October 14th, 2019
Using Quests to Engage and Elevate Laboratory Learning
Sarah Knight Marvar, PhD
American University

My students, like me, enjoy a challenge. Occasionally this challenge comes in the form of staying on track, using our lab time efficiently to achieve the learning outcomes and staying engaged with the material. There are specific topics that we cover in our undergraduate human anatomy and physiology course, such as the skeletal system, that had become a little dry over time. Classes occasionally included students sitting at desks looking disinterestedly at disarticulated bones glancing at their lab manual and then checking their phones. I felt that the students were not getting enough out of our laboratory time and weren’t nearly as excited as I was to be there!

With other faculty members I recently devised some new laboratory activities that include a series of quests that closely resemble a mental obstacle course, to try to encourage engagement with the material and make our learning more playful and memorable. There may also be some healthy competition along the way.

I teach an undergraduate two semester combined anatomy and physiology course, in which I lead both the lecture and laboratory portions. Students who are enrolled in this course are majoring in Biology, Neuroscience, Public Health and Health Promotions. Many of the enrolled students are destined for graduate school programs such as Medicine, Nursing, Physical Therapy, Physicians Assistant and PhD Programs. An example of the quest format we used recently in a bone laboratory is described here.

The Quests

The laboratory is set up with multiple quest stations that each represent a multi-step task on areas within the overarching laboratory topic. All of the tasks are designed to enable students to achieve the learning outcomes of the laboratory in an engaging way. The quest stations are designed to encourage the students to physically move around the laboratory in order to interact with other students, touch the exhibits, explore case studies, complete illustrations and build models. Each student begins with a quest guide which provides instructions and upon which they take notes, answer questions and complete drawings. Students move at their own pace and work in self-selected pairs or groups of three. They are able to ask for assistance at any stage of a quest from either of two faculty members present.   

Clinical case studies

Because of the students’ interest in patient care, we use clinical case studies as a major component of the obstacle course. X-ray images of a variety of pathological conditions as well as healthy individuals challenged students’ ability to identify anomalies in bone structure and surgery outcomes. The images that we used included a skull of a newborn showing clearly the fontanelles, an example of osteoporosis and joint replacement surgery. Students are required to identify anatomical location of the image as well as any anomalies, pathology or points of interest. Because of the student demographic of this class, many of them are destined to enter healthcare professions, they are particularly interested in this quest and are invested in solving the mystery diagnoses.

The Creative Part

Illustrations

An example of a student’s histological drawing.

The coloring pencils and electric pencil sharpener have come into their own in the laboratory and like Grey’s Anatomy illustrator Henry Vandyke Carter created before them, amazing anatomically accurate drawings are appearing on the page. Histology has been a particularly challenging aspect of our course for students with little previous exposure to sectioned specimens. In an attempt to allow students to really process what they are looking at and reflect on the tissue function I have asked students to draw detailed images of the histological specimens, label cell types and reflect on specific cell functions. This exercise aims to elevate the student’s ability to look closely at histological specimens and gain a better understanding of what they are observing and contemplate specific cell function.

Another quest involves categorizing bones and making illustrations of them, making note of unique identifying features and their functions.

3-D Modeling

Student synovial joint models with notes on function

Reminiscent of scenes from my three year old’s birthday party, I brought out the modeling clay and tried to stifle the reflex instruction to “don’t mix the colors”! Students were tasked with creating a 3-dimensional model of structures such as synovial joints. This is a particularly successful exercise in which students work with colored modeling clay to construct models of joints and label parts of the joint and describe the function of each part. This allows students to consider the relationship between the structure and function and move beyond looking at two-dimensional images from their textbooks and lecture slides. Students submit images of their completed models to the faculty for successful completion of the quest.

Other quest stations that were part of this particular laboratory session included Vertebrae Organizing, Mystery Bone Identification and Bone Growth Mechanisms.

One of the primary things that I learned from this exercise was that designing game-like scenarios in the classroom is far more enjoyable and entertaining for me as well as for the students, a win-win scenario. Overall from the perspective of the teaching faculty, the level of engagement was significantly increased compared with previous iterations of the class. The quality of the work submitted was high and in addition, this quest-based laboratory design is suitable for a wide range of topics and activities. I am currently designing a muscle physiology laboratory in a similar format that will include an electromyogram strength and cheering station as well as a sliding filament muscle contraction student demonstration station. In reflection I feel that my personal quest to find a novel and interesting way for the students to learn about bones was successful. Now onto the next quest……

Sarah Knight Marvar received her BSc in Medical Science and PhD in Renal Physiology from the University of Birmingham, UK. Sarah is currently a Senior Professorial Lecturer and Assistant Laboratory Director in the Biology Department at American University in Washington DC. Sarah teaches undergraduate Anatomy and Physiology, general biology classes as well as a Complex Problems class on genetic modification to non-majors as part of the AU Core program. Sarah’s research interests include using primary research literature as a teaching tool in the classroom, open educational resources and outreach activities.

October 1st, 2019
Physiology Bumper Stickers for Teaching and Learning
Alice R. Villalobos, BS, PhD
Texas Tech University

As teachers we hope students remember and apply all the physiology they learned in our class.  However, many undergraduate students hope simply to get through this semester of physiology and their other courses.  They dread the amount of material and that ‘so many things go on in the body at one time.’  I asked myself what could be integrated into lecture or lab to help students better learn material in class, study more effectively on their own and ideally, improve recall when taking exams.  Around this time, I attended a teaching workshop focused on short activities and simple tools that could be incorporated into lectures to facilitate learning and recall.  One tool was the ‘bumper sticker’. 

Similar to an actual bumper sticker, the teaching bumper sticker is a short memorable phrase or slogan that encapsulates a thought, principle, or concept.  In this case, a bumper sticker helps students learn and remember a concept or principle.  In all areas of life, we use short sayings or one-liners often of unknown derivation that convey a profound or funny, classic or clever, instructional or encouraging thought.  ‘Righty tighty, lefty loosey.’ means turn the screw to right to tighten and left to loosen.  “I before E except after C.” with the addendum, “… and in words, such as protein or weight.”  Could bumper stickers work in a physiology course?  I already borrowed “Water follows sodium; sodium doesn’t follow water.” from my undergraduate professor.  We all develop short phrases while working on lectures, reading physiology papers and books, or on the fly during lecture.  

