December 13th, 2018
Affective Teaching and Motivational Instruction: Becoming More Effective Educators of Science

As educators, we’re intimately familiar with learning objectives such as, “Using Fick’s principle, calculate the diffusion of a substance across a membrane.” Also, as scientists, we are familiar with technical objectives such as, “Using a micropipette, transfer 5μL of Solution A into the chromatography chamber.” In terms of learning conditions, the first is an intellectual skill and the second is a motor skill.1 One area in which we don’t often give much thought is the third type of skill that was identified by Gagné and Medsker — the affective skill. This is the area that is most often neglected by educators because it is the hardest to evaluate and quantify. We can’t explicitly say to a student, “By the end of the semester you will develop a love of physiology.” We can hope to achieve this through the semester, but as educators, the best that we can do is hope to instill these attitudes, choices, and values in our learners that persist beyond our brief time with them in the classroom.

Instilling attitudes in our learners is a complex goal. This is, in part, because stating an affective goal is at times counterproductive to the goal and interferes with learning. In the example above, it is clearly ridiculous to expect that all students will leave our classrooms with a true passion for our subject matter. Some clearly will, but others will not. That will be shaped by the attitudes with which students enter our classrooms. Those attitudes consist of the knowledge that a learner has about a subject – the cognitive aspect, how the person feels about the subject — the affective aspect, and how the person behaves in response to those influences — the behavioral aspect.2 So despite our best interests to instill a care for the animal and human models we frequently use in experiments, it is completely beyond our ability to control the behavior of our learners outside of the classroom. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still try because the majority of our students will come away with those lessons intact. Additionally, affective learning is difficult to assess. We can test the knowledge and skills necessary and ask about student feelings3, but at the end of the day, our students will make a choice on their behaviors on their own. For that reason, we should not make affective learning objectives part of our formal instruction plan. Because there are so many methods that depend on the affect you might want to influence, I’m going to focus on two areas that are most common: attitude and motivational instruction.

 

Katz and Stotland identified five types of attitudes.4 These types of attitudes vary with differing levels of affective and cognitive components, but the key takeaway is that individual experiences and the results and consequences of previous choices dramatically shape the attitudes with which our learners enter our classrooms. Reward for behavior not only reinforces the behavior, but also the cognitive and behavioral components that drive that behavior.1 When we focus purely on the cognitive and the motor skill aspects of learning, we can often get away with a fair amount of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do-style instruction. The problem with this is that students look to the faculty and other instructors for role model behavior.  Thus, the more accurately that we reflect the attitudes that we want to instill in our learners, the more the students will reflect those ideals.3 One of the easiest ways to bring about these changes of attitudes are through in-class discussions.5 This positive benefit is most likely due to differences that are raised during discussion, sometimes prompting the discovery of a discrepancy between existing attitudes in a learner and new facts that are being presented. The learners then have a choice on how to adapt to the new desired attitudes. Most importantly, never underestimate group acceptance of attitudes, as immediate social reinforcement can be a powerful driver in solidifying attitudes.

 

Having discussed attitude, motivational instruction is another key area that is relevant to affective learning. No two students enter the classroom with the same motivation. One student may be enrolled in your class because of a deep passion for your subject matter while another is there simply to satisfy a requirement for their major. This mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations will drive the overall outcomes of affective learning. The student who is highly motivated by an intrinsic interest in your subject or the student who is extrinsically driven by the reward of a good grade (or fear of a bad grade) will generally excel in class, albeit for different reasons. The student who is there out of obligation to meet a requirement may have very little motivation to do anything beyond what is required of them to get by. To help with those students who are lacking in motivation, JM Keller broke motivational instruction into four components: attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction.6 Gaining the attention of students through demonstrations, discussions, and other active learning techniques may help keep student motivation high. Practical application of concepts and ideas will generally inspire higher motivation than abstract or arbitrary examples.7 Keeping the material relevant will generate motivation for intrinsic learners by providing self-improvement and for the extrinsic learners by providing a reward, such as doing well on the exam. Confidence is a harder area to approach, as students must first believe they are capable of meeting the stated objectives. Making the material too easy will not lead to feelings of accomplishment, while making the material too challenging will undermine confidence in all learners.1 Finally, satisfaction can be achieved by learners of all types, regardless of motivation type when outcomes match objectives. Keeping motivation high by providing opportunities to apply learning will drive further motivation to continue learning.

