Monthly Archives: March 2015

Connecting Labs with the Real World through Service Learning

teacher showing student rock crystalAs I go through my career as a Biology Instructor, I have been noticing more and more, the student focus on “getting through” laboratory experiences as quickly as possible without really thinking about the process. Sometimes, it seems like a race to see who can finish and get out of the laboratory quickest. Much to my dismay, I am also frequently asked by students: “Is this experiment going to take the whole class period?” I understand that students have many competing interests and priorities that can reduce their internal motivation to be scientific scholars, but I don’t think that their attitude is entirely their fault. I think that many students arrive at college, having only experienced laboratory exercises where there is one correct answer that can be achieved relatively quickly by following directions in a lab manual. Therefore, fewer and fewer students seem to be considering the learning objectives or real-world applications of experiential laboratory exercises.

Apparently, this is a phenomenon common to many disciplines in higher education. In fact, cognitive scientists have labeled this the “inert knowledge” problem, which is the tendency to acquire knowledge which cannot be accessed or applied outside the environment in which it was acquired. This principle means that once students complete your carefully designed laboratory exercise during your course, the only place it is applicable or remembered is the laboratory space where it was performed. I have been interested in implementing a pedagogical method that addresses this lack of “connectedness” between my course content and the “real world”, and I may have found the answer with service learning. Service learning is a pedagogy specifically designed to counter the isolation of learning from experience and the artificial division of subject matter into disconnected disciplines.

Service-Learning is defined as a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities (National Service-Learning Clearinghouse). Designing and implementing a service learning component to your Physiology or Biology course can be significantly challenging, but when implemented effectively, it can inspire students to deeper, more engaged learning, even in the sciences.One of the simplest types of service learning activities is educational outreach where students in your class help K-12 students understand important scientific concepts. In addition, several professional societies, like the American Physiological Society, provide a plethora of resources to assist faculty in integrating educational outreach experiences into the classroom or laboratory.

I am a Neuroscientist by training and I teach both introductory and advanced courses in Neuroscience and Endocrinology. In my current position at a small liberal arts college, I have found that science education outreach activities can be readily integrated into most of my courses. My most recent service learning project involved students from my Introduction to Neuroscience course. In this course, students were tasked with creating a stand-alone learning module in the form of a lesson plan that addressed one or more K-12 state and federal learning objectives. The students worked together to create learning goals, activities and desired outcomes before creating a poster and activity to take to an elementary school science night event. Many students were not accustomed to thinking about scientific concepts in this manner, and, to be honest, not all of the students were altogether enthused about the project initially. Interestingly, after participating in the event, even the most reluctant and unenthusiastic students were exuberant and thankful to have been a part of the event.

Working out the logistics for a successful service learning event or project can definitely be difficult and time consuming, but it’s worth the headache. Service learning can give introductory students an opportunity to see their newly learned biological concepts in action in the real world. Making the material tangible can be the difference between a major and a lifelong passion. Service learning can also provide a more comfortable learning environment for some students, especially when serving a diverse population is part of the mission of your institution.

While the integration of service learning can be its own reward, it can be so much more. Educational research indicates that students who engage in service learning experiences as part of their undergraduate education have increased leadership skills and awareness of social disparities in their communities. In addition, service learning experiences typically result in the transformation of student skills and attitudes as well as content knowledge. Therefore, service learning as a pedagogy in the sciences appears to be a student-centered, high impact practice that may give students new views on their field and excite the next generation of young scientists.

Keys to Success:

  1. Make sure that you are addressing a real community need, and not imposing on community members or institutions that may already be stretched to the limit.
  2. Start early, at least the semester prior to your anticipated service learning embedded course.
  3. Utilize your institution’s service learning center, if you have one. They can provide information on connections with community partners, experience with service learning and assessment.
  4. Start small, with a limited number of projects.
  5. Plan for assessment of learning goals, and remember to check to see if any assessment surveys need approval by the human subjects review board.