Recently, I began using bumper stickers in a more organized manner.  I took a sheet of lined paper, wrote ‘Bumper Stickers for A&P-II’ on the top, and made plenty of copies.  On the first day of class I discussed tips to improve learning and study habits.  I explained the bumper sticker was a teaching/learning tool and gave each student a sheet.  I admitted it was an experiment, but my intention was to give them short phrases to refer to and contemplate when studying on their own or spark a memory on an exam.  That very day we started glycolysis.  The first bumper sticker was “You must spend an ATP to make ATP.”  I explained the first step in glycolysis is phosphorylation, using a phosphate from ATP.  Despite some initial skepticism, bumper stickers caught on and helped many students. 

Rather than repeating your explanation verbatim, students must accurately explain concepts to themselves and others in their own words.  When students study with a partner or in groups, they can refer back to the bumper sticker along with lecture notes, diagrams and textbook to explain the respective concept to each other in their own words and peer-correct.  When students are teaching each other, they are truly ‘getting it’.  Granted, it is essential that students use more exact and scientific vocabulary to describe a mechanism or concept, as is true for any discipline.  For most students this won’t happen the very first time they explain the concept.  Learning physiology or any subject is a process; developing the vocabulary is part of that process.  A memorable bumper sticker is a prompt for stimulating discussion – verbal communication in the context of learning a given physiological mechanism and developing the vocabulary of physiology. 

There is no established technique for the initial delivery of a bumper sticker phrase.  However, its two-fold purpose as a teaching/learning tool is to help students understand and remember a concept; thus, the phrase and initial proclamation must be memorable.  Based on my hits and misses, here are several tips.  First, keep it short, ideally 10 words or less.  Second, timing is key.  Similar to a joke, timing is important but varies with topic and teaching style.  Some use the phrase as a teaser to introduce a topic; others use it to summarize key points.  Third, be as direct as possible and capture students’ full attention.  Some write the phrase on the board or slide and make an announcement, “Listen up.  Write this down.”  Fourth, look directly at your students and state the phrase clearly with meaning, effective voice inflection, dramatic tone, appropriate pause, facial expression, hand gesturing, and/or a little physical comedy.  Fifth, use accurate and scientific terms to explain the meaning of the phrase as it applies to the physiological concept.  This is absolutely critical.  Left to interpretation, students might misunderstand the actual physiological concept.

Bumper stickers for better study and testing strategies

*Use common sense at all times, especially on test day.* At times, students forget obvious and intuitive things.  For example, when applying Boyle’s Law to respiration, don’t forget to breathe.  I remind students that lung volume and intrapulmonary pressure will change such that when we inhale air flows in, and when we exhale air flows out.  Physical laws applied to physiological mechanisms explain relationships among different components of a mechanism, e.g., the pressure of a quantity of gas to its volume.  I assure them, they can and will learn the fundamental physics on which Boyle’s law is based, but keep it simple and remember – when you inhale air flows in, when you exhale air flows out. 

            *Understand the question, before you answer it.* My PhD advisor shared this pearl of wisdom before my qualifying exam.  I encourage students to calmly, slowly and deliberately read the entire question.  On any multiple choice or essay exam, they must be certain of what is being asked, before answering a question.  Do not stop reading the question until you come to a period, question mark or exclamation point.  Students are concerned about wasting precious time.  Slowing down just a bit to answer correctly is worth the time and decreases the odds of second guessing or having to go back to the question.  I make another pitch for reading the text book.  It is a way to practice reading calmly and deliberately and catching differences in font or formatting, e.g., print style, italics, bold, underline, that may indicate key terms for an exam question. 

Bumper stickers for general principles in physiology

*Enough, but not too much.* Many students think every physiological end point is maintained at a constant value.  I explain that various parameters are regulated such that they gently fluctuate within a narrow range.  Plasma sodium must be ‘enough’; if it drops too low osmolarity decreases.  If sodium is ‘too much’, osmolarity increases; plasma volume increases; blood pressure increases.  If an endpoint falls below range, regulatory mechanisms bring it back up into range; should it increase above normal range, regulatory mechanisms bring it back down into range.  

*It’s not a mathematical equation; it’s a relationship.* Many students confess they are ‘really bad at math’ or ‘hate math’.  CO, MAP, renal clearance, alveolar ventilation rate – all math.  Understanding and passing physiology requires math.  I tell students math describes physiological relationships between different factors that regulate or dictate a given endpoint, similar to interactions and relationships among friends or a team.  Actual equations represent precise relationships, e.g., CO = HR x SV.  In that case, cardiac output will increase and decrease in direct proportion to heart rate and stroke volume.  Then there is Poiseuille’s Equation.  Students are not required to memorize that equation, but they must learn and apply the principles of the equation: F α DP, F α 1/R and F α r4.  I clarify the α symbol means ‘in proportion to’, not equals.  I repeat, ‘It’s not a mathematical equation; it’s a relationship.”  I suggest they view a as a hug, and embrace the dependence of blood flow on the pressure gradient, vascular resistance, and the luminal radius.  The 4 means when radius changes even just a little, flow changes a lot!  I provide a more technical explanation of how blood flow can decrease significantly with gentle vasoconstriction and increase with gentle vasodilation; this showcases the essential regulatory role of vascular smooth muscle.  This particular bumper sticker serves to remind them math is critical to our understanding of physiology and hopefully, ease their anxiety.  More math awaits in respiratory physiology, and they revisit and apply F α DP, F α 1/R and F α r4 to air flow.

*Know what abbreviations mean, and don’t make up abbreviations.* I explain the names of hormones, especially, are rich in information.  These names indicate source, stimulus for release, and mechanism of action.  For example, atrial natriuretic peptide, ANP, is a peptide hormone secreted from atrial tissue when plasma volume increases that increases urine output (-uretic) and sodium (natri-) excretion.  Not too creative, but self-explanatory.  Couple it with “Water follows sodium …”; problem solved.  

Bumper stickers for chronological order or sequence

For many cellular and organ mechanisms, there is a strict chronological order of events.  During the cardiac cycle, there is a distinct chronological order for each of several different phenomena that occur simultaneously and interdependently.  I use bumper stickers to teach a basic concept of cardiac physiology that help students learn the cardiac cycle – the electrical~mechanical relationship.  First, I show the entire Wiggers diagram and explain it tracks the series of interrelated electrical and mechanical events as they occur in the same timeline of one heartbeat.  I assure them we will take one panel at a time and pull it altogether at the end.  I start with the relationship of the ECG to the 4 ventricular phases, using a set of bumper sticker phrases that I write on the board.  We review the electrical events of P (atrial depolarization), QRS (ventricular depolarization) and T (ventricular repolarization) deflections.  Then, I say, “Pay attention.  Write down each phrase.”

