real world” applications.  I like to develop concepts, discuss mechanisms whenever possible, and show examples of how the knowledge is applied and useful.  A plus is that these students like to work cooperatively and enjoy problem solving as a group exercise with a common goal in mind.  However, in-class activities sometimes become too social and groups have to be kept on track.  Another pitfall stems from the fact that in many courses, lectures are recorded and notes are distributed in the form of a syllabus that student’s rely on as their sole source of material.  Too often, students copiously read the prepared notes and listen to the recorded lectures instead of more actively reviewing and connecting with the material that was presented.

 

The internet is a useful resource where information can easily be looked up.  While this is helpful, I find that they may miss the larger context even though it was presented in class.  This is where another comprehensive source of information such as a textbook (on-line or in print) can be used to reiterate material and reinforce what was discussed in class. Students would benefit more by using other resources to accompany notes and lectures. The “flipped” classroom works well if students come to class having prepared by reading, reviewing and analyzing the subject matter.  This type of preparation also makes lectures more interactive and enjoyable by fostering class discussion.  Therefore, I would conclude by stating it is the preparation by student and teacher that makes even the traditional lecture format more engaging and effective.

Andrew M. Roberts, MS, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Louisville, Kentucky.  He received his PhD in Physiology at New York Medical College and completed a postdoctoral training program in heart and vascular diseases and a Parker B. Francis Fellowship in Pulmonary Research at the University of California, San Francisco in the Cardiovascular Research Institute. His research focuses on cardiopulmonary regulatory mechanisms with an emphasis on neural control, microcirculation, and effects of local endogenous factors.  He teaches physiology to graduate, medical, and dental students and has had experience serving as a course director as well as teaching allied health students.
July 23rd, 2018
What if your students went to a lecture . . . and a concert broke out?

In June I attended the American Physiological Society’s Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL) for the first time.  It was a fantastic week of presentations, workshops, and networking, from the opening keynote address on “Student-instructor interactions in a large-group environment” by Prem Kumar (University of Birmingham, UK) to the closing plenary talk on “Inclusive practices for diverse student populations” by Katie Johnson (Beloit College).

 

The week is hard to summarize concisely, yet I can easily identify my most memorable moment.  That occurred on Wednesday morning (June 20th).  Robert Bjork, a UCLA psychologist, had just delivered a fascinating plenary talk on learning, forgetting, and remembering information.  He had reviewed several lines of evidence that the memorization process is more complicated than tucking facts into a mental freezer where they persist forever.  Instead, the timing and context of information retrievals can profoundly affect the success of subsequent retrievals.

 

At the end of the lecture, I stood up with a question (or possibly a monologue masquerading as a question). “It seems that maintaining long-term memories is a really active, dynamic process,” I said. “The brain seems to be constantly sorting through and reassessing its memory ‘needs,’ somewhat like the way the kidney is constantly sifting through the plasma to retain some things and discard others. Is that a reasonable analogy?”

 

“Yes it is,” he answered politely.  “Perhaps,” he added, “you could write a paper on the ‘kidney model’ of how the brain learns.”

 

“I can do even better than that,” I said.  “Here’s a song I wrote about it!”  And I launched into an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml).

 

The audience clapped along in time, then erupted with wild applause!  That’s how I prefer to remember it, anyway; perhaps others who were there can offer a more objective perspective.

 

In any case, singing is not just a mechanism for hijacking Q&A sessions at professional development conferences; it can also be done in the classroom.  And this example of the former, while unusual in and of itself, hints at several useful lessons for the latter.

 

  1. Unexpected music gets people’s attention. In truth, I have no idea whether most ITL attendees found my song fun or helpful. Still, I’m quite sure that they remember the experience of hearing it.  Now think about your own courses.  Are there any particular points in the course where you desperately need students’ undivided attention?  Unexpected singing or rapping is amazingly effective as an attention-grabber, even (especially?) if the performer is not a gifted musician.  Don’t be afraid to use this “nuclear option.”