Last week I completed a comprehensive review of our capstone thesis writing course, which has changed dramatically over the past year and a half while I have been the course director. Initially, the goal of the course was to have students write a literature research paper on a physiological topic of their choosing where their grade was entirely dependent upon the finished paper. The students were frequently frustrated with a lack of guidance in the course and the faculty regularly complained about the burden of reading papers of sometimes-questionable quality. Clearly there were issues with the affective components of this course from both the student and faculty side. I’ve de-emphasized the actual paper and refocused the course on the process of writing with stated learning outcomes such as: 1) Develop the language that helps us talk about science; 2) Strengthen research skills to become educated consumers of science; and 3) Gain specialized knowledge in a selected area of physiological research. Focusing the course in this way has yielded measurable results in course evaluations and faculty perceptions of paper quality from the students. By focusing on the affective components of writing and giving students more opportunities to apply their new skills, overall satisfaction has improved. Like all works of science, though, this course continues to evolve and improve. In short, to be effective teachers, we need to go beyond the intellectual and motor skills and make sure we address the affective learning of our students as well.

1 Gagné RM and Medsker LK. (1996). The Conditions of Learning. Training Applications. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

2 Baron RA and Byrne D. (1987). Social Psychology: Understanding Human interaction. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

3 Dick W and Carey L. (1996). The Systematic Design of Instruction. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

4 Katz D and Stotland E. (1959). A preliminary statement to a theory of attitude structure and change. In Psychology: A Study of Science. vol 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.

5 Conrad CF. (1982). Undergraduate Instruction. In Encyclopedia of Educational Research. 5th ed. New York: The Free Press.

6 Keller JM. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development. 10;3. 2-10.

7 Martin BL and Briggs LJ. (1986). The Affective and Cognitive Domains: Integration for Instruction and Research. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Co-Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He teaches cardiovascular and neuroscience 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.
November 7th, 2018
Scientific Literacy: A Challenge, a Task, a Poem

Scientific literacy allows citizens to get involved in issues and ideas related to science as a reflective citizen[1]. A scientifically literate person can:

  1. Recognize, offer and evaluate explanations for a variety of scientific and technological phenomena
  2. Describe and evaluate scientific research and propose ways to answer questions and solve problems following the scientific method
  3. Analyze and evaluate data, concepts and arguments in a variety of contexts, reaching appropriate conclusions for the data received[1]

 

The challenge

Quality education is the key to achieving literate societies. Unfortunately, scientific literacy is generally very low in most developing countries. Results of the PISA tests, for example, reveal that competencies in mathematics and sciences in developing countries are below the average of the countries evaluated[2]. This has enormous consequences for the communities by negatively impacting their political, economic and social decision-making.

 

Figure 1. Performance in mathematics and science of different countries in the 2015 Pisa tests. Images Taken from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/.[2]

The task

It is very important to open spaces for the general community in developing countries to learn about the practice of science. Many scientific organizations develop training activities that are usually directed at specialized audiences. For this reason, it is important to highlight the task of scientific associations that are concerned with bringing science to the general community such as the American Physiological Society through events such as PhUn week. In the particular case of Colombia, the Colombian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACAC) organizes every two years a very large science fair “Expociencia” that is visited by more than 40,000 elementary, middle and high school students.