*Electrical then mechanical.* I explain emphatically that first an electrical signal is transmitted and received, then the atrial or ventricular muscle responds.  In the cardiac cycle, electrical events P, QRS, and T each precede atrial or ventricular responses.  

*Depolarizeàcontract.  Repolarizeàrelax.* I explain depolarization triggers contraction; repolarization leads to relaxation.  P wave signals atrial contraction; QRS complex signals ventricular contraction; T wave signals ventricular relaxation.

*Depolarizeàcontractàincrease pressure.  Repolarizeàrelaxàdecrease pressure.*  I remind them changes in pressure gradients across the atrioventricular and semilunar valves determine whether valves open or close and consequently, whether blood flows into or out of the ventricle.  Depolarization leads to ventricular contraction and in turn, an increase in pressure; repolarization leads to ventricular relaxation and in turn, a decrease in pressure. 

*The AV valve is the fill valve; the semilunar valve is the ejection valve.*  A student thought of this phrase!  She explained, “When the AV valve – tricuspid or mitral – is open during diastole, the ventricle fills with blood from the atrium.  When the semilunar valve – pulmonary or aortic – is open during systole, blood is ejected.”  In that moment I thought my work as a teacher was done; my student is teaching herself and others.  I give her full credit, but use her bumper sticker.  I further explain when the ventricle relaxes and pressure drops below the atrial pressure, the AV valve will open, and blood enters the ventricle; when it contracts ventricular pressure exceeds atrial pressure and the AV valve closes; as it continues to contract, eventually ventricular pressure exceeds aortic pressure, the aortic valves opens, and blood is ejected into the aorta. 

Bumper stickers might not be the right tool for every teacher, student, or topic, or be appropriate for undergraduate versus graduate course.  If you decide to implement this tool, you might not have a bumper sticker for every basic or general physiology concept or mechanism or a set of bumper stickers for every organ system.  You might only use a bumper sticker phrase once or twice in a whole semester.  When used appropriately, they truly can make a difference.  On the other hand – if how you teach is working just fine and your students are getting it – then all I have to say is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Alice Villalobos received her Bachelors of Science in biology from Loyola Marymount University and her PhD in comparative physiology from the University of Arizona-College of Medicine.  For the past several years, she has taught Anatomy & Physiology-II and Introduction to Human Nutrition in the Department of Biology at Blinn College and guest lectured at Texas A&M University on the topics of brain barrier physiology and heavy metal toxicology.  She recently relocated to Texas Tech University to join the Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management where she teaches Physiological Nutrition for Exercise.

September 16th, 2019
Teaching Physiology with Educational Games
Fernanda Klein Marcondes
Associate Professor of Physiology
Biosciences Department
Piracicaba Dental School (FOP), University of Campinas (UNICAMP)

Educational games may help students to understand Physiology concepts and solve misconceptions. Considering the topics that have been difficult to me during my undergraduate and graduate courses, I’ve developed some educational games, as simulations and noncompetitive activities. The first one was the cardiac cycle puzzle. The puzzle presents figures of phases of the cardiac cycle and a table with five columns: phases of cardiac cycle, atrial state, ventricular state, state of atrioventricular valves, and state of pulmonary and aortic valves. Chips are provided for use to complete the table. Students are requested to discuss which is the correct sequence of figures indicating the phases of cardiac cycle, complete the table with the chips and answer questions in groups. This activity is performed after a short lecture on the characteristics of cardiac cells, pacemaker and plato action potentials and reading in the textbook. It replaces the oral explanation from the professor to teach the physiology of the cardiac cycle.

I also developed an educational game to help students to understand the mechanisms of action potentials in cell membranes. This game is composed of pieces representing the intracellular and extracellular environments, ions, ion channels, and the Na+-K+-ATPase pumps. After a short lecture about resting membrane potential, and textbook reading, there is the game activity. The students must arrange the pieces to demonstrate how the ions move through the membrane in a resting state and during an action potential, linking the ion movements with a graph of the action potential.  In these activities the students learn by doing.

According to their opinions, the educational games make the concepts more concrete, facilitate their understanding, and make the environment in class more relaxed and enjoyable. Our first studies also showed that the educational games increased the scores and reduced the number of wrong answers in learning assessments. We continue to develop and apply new educational games that we can share with interested professors, with pleasure.

Contact: ferklein@unicamp.br

Luchi KCG, Montrezor LH, Marcondes FK. Effect of an educational game on university students´ learning about action potentials. Adv Physiol Educ., 41 (2): 222-230, 2017.

Cardozo LT, Miranda AS, Moura MJCS, Marcondes FK. Effect of a puzzle on the process of students’ learning about cardiac physiology. Adv Physiol Educ., 40(3): 425-431, 2016.

Marcondes FK, Moura MJCS, Sanches A, Costa R, Lima PO, Groppo FC, Amaral MEC, Zeni P, Gaviao KC, Montrezor LH. A puzzle used to teach the cardiac cycle. Adv Physiol Educ., 39(1):27-31, 2015.

Fernanda Klein Marcondes received her Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences at University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Campinas – SP, Brazil in 1992. She received her Master in Biological Sciences (1993) and PhD in Sciences (1998). In 1995 she began a position at Piracicaba Dental School, UNICAMP, where she is an Associate Professor of Physiology and coordinates studies of the Laboratory of Stress. She coordinates the subjects Biosciences I and II, with integration of Biochemistry, Anatomy, Histology, Physiology and Pharmacology content in the Dentistry course. In order to increase the interest, engagement and learning of students in Physiology classes, she combines lectures with educational games, quizzes, dramatization, discussion of scientific articles and group activities. Recently she started to investigate the perception of students considering the different teaching methodologies and the effects of these methodologies on student learning.

September 2nd, 2019
Creating a Community with Faceless Students
Lynn Cialdella Kam, PhD, MA, MBA, RDN, CSSD, LD
Case Western Reserve University

Creating a Community with Faceless Students

As I enjoy the last bit of summer “break”, I am grappling with how I connect with my students if I never see them. This is not the first time teaching online. In fact, I did it back in the day before it was popular and I had really thought about how to teach.  However, a core element of my teaching now is to develop a sense of community and engage students in experiential learning experiences.  Online courses makes this more challenging than courses held in the traditional face-to-face classroom setting.