 

  1. Music is not just for “making science fun” and memorizing facts. Many teachers and students who support the integration of music into science courses do so because they think it’s fun and/or useful as a mnemonic device. Both reasons are legitimate; we do want our courses to be fun, and our students do need to memorize things.  But music can be much more than an “edutainment” gimmick.  “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml), for example, develops an analogy between the way that the brain processes information and the way that the kidney processes plasma.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but one worthy of dissection and discussion (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/imperfect-analogies-shortcuts-to-active-learning/).  Songs like this one can thus be used as springboards to critical thinking.

 

  1. The effectiveness of any musical activity is VERY context-specific. After my musical outburst at ITL, I was flattered to receive a few requests for a link to the song. I was happy, and remain happy, to provide that. (Here it is yet again: http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml.)  But here’s the thing: while you are totally welcome to play the song for your own students, they probably won’t love it.  To them, it’s just a weird song written by someone they’ve never heard of.  They won’t particularly care about it unless the production quality is exceptional (spoiler: it’s not) or unless they are going to be tested on the specific material in the lyrics.   Or unless you take other steps to make it relevant to them – for example, by challenging them to sing it too, or to explain what specific lines of lyrics mean, or to add a verse of their own.

 

 

In conclusion, music can function as a powerful enhancer of learning, but it is not pixie dust that can be sprinkled onto any lesson to automatically make it better.  As instructors, for any given song, you should think carefully about what you want your students to do with it.  That way, when the music begins, the wide-eyed attention of your incredulous students will be put to good use.

Gregory J. Crowther, PhD has a BA in Biology from Williams College, a MA in Science Education from Western Governors University, and a PhD in Physiology & Biophysics from the University of Washington. He teaches anatomy and physiology in the Department of Life Sciences at Everett Community College.  His peer-reviewed journal articles on enhancing learning with content-rich music have collectively been cited over 100 times.
July 9th, 2018
Why do you teach the way that you do?

Have you ever stopped to think about why you do something the way that you do it? We educators are often very good at describing what we do or have done. I was recently reviewing some CVs for a teaching position; all the CVs were replete with descriptions of what content was taught in which course at which institution. However, I feel that we educators often fail to capture why we teach in a certain way.

 

 

In my extra-curricular life, I am an educator on the soccer field in the form of a coach. Through coaching education, I have been encouraged to develop a philosophy of coaching. This is a description of why I coach the way I do. To develop a coaching philosophy, coaches should think about three central aspects (see: https://www.coach.ca/develop-a-coaching-philosophy-in-3-easy-steps-p159158 for more details):

 

  1. Purpose: why do you coach?

  2. Leadership style – what methods do you use to coach? Are you more ‘coach-centered’ or more ‘player-centered’ in your approach? Or somewhere in between? Why?

  3. Values: what is most important to you? How does it affect the way you coach?

 

If ‘coach’ is replaced by ‘teach’ or ‘teacher’ in the above list, and ‘player’ is replaced by ‘student’, we can use this framework to develop a philosophy of teaching. I have found that putting ‘pen to paper’ in forming a philosophy helps to crystallize your beliefs about teaching that may have been seemingly random, disparate thoughts previously. It can be insightful to synthesize your beliefs about teaching, as it provides some structure and guidance when planning future teaching.

 

It is time to nail my colors to the mast. I teach because I want to help my students be successful diagnosticians in their profession (medicine) and understand why their patient’s bodies are responding in the way that they do in order to help them treat them effectively. I do believe in the benefit of having an expert instructor, especially when you have novice students, so I am probably more teacher-centric than is the current fad. However, I don’t like lectures for the most part, because from my perspective, lectures principally focus on information transfer rather than using and applying the important information. This is not to say that lectures are all bad, but I prefer ‘flipped classroom’ methods that require students to gather the necessary knowledge before class, and then during class, demonstrate mastery of material and apply it to clinical scenarios (with the aid of the instructor). But, that’s me. What about you?