 

These science fairs have several objectives:

  1. Allow students to present the results of scientific projects. Students are exposed to an essential component of science, sharing and communicating research. In addition, they have the opportunity to learn from their peers and receive feedback from more experienced researchers.
  2. Open the doors of academic, governmental or industry laboratories to the community. Visitors have the opportunity to know what scientists do, interact with them, expose their visions about science. In addition, visitors can express doubts they have about different concepts, and sometimes they can find answers to their questions.
  3. Generate academic spaces so that researchers can discuss how to work with the community, address their most pressing needs and communicate their results to the public.

Figure 2. Participation of students in academic activities at Expociencia 2018. Images courtesy of Deiryn Reyes, ACAC.

Recently with the support of the Faculty of Medicine of the Universidad de los Andes, I had the opportunity to participate in Expociencia[3]. It was gratifying to see how the children ran from one side to the other having the opportunity to learn about electronics, physics, programming, biology, medicine and anthropology. These children are like sponges that quickly absorb the information they receive and are willing to ask questions without filtering them through mechanisms that adults have learned. In addition, Expociencia promotes spaces for university students to share their experiences and for a moment to be role models for school students. I believe that many lives are changed thanks to the experience of living science.

 

The poem

In the nineteenth century lived a poet who wrote and translated from other languages several of the best-known stories that are known by children and adults in Colombia. His influence on Colombian literature is similar to that of the Grimm brothers in Europe. The name of this writer was Rafael Pombo. A few weeks ago, thanks to my son, I had the opportunity to learn that he also wrote about the importance of knowledge and science. On this occasion I want to share a personal translation of one of Rafael Pombo´s poems, that can be used to discuss with small children and adults the importance of science in our lives.

 

THE CHILD AND THE OX

Rafael Pombo (1833-1912)

The boy

 

-What do you think about all day

Lying on the grass?

You seem to me a great doctor

Enraptured in his science.

 

The ox

-The science, dear child

It is not what feeds me;

That is the fruit of study,

With what God gives humans.

 

Out thinking for me,

Poor animal, hard enterprise;

I prefer to make thirty furrows

Before learning two letters.

 

Chewing well, I care more

that a lesson at school.

With the teeth, I chew,

You, child, with your head.

 

But if you want to be wise

Hopefully seeing me you´ll learn

To ruminate, and ruminate a lot,

Every bit of science.

 

Digesting, not eating,

It is what the body takes advantage of,

And the soul, invisible body,

has to follow such a rule.

 

Without ruminating it well, do not swallow

Not a line, not a letter;

The one who learns like a parrot,

Ignorant parrot stays.

 

References

  1. National Academies of Sciences, E., and Medicine., Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequence. 2016.
  2. OECD. Results by Country. [cited 2018 November 4th]; Available from: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/.
  3. Ciencia, A.C.p.e.A.d.l. Expociencia 2018. 2018 [cited 2018 October 31st]; Available from: https://expociencia.co/home/.
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 24th, 2018
Collaboration is the Key to Success in Publishing Your Work

As an Assistant Professor, you are under a lot of pressure to teach new classes, perform service and of course publish. Often times you do not have a mentor to guide you and you are off on your own pathway to tenure. While I had many good ideas about some teaching research I wanted to perform with my students I needed help in executing a study and publishing my work. While the goal was clear, the plan and the execution were not. Where to start was the biggest and most difficult hurdle.

I assumed incorrectly that the best way to be successful in publishing was to do it on my own. After all, I would only be accountable to myself and need not worry about collaborators who might be hard to reach and would take a long time to complete their portion of a manuscript. I tried this path initially and it was incredibly difficult as I could only work on one project at a time. The turning point came when I attended an Experimental Biology (EB) meeting Teaching Section symposium several years ago; I vividly recalled an excellent presentation where the speaker showed us an elegant study of how he used active learning and student grades improved. This talk inspired me and I got excited to try this with my class by performing a similar study. The excitement abruptly ended when he stated the two sections of students he used for his study had 250 and 300 students respectively. My own classes are between 12-20 students, quite small in comparison and I was completely disheartened thinking it would take years of study before I surveyed that many students. After the talk, I went up to him to ask a question, there was someone in front of me that asked the question that I had planned to ask. She said “I have small classes and for me to do a study of significance would take years”. I chimed in “I am in the same situation”. He answered us both with one word “Collaborate”. I walked away disheartened as I did not know anyone that I could collaborate with on a study.

