Monthly Archives: January 2019

How to motivate students to come prepared for class?

The flipped classroom is a teaching method where the first exposure to the subject occurs in an individual learning space and time and the application of content is practiced in an interactive guided group space. Freeing up class time by shifting traditional lecture outside of class allows the instructor more time for student-centered activities and formative assessments which are beneficial to students. The flipped teaching model has been shown to benefit students as it allows self-pacing, encourages students to become independent learners, and assists them to remain engaged in the classroom. In addition, students can access content anytime and from anywhere. Furthermore, collaborative learning and peer tutoring can be integrated due to freed-up class time with this student-centered approach. Given these benefits, the flipped teaching method has been shown to improve student performance compared to traditional lecture-based teaching. Compared to the flipped classroom, the traditional didactic lecture is considered a passive type of delivery where students may be hesitant to ask questions and may omit key points while trying to write or type notes.

There are two key components in the flipped teaching model: pre-class preparation by students and in-class student-centered activities. Both steps involve formative assessments to hold students accountable. The importance of the pre-class assessment is mainly to encourage students to complete their assignments and therefore, they are better prepared for the in-class application of knowledge. In-class activities involve application of knowledge in a collaborative space with the guidance of the instructor. Although the flipped teaching method is highly structured, students still come to class unprepared.

Retrieval practice is yet another powerful learning tool where learners are expected to recall information after being exposed to the content. Recalling information from memory strengthens information and forgetting is less likely to occur. Retrieval of information strengthens skills through long-term meaningful learning. Repeated retrieval through exercises involving inquiry of information is shown to improve learning.

The use of retrieval strategy in pre-class assessments is expected to increase the chance of students completing their pre-class assignment, which is often a challenge. Students attending class without having any exposure to the pre-class assignment in the flipped classroom will drastically affect their performance in the classroom. In my flipped classroom, a quiz consisting of lower level of Bloom’s taxonomy questions is given over the pre-class assignment where the students are not expected to utilize any resources or notes but to answer questions from their own knowledge. Once this exercise is completed, a review of the quiz and the active learning portion of the class occurs. I use a modified team-based learning activity where the groups begin answering higher order application questions. Again, no resources are accessible during this activity to promote their preparation beforehand. Since it is a group activity, if one student is not prepared, other students may fill this gap. The group typically engages every student and there is a rich conversation of the topic being discussed in class. The classroom becomes a perfect place for collaborative learning and peer tutoring. For rapid feedback to the students, the group answers to application questions are discussed with the instructor prior to the end of the class session.

Student preparation has improved since the incorporation of the flipped teaching model along with retrieval exercises in my teaching, but there are always some students who are not motivated to come prepared to class. It is possible that there are other constraints students may have that we will not be able to fix but will continue to be searching for and developing newer strategies for helping these students maximize their learning.

Dr. Gopalan received her PhD in Physiology from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. After completing two years of postdoctoral training at Michigan State University, she began her teaching endeavor at Maryville University where she taught Advanced Physiology and Pathophysiology courses in the Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy programs as well as the two-semester sequence of Human Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) courses to Nursing students. She later joined St. Louis Community College where she continued to teach A&P courses. Dr. Gopalan also taught at St. Louis College of Pharmacy prior to her current faculty position at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where she teaches Advanced Human Physiology and Pathophysiology for the doctoral degrees in the Nurse Anesthetist and Nurse Practitioner programs. Besides teaching, she has an active research agenda in teaching as well as in the endocrine physiology field she was trained in.
My First Run at Teaching an Integrated Physiology Course: Lessons Learned

One of the primary factors that attracted me to my current position, a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Biology at a small teaching-intensive liberal arts college, was the fact that my new department gave me the freedom to update and, in the end, completely overhaul the existing Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) curriculum. This position allowed great academic freedom, especially to a new professor, and department support for trying new teaching strategies and activities was, and still is, very high. So as a new entrant into the field of physiology education, and as someone who is interested in pedagogical research, this opportunity and level of freedom excited me.

My predecessor, while a fantastic educator, had built the year-long A&P sequence in the traditional form of one to two weeks on a specific topic (e.g. histology, the skeletal system, or the respiratory system) and an exam every so often that combined the previously covered topics. Both the topics covered and the exams could very much stand on their own, and were more like separate units. This course design was exactly the way I took the A&P course, longer ago than I care to admit, although at a different institution. In fact, most of my college courses were taught this way. And while that may be appropriate for some fields, the more I was reading and learning about teaching A&P the more I was starting to convince myself that I wanted teach A&P in an integrated fashion as soon as I got the chance.