My Dreams of Online Teaching

As I create elaborate videos with animation and careful editing for each class, I envision I am the next Steven Spielberg of online teaching – and my students are at the edge of their seats taking in every second. Exchanges between students follow such as:  

Student 1: “You know the part where Dr. Kam talked about the role leptin plays in bone health, I was just blown away!”

Student 2: “I know, and it is so cool —  it is called an adipokine. I can’t wait for the next episode!”

Student 3: “Hey, do you all want to come over to my apartment for a Binge-Watching Party? We can start with the first episode and then watch the new one together!”

Student 1 and 2: “Yeah, let’s do it.”

The Reality

Online learning makes it challenging for students to get to know me and each other – and my guess is most students are likely multitasking while they watch the video. So, do I have to change my teaching philosophy and succumb to the faceless environment? I decide the answer is “No” and want to share with you three simple ideas of how I intend to bring online off of virtual reality into real life.

  1. Zoom In for a Meet and Greet: At the beginning of each semester, I offer my students a chance to stop by my office for a “Meet and Greet”. This is a short session where I talk with the student maybe 10 to 15 mins and learn a little about their interest, goals, and concerns. Zoom is an easy way to set up a meeting with a student virtually (reference below). For free, you can have unlimited one on one meetings.
  2. Student Led Discussion: I often engage my students in small group experiential learning activities. With online courses, I have used discussion boards in the past where I posed a question or post an article to discuss. However, this semester, each student in my online class will take a turn at leading a discussion. I have given them the broad theme like “Obesity and Genetics”, and they are then tasked with posing a compelling question and/or thought. The discussion will be open for a week. At the end of the week, the student leader will write up and share a short recap of key points made during the discussion.
  3. Game Time with Kahoot!: Kahoot! is a game-based platform that can be used to create quizzes and/or challenges that students can take using their phone or computer. You can set it up so a student can challenge another student to a dual of the minds or have a quiz that the student can take on their own for self-assessment.

Looking for other ideas?

Tools are out there for students to create their own podcast, video, diagrams, or pretty much anything that you can imagine. Here are some resources for you to explore:

Information on Online Learning

Free Online Tools:

Images displayed in the post are rightfully owed and licensed from Creative Commons.

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

August 19th, 2019
Save the Date: APS Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL) in 2020!

Save the date!  The Teaching Section of the American Physiological Society (APS) will host its fourth biennial APS Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL) in 2020.  

What is the ITL? You can learn more about the APS-ITL by watching this short video.


After much anticipation and intense negotiations the APS Meeting Office has completed arrangements to hold the 2020 APS-ITL at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota campus. Details about registration and lodging will be coming in September – we will be staying in Centennial Hall and either single or double dorm rooms will be available; most of the meals will be included with registration. Additional information will be posted on the APS website in November.

For a sneak peek of the venue, take a look at the award-winning McNamara Alumni Center.  The Institute is scheduled from the evening of Monday, June 22, until lunchtime on Friday, June 26. 

We are planning a pre-conference workshop/boot camp for new instructors.

Now that we have the venue, we are organizing the schedule and inviting plenary speakers and concurrent session leaders.  Although we don’t have all the details yet, we can promise an exciting, relevant slate of activities. More details will be forthcoming as they are developed – for now, mark your calendars! We hope that you will join us at the 2020 ITL and help us grow the Physiology Education Community of Practice. 

Beth Beason-Abmayr is a Teaching Professor of BioSciences at Rice University and a Faculty Fellow of the Rice Center for Teaching Excellence. She earned her B.S. in Microbiology from Auburn University and her Ph.D. in Physiology & Biophysics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She teaches multiple course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) as well as a student-centered course in comparative animal physiology. She is a co-PI on the Rice REU in Biomolecular Networks, PI of the Rice iGEM team and is a member of the iGEM Executive Judging Committee. As a National Academies Education Mentor in the Life Sciences (2012-2020), Beth is co-chair of the American Physiological Society – Institute of Teaching and Learning (APS-ITL) and is an Associate Editor for Advances in Physiology Education.

August 5th, 2019
How do you feel about sharing with the world? The Open Educational Resources (OER) phenomenon.

Joann May Chang, PhD
Professor of Biology & Director for the Center for Instructional Excellence at Arizona Western College
Yuma, Arizona

I recently attended a training on Open Educational Resources (OER) and what it truly means to offer an OER course.  What is an OER course?  If you offer a course that uses an e-text with other content found on the web to supplement without costing the student any money, this would be defined as being free of costs and not truly an OER course.  Why? That leads to the key question Matthew Bloom, OER Coordinator for Maricopa Community Colleges, posed to our group during the training: “How do you feel about sharing with the world?” 

OER has become a prominent topic in higher education to save students on textbook costs, but also a movement in building high quality accessible teaching materials for educators without being tied to a publishing company.  In a 2017 blog post by Chris Zook, he provided infographics of data associated with the increase in textbook prices that have outpaced inflation, medical services, and even new home costs. [attached graphic 1 & 2]  As Chris Zook also noted, community college students are two times more likely to purchase textbooks with their financial aid than four-year college students which increases their financial burden to complete their degree.  When faculty build OER courses, they can decrease this burden and share their course content with others who are working towards giving equal access to higher education.

OER is at the forefront of Arizona Western College because it is an integral part of our institution’s strategic planning goals to make higher education more accessible for our student population where the average yearly salary is only $38,237.    We are a year into this goal with our first formal OER training taking place in June 2019.  When Matthew first asked us if we share our teaching materials, most of us said “Sure! We share with our colleagues often.”  But then he followed that up with “How willing are you to share your developed content with the world?”  And that is the difference between a free versus an OER course.  If a faculty member develops open course content and licenses it under the Creative Commons License, the material can be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed (known as the 5R activities) by others.  The creator of the open content can control how their material is used with the different Creative Commons licenses. [Creative Commons License gif] With the shared content, the OER movement aims to provide quality teaching materials that can be used in an open creative and collaborative manner while benefitting students in reducing textbook costs.

I did not realize the importance of Matthew’s question until I started my search for OER content with Creative Commons Licensing for our OER transitioning Anatomy and Physiology courses.  We will be using the OpenStax A & P textbook starting this Fall and even though Matthew gave us some good starting points to search for open resources that follow the 5R activities, it has been difficult finding pictures and diagrams that can be used in lecture and activities.  I have been able to find various posts to labs, power point slides, videos, and open textbooks that can be used for A&P.  The most common issue is the lack of quality science pictures or diagrams offered as open content, which I have also heard is a problem from other colleagues transitioning to OER. 