 

If you are applying for positions that will require teaching, having both a teaching philosophy and a teaching portfolio will provide the appropriate evidence to the search committee about how you plan to teach.  The following resources might be useful to you:

Preparing a Teaching Portfolio http://www.unco.edu/graduate-school/pdf/campus-resources/Teaching-Portfolio-Karron-Lewis.pdf

Writing Your Teaching Philosophy https://cei.umn.edu/writing-your-teaching-philosophy

  Hugh Clements-Jewery, PhD is currently Visiting Research Associate Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford, Illinois. He teaches medical physiology in the integrated Phase 1 undergraduate medical curriculum at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. He is the College-wide leader for the Circulation-Respiration course. He has also recently taken on the role of Director of Phase 1 curriculum at the Rockford campus.
June 25th, 2018
Why I’m a Clicker Convert

Recently I was faced with a teaching challenge: how to incorporate active learning in a huge Introductory Biology lecture of 400+ students. After searching for methods that would be feasible, cost effective, and reasonably simple to implement in the auditorium in which I was teaching, I came up with clickers. Our university has a site license for Reef Polling Software which means I wouldn’t add to the cost for my students—they could use any WiFi enabled device or borrow a handset at no cost. I incorporated at least 4 clicker questions into every class and gave students points for completing the questions. 10% of their grade came from clicker questions and students could get full credit for the day if they answered at least 75% of the questions. I did not give them points for correct answers because I wanted to see what they were struggling to understand.

I’m now a clicker convert for the following 3 reasons:

  • Clickers Increase Student Engagement and Attendance

In a class of 400+, it is easy to feel like there is no downside to skipping class since the teacher won’t realize you are gone. By attaching points to completing in-class clicker questions, about 80% of the class attended each day. While I would like perfect attendance, anecdotally this is much better than what my colleagues report for similar classes that don’t use clickers. Students still surfed the internet and slept through class, but there was now more incentive to pay a bit of attention so you didn’t miss the clicker questions. In my opinion, getting to class can be half the battle so the incentive is worth it. In my small classes I like to ask a lot of questions and have students either shout out answers or vote by raising their hands. Often, students won’t all vote or seem to be too embarrassed to choose an answer. I tested out clickers in my small class and found an increased response rate to my questions and that I was more likely to see the full range of student understanding.

  • Clickers Help Identify Student Misconceptions in Real Time

Probably the biggest benefit of clickers to my teaching is getting a better sense of what the students are understanding in real time. Many times I put in questions that I thought were ‘gimmes’ and was surprised to see half the class or more getting them wrong. When that happens, I can try giving them a hint or explaining the problem in a different way, having them talk with their group, and then asking them to re-vote. Since I don’t give points for correctness, students don’t feel as pressured and can focus on trying to understand the question. I’m often surprised that students struggle with certain questions. For instance, when asked whether the inner membrane of the mitochondria increases surface area, volume, or both, only half of the students got the correct answer the first time (picture). Since this is a fundamental concept in many areas of biology, seeing their responses made me take time to really explain the right answer and come up with better ways of explaining and visualizing the concept for future semesters.

  • Clickers Increase Student Learning (I hope)

At the end of the day, what I really hope any active learning strategy I use is doing is helping students better understand the material. To try to facilitate this, I ask students to work in groups to solve the problems. I walk around the class and listen while they solve the problem. This can help me get an idea of their misconceptions, encourage participation, and provide a less scary way for students to ask questions and interact with me. While working in groups they are explaining their reasoning and learning from each other. Interspersing clicker questions also helps to reinforce the material and make sure students stay engaged.

I’m convinced that clickers are helping to improve my teaching and students seem to agree. Of the 320 students who filled out course evaluations one semester, 76 included positive comments about clicker questions. Here are two of my favorites:

“I like how we had the in-class clicker questions because it made me think harder about the material we were learning about in that moment.”

“I enjoyed doing the clicker questions. If the class disagreed with something she would stop and reteach the main point and hope we would understand. That was really helpful on her part.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t end by thanking the many researchers who have studied how to incorporate clickers into your class to maximize learning. I decided to try them after hearing Michelle Smith talk at the first APS Institute on Teaching and Learning and highly recommend seeing her speak if you have the chance. If you only want to read one paper, I suggest the following:

Smith, Michelle K., et al. “Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions.” Science 323.5910 (2009): 122-124.