After some time to reflect that this course of action was what I needed I developed an active plan to execute at the next EB meeting. At the Claude Bernard Lecture, I introduced myself to Barb Goodman. This was an excellent choice, as Barb knows everyone and she was kind enough to introduce me to everyone who approached her. From there my confidence grew. The next smart decision I made was to sit in the front during the lecture and all future Teaching Section Symposia. Do not hide in the back as people sometimes come in late and this can be distracting. In the front of the room are the friendly people who are very happy to talk with you and share ideas.

The next step was to follow the program and attend the Teaching Section luncheon. At this event, a small group of people dedicated to teaching and student success sit and talk about the different classes they teach and share ideas about teaching challenges. The tables are small and round so you can meet everyone at your table. Another key event to attend at EB is the Teaching Section Business meeting and dinner. At the dinner, you get a chance to meet more people in a relaxed setting. Some of the attendees have attended the other events and this is a great way to practice your recall and talk with them on a first name basis.

The final step in meeting people with whom to collaborate is to participate in an Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL). There have been three of these meetings so far (2014, 2016 & 2018) and the meeting actively encourages you to meet new people at each meal and form new collaborations. Through this meeting, I met many of my collaborators and successfully published abstracts and papers (listed below), received one grant, was a symposium speaker, and chaired a symposium. The meeting is energizing as the program is packed with new ideas and teaching strategies to try in your classroom. It is easy to ask questions and be an active participant in the discussions.  Thus, taking advantage of a number of opportunities for physiology educators through the American Physiological Society can be just the push you need to get going on a successful promotion and tenure process.  Join the APS and its Teaching Section to keep up-to-date on what is going on in physiology education.

 

References

  1. Aprigia Monteferrante G,  Mariana Cruz M, Mogadouro G, de Oliveira Fantini V,  Oliveira Castro P, Halpin PA, and Lellis-Santos C (2018). Cardiac rhythm dance protocol: a smartphone-assisted hands-on activity to introduce concepts of cardiovascular physiology and scientific methodology. Advances in Physiology Education, 42: 516-520, doi:10.1152/advan.00028.2017.
  2. Blatch, SA, Cliff W., Beason-Abmayr, B. and Halpin PA. (2017).The Artificial Animal Project: A Tool for Helping Students Integrate Body Systems. Advances in Physiology Education. 41: 239-243 DOI: 10.1152/advan.00159.2016
  3. Gopalan C., Halpin PA and Johnson KMS (2018). Benefits and Logistics of Non-Presenting  Undergraduate Students Attending a Professional Scientific Meeting. Advances in Physiology Education. 42: 68-74. DOI.org/10.1152/advan.00091.2017
  4. Halpin PA, Golden L, Zane Hagins K, Waller S, and Chaya Gopalan C. (2018). SYMPOSIUM REPORT ON “Examining the Changing Landscape of Course Delivery and Student Learning;” Experimental Biology 2017. Advances in Physiology Education, 42: 610–614. doi:10.1152/advan.00096.2018.
  5. Lellis-Santos, C and Halpin PA (2018).”Workshop Report: “Using Social Media and Smartphone Applications in Practical Lessons to Enhance Student Learning” in Búzios, Brazil (Aug. 6-8, 2017). Advances in Physiology Education, 42: 340–342. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00011.2018.
Patricia A. Halpin is an Associate Professor in the Life Sciences Department at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester (UNHM). Patricia received her MS and Ph.D. in Physiology at the University of Connecticut. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth Medical School. After completion of her postdoc she started a family and taught as an adjunct at several NH colleges. She then became a Lecturer at UNHM before becoming an Assistant Professor. She teaches Principles of Biology, Endocrinology, Cell Biology, Animal Physiology, Global Science Explorations and Senior Seminar to undergraduates. She has been a member of APS since 1994 and is currently on the APS Education committee and is active in the Teaching Section. She has participated in Physiology Understanding (PhUn) week at the elementary school level in the US and Australia. She has presented her work on PhUn week, Using Twitter for Science Discussions, and Embedding Professional Skills into Science curriculum at the Experimental Biology meeting and the APS Institute on Teaching and Learning.
October 15th, 2018
Questioning How I Question