Erin Keen-Rhinehart is a reproductive neuroendocrinologist who received her PhD from the University of Florida, College of Medicine in Neuroscience. After getting her PhD, she received a postdoctoral fellowship to the FIRST (Fellows in Research and Scientific Teaching) Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. She is now an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Susquehanna University, a small liberal arts college in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where she has successfully started an undergraduate neuroscience program. She teaches an introductory course in neuroscience and upper-level courses Neuroendocrinology and Functional Neuroanatomy. Her research focuses on how nutrition during gestation can have long-term effects on the brain, endocrine system and behavior. She and her undergraduate research students investigate the effects of nutrient restriction during pregnancy on offspring central nervous system regulation of ingestive behavior and reproductive system physiology in rodent animal models. In 2014, she received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation in support of her research and teaching efforts. She has been a member of the Education committee for the American Physiological Society and is the current chair of the Professional Development committee for the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.


Use of Concept Mapping in an Undergraduate Exercise Physiology Course

Physiology is often considered a challenging course. Some of the aspects of physiology that make it difficult include the large volume of information typically covered, its integrative nature, and the need for good causal thinking skills to truly understand the material (Joel Michael, 2007). One of the most common complaints heard from students is that there is too much to remember. Students usually make the mistake of trying to memorize hundreds of individual pieces of information, causing them to become overwhelmed and discouraged. One of our roles as instructors is to help the students learn. One way to do this is to explicitly teach students that physiology actually involves just a few repeating general models (Modell, 2000). More specific physiological concepts can be placed within most of these general models. The existence of these general models should be taken advantage of and used to reduce the perceived volume and help students remember and understand more. Placing physiological concepts into models is a way to organize and chunk the information. Chunking is a well-established memory strategy that helps make large amounts of information more manageable and meaningful. Another way to chunk information is with a concept map. A concept map is a useful active learning tool that can be used to graphically organize, structure, and represent information and knowledge in a more meaningful format than text alone (Novak & Canas, 2008).Henige Blog Image

In the process of creating a concept map, students put pieces of information together to create and illustrate the big picture, something students often fail to see. As a result, instructors can use concept maps as tools to guide students into being able to visualize the integrative nature of physiology, rather than viewing it as dozens of independent concepts in different organ systems. Construction of concept maps employs higher-order thinking and requires students to identify relationships between concepts that they may not otherwise recognize (Novak & Canas, 2008). An exhaustive meta-analysis of studies involving learning with concept maps has revealed that concept mapping is more effective for promoting knowledge retention and transfer than reading text, attending lecture, or class discussion (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). These differences were attributed to greater learner engagement with concept mapping than with reading or listening.

I have been assigning concept maps to the students in my Exercise Physiology course for several years. I find that it helps encourage them to actively process and organize information into manageable and meaningful chunks, and to teach them to recognize the patterns and regularities of physiology. If created thoughtfully, concept map assignments provide an opportunity for students to practice their reasoning skills and the application of some of the general models and core concepts of physiology. It is this type of practice and subsequent feedback that fosters the very skills that students tend to lack and that contributes to their difficulties with physiology. Concept map assignments often reveal student misunderstandings and misconceptions and therefore stimulate extra teachable moments. By assigning, grading, and returning concept maps prior to the exams, students have more opportunities for accurate organization of the information. It is unlikely that students will process the information this deeply while studying on their own.


  1. Henige K. Use of concept mapping in an undergraduate introductory exercise physiology course. Advan Physiol Educ 36: 197-206, 2012.
  2. Michael J. What makes physiology hard for students to learn? Results of a faculty survey. Advan Physiol Educ 31: 34-40, 2007.
  3. Modell HI. How to help students understand physiology? Emphasize general models. Advan Physiol Educ 23: 101-107, 2000.
  4. Nesbit JC, Adesope, OO. Learning with concept and knowledge maps: A meta-analysis. Rev Educ Res 76: 413-448, 2006.
  5. Novak JD, Canas AJ. The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them (Technical Report IHMC Cmap Tools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008). Florida: Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2008.