I hope you will comment with how you use clickers or other strategies to engage large lecture classes. For more resources I’ve found helpful designing my classes click here.

Katie Wilkinson, PhD is a newly minted Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at San Jose State University. She completed her undergraduate work in Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh and her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. She was an NIH IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow in Research and Scientific Teaching at Emory University. At SJSU her lab studies the function of stretch sensitive muscle proprioceptors. She teaches Introductory Biology, Vertebrate Neurophysiology, Integrative Physiology, Pain Physiology, and Cardiorespiratory Physiology to undergraduate and masters students.
June 15th, 2018
Medical Physiology for Undergraduate Students: A Galaxy No Longer Far, Far Away

The landscape of medical school basic science education has undergone a significant transformation in the past 15 years.  This transformation continues to grow as medical school basic science faculty are faced with the task of providing “systems based” learning of the fundamental concepts of the Big 3 P’s: Physiology, Pathology & Pharmacology, within the context of clinical medicine and case studies.  Student understanding of conceptual basic science is combined with the growing knowledge base of science that has been doubling exponentially for the past century.  Add macro and microanatomy to the mix and students entering their clinical years of medical education are now being deemed only “moderately prepared” to tackle the complexities of clinical diagnosis and treatment.  This has placed a new and daunting premium on the preparation of students for entry into medical school.  Perhaps medical education is no longer a straightforward task of 4 consecutive years of learning.  I portend that our highest quality students today, are significantly more prepared and in many ways more focused in the fundamentals of mathematics, science and logic than those of even 30 years ago.  However, we are presenting them with a near impossible task of deeply learning and integrating a volume of information that is simply far too vast for a mere 4 semesters of early medical education.

 

To deal with this academic conundrum, I recommend here that the academic community quickly begin to address this complex set of problems in a number of new and different ways.  Our educators have addressed the learning of STEM in recent times by implementing a number of “student centered” pedagogical philosophies and practices that have been proven to be far more effective in the retention of knowledge and the overall understanding of problem solving.  The K-12 revolution of problem-based and student-centered education continues to grow and now these classroom structures have become well placed on many of our college and university campuses.  There is still much to be done in expanding and perfecting student-centered learning, but we are all keenly aware that these kinds of classroom teaching methods also come with a significant price in terms of basic science courses.

 

It is my contention that we must now expand our time frame and begin preparing our future scientists and physicians with robust undergraduate preprofessional education.  Many of our universities have already embarked upon this mission by developing undergraduate physiology majors that have placed them at the forefront of this movement.  Michigan State University, the University of Arizona and the University of Oregon have well established and long standing physiology majors.  Smaller liberal arts focused colleges and universities may not invest in a full majors program, but rather offer robust curricular courses in the basic medical sciences that appropriately prepare their students for professional medical and/or veterinary education.  Other research 1 universities with strong basic medical science programs housed in biology departments of their Colleges of Arts and Sciences may be encouraged to develop discipline focused “tracks” in the basic medical sciences.  These tracks may be focused on disciplines such as physiology, pharmacology, neuroscience, medical genetics & bioinformatics and microbiology & immunology.  These latter programs will allow students to continue learning with more broad degrees of undergraduate education in the arts, humanities and social sciences while gaining an early start on advanced in depth knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of medical bioscience.  Thus, a true undergraduate “major” in these disciplines would not be a requirement, but rather a basic offering of focused, core biomedical science courses that better prepare the future professional for the rigors of integrated organ-based medical education.

 

In the long term, it is important for leaders in undergraduate biomedical education to develop a common set of curriculum standards that provide a framework from which all institutions can determine how and when they choose to prepare their own students for their post-undergraduate education.  National guidelines for physiology programs should become the standard through which institutions can begin to prepare their students.  Core concepts in physiology are currently being developed.  We must carefully identify how student learning and understanding of basic science transcends future career development, and teach professional skills that improve future employability.  Lastly, we must develop clear and effective mechanisms to assess and evaluate programs to assure that what we believe is successful is supported by data which demonstrates specific program strengths and challenges for the future.  These kinds of challenges in biomedical education are currently being addressed in open forum discussions and meetings fostered by the newly developed Physiology Majors Interest Group (P-MIG) of the APS.  This growing group of interested physiology educators are now meeting each year to discuss, compare and share their thoughts on these and other issues related to the future success of our undergraduate physiology students.  The current year will meet June 28-29 at the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ.  It is through these forums and discussions that we, as a discipline, will continue to grow and meet the needs and challenges of teaching physiology and other basic science disciplines of the future.