For some, “assessment” is sometimes a dirty word, with visions of rubrics, accreditation reports, and piles of data.  Readers of this blog hopefully do not have this vantage point, thanks in part to some great previous posts on this topic and an overall understanding of how assessment is a critical component of best practices in teaching and learning.  Yet, even as a new(ish) faculty member who values assessment, I still struggle with trying to best determine whether my students are learning and to employ effective and efficient (who has time to spare?!) assessment strategies.  Thus, when a professional development opportunity on campus was offered to do a book read of “Fast and Effective Assessment: How to Reduce Your Workload and Improve Student Learning” by Glen Pearsall I quickly said “Yes! Send me my copy!”

 

Prior to the first meeting of my reading group, I dutifully did my homework of reading the first chapter (much like our students often do, the night before…).  Somewhat to my surprise, the book doesn’t start by discussing creating formal assessments or how to effectively grade and provide feedback.  Rather, as Pearsall points out “a lot of the work associated with correction is actually generated long before students put pen to paper. The way you set up and run a learning activity can have a profound effect on how much correction you have to do at the end of it.” The foundation of assessment, according to Pearsall is then questioning technique. 

 

Using questions to promote learning is not a new concept and most, even non-educators, are somewhat familiar with the Socratic Method.  While the simplified version of the Socratic Method is thought of as using pointed questions to elicit greater understanding, more formally, this technique encourages the student to acknowledge their own fallacies and then realize true knowledge through logical deduction[1],[2].  Compared to the conversations of Socrates and Plato 2+ millennia ago, modern classrooms not only include this dialectic discourse but also other instructional methods such as didactic, inquiry, and discovery-based learning (or some version of these strategies that bears a synonymous name).  My classroom is no different — I ask questions all class long, to begin a session (which students answer in writing to prime them into thinking about the material they experienced in preparation for class), to work through material I am presenting (in order to encourage engagement), and in self-directed class activities (both on worksheets and as I roam the room).  However, it was not until reading Pearsall’s first chapter that I stopped to question my questions and reflect on how they contribute to my overall assessment strategy.

 

Considering my questioning technique in the context of assessment was a bit of a reversal in thinking.  Rather than asking my questions to facilitate learning (wouldn’t Socrates be proud!), I could consider my questions providing important feedback on whether students were learning (AKA…Assessment!).  Accordingly, the most effective and efficient questions would be ones that gather more feedback in less time.  Despite more focus on the K-12 classroom, I think many of Pearsall’s suggestions[3] apply to my undergraduate physiology classes too.  A brief summary of some strategies for improving questioning technique, separated by different fundamental questions:

 

 

How do I get more students to participate?

  • We can “warm up” cold calling to encourage participation through activities like think-pair-share, question relays, scaffolding answers, and framing speculation.
  • It is important to give students sufficient thinking time through fostering longer wait and pause times. Pre-cueing and using placeholder or reflective statements can help with this.

How do I elicit evidentiary reasoning from students?

  • “What makes you say that?” and “Why is _____ correct?” encourages students to articulate their reasoning.
  • Checking with others and providing “second drafts” to responses emphasizes the importance of justifying a response.

How do I sequence questions?

  • The right question doesn’t necessarily lead to better learning if it’s asked at the wrong time.
  • Questions should be scaffolded so depth and complexity develops (i.e. detail, category, elaboration, evidence).

How do I best respond to student responses?

  • Pivoting, re-voicing, and cueing students can help unpack incorrect and incomplete answers as well as build and explore correct ones.