So here I was, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newly minted Assistant Professor of Biology, with the academic freedom to teach A&P in the best way that I saw fit. One important thing to note: this course sequence (A&P I and II) is an upper-division junior and senior level course at my college, and class sizes are very small (20-24 students) allowing for maximum time for interaction, questions, and instructor guidance both in lecture and lab. (That latter point is key, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.)

I entered the 2017-2018 academic year with a brand-new, shiny, exciting, and most importantly, integrated A&P course plan and a lot of enthusiasm. Along the way I took meticulous notes on what worked, what didn’t work, and the areas that needed improvement. Now in the 2018-2019 academic year I’m teaching this integrated course sequence for the second time, all while taking those same meticulous notes and comparing student feedback. Below I’ve compiled what I deem (so far) to be some of the most important lessons that I learned along the way:

 1) Use an integrative textbook.

This I was fortunate to do from the start. While this is an A&P course (not just P), I decided to use Physiology: An Integrated Approach by Dee U. Silverthorn as my primary text. Not only is the book already designed to be used in an integrative fashion, but there is ample introductory material which can be used to remind students of previous course material that they need to know (see lesson #2 below) and there are entire chapters dedicated to the integration of multiple systems (e.g. exercise). The assessment questions in the text are also well organized and progressive in nature and can be assigned as homework for practice or pre-reading assignments. Anatomy information, such as the specifics of the skeletal system and joints, muscles, histology, etc., was supplemented through the use of models and other reference material in hands-on lab activities.

2) Start building and assessing students’ A&P knowledge from the ground up, and build incrementally.

There are two important parts to this lesson: A) previous course knowledge that is applicable to this upper-division A&P course, and B) the new A&P material itself.

In my initial run of the course I made the mistake of starting out at a bit too advanced of a content level. I assumed more knowledge was retained from previous courses by the students than actually was. I learned very quickly that I needed to take a step back, but not too far. Instead of re-teaching introductory chemistry, biology, and physics, I took the opportunity to remind them of the relevant key principles (e.g. law of mass action) and then pointed them to pages in the text or provide additional material where they could review.

I applied this same philosophy as we progressed through new material. Lower-order Bloom’s principles should be assessed and mastered first, before progressing to the higher-order skills for each new section. In my second iteration of the course I implemented low-stakes (completion-based grade) homework assignments to be completed before the class or lab period, which were aimed to get a head-start on the lower-order skills. Then in class we reviewed these questions within the lecture or lab and added on with more advanced questions and/or activities. This format of pre-class homework was very well received by the students, and even though it is more work for them, they said that it encouraged them to keep up with the reading and stay-on track in the class. As the class progressed, I added in more advanced homework problems that integrated material from previous chapters. Obviously, if you are going to teach in an integrated fashion then you will need to assess the students in the same way, but a slow-build up to that level and ample low-stakes practice is key.

3) Create a detailed course outline, and then be prepared to change it.

This lesson holds true for just about any course, but I found it especially true for an integrated A&P course. As an instructor, not only did I need to be well versed in A&P, but I also needed to see the big picture and connect concepts and ideas both during the initial course construction and as the course progressed. I went into the course with an idea of what I wanted (and needed) to cover and during the course students helped guide what topics they struggled with and/or what they wanted to learn more about. So while still sticking to covering the basics of a course, I was still able to dive a bit deeper into other topics (such as exercise) per student interest. This also helped boost motivation for student learning when they feel they have some agency in the material.

Another aspect of the lesson is the addition of what I call “flex days”. Students will find this style of teaching and learning challenging and some will need more time and practice with the material. I found it very helpful to add in a “flex day” within each unit where no new material was covered, but instead time was dedicated to answering questions and additional practice with the concepts. If a full class day can’t be dedicated, even 30 minutes can be put to great use and the students really appreciate the extra time and practice.

 

4) Constantly remind your students of the new course format.

Students will want to revert back to what they are comfortable with and what has worked for them in the past. They will forget that information needs to be retained and applied later in the course. I found that I needed to constantly remind students that their “cram and forget” method will not serve them well in this course. But, simply telling them is not enough, so I allowed for practice problems both in and outside of class that revisited “older” material and prepared them for the unit exams with integrative questions which combined information from different chapters. I even listed the textbook chapters at the end of the question so that they would know where to find the material if needed.

Along with this, I found that tying material back to central themes in physiology (e.g. structure-function, homeostasis, etc.) also helped the students connect material. I am fortunate that the entry level biology courses at this college teach using the Vision and Change terminology, so the basic themes are not new to them, making integration at least on that level a bit more approachable.

 

5) Solicit student feedback.

