Monthly Archives: January 2021

What do I really want my students to learn about animal physiology?

Each spring semester my colleague and I teach an undergraduate course in animal physiology that emphasizes primary literature and incorporates multiple evidence-based teaching strategies. Using an integrative and comparative approach, students investigate strategies that vertebrate animals use to meet their energy needs, take up and transport oxygen, and maintain hydration and salt balance, with a special emphasis on how animals have adapted to extreme environments. Our course incorporates a flipped teaching (FT) format (2, 4), where students are assigned readings from the textbook and articles from the primary literature outside of class and class time is spent discussing the material and applying that information to explore physiological mechanisms. Instead of lecturing, class time is focused on interactive learning through group work – teamwork is emphasized throughout the course, with students working in groups both inside and outside of class.  Our course learning goals are:

 

1.       Acquire a fundamental knowledge of “how animals work”

2.       Recognize how prior and new knowledge relate to current/future work

3.       Appreciate the importance of animal physiology

4.       Understand how to collect, integrate, and communicate information

5.      Exercise responsibility and teamwork.

 

When Rice University moved all classes online due to the COVID pandemic in spring 2020, we were at mid-semester. So like most other educators around the United States, we moved our class to Zoom. The transition from face-to-face to online instruction went fairly smoothly. Although we had only two weeks to make this shift, we did not have to frantically record lectures since our class meetings were discussion based. Additionally, students had been working in teams since the beginning of the semester so we had an established community in our classroom. Students still attended class online and were engaged for the most part. That being said, we observed that students did not turn on their cameras unless we asked them to and definitely seemed more hesitant to answer and ask questions in Zoom. Student engagement and participation increased dramatically when we put students in small groups in breakout rooms; here they interacted as a team, just like they did at round tables in the classroom pre-COVID. Student feedback at the end of the semester revealed that most of them felt like class didn’t change that much after moving online – however, they did miss the in-person interactions with us and their classmates, and some activities did not translate well to an online format; they truly appreciated our efforts to adapt our teaching and made some great suggestions for how we could improve the course in the future for online and/or face-to-face teaching.

 

After the semester ended, I finally had some time to reflect upon my teaching pre-COVID and during the pandemic. Over the summer, I spent many hours thinking about the course structure and what we would revise for our next offering of the course. As the COVID pandemic continued to rage throughout the fall semester, my colleague and I decided that we would teach our animal physiology course fully online for the spring 2021 semester. And we just learned that due to a spike in COVID cases after Christmas in the Houston area, classes at Rice will be fully remote at least until mid-February. During the pandemic last spring, throughout the summer and fall, and now with classes starting in just two weeks, one key question has guided me as I work on this course: “What do I really want my students to learn about animal physiology?”

How were we assessing student learning?

During the spring 2020 semester, student learning was assessed in multiple ways including individual exams, group exams, a semester long team project, homework, reading quizzes, reflections, etc. Although these mostly formative assessments and the team project require a great deal of effort and time from the students, exams contributed to 70% of the total grade for the course; the team project accounted for 20% of the grade, and all other assignments (e.g., homework, quizzes, reflections) were worth just 10% of the grade. Although there were short “mini exams” every other week, some students still became stressed and anxious when taking the exams, even though they demonstrated an understanding of course material in class discussions and on homework assignments. Once the pandemic forced us to remote instruction, we did modify the exam format to give them more time to take the exam online than they would have had in the classroom; they had a flexible window so they could choose what time/day to take the exam; and the final exam was “open resources.” And we dropped a third exam based on a research article since we lost about two weeks of instruction. We were not overly concerned about cheating since all of our exam questions are short answer format and typically require application and/or synthesis of foundational knowledge to answer the questions (i.e., you can’t just Google the answer).

Overall, student performance on the exams did not change much from pre-COVID to during the pandemic. Still, this weighting of assignments seemed imbalanced to me, with too much emphasis on student performance on exams. I started thinking about how I could shift the weighting of assignments to better reflect student achievement of learning goals. For example, the semester long team project, where students create a fictional animal (1) and showcase their animal during the last week of classes, requires students to understand integration of body systems as well as explain how the systems work together (or don’t) and recognize tradeoffs and physiological constraints. Shouldn’t this creative outlet that requires the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy count as much towards their course grade as exams? What about all of the other work they do inside and outside of class?

 How did I intentionally redesign my course with strategies to promote student success?

Never having taught a course online before the spring 2020 semester and not being sure how to help students cope with additional stresses caused by the pandemic, I attended or participated in numerous webinars, such as the National Institute on Scientific Teaching SI Happy Hours (https://www.nisthub.org), the APS Institute on Teaching and Learning Virtual Week (https://www.physiology.org/detail/event/2020/06/22/default-calendar/institute-on-teaching-and-learning?SSO=Y), and the APS Webinar Series – Physiology Educators Community of Practice (https://www.physiology.org/detail/event/2020/07/23/default-calendar/physiology-educators-community-of-practice-webinar-series?SSO=Y). Support and resources from the Rice Center for Teaching Excellence (https://cte.rice.edu/preparing-for-spring-2021#resources) have been invaluable as I redesign my course.