How do I deal with addressing interruptions?

  • Celebrating good practices, establishing rules for discussion, making it safe to answer and addressing domineering students can facilitate productive questioning sessions.

 

After reviewing these strategies, I’ve realized a few things.  First, I was already utilizing some of these techniques, perhaps unconsciously, or as a testament to the many effective educators I’ve learned from over the years.  Second, I fall victim to some questioning pitfalls such as not providing enough cueing information and leaving students to try their hand at mind-reading what I’m trying to ask more than I would like.  Third, the benefits of better questioning are real.  Although only anecdotal and over a small sampling period, I have observed that by reframing certain questions, I am better able to determine if students have learned and identify what they may be missing.  As I work to clean up my assessment strategies, I will continue to question my questions, and encourage it in my colleagues as well.

 

1Stoddard, H.A. and O’Dell, D.A. Would Socrates Have Actually Used the Socratic Method for Clinical Teaching? J Gen Intern Med 31(9):1092–6. 2016.

2Oyler, D.R. and Romanelli, F. The Fact of Ignorance Revisiting the Socratic Method as a Tool for Teaching Critical Thinking. Am J of Pharm Ed; 78 (7) Article 144. 2014.

3A free preview of the first chapter of Pearsall’s book is available here.

Anne Crecelius (@DaytonDrC) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Dayton where she won the Faculty Award in Teaching in 2018.  She teaches Human Physiology, Introduction to Health Professions, and Research in Sport and Health Science. 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 will chair the Communications Committee beginning in 2019.  In 2018, she was awarded the ADInstruments Macknight Early Career Innovative Educator Award.
October 1st, 2018
Likely or unlikely to be true? I like to have students hypothesize

Throughout my science education career, if I was asked what I do, I responded “I write standardized tests.” Let me assure you, this doesn’t win you too many fans outside of science education assessment circles. But in my opinion, there is nothing better to help one develop an understanding and intuition about how students learn than interviewing hundreds of students, listening to their thinking as they reason through questions.

 

When I listen to students think aloud as they answer questions, I learn a lot about what they know and about their exam-taking processes too. For example, while interviewing a student on a multiple true-false format physiology question, the student answered all the true-false statements then said “Wait, let me go back. There’s always some exception I might be missing.” For this student, physiology always broke the rules and the exams they typically took tried to test whether they knew the exceptions. Although my intention for the question was to have the students apply general conceptual knowledge, the student, like most others I interviewed, was instead spending a lot of time making sure they had recalled all the right information. Eventually, moments like this led to a simple change in question format that created an interesting shift in the way questions elicited thinking from faculty and students alike.

 

The interview mentioned above occurred during the process of writing a programmatic physiology assessment, Phys-MAPS.2 The goal of this assessment and the others in a suite of Bio-MAPS assessments was to build tools that could measure student learning across biology majors. Our working team3 and I chose to build all the assessments using a multiple true-false format, where for each question, a short scenario is described, followed by several (often 4-6) statements about the scenario that students identify as either true or false. We chose this format for its high utility assessing how students can hold both correct and incorrect ideas about a topic simultaneously,4 highly pertinent to learning across a major. In addition, the multiple true-false format has the benefit of facilitating easy and quick grading for a large number of students while still allowing for a rich understanding of student thinking comparable to essay assessments.5

Example of Modified Multiple True-False Design (from a question similar to but not on the Phys-MAPS)

However, as I was creating the physiology-specific assessment and Dr. Mindi Summers was creating the ecology-evolution-specific assessment, we ran into challenges when writing statements that needed to be absolutely “true” or “false.” Sometimes we had to write overly complex scenarios for the questions because too many constraints were needed for a “true” or “false” answer. In addition, discipline experts were refusing to ever say something was “true” or “false” (especially, but not solely, the evolutionary biologists). Thus, many of our statements had to be re-written as something that was “likely to be true” or “unlikely to be true”, making the statements bulky and long.