Jeffrey L. Osborn, PhD is a professor of biology at the University of Kentucky where he teaches undergraduate and graduate physiology. He currently serves as APS Education Committee chair and is a former medical physiology educator and K12 magnet school director. His research focuses on hypertension and renal function and scholarship of teaching and learning. This is his first blog.
June 13th, 2018
BOOK REVIEW: Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation

I recently had a conversation with my son who teaches high school math and computer science at a Catholic college-prep girls high school in San Jose, CA about how his students did not realize that they were learning from his innovative standards-based teaching approach.  We had already discussed how mindset has a big impact on student learning at an early age; how K-12 students are not taught appropriate study skills for future educational experiences; and how students do not understand how they learn.  Thus, I went out looking for resources to help him deal with these learning issues.  By searching on Amazon, I found the book Teach Students How to Learn:  Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation by Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire (ISBN 978-1-62036-316-4) which seemed to be just what we wanted.  Dr. McGuire taught chemistry and has worked for over 40 years in the area of support for teaching and learning.  She is an emerita professor of chemical education and director emerita of the Louisiana State University Center for Academic Success.  Her daughter Stephanie is a Ph.D. neuroscientist and performing mezzosoprano opera singer who lives in Berlin, Germany.

The book has interesting and self-explanatory chapters about Dr. Saundra McGuire’s own evolution as a teacher (and as a chemistry major I could really relate to her story), discussions about why students don’t already know how to learn when they come to college, what metacognition can do for students to help them become independent learners, how to introduce Bloom’s taxonomy and “the study cycle” to students, how to address student growth vs. fixed mindset status, and how both faculty and students can boost motivation, positive emotions, and learning.  The study cycle learning strategy proposed and used by Dr. McGuire over the years involves five steps for the students: preview before class, attend class and take meaningful notes, review after class, study by asking “why, how, and what if” questions in planned intense study sessions and weekend reviews, and assess their learning by quizzing or planning to teach it to others.  Especially helpful for teachers are the actual presentations as three online slide sets and a sample video lecture (styluspub.presswarehouse.com/Titles/TeachStudentsHowtoLearn.aspx), and a handout summarizing the entire process that Dr. McGuire uses to introduce her learning strategies to groups of students in as little as one 50-minute class period.  Throughout the book, there are summary tables, examples, activities, and success stories about students who have incorporated the learning strategies.

In Appendix D of the book (pp. 176-177), Dr. McGuire includes a handout entitled “Introducing Metacognition and Learning Strategies to Students: A Step-by-Step Guide” for the 50 minute session.

An abbreviated version of the 15 steps are repeated here:

  1. Wait until the students have gotten the scores of their first test back.
  2. Don’t tell the class in advance that there will be a presentation on learning strategies.
  3. Evaluate student career goals by clickers or show of hands at beginning of session.
  4. Show before and after results from other students.
  5. Define metacognition.
  6. Use exercise to show the power of various learning strategies.
  7. Ask reflection questions, like “What is the difference between studying and learning?
  8. Introduce Bloom’s taxonomy.
  9. Introduce the study cycle as way of ascending Bloom’s.
  10. Discuss specific learning strategies like improving reading comprehension (active reading) and doing homework as formative assessment.
  11. Discuss reasons students in the class may or may not have done well on the first test.
  12. Ask students how different the proposed learning strategies are to the ones that they have been using.
  13. Ask students to commit to using at least one learning strategy for the next few weeks.
  14. Direct students to resources at your campus learning center.
  15. Express confidence that if students use the learning strategies they will be successful.