In an article submitted to Inside Higher Ed about helping students in times of trauma (3), Mays Imad said,

As teachers, we don’t simply impart information. We need to cultivate spaces where students are empowered co-create meaning, purpose and knowledge — what I have termed a “learning sanctuary.” In such a sanctuary, the path to learning is cloaked with radical hospitality and paved with hope and moral imagination. And it is our connections, the community of the classroom and our sense of purpose that will illuminate that path.”

How can I create a “learning sanctuary” in my classroom environment? What approaches can I take to minimize stress and maximize engagement for students? Here are some strategies I’ve adopted for this upcoming semester to promote student success as we teach our animal physiology course fully online:

  • Shift weighting for assignment categories to an even distribution – exams are worth only 25%!
  • Further modify the exam format to decrease student anxiety and likelihood of cheating – all exams are open resources!
  • Incorporate new assignments to assess student learning – students write a mini review paper about their favorite vertebrate animal.

 How will I know if my students learned animal physiology?

Our overall course goal is “We aim to have you learn mechanisms by which animals solve day to day problems of staying alive; learn skills, strategies, and ways of thinking that are particularly relevant to the study of physiology; and perhaps most important of all, enjoy learning the marvelous phenomena of the animal world.” Throughout the course we strive to help our students learn, not just memorize a bunch of facts that they will forget as soon as they take an exam. In their final reflection about the course, we ask these questions:

1.       What impact has something you learned had on your own perceptions?

2.       What long-term implications did a specific discovery/piece of information have on you/on society?”

3.       What is one or more specific thing that you learned about animals this semester that you will never forget?

I love reading their reflections where they share what they learned in our course. Here are a few of my favorites from the spring 2020 semester:

  •        …This class totally changed my mindset. I’m glad it was animal examples, with maybe a handful of human connections, rather than human examples with animal connections. I think in my past reflections, I have said repeatedly my favorite part was the animal examples, whether it’s a specific example or the comparative examples. I think my very favorite animal we “did” this semester were the diving seals – every kid who has ever been on swim team always had those competitions to see who could hold their breath the longest and the seals were an interesting callback to that. But even before that, I think I learned new information about how animals lived and worked each and every week of this class. Just ask my friends: every week, I’d be sharing some interesting fact from “animal class,” like the reindeer eyes… I now have learned a lot more about animals and have a greater appreciation for them as they compete to survive in their own circumstances. I can safely say I haven’t been this passionate about animals since I was little, going through my “animals” phase, and am hoping to keep this excitement and stay a lifelong learner about different animals and how special they are!
  •         …My perceptions of the importance and complexity of different organisms in physiology has been strongly shifted by this class. I’ve gained an appreciation of different animal systems as they function in different kinds of vertebrates. While I previously had a more human-centric view of physiology from taking the MCAT, I am glad I was able to broaden my perspective to learn more about the different tricks and systems animals employ to suit themselves to their environments…
  •       …It was cool to see the adaptions that different species of animals have to cope in their environment. Some of them seemed so wild, like being able to change how blood flows through your heart, or lungs collapsing in diving mammals. Even mammalian life on our own planet can seem so alien at times. Most of us are familiar with how the human body works, at least in broad strokes, but there are so many other ways to live…
  •       …when you understand how an animal works. When you understand why they do what they do and why they look the way they look, a lot of fear and misunderstanding melts away. It not only cultivates a sense of amazement but also one of understanding and respect.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, I feel confident that my students not only learned physiology but also gained an appreciation for the importance of studying animal physiology. After taking this course, most if not all of them would agree with me that “Animals are Amazing!” And that is what I really want my students to learn about animal physiology.

NOTE: All protocols were approved by the Institutional Review Board of Rice University (Protocol FY2017-294).

References

1.       Blatch S, Cliff W, Beason-Abmayr B, Halpin P. The Fictional Animal Project: A Tool for Helping Students Integrate Body Systems. Adv Physiol Educ 41: 239-243m 2017; doi: 10.1152/advan.00159.2016.

2.       Gopalan C. Effect of flipped teaching on student performance and perceptions in an Introductory Physiology course. Adv Physiol Educ 43: 28–33, 2019; doi:10.1152/advan.00051.2018.

3.       Imad M. Seven recommendations for helping students thrive in times of trauma. INSIDE HIGHER ED, June 3, 2020; https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.

4.       McLean S, Attardi SM, Faden L, Goldszmidt M. Flipped classrooms and student learning: not just surface gains. Adv Physiol Educ 40, 47-55, 2016; doi:10.1152/advan.00098.2015.

Beth Beason-Abmayr, PhD, is a teaching professor of biosciences at Rice University in Houston, TX, and a faculty fellow of the Rice Center for Teaching Excellence. She has developed multiple course-based undergraduate research experiences and a student-centered integrative animal physiology course. Beason-Abmayr is a longtime judge for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition and a member of the iGEM Executive Judging Committee. She is a past recipient of the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching and the Teaching Award for Excellence in Inquiry-Based Learning at Rice and has published in Advances in Physiology Education and the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. A National Academies Education Mentor in the Life Sciences, Beason-Abmayr is chair of the Organizing Committee of the American Physiological Society’s 2022 Institute of Teaching and Learning and is an associate editor for Advances in Physiology Education. She earned her PhD in physiology and biophysics at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.