So, here’s my challenge question for you: Are you willing to share your developed content, pictures, and diagrams with the world?  If you are, please license them and share so that you can be a part of this OER movement and others can also collaborate and build that open content. Ultimately, this is about the ability to be inclusive and provide quality higher education for our students without burdening them with textbook costs.

If you are interested in this OER movement and are looking for information or content, please check out the following resources:

This list is in no way inclusive.  There are many other resources out there, they just take time to find and to search through.  I hope more of the scientific community takes part in this OER movement and can provide more resources for everyone to use or collaborate on.  It truly makes a difference to our students and their education.

Joann Chang, Ph.D. is a Professor of Biology and the Director for the Center for Instructional Excellence at Arizona Western College (AWC), a community college in Yuma, Arizona.  She currently manages the professional development for AWC and teaches A&P and Introduction to Engineering Design.  When she’s not teaching or directing, she is keeping up with her twin daughters, son, husband, three cats and one dog.  On her spare time, she is baking delicious goodies for her friends and family.

July 25th, 2019
What is the Physiology-Majors Interest Group (P-MIG)? Who are we?

Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Unlike other disciplines who have a national society that manages undergraduate curriculum guidelines, Bachelor’s degree programs in Physiology, which largely serve pre-health students, do not.  Therefore, a grassroots consortium of dedicated educators self-organized to support the development of curricular guidelines for physiology and related undergraduate programs worldwide. P-MIG’s mission is to enhance the success of physiology students/majors on a programmatic level.  We are working to achieve this goal by collecting data from physiology faculty, physiology students, advisers and conference attendees and holding conferences for peer BS/BA programs in physiology and related fields. The goals are to share ideas and resources among programs, to develop and share tools for program evaluation, and ultimately to work toward curricular guidelines and support new program development.

Our group started with concerned educators asking about physiology students who were not finding successful careers after graduation.   Beginning in 2012, these individuals started coming together, collecting data about physiology programs and presenting their findings at physiology conferences.  Today we have a website (https://www.physiologymajors.org/), a list-serve of over 218 physiology educators, an NSF grant submitted (Wehrwein, Aquilar-Roca, Crecelius, McFarland, Rogers) and have just held our 3rd annual meeting.

The Integrative Biology and Physiology (IBP) Department at the University of Minnesota hosted the 3rd Annual meeting of the P-MIG from June 18 -20th

The meeting started on Tuesday evening, June 18, 2019 with a poster session on physiology education including topics such as program organization, learning progression of physiology concepts, active learning activities within physiology courses, surveys of physiology curricula, surveys of physiology students and teaching interventions for helping students.

On Wednesday, June 19th, our group spent a full day engaging in presentations and discussions. Dr.  Joseph Metzger, Chair of IBP, and Dr. Lisa Carney Anderson, Director of Education in IBP, welcomed our 51 attendees to campus.  Our conference consisted of representatives of 17 states and 3 countries (USA, Canada and Portugal). 50% were new attendees! The University of Minnesota has a state of the art active learning classroom building which provided an innovative setting for our conference.

Dr. Erica Wehrwein, P-MIG Director, set the scene by presenting the history of P-MIG and gave an overview of the extensive data collection P-MIG members have done. Data collection and analysis is an essential part of guiding the future actions of P-MIG.

Preparing Physiology students for a meaningful career

Dr. Laurence Savett, Author of the Human Side of Medicine, gave a talk entitled Preparing physiology students for a meaningful career: the role of the teacher/adviser.  Dr. Savett pointed to the similarities between the doctor-patient relationship and the teacher-student relationship.  Through stories and his experience, he shared many pearls of wisdom about 1) developing a relationship with advisees, 2) helping advisees see how school/work experiences are transferable to many professions, 3) considering the past experience of the student in tailoring advice, 4) listening without interrupting  the listening, 5) looking at a situation from different perspectives, 6) encouraging advisees to reflect on lessons learned, 7)  recognizing that advisers can learn from their students, 8) helping advisees to open up and finally 9) viewing academic problems as a presenting complaint with differential diagnoses. 

Good advising leads to good outcomes.

Dr. Anne Crecelius & Dr. Patrick Crosswhite led a session on advising.   First, good advising practices are supported by professional organizations such as National Academic Advising Association (NACASA) and National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAANP). Furthermore, useful data can be derived from online application services and web resources such as http://explorehealthcareers.org/.  They also shared the perspective that career advice has to wait if students are experiencing financial and health distress. 

Dr. Crosswhite presented survey data from 31 institutions.  Many advisors are working with a lot of students, sometimes with very little training and experience. Student passivity and scarce resources (time and money) exert challenges to advising.  P-MIG could have an important role in addressing advising gaps and barriers.

After the advising session, conference participants divided into discussion groups to discuss advising programs of different sizes and types of advising offices (centralized, de-centralized, informal).  The analysis of the discussions are ongoing.

Mindfulness and Physiology

Dr. Aviad Haramati, Professor in Integrative Physiology and Director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Education (CENTILE; https://centile.georgetown.edu/) gave an inspiring talk entitled Managing stress in the curriculum and the culture: the unique opportunity for physiologists.  He presented the metaphor of a fish tank filled with beautiful tropical fish.  He asked the group to imagine that half the fish were sick.  Would we conclude there is something intrinsically wrong with the fish or would we conclude there is something extrinsically wrong with their environment?  We would think something is wrong with the tank!  Why, then, do we not recognize that the stress of our students is due to their environment rather than the students themselves?

Physiologists are equipped to support the biological basis of mindfulness and stress management, according to Dr. Haramati.  Stress activates the hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal axis.  With acute stress, the body returns to baseline.  With chronic stress or multiple stressful events in succession, cortisol levels remain elevated and then the individual is less able to mount a response over time.  Mindfulness training is essential for enabling individuals to return to baseline and developing resilience in the face of stress.  As faculty, we must address mindfulness in the curriculum and model good stress management for the sake of our work and the sake of our students.

Professional Skills Development is as important as Teaching Physiology Content

The professional skills working group has been developing and revising a list of skills that our physiology graduates should hone during their undergraduate programs.  From their work, a baccalaureate prepared physiology major should be able to think critically, communicate effectively, behave in a socially responsible manner and demonstrate laboratory proficiency.  Dr. Michelle French, Dr. Julia Choate and Dr. Randy Bryner crafted an inventory with several examples/descriptors of each main category.  The attendees broke into small groups for discussion of the skills listed in the inventory.