PECOP Blog Henige







Kim Henige received her Ed.D. in Education (emphasis: Science Education) from the University of Southern California and her M.A. in Physical Education (emphasis: Exercise Physiology) from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Kim is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at CSUN where she teaches exercise physiology and applied exercise physiology courses. In addition, she directs the CSUN Kinesiology Peer Learning Facilitator program  and CSUN staff and faculty on-campus fitness program called Commit to be Fit. Kim’s scholarship is focused on improving student enjoyment and success through active learning and peer mentoring.


Developing and Assessing Mastery Competencies in Physiology

Dr. Benjamin Bloom is most widely remembered for his role in developing and writing The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, 1956) for the cognitive domain. In his later years Bloom shifted his focus to the concept of mastery learning, believing that students who learn only a portion of the required material would be unable to advance appropriately (Bloom, 1974). The concept of mastery has gained a foothold in disciplines where complete comprehension and understanding of the material is needed. For example, this is widely used in the military where fighter pilots are required to master material rather than simply gain a passing score. It would seem that, for the medical student, important concepts in physiology demand this same attention. Medical students who gain a passing score but failed to master basic principles will find it difficult, if not impossible, to develop the more advanced critical skills required when diagnosing and treating a patient’s condition.

Educators must also consider the learning environment when addressing these issues.  In a recent book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, (Twenge & Campbell, 2013) researchers highlighted the inability of students to self-evaluate their knowledge and understanding. Many claimed to know authors, painters, and factual information even though the individuals and events never existed. The authors relate this to the syndrome of, “everyone-gets-a-trophy” mentality where mediocrity is rewarded. Claiming to know the words of the Star-Spangled Banner is easy while seated in the bleachers — performing it solo in the middle of the gym floor is a different matter. Learning to work as part of a medical team is a very important attribute; however, diagnosis and treatment requires competencies including individual critical thinking skills and knowledge.  Just as the Air Force finds it important for a student pilot to achieve mastery — we should require students to master basic competencies before placing patients’ lives in their hands.

Pedagogical techniques such as team-based learning, problem-based learning, and the flipped classroom approach provide opportunities to teach both content and critical thinking skills with a student-centered approach. Enhancing these techniques so that students will have the opportunity to master these important competencies is an essential part of our task as educators. This same logic can be applied to our educational system at all levels. Anders Ericsson’s results have demonstrated that 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required to become an expert.  This strongly suggests that we should stress mastery of important competencies during the K-12 years and continue this focus in undergraduate college courses (Ericsson, 1990).  The importance of emphasizing such learning techniques is reemphasized in the more recent book, Talent is Overrated (Geoff, 2010).

Teaching content specific critical thinking is difficult and assessing mastery is even more challenging—but one worthy of our unified attention. Questions we should answer include:

1) what content and critical thinking skills should be mastered at each level of training?

2) what are the most appropriate pedagogical techniques for each student group?

3) how can we most appropriately assess mastery of these competencies?

Answers to these and related questions will not come easily and small successes will most likely materialize during the journey that will alter the route we take to reach the final destination.  Thus physiology educators and their colleagues in particular need to continue to be working on how to help various levels of students learn competencies and how to assess their mastery.





Herb Janssen received his baccalaureate degree from Midwestern State University. He later was awarded a Masters of Education at Texas Tech University. His doctorate degree in Physiology was obtained at Texas Tech University Health Science Center-Lubbock. After finishing his degree, he became Director of Research in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at TTUHSC. His physiology teaching activities have included presentations to students taking undergraduate animal physiology, engineering students, allied health students, medical students, graduate students, residents and fellows.
Herb Janssen’s interest in education started during his undergraduate years where he completed a K-12 teaching certificate. This training proved most useful when he became the assistant chair in orthopedics surgery and was instrumental in designing class activities for the physiology program. Herb remains involved in K-12 education through activities with local school districts. He serves on advisory boards for several health magnet schools in the local area. He also provides presentations to physiology classes in these advanced high schools.
He has received a number of teaching awards from students and colleagues over his teaching career. In 2012 he received the Master Teacher Award from IAMSE and was named the Arthur C Guyton Educator of the Year in 2014.