Students love to be heard and they love to know that their input matters. And in the design of a new course I want to know what is working and what is not. I may think something is working, but the students may think otherwise. Blank notecards are my best friend in this instance. I simply have a stack at the side of the room and students can or cannot fill them out and drop them in a box. I often ask a specific question and solicit their input after an activity or particularly challenging topic. Of course, the second part of this step is actually reading and taking their input seriously. I’ve often made some last minute changes or revisited some material based on anonymous student feedback, which also ties back to lesson #3.

 

6) Be prepared to spend a lot of time with students outside of the classroom.

Some students are great about speaking up in class and asking questions. Other students are more comfortable asking questions outside of class time. And of course, I found that students of both flavors will think that they know a particular concept, and then find out, usually on an exam, that they do not (but that is probably not unique to an integrative course). So, after the first exam I reached out to every student inviting them to meet with me one-on-one. In these meetings we went through not only the details of the exam, but study skills. Every student needed to be reminded and encouraged to study a little bit every day or at least every other day to maximize retention and success. This also helped create an open-door policy with students who needed and wanted more assistance, increasing their comfort level with coming to office hours and asking for help.

 

As you may have inferred, teaching this type of course takes a lot of time. I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t necessarily mentally or physically prepared for the amount of time it took to design and run this course, especially in my first year of teaching, but I made it work and I learned a lot. During this process I often discussed course ideas with department colleagues and A&P instructors at other universities. I perused valuable online resources (such as LifeSciTRC.org and the PECOP Blog) for inspiration and guidance. I also found that I spent a lot of time reflecting on just about every lecture, activity, and lab to ensure that the content connections were accurate, applicable, and obtainable by the students. And while I know that the course still has a ways to go, I am confident in the solid foundation I have laid for a real integrative A&P course. And, just as I am doing now with its second iteration, each run will be modified and improved as needed to maximize student learning and success, and that is what makes me even more excited!

Now I turn the conversation over to the MANY seasoned educators that read this blog. Do you have experience designing and teaching an integrated A&P course? What advice do you have for those, like me, that are just starting this journey? Please share!

Jennifer Ann Stokes is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Centenary College in Shreveport, LA. She received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Following a Postdoctoral Fellowship in respiratory physiology at UCSD, Jennifer spent a year at Beloit College (Beloit, WI) as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology to expand her teaching background and pursue a teaching career at a primarily undergraduate university. Now at Centenary College, Jennifer teaches Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II (using an integrative approach), Nutritional Physiology, Medical Terminology, and Psychopharmacology. Jennifer is also actively engaged with undergraduates in basic science research (www.stokeslab.com) and in her free time enjoys cycling, hiking, and yoga.
Teaching High Level Learning Goals in Science Classes: A Lesson from Librarians

Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a way to classify learning outcomes into lower order and higher order goals. On the lower end of the spectrum we ask students to remember, understand, and apply by doing tasks such as define, list, explain, and interpret. On the higher end of the spectrum, we want students to analyze, evaluate, and ultimately create by doing tasks such as organize, compare, critique, and design (1). As educators, we all want to push our students toward the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but how do you teach someone to create? It feels like a daunting task. I don’t think anyone ever attempted to directly teach me these higher-level skills, but instead I somehow learned them in graduate school by trial and error (in the form of a lot of red writing on drafts that I submitted to my thesis advisor). This is why I was so excited to discover the synthesis matrix. A synthesis matrix is a table that is set up to extract relevant information from sources, which can include non-scholarly, scholarly, and even student generated data. It provides a way to organize research that allows for easy comparison of the key information from many sources (3, 4, 5). I first learned about the synthesis matrix when I was teaching First Year Seminar (FYS) at Dickinson College. Learning outcomes for FYS include the ability to critically analyze information from multiple perspectives and use that information to create clear academic writing (2). Using class time to teach these skills was very different from what I typically do in my biology classes where it is a struggle just to keep up with the vast amount of content. Therefore, it is an understatement to say that I was out of my element teaching FYS. Fortunately, each FYS class at Dickinson is assigned to librarians. I was fortunate to have Dickinson librarians Nick Lonergan and Jessica Howard help design assignments and teach methods that help students achieve the FYS learning goals. Nick and Jessica designed a synthesis matrix assignment to help students find relevant non-scholarly and scholarly sources and extract information from the sources to help them compare viewpoints on different concepts found in each reference. In this case, the synthesis matrix was used as a homework assignment to prepare students to organize and synthesize information from multiple references in future writing assignments. The power of the synthesis matrix immediately hit me as I realized that this is what experts do in their heads. Many years of reading and analyzing both the work of others and our own research leads to the formation of a mental synthesis matrix that we can pull from as needed in our respective fields. I think my life would have been a lot easier if I knew about the concept of a paper synthesis matrix in graduate school. Since my discovery of the synthesis matrix in FYS, I have used it in different ways in all of the biology classes I teach at Dickinson College including Introductory Biology (Biology 132), Physiology (Biology 333), and Molecular Pathophysiology, which is a research and writing intensive class (Biology 433). Some ways I have used it include:

 

  • Homework assignment: On the simplest level, the synthesis matrix can be used to assess student ability to find appropriate references and extract relevant information from those references. An example of this is described above for FYS and I can easily see this working well in Introductory Biology classes. I have also done this in Molecular Pathophysiology (Biology 433) as a homework assignment prior to assigning a literature review writing assignment.