Currently all of the students that I teach are either advanced undergraduate students planning to go to professional schools or graduate students, so that my current students do not have mindset or motivational issues and have mostly learned how they study best.  However after sharing this book review with you, I have convinced myself that I cannot give up my book to my son when he comes to visit next month and I will need to go and buy another one.  I hope that this book will help you facilitate the learning of your students too!

Barb Goodman received her PhD in Physiology from the University of Minnesota and is currently a Professor in the Basic Biomedical Sciences Department of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota. Her research focuses on improving student learning through innovative and active pedagogy.
May 28th, 2018
Why Teaching? Why a Liberal Arts school?

Why Teaching? Why at a Liberal Arts school? These are two questions that I am often asked. I used to give the standard answers. “I enjoy working with the students.” “I didn’t want to have to apply for funding to keep my job.” “A small, liberal arts school allows me to get to know the students.” But more recently those answers have changed.

A year or so ago, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater to celebrate the retirement of a biology faculty member who had been with the school for almost 50 years. As I toured the science facilities—which had been updated and now rival the facilities of many larger research universities—I reflected on where I had come from and how I came to be a biology professor at a small liberal arts school in Iowa.

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In fact my parents still live in the house they purchased before I was born. My parents valued education and believed it was their job to provide their three children with the opportunity to go to college. Because there were three of us, it was expected that we would attend college in Pennsylvania. At that time, the way to learn about colleges was to go to the guidance counselor’s office or to sift through all of the mailings that came to the house. One of the schools I chose to visit was Lebanon Valley College (LVC),  a small, private, liberal arts institution in Annville, PA (central Pennsylvania). LVC had a strong biology program but my reasons for choosing LVC were I liked the campus, the school was neither too big nor too small, and it was far enough from home but not too far from home. That is how I ended up at LVC.

I was a biology major, pre-med my entire four years at LVC. The biology department at LVC was fantastic. The professors had high expectations, held students to these high expectations, and helped the students to reach those expectations. The professors gave me a solid background in the sciences and opportunities to work in a lab. Both the knowledge I gained and the lab experiences I had allowed me to succeed as a scientist. However, during my journey at LVC, I found that there was more to me than being a biology major or a Pre-Med student. From the beginning of my time at LVC, my professors saw something in me that I could not and chose not to see. My professors saw a person who loved to learn, a person who loved to explore, and a person who loved to share information. They saw an educator, a leader, and a communicator. But regardless of what they saw or what they said, I had to find these elements on my own and for myself.

 

During my time at LVC, I did not understand what the liberal arts meant or what the liberal arts represented. Back then if you had asked me if I valued the liberal arts, I probably would have said I have no idea. Even when I graduated from LVC, I did not realize the impact that my liberal arts education would have on me. It is only now when I reflect on my time at LVC that I can appreciate and value the impact that my liberal arts education had on the achievement of my goals. It was the courses that were required as a part of the liberal arts program and the professors who taught them that made me a better scientist. The writing and speech classes provided the foundation for my scientific communication skills that continued to develop after graduation. It was in these classes that the professors provided constructive feedback which I then incorporated into future assignments. The leadership, language, literature, philosophy, and art courses and professors provided opportunities to develop my ability to analyze, critique, and reflect. The religion courses taught me that without spirituality and God in my life, there was little joy or meaning to what I accomplished. The liberal arts program provided me with skills that were not discipline specific but skills utilized by many academic fields. These courses allowed the person who loved to learn, the person who loved to explore and ask questions, and the person who loved to share information to flourish. These courses taught me to value all experiences as opportunities to learn and to become a better person. Lebanon Valley College, through the people I met and the education I received, put me on the path to finding the elements that form my identity.

After graduation from LVC, I explored. I accepted a position as a research technician in a laboratory where I remained for three years. During that time, I improved my science skills, but I also had the opportunity to use and improve those other abilities I learned at LVC. After three years, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I loved asking new questions, performing experiments, and the feeling I had when an experiment worked and provided new information. I also liked working with students. I loved sharing information and guiding students through the process of learning. I applied to graduate school, was accepted, earned my Ph.D, and then completed two postdoctoral fellowships. My graduate advisor and postdoctoral advisors were supportive of me and allowed me to teach in addition to my research. After two successful postdoctoral fellowships, I had to decide where to go next. I chose teaching and I chose Clarke University. I chose teaching and specifically Clarke because I wanted to go back to my roots. I wanted to take the knowledge and skills I had attained and share them. I chose Clarke University because I saw similarities between it and LVC. I chose Clarke University because of its liberal arts heritage and its focus on the students.