 

Dr. Summers was the first to bring up in our working group meeting the idea of modifying the true-false format. She suggested changing the prompt. What initially read “Based on this information and your knowledge of biology, evaluate each statement as true or false,” became “Based on this information and your knowledge of biology, evaluate each statement as likely or unlikely to be true.” I was instantly sold. I thought back to the student who had spent so much extra time trying to search her brain for the exceptions to the general rules. Surely, this was going to help!

 

It did. For starters, the discipline experts we were consulting were much more inclined to agree the answers were scientifically accurate. And for good reason! We science experts do not often work in the absolutes of “true” and “false”. In fact, I’m pretty sure a whole field of math was created for exactly this reason. I also saw a difference in how students responded to the new language. In my interviews, I noticed students took considerably less time on the assessment and I never again heard a student stop to try to remember all the exceptions they might know. Better yet, I started hearing language that reflected students were applying knowledge rather than trying to remember facts. For example, in the previous true-false format, I often heard “Oh, I just learned this,” and then I would watch the student close their eyes and agonize trying to remember a piece of information, when all the information they needed to answer the question was right in front of them. With the new “likely or unlikely to be true” format, I was hearing more “well that’s generally true, so I think it would work here too.” It appeared that students had shifted to a more conceptual rather than factual mindset.

 

But what really convinced me that we were on to something worthwhile was the awareness of some students of what they were truly being asked to do. “Wait, so basically what you want me to do is hypothesize whether this would be true [in this new scenario] based on what I already know?” YES!!! (I do my inner happy dance every time.)

 

We educators hear the message from a million places that we should teach science as we do science. I maintain that this should count towards how we assess science knowledge and skills too, asking students to apply their knowledge in new contexts where there is no known answer. But when science explores the unknown, how do you ask about the unknown and still have a right answer to grade? (Easily, on a scantron, that is.) As scientists, we use our knowledge to make predictions all the time, not thinking that our hypotheses will absolutely be true, but that they are the mostly likely outcome given what we already know. Why not show our students how much we value that skill by asking them to do the same?

 

1 Answer: Likely to be true.

2 More information about the Phys-MAPS and all of the Bio-MAPS programmatic assessments can be found on: http://cperl.lassp.cornell.edu/bio-maps

3 The Bio-MAPS working group includes: Drs. Michelle Smith, Jennifer Knight, Alison Crowe, Sara Brownell, Brian Couch, Mindi Summers, Scott Freeman, Christian Wright and myself.

4 Couch, B. A., Hubbard, J. K., and Brassil, C. E. (2018). Multiple–true–false questions reveal the limits of the multiple–choice format for detecting students with incomplete understandings. BioScience 68, 455–463.

5 Hubbard, J. K., Potts, M. A., and Couch, B. A. (2017). How question types reveal student thinking: An experimental comparison of multiple-true-false and free-response formats. CBE Life Sci. Educ.

Dr. Katharine (Kate) Semsar finally found a job that uses all her diverse training across ecology, physiology, genetics, behavioral biology, neuroscience, science education, and community building. Kate is the Assistant Director of STEM Programming for the Miramontes Arts & Sciences Program (MASP), an academic community for underrepresented students in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

She received her PhD from North Carolina State University and continued her training at University of Pennsylvania. She then became a science education specialist with the Science Education Initiative in the Integrative Physiology department at the University of Colorado Boulder, studying how students learn and collaborating with faculty to incorporate fundamental principles of learning in their courses. She continued her science education research with the Bio-MAPS team before finally landing in her dream career, teaching and mentoring students in MASP. Despite the career shift, she still loves watching people’s reactions when she tells them she used to write standardized assessments.

September 24th, 2018
Teaching for Learning: The Evolution of a Teaching Assistant

An average medical student, like myself, would agree that our first year in medical school is fundamentally different from our last, but not in the ways most of us would expect. Most of us find out that medical school not only teaches us about medicine but it also indirectly teaches us how to learn. But what did it take? What is different now that we didn’t do back in the first year? If it comes to choosing one step of the road, being a teaching assistant could be a turning point for the perception of medical education in the long run, as it offers a glimpse into teaching for someone who is still a student.