Themes from the discussion centered on the following:

  • Mastery versus familiarity.  There are some skills that we may expect our students to master and other skills we would expect our students to be familiar with.  Mastery versus familiarity might vary from program to program depending on the program goals and department facilities.  PMIG might suggest an inventory of skills and departments could choose which are relevant, doable and measurable for their program.
  • What kinds of lab skills?  Hands on data collection experience is important so that students can understand the essentials of keeping a lab notebook, documenting their work, measurement and error, and ethical interpretation of data. Is there a set of lab skills our students need so they can be employed by academic or industry labs?
  • Reading and analysis of the primary literature.  Should undergraduates be familiar with reading primary literature whereas mastery would come in graduate school?  What are ways we can hold our students accountable when we assign primary literature readings?
  • Assessment.  We can directly measure student’s ability to write and evaluating data by assigning projects in which they perform these skills. There are two aspects of assessment: how students are performing in the classroom and the success of the program in teaching professional skills.  There are validated tools that measure some of the “soft skills” such as empathy, teamwork, and self-efficacy.

Attendees provided written feedback on the paper copies of skill inventories and the professional skill group will revise the inventory based on the feedback.  P-MIG will invite feedback from recent graduates and disseminate the results in journals, faculty meetings and future conference presentations.

The Future of Physiology Panel Discussion

Dr. Luis Rodrigues, Professor and Chair of Human Physiology and Pathophysiology at Universidade Lusófona, led a panel discussion with about 20 of the conference attendees (Chairs, researchers, consultants and educators) regarding the future of physiology.  Dr. Rodrigues is gathering data for a global strategic plan for the discovery and dissemination of physiology knowledge.  A list of panel questions can be found on the P-MIG meeting site (https://www.physiologymajors.org/2019-info). We look forward to reports of his research at future P-MIG meetings.

What are the Core Concepts, how should we use and assess them?

Dr. Claudia Stanescu presented the history of the Core Concepts of Physiology. Physiology core concepts were identified from surveys of physiology faculty at 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges & universities and medical or other professional schools.  The development and unpacking of core concepts has been published in Advances in Physiology Education and captured in The Core Concepts of Physiology: A new paradigm for teaching physiology by Michael, Cliff, McFarland, Modell, and Wright.   The core concepts include: causality, cell-cell communication, cell membrane, cell theory, energy, evolution, flow down gradients, genes to proteins, homeostasis, interdependence, levels of organization, mass balance, physics/chemistry, scientific reasoning and structure/function.  The physiology core concepts are not meant to define the science of physiology, rather they are concepts to guide the 1) teaching of a physiology course, 2) offering of a physiology curriculum or 3) learning by a physiology student.  Data collection from 6 physiology programs thus far suggest that different programs stress different core concepts.  The objective is not for all programs to be the same; the objective is for there to be tools and resources for programs to use core concepts in a way that makes sense to their students.

The Core Concepts working group has been collecting data on the perceptions and use of the core concepts through faculty, program, and student surveys.  This group has developed a framework for using the core concepts in national guidelines.  Dr. Chris Shaltry is developing and testing curricular mapping software to identify gaps and content overlap; Dr. Shaltry presented his work via videoconferencing.  The goal is to better understand our physiology programs and provide evidence that student achievement can be tracked and compared to standards that align with course and programmatic objectives.

Dr. Jennifer Rogers presented data from the student survey.  Several issues from the data stand out.  First, 60% of student respondents have taken course work at community colleges; transferring coursework presents challenges in terms of assessing if and when students have met programmatic outcomes.  Second, student respondents plan to engage in 3 or more experiential learning activities such as job shadowing, volunteering, internships, employment, research, service-based learning or study abroad experiences; P-MIG may be a resource for educating students and programs about experiential learning as students complete their degrees or take gap years.  In this sample, 17 to 29% of the respondents report that they have mastered each of the core concepts, think they are important for their future careers and expect to remember the concepts in 5 years, though there was not a large difference between the core concepts.  Of the 15 core concepts, homeostasis scores the highest, which is consistent with faculty and program rankings which also stress homeostasis. 

The Core Concepts working group is a larger group and discussions after the presentation led to the proposal that the group be split into two subcommittees: one for implementing core concept based teaching in the classroom and a second for curricular mapping and assessment of the core concepts.

University of Minnesota Career Readiness Team: A Model Curriculum for Teaching and Assessing Career Readiness Skills

The College of Liberal Arts (CLA) at the University of Minnesota has 32 departments, 14000 undergraduate students and 69 majors.  CLA invested in a career readiness curriculum because the CLA faculty want desirable graduates who can articulate the value of their degrees.  The focus of the curriculum is to help students translate their educational experience into a language that others, particularly employers, can understand. Development of the curriculum is explained in the U of MN’s curricular guide which can be found at the P-MIG 2019 meeting site. 

Administrators and advisers use various levels of communication to tell students about career readiness and explain the use of an online RATE tool (reflect, articulate, translate, and evaluate).  Students can use online exercises to reflect upon their college experiences, articulate the value of the experience, translate the experience to a professional skill, and evaluate their own progress toward professional skill mastery.  However, students need an incentive to use the tool. Given that faculty have the most contact with students, use of the RATE assessment activities and career readiness outcomes should be embedded in course work. Currently the readiness team is working to help faculty and departments integrate the career readiness tools and assessments into CLA programs.  Faculty can become Career Readiness Teaching Fellows to help other faculty incorporate career readiness into their programs.

WOW what a meeting!

P-MIG brings together many groups and people. This conference allows us to talk about our issues. The grassroots nature of P-MIG speaks to the need and desire for this community.

Questions that often come up:

Are you forming a new society?  No, our group cuts across already established societies such as The American Physiological Society (APS), Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology (ACDP), Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS), Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER), and others.  We are not a competing society; we are simply a grassroots collective of undergraduate physiology educators creating a space for ideas and innovation.

Why don’t you join your meeting with another conference?  We have given this a lot thought and discussion.  Many of our educators may be teaching during the meeting time of other conferences.  Those that attend other conferences may have students with them.  It really feels right to us that we should find a time when our members can attend when their teaching loads are not as high and they are not supervising students.  We are making a concerted effort to provide opportunities for teachers who may have limited travel funds.  If our group reaches a consensus that joining another conference is the right thing to do, then we will join another conference.

How is P-MIG different than HAPS?  One of our conference attendees who is a member of HAPS, said it best. “I love HAPS!  When I want to learn about what is going on in the classroom, I go to HAPS.  When I want to know what is happening on the program level, I look to P-MIG.”