Now, 10 years later, I am a guide for a new generation of students at Clarke University. While there are so many differences between my generation and this generation, I still see similarities. I see students eager to come to class so they can learn. I see students excited when they understand a difficult concept. I see students who want to make a difference in this world. I do not know what a student would say if I asked them if they valued their liberal arts education or me as their teacher. My guess is that many of them are just like I was and do not know what the liberal arts represent. Some might even say they do not value the liberal arts or the professors. I can only hope that one day, when the students I teach reflect on their undergraduate careers, they can recognize and appreciate the influence Clarke University, the liberal arts program, and their professors had on them. I know that without my professors and without my liberal arts experience at Lebanon Valley College, I would not be me—the educator, the scientist, the author, the leader, the life-long learner. Nor would I be me—the mother, the wife, the daughter, the sister, the friend, the colleague. Lebanon Valley College and my liberal arts education helped me become the person I am today.

Melissa DeMotta, PhD is currently an Associate Professor of Biology at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA. Melissa received her BS in biology from Lebanon Valley College. After working for three years at Penn State’s College of Medicine in Hershey, PA, she received her PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Following postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Arizona and Saint Louis University, Melissa joined the Biology Department at Clarke University. Melissa currently teaches Human Physiology and Exercise Physiology to physical therapy graduate students and undergraduates. She also enjoys teaching non-majors life science courses as well.
May 14th, 2018
An Academic Performance Enrichment Program for Struggling Students

Pharmacy schools nationwide are currently experiencing a decline in admission applications and an increase in the number of academically struggling students in their programs. Thus, schools of pharmacy are not only searching for effective ways to increase enrollment of qualified candidates but are also focusing on the development of programs to improve academic performance and retention of enrolled students.

 

Our students struggle academically for a number of reasons:

  1. personal issues such as those involving jobs or family,
  2. mental disorders or conditions such as attention deficit disorder, anxiety, or depression,
  3. lack of academic skills,
  4. deficiencies in prerequisite knowledge, and/or
  5. lack of motivation and discipline to meet the requirements necessary to succeed in a rigorous professional degree program.

Some students may be helped by resolving the underlying personal or medical issues.  For the others, we have developed an academic performance enrichment program (APEP) aimed to improve academic skills (e.g. study skills, time management skills), comprehension of course material, metacognition, discipline and accountability with the overall goal to decrease course failures and to improve retention.

During the first year of our Pharm.D. curriculum, students complete a two-semester (10-unit) integrated biological sciences course sequence (BSI I & II) which integrates biochemistry, cell biology, physiology, and pathophysiology.  The summative assessments include 4 exams and a comprehensive final in each semester. Formative assessments include worksheets and assignments, which are not submitted to the instructor, and various in-class active learning activities. BSI is the course in which the first year pharmacy students struggle the most. BSI is a prerequisite for most other advanced courses, so it is required to pass in order to complete the program in 4 years. Furthermore, a failure in BSI I is highly predictive of a student struggling throughout the program. Thus, developing a means to improve academic performance is imperative to facilitate success. Historically, we have found that traditional one-on-one or small-group peer-tutoring did not lead to significant improvements in academic performance or course failure rates. Feedback from the peer-tutors revealed that tutees did not adequately prepare for the tutoring sessions and were passive participants in the tutoring process.  We have also observed that most of the students struggle in BSI and the first year pharmacy curriculum due to lack of academic skills and/or lack of motivation and discipline to implement the skills rather than difficulty in understanding course content. Therefore, the APEP includes academic skills training and student accountability to be active participants in the tutoring process.