 

  • Classroom Activity: In Physiology (Biology 333), I have lab groups (6 groups of 4 students each) find a primary publication on a topic related to an upcoming lab project and analyze it for specific information related to research methods and results. In order to avoid overlap and make sure they found the right type of paper, I have the students email the paper they found for approval. If two groups found the same paper or if it is not the right type of source (for example, some students will try to use a review), I will ask them to find another paper. In lab I draw a synthesis matrix on the board and distribute blank handouts of the same synthesis matrix. We then go around the room and as students report their findings, I fill in the synthesis matrix. When it is done, I demonstrate how to use the matrix to synthesize the results of multiple references to come to overarching conclusions and design new experiments. We use this to guide the design of a class research project and in future writing assignments.

 

  • Model Creation: The most complex way I have used the synthesis matrix is in Molecular Pathophysiology (Biology 433). As a research based Writing in the Discipline (WID) class, we focus all of our attention on analyzing primary literature and doing novel experiments in lab. Throughout the semester, I encourage students to draw their own textbook style models of what data show. This can be done by synthesizing results from a single primary publication (if the authors did not already generate a model), multiple primary publications (as seen in review articles), and even by incorporating student lab results with published results. The synthesis matrix can be set up to accommodate all of these approaches. For example, instead of labeling columns by reference #, columns can be labeled by figure # for a single primary publication. Similarly, a column for class lab results can be added to incorporate class results (Figure 1). This is my favorite way of using the matrix. It is so powerful for students to see how one small experiment they did fits in with the big picture of what others have published.

Of all the teaching methods I have tried over the years, the synthesis matrix is the closest I have come to teaching students how to think like an expert. It has also allowed me to do a better job of breaking the research and writing process down into component parts. If you tell a college senior to write a one page introduction section of a scientific paper with 5 references, many of them think they can produce one page of writing in a couple of hours (I know I thought that as a senior in college!). However, if you force them to do a synthesis matrix that includes analysis of the relevant information in 5 primary papers prior to writing about them, they quickly realize how much work is involved.

 

Ultimately, the most important lesson I learned though all of this is that teaching in science classes can benefit greatly from methods used in classes outside of our discipline. If you Google “synthesis matrix”, it is a commonly used method promoted on Library, Academic Coaching, and Writing Center websites at many colleges and universities (3, 4, 5). However, I never heard of it until librarians introduced me to it while teaching FYS. Interacting with scholars outside of my discipline has helped me to integrate the teaching of higher level learning goals alongside lower level learning goals related to content in my classes.

 

References

  1. Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching, Bloom’s Taxonomy. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/. 2018 Vanderbilt University, Accessed December 28, 2018.
  2. Dickinson, First-Year Seminar. https://www.dickinson.edu/homepage/99/first_year_seminars . Accessed December 28, 2018.
  3. Ashford University, Synthesis Matrix. https://writingcenter.ashford.edu/synthesis-matrix . 2017 Bridgepoint Education. Accessed December 28, 2018.
  4. Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries, Write a Literature Review. http://guides.library.jhu.edu/lit-review/synthesize . 2017 Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries. Accessed December 28, 2018.
  5. Academic Coaching and Writing, A Synthesis Matrix as a Tool for Analyzing and Synthesizing Prior Research. https://academiccoachingandwriting.org/dissertation-doctor/dissertation-doctor-blog/iii-a-synthesis-matrix-as-a-tool-for-analyzing-and-synthesizing-prior-resea . 2018 Academic Coaching and Writing LLC. Accessed December 28, 2018.

 

Tiffany Frey is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. She received her Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and also has a certificate in Adult Learning from Johns Hopkins University School of Education. She teaches Introductory Biology, Physiology, and Molecular Pathophysiology at Dickinson College. Her research interests are focused on understanding the cellular and molecular basis of autoinflammatory disease and incorporating and assessing the effects of scholarly teaching methods in her courses. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her family (husband, 2 children, and dog Charlie), reading, participating in exercise classes, and running in local races.