Will you share your data? Yes!  The data we have collected is freely available to anyone who asks by contacting Erica Wehrwein (wehrwei7@msu.edu) or by visiting the website to listen to recordings of the presentations from all 3 conferences.

Come Join Us!

The 4th annual meeting will be held at the University of Oregon in Eugene Oregon, July 11-13, 2020.  Opportunities abound!

Lisa Carney Anderson Biography

Lisa Carney Anderson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. She completed her doctoral training in muscle physiology at the University of Minnesota. She directs the first year medical physiology course. She also teaches nurse anesthesia students, dental students and undergraduates. She is the 2012 recipient of the Didactic Instructor of the Year Award from the American Association of Nurse Anesthesia.  She co-authored a physiology workbook called Cells to Systems: Critical thinking exercises in Physiology, Kendall Hunt Press. Dr. Anderson’s teaching interests include encouraging active learning through retrieval and assessment of student reflection.  She has joined the APS Teaching Section governance as Secretary.

July 22nd, 2019
My Summer Reading: Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms 2nd Edition by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill

Jessica L. Fry, PhD
Associate Professor of Biology
Curry College, Milton, MA

Ah Summer – the three months of the year when my To Do list is an aspirational and idealistic mix of research progress, pedagogical reading, curriculum planning, and getting ahead.  Here we are in July, and between hiring, new building construction, uncooperative experiments and familial obligations, I am predictably behind, but my strategic scheduling of this blog as a book review– meaning I have a deadline for both reading and digesting this book handed out at our annual faculty retreat — means that I am guaranteed to get at least one item crossed off my list!

My acceptance of (and planning for) my tendency to procrastinate is an example of the self-awareness Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill advocate for teachers in their book “Discussion as a Way of Teaching”.  By planning for the major pitfalls of discussion, as well as the reasons behind why both teachers and students manage discussions poorly, they catalog numerous strategies to increase the odds of realizing the major benefits of discussion in the classroom.  At fifteen years old, this book is hardly dated; some of the discussion formats will be familiar to practitioners of active learning such as snowballing and jigsaw, but the real value in this book for me was the frank discussion of the benefits, drawbacks, and misconceptions about discussion in the classroom that are directly relevant to my current teaching practice.  

My lowest moments as a professor seem to come when my students are more focused on “finding the right answer” than on exploring a topic and fitting it into their conceptual understanding.  Paper discussions can fall flat, with students hastily reciting sentences from the discussion or results sections and any reading questions I may have assigned.  This book firmly makes the case that with proper groundwork and incentive, students can and will develop deliberative conversational skills.  Chapter 3 describes how the principles for discussion can be modeled during lecture, small group work, and formats designed for students to practice the processes of reflection and analysis before engaging in discussions themselves. Chapters 4 and 5 present the nuts and bolts of keeping a discussion going by describing active listening techniques, teacher responses, and group formats that promote rather than suppress discourse, and chapters 9 and 10 illustrate the ways students and teachers talk too much… and too little.  One of the most emphasized concepts in these chapters and threaded throughout the book is allowing silence.  Silence allows for reflection and should not be feared – 26 pages in this book cover silence and importantly, how and why professors and students are compelled to fill it, which can act as a barrier to all students participating in the discussion.   

Preskill and Brookfield emphasize the need for all students to be active listeners and participants in a discussion, even if they never speak a word, because discussion develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.  “Through conversation, students can learn to think and speak metaphorically and to use analogical reasoning…. They can get better at knowing when using specialized terminology is justified and when it is just intellectual posturing” (pg. 32).  What follows is an incredibly powerful discussion on not only honoring and respecting diversity, but a concise well-written explanation of how perceptions of social class and race affect both non-white and non-middle-class students in American college classrooms.  Their explanation of how academia privileges certain patterns of discourse and speech that are not common to all students leading to feelings of impostership should be read by everyone who has ever tone-policed a student or a colleague.  The authors advocate for a democratic approach to speech, allowing students to anonymously report if, for example, another student banging their hand on their desk to emphasize a point seemed too violent, which then allows the group to discuss and if necessary, change the group rules in response to that incident.  The authors note that “A discussion of what constitutes appropriate academic speech is not lightweight or idle.  It cuts to several core issues: how we privilege certain ways of speaking and conveying knowledge and ideas, who has the power to define appropriate forms and patterns of communication, and whose interests these forms and patterns serve” (pg 146).  The idea that academic language can be gatekeeping and alienating to many students is especially important in discussions surrounding retention and persistence in the sciences, where students seeing themselves as scientists is critical (Perez et al. 2014).  Brookfield and Preskill argue that through consistent participation in discussion, students will see themselves as co-creators of knowledge and bring their authentic selves to the community.   

All in all, this book left me inspired and I recommend it for those who imagine the kinds of invigorating discussions we have with colleagues taking place with our students and want to increase the chances it will happen in the classroom.  I want to cut out quotes from my favorite paper’s discussion section and have my students justify or refute the statements made using information from the rest of the paper (pg. 72-73 Getting Discussion Started).  I want my students to reflect on their journey to science and use social media to see themselves reflected in the scientific community (pg. 159-160 Discussing Across Gender Differences), and I want to lay the groundwork for the first discussion I have planned for the class of 2023; Is Water Wet?  All this and the rest of that pesky To Do list with my remaining month of summer. Wish me luck!  

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perez, T., Cromley, J. G., & Kaplan, A. (2014). The role of identity development, values, and costs in college STEM retention. Journal of Educational Psychology. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0034027

Jessica L. Fry Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Biology at Curry College, a liberal-arts based primarily undergraduate institution in Milton, Massachusetts.  She currently teaches Advanced Physiology, Cell Biology, and Introduction to Molecules and Cells for majors, and How to Get Away with Murder which is a Junior Year Interdisciplinary Course in the General Education Program.  She procrastinates by training her dog, having great discussions with her colleagues, and reading copious amounts of science fiction. 

July 8th, 2019
Synergy – From conference to classroom – The value of attending and doing project-based learning

Monica J. McCullough, PhD
Western Michigan University, Department of Biological Sciences

After attending the 2018 APS – ITL conference for the first time, I walked away with so many actionable ideas to implement in my large classes. One valuable experience was practicing active learning techniques as part of a session. “Doing” helps many to learn much more than “hearing” about best practices. I not only learned much from the active sessions offered at APS-ITL but transferred that experience into my own classroom upon returning.