At first, tutoring a group of students might seem like a simple task if it is only understood as a role for giving advice about how to get good grades or how to not fail. However, having the opportunity to grade students’ activities and even listen to their questions provides a second chance at trying to solve one’s own obstacles as a medical student. A very interesting element is that most students refuse to utilize innovative ways of teaching or any method that doesn’t involve the passive transmission of content from speaker to audience. There could be many reasons, including insecurity, for this feeling of superficial review of content or laziness, as it happened for me.

There are, in fact, many educational models that attempt to objectively describe the effects of educating and being educated as active processes. Kirkpatrick’s model is a four-stage approach which proposes the evaluation of specific aspects in the general learning outcome instead of the process as a whole (1). It was initially developed for business training and each level addresses elements of the educational outcome, as follows:

  • Level 1- Reaction: How did learners feel about the learning experience? Did they enjoy it?
  • Level 2- Learning: Did learners improve their knowledge and skills?
  • Level 3- Behavior: Are learners doing anything different as a result of training?
  • Level 4- Results: What was the result of training on the business as a whole?

Later, subtypes for level 2 and 4 were added for inter-professional use, allowing its application in broader contexts like medicine, and different versions of it have been endorsed by the Best Evidence in Medical Education Group and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (1) (2).  A modified model for medical students who have become teachers has also been adapted (3), grading outcomes in phases that very closely reflect the experience of being a teaching assistant. The main difference is the inclusion of attitude changes towards the learning process and the effect on patients as a final outcome for medical education. The need for integration, association and good problem-solving skills are more likely to correspond to levels 3 and 4 of Kirkpatrick’s model because they overcome traditional study methods and call for better ways of approaching and organizing knowledge.

Diagram 1- Modified Kirkpatrick’s model for grading educational outcomes of medical student teachers, adapted from (3)

These modifications at multiple levels allow for personal learning to become a tool for supporting another student’s process. By working as a teaching assistant, I have learned to use other ways of studying and understanding complex topics, as well as strategies to deal with a great amount of information. These methods include active and regular training in memorization, deep analysis of performance in exams and schematization for subjects like Pharmacology, for which I have received some training, too.

I am now aware of the complexity of education based on the little but valuable experience I have acquired until now as a teacher in progress. I have had the privilege to help teach other students based on my own experiences. Therefore, the role of a teaching assistant should be understood as a feedback process for both students and student-teachers with a high impact on educational outcomes, providing a new approach for training with student-teaching as a mainstay in medical curricula.

References

  1. Roland D. Proposal of a linear rather than hierarchical evaluation of educational initiatives: the 7Is framework. Journal of Educational Evaluation for Health Professions. 2015;12:35.
  2. Steinert Y, Mann K, Anderson B, Barnett B, Centeno A, Naismith L et al. A systematic review of faculty development initiatives designed to enhance teaching effectiveness: A 10-year update: BEME Guide No. 40. Medical Teacher. 2016;38(8):769-786.
  3. Hill A, Yu, Wilson, Hawken, Singh, Lemanu. Medical students-as-teachers: a systematic review of peer-assisted teaching during medical school. Advances in Medical Education and Practice. 2011;:157.

The idea for this blog was suggested by Ricardo A. Pena Silva M.D., Ph.D. who provided guidance to Maria Alejandra on the writing of this entry.

María Alejandra is a last year medical student at the Universidad de Los Andes, School of Medicine in Bogota, Colombia, where she is has been a teaching assistant for the physiology and pharmacology courses for second-year medical students. Her academic interests are in medical education, particularly in biomedical sciences.  She is interested in pursuing a medical residency in Anesthesiology. Outside medical school, she likes running and enjoys literature as well as writing on multiple topics of personal interest.
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.