To be honest, writing this blog is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Oh, it’s not the thought processing, organizing or the writing; it’s the knowledge that it will be read by so many experts in the field of physiology education. I am so grateful to the American Physiology Society Teaching Section for the opportunity to be a PECOP fellow because it has opened my eyes to a way of teaching I knew nothing about. Although I still count myself young, I came out of college and graduate school having been taught by the Socratic method in my lecture classes and knew nothing of alternative ways of learning. When I started teaching undergraduates full-time, I did what was familiar. I taught how I was taught and how I learn best. I quickly became frustrated by the looks of boredom or the statements “well I could read that in the textbook myself so why do we need professors anyway?”. Something needed to change.
I applied for the PECOP fellowship and was accepted to the first APS Institute on Teaching and Learning. It was an eye-opening experience. I did what I do best and took pages upon pages of notes soaking up as much information as I could about case-based learning, flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, open-inquiry labs and clickers. I came away with more than new pedagogical terminology, I had new ideas for how to “fix” my classroom. I was overwhelmed to say the least. I wanted to do everything to all of my classes starting from day one. The desire to do everything quickly led to panic. How could I do this? How could I get all of the content in? Wouldn’t the students suffer on their MCATs? I only have a month more of summer to get this all planned!
Then I remembered one of the most important statements of the workshop from Jenny McFarland. She said “take it one step at a time, most of us have spent our careers refining our classrooms”. So I did. I decided to change one class. I picked my smallest class with more advanced students to be my guinea pigs. Instead of traditional lecture on advanced physiology topics, we developed a journal club class. It was entirely literature-based (not all primary, but at least one was required in each lesson) and student-led. The students were apprehensive at first and so was I. I decided to ease them in by doing the first lesson. I covered stress, emotions, and CV risk using the papers by Walter Cannon from “Using Classical Papers to Teach Physiology” in Advances in Physiology Education. I chose three papers and wrote some pre-class questions to refresh their memories on stress and the cardiovascular system (these students had taken both A&P I and II). One of the most telling comments I received from a student prior to the first lesson was “I don’t know how we will fill up two hours just talking about these papers”. To organize a whole class around literature was a unique experience for them. The same student said to me at the end of course “I don’t know how we can get through all these papers in two hours”. The students became critical readers examining literature in a way they never had before. The end of course comments were overwhelmingly positive and I was encouraged. Maybe I can change the way I teach, but for me it is best done one step at a time.
Jan Foster is an assistant professor of Biology at North Greenville University in Tigerville, SC. She received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the Medical College of Georgia. She teaches human anatomy and physiology, human biology, advanced physiology and histology. Her research focuses on using the soil nematode, C.elegans, as a whole organism model of assessing oxidative stress responses. She is also currently working to implement digital resource and student-centered learning approaches in her teaching.