I decided to try a semester-long project for my Intro to Bio for majors, modifying a project  I learned about from Dr. Beth Beason-Abmayr (http://advan.physiology.org/content/41/2/239) from Rice University.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr introduced ‘The Fictitious Animal Project’ during her session at APS-ITL as one she uses in her Vertebrate Physiology for non-bio majors, averaging around 30 students per semester.  During her session at APS-ITL, we divided into groups, ranging from 2-10, and mimicked the project. I instantly saw the value of this activity and had to add it to my teaching repertoire.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project was to create a fictitious animal that had certain physiological characteristics. Students had categories, such as cardiovascular system, respiratory system, that were randomly selected and answer sets of questions that students would answer about the integration of them, including benefits and trade-offs for the fictitious animal.   They completed scheduled homework sets after topics were discussed in class. The students worked in groups and would present their creations to the class with drawings of their animals. What really piqued my interest was that since students had to create an animal that does not exist in nature, they couldn’t just Google it to create this project, and the potential to bring out their ingenuity to the design. 

Since I was going to teach biological form and function the upcoming Fall, and mind you for the first time, I thought I’d start with this semester-long project for 290 students, which were primarily freshmen. A major component that I wanted to maintain was the student presentations, as this is an important skill for these budding scientists. Obviously, the logistics to maintain this was the first decision, and when factoring in around 75 groups (averaging 4 students per group), I decided that the group presentations would span a total of 4 days at the end of the semester, in a gallery-style presentation. Presenters would line the room with their visual aid and the rest of the class would visit each group with designated rubrics. (Presentation Rubric) Additionally, the individual group members would submit a peer evaluation of their group mates at the end of the day of their presentation. (Group Peer Evaluation). My next modification was to adapt the category options so that the students would create a species that yielded both plant and animal components, as we would be learning about both. There were 5 overall anatomical/physiological categories, including size, circulation, sensory environmental interaction, structure and motility.  These too would be randomized with the use of Google by “rolling the dice” to assign each characteristic. (Project directions)  I continued with Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project checkpoint of homework sets throughout the semester where students work on a subset of the categories and continue to build their species, as we learn about the topics in class. Each group submitted electronically to Dropbox, and allow time for feedback with rubrics. (HW set 1 rubric example) To end, there was a final wrap-around short answer portion on the final exam where students described each category and how it was incorporated with their own species. This allowed me to check for individual understanding of the project as we all know some group projects allow for ‘moochers’ to do and understand little.   

For me, this project is a keeper. It helped reinforce the essential concepts during the semester and practice soft skills needed to excel in the workforce. It was exciting to see how some students really embraced the project, including creating a costume of their species, 3-D print outs, live plants they’ve modified and sculptures. While difficult, there were also some group conflicts that did occur, yet, these emerging adults were able to work through their differences. A key factor to this was each group developing their own contract at the very beginning of the semester and was open for adjustments for the duration of the semester. (Team Contract)  The big take-away for me is, it is worth the risk to try something new in the classroom, no matter how large or small the size. This project helped student gains with the material, and practice throughout the semester. As an educator, I feel it is pivotal to find ways that help our students feel confident with the material and keep them curious and innovative. Just as at the top presentations at our conference, doing science makes concepts stick much more than just hearing about it.  

Monica J. McCullough, PhD joined as a Faculty Specialist in the Department of Biological Sciences and Western Michigan University in 2016, prior to which she was faculty at Adrian College. She currently teaches large introductory courses, including Anatomy, Physiology and Biological Form and Function. Dr. McCullough received her BS and PhD from Western Michigan University and studied regulation of neurotrophic factors. Dr. McCullough has 4 young children and has found a great interest in doing science demo’s in her elementary children’s’ classrooms.

The Benefits of Learner-Centered Teaching

Jaclyn E. Welles
Cell & Molecular Physiology PhD Candidate
Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine

In the US, Students at Still Facing Struggles in the STEMs

Literacy in the World Today:
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are approximately 250 million individuals worldwide, who cannot read, write, or do basic math, despite having been in school for a number of years (5, 8). In fact, UNESCO, is calling this unfortunate situation a “Global Learning Crisis” (7). The fact that a significant number of people are lacking in these fundamental life skills regardless of attending school, shows that part of the problem lies within how students are being taught.

Two Main Styles of Teaching – Learner or Teacher-Centered

Learning and Teaching Styles:
It was due to an early exposure to various education systems that I was able to learn of that there were two main styles of teaching – Learner-centered teaching, and Teacher-centered teaching (2). Even more fascinating, with the different styles of teaching, it has become very clear that there are also various types of learners in any given classroom or lecture setting (2, 6, 10). Surprisingly however, despite the fact that many learners had their own learning “modularity” or learning-style, instructors oftentimes taught their students in a fixed-manner, unwilling or unable to adapt or implement changes to their curriculum. In fact, learner-centered teaching models such as the “VARK/VAK – Visual Learners, Auditory Learners and Kinesthetic Learners”, model by Fleming and Mills created in 1992 (6), was primarily established due to the emerging evidence that learners were versatile in nature.

VARK Model of Learners Consists of Four Main Types of Learners: Visual, Auditory, Reading and Writing, and Tactile/Kinesthetic (touch)

What We Can Do to Improve Learning:
The fundamental truth is that when a student is unable to get what they need to learn efficiently, factors such as “learning curves” – which may actually be skewing the evidence that students are struggling to learn the content, need to be implemented (1, 3). Instead of masking student learning difficulties with curves and extra-credit, we can take a few simple steps during lesson-planning, or prior to teaching new content, to gauge what methods will result in the best natural overall retention and comprehension by students (4, 9). Some of methods with evidence include (2, 9):

  • Concept Maps – Students Breakdown the Structure or Organization of a Concept
  • Concept Inventories – Short Answer Questions Specific to a Concept
  • Self-Assessments – Short Answer/Multiple Choice Questions
  • Inquiry-Based Projects – Students Investigate Concept in a Hands-On Project

All in all, by combining both previously established teaching methodologies with some of these newer, simple methods of gauging your students’ baseline knowledge and making the necessary adjustments to teaching methods to fit the needs of a given student population or class, you may find that a significant portion of the difficulties that can occur with students and learning such as – poor comprehension, retention, and engagement, can be eliminated (4, 9) .

Jaclyn Welles is a PhD student in Cellular and Molecular Physiology at the Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine. She has received many awards and accolades on her work so far promoting outreach in science and education, including the 2019 Student Educator Award from PSCoM.

Her thesis work in the lab of Scot Kimball, focuses on liver physiology and nutrition; mainly how nutrients in our diet, can play a role in influencing mRNA translation in the liver.