The APEP is comprised of structured group tutoring sessions which are 1.0-1.5 hours twice per week, led by graduate assistants (2nd year pharmacy students).  At the beginning of each week, the students are emailed instructions as to what to prepare and expect for the sessions that week.  They are asked to develop a 15-question multiple choice quiz from the specified BSI material and to complete worksheets or assignments that coincide with each BSI course lecture note set. At each session, the students exchange and complete the quizzes followed by discussion of wrong answers among each other.  The students then complete various activities which may include drawing specific diagrams, flowcharts, or pathways that were assigned to learn for the session. The students are expected to complete the drawings from memory and then work together to fill in any missing information. The graduate assistants discuss active study methods most effective for learning the particular course content, along with the importance of continuous self-testing. We have observed that linking the discussion of study methods to specific material is more effective than giving general study skills advice, which low performing students often ignore and/or do not know when or how to apply.  Each session also includes a question and answer period where the students can ask questions for clarification and the graduate assistants ask higher order questions to probe their level of understanding. The students submit their quiz grades, completed worksheets, and drawings to the graduate assistants in order to track attendance and preparedness for the sessions.  Procrastination and the underutilization of active studying techniques are common among our low performing students; the completion of the assignments in preparation for and during each session is aimed to prevent these unfavorable habits.  To improve metacognition we have incorporated two activities. Before each BSI exam, the APEP students predict the grade they will receive based on their self-perceived preparedness and understanding of the material.  After each exam, they are required to meet with the course instructor to review the questions that they missed and then to write a paragraph with their insights as to why they earned the grade and what they plan to do differently to improve on the next exam. In the BSI course, all students are encouraged to meet with the professor to review their exam; however, the lower performing students often do not follow through. Thus, we have made it a required piece of the APEP.

Students with an average BSI course grade below 73% at any point during the semester are required to attend the APEP sessions until their course grade exceeds 73% (<69.5% is a failing grade). Most of the students attend the sessions and complete the required tasks without being pressed. However, a small percentage require further enforcement which includes a meeting with the Director of the APEP and the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. Typically, such a meeting leads to improved engagement in the APEP. So far, only 1 student out of 35 who have participated in the APEP has continued to skip required sessions.

The APEP was implemented in the fall semester of 2017. Preliminary data indicate that the program is effective for improving academic skills and performance. The failure rate in BSI I decreased by 36% compared to the previous two years. For those who entered the program after performing poorly on an exam, the APEP was deemed effective to improve performance on the following exam.  For example, 80% of the students who were required to join the APEP after Exam 1 improved on Exam 2, while only 29% of the students who scored between 74-79% on Exam 1 (and not required to attend the APEP) improved on Exam 2.  86% of the students in the APEP after Exam 2 improved on Exam 3, compared to 54% of the comparative group who did not attend the APEP. 65% of the students in the APEP after Exam 3 improved on Exam 4, compared to 38% in the comparative group. 78% of the students in the APEP after Exam 4 improved on Exam 5 (comprehensive final exam), compared to 36% in the comparative group.  We do not know yet if the APEP was effective at reducing the failure rate in BSI II, since the semester is still in progress.

According to a survey, the majority of APEP attendees believed that the program helped:

  1. to improve study skills by incorporating more active studying techniques,
  2. to prevent procrastination of studying,
  3. to study with more intent by having quizzes and assignments to complete for each APEP session,
  4. to improve understanding of the course material and
  5. to identify course content that they did not fully understand.

A program such as this requires active engagement to be effective; what you put into it, you get out of it. 68% of the APEP students believed that they came to each session as prepared as they should have been.  The biggest struggle has been to find an effective means to increase this number to closer to 100%.  The APEP will continue to evolve as we strive to meet the 100% mark and to reduce the failure rate even further.

Amie Dirks-Naylor is Professor and a member of the founding faculty at Wingate University School of Pharmacy in North Carolina where she teaches the basic sciences to the first-year pharmacy students. She earned her Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology (minor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) from the University of Florida, her M.S. from San Diego State University, and B.S. from the University of California, Davis.  She completed her post-doctoral research at Stanford University School of Medicine in the department of Radiation Oncology.  Her current research interests include mechanisms of adverse drug effects involving oxidative stress and apoptosis, physiological effects of lifestyle modifications, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.