Monthly Archives: June 2018

Why I’m a Clicker Convert

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

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

  • Clickers Increase Student Engagement and Attendance

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

  • Clickers Help Identify Student Misconceptions in Real Time

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

  • Clickers Increase Student Learning (I hope)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

An abbreviated version of the 15 steps are repeated here:

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

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

Barb Goodman received her PhD in Physiology from the University of Minnesota and is currently a Professor in the Basic Biomedical Sciences Department of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota. Her research focuses on improving student learning through innovative and active pedagogy.