Monthly Archives: December 2021

When will my teaching return to normal?

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to shift all teaching online in March 2020, I scrambled to modify and adapt my course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) as well as my student-centered discussion-based animal physiology course to a remote format. Working fully from home I felt like I never left my computer. And I got a taste of what some of my students were experiencing in dealing with unstable Wi-Fi, constant interruptions, and a less than ideal learning environment. In the animal physiology course, modifying a flipped teaching format that was being used prior to the pandemic helped smooth the transition to online instruction; the pre-class preparation resources and the active learning materials that were already in place for flipped teaching were helpful in this transition, letting us focus on reconfiguring learning activities and assessments from the face-to-face format to the online platform (1, 2). In my lab courses, students prepared research proposals rather than research progress reports since they were unable to work in the lab and generate their own data.

In the second half of the spring 2020 semester, assignment due dates morphed into shifting targets rather than fixed goals, and other assignments were just dropped as I was simply too tired to adapt them to an online format. That summer, I spent hours and hours thinking about the structure of each of my courses, including the assignments, activities, and assessments, and what I could/would/should revise for the next offering of the course. I struggled with the uncertainty of planning for teaching in the Fall 2020 semester without knowing “how” classes would be. As the pandemic spiked in Houston and I continued to work from home, there was one key question that was always in the back of my mind: “What do I really want my students to learn and how can I help them get there?” (see 2).

Although I had requested an exemption from dual delivery for my lab courses, which were scheduled to meet in person, I wasn’t sure we would meet for class until the semester actually started. In over 20 years of teaching undergraduate labs, I have never seen students as happy to come to lab as they were last year – and none of them complained on those days when lab sessions went longer than scheduled. For most of them, this course was their only face-to-face class and they were genuinely hungry for in-person interactions.

For both semesters of the 2020-2021 academic year, faculty and students at Rice faced the challenges of not only the mode of instruction but also shortened semesters. The Fall 2020 semester was shortened from 15 to 13 weeks – students did not return to campus after the Thanksgiving holiday. The Spring 2021 semester started 3 weeks later than usual, and in-person classes were delayed until the fourth week of the semester due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Houston. To add to this stress, we lost a full week of classes the fourth week of the semester due to a freak winter storm in Texas – so in-person meetings for my lab classes that had exemptions from remote delivery did not begin until Week 5 of the semester. Because of the winter storm, the spring semester was also shortened to 13 weeks of instruction. Additionally, throughout the spring semester there were 5 days that classes were not offered – these “Sprinkle Days,” which were in lieu of a week-long spring break, were especially challenging for faculty because we were not permitted to have any assignments due the day of or the day after a Sprinkle Day. These days with no classes disrupted the rhythm and flow of a “normal” semester for both faculty and students, especially for courses with multiple sections, where we had to stagger work and assignments over multiple weeks.

With shortened Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, faculty had less time to offer course material, and students had less time to work on projects in the lab and less time to learn content in lecture courses.  Lab courses were mostly in-person for the entire year but with limited occupancy in each lab room, which was the biggest adjustment for student teams to work on their open-ended research projects together – the entire team of students was not always able to work in the lab at the same time; whole class meetings were held via Zoom. Additional safety precautions, such as wearing face shields in addition to masks and having plexiglass dividers at the student work benches, made communication more challenging as it was harder to talk and hear each other during lab. Lecture courses that were less than 25 or 40 students (Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, respectively) were allowed to be in-person in larger rooms that allowed for a 6-foot physical distance. Lecture courses that were greater than 25 or 40 students, respectively, were all online and were dual delivery.

The Fall 2021 semester was supposed to return to normal, with all classes meeting fully in-person. But due to some problems with COVID tests for the incoming class of students, we had yet another delay to the start of the semester – and when we started mid-week, we were online only for the first couple of weeks. We have now returned to full occupancy in the teaching labs, and face shields and plexiglass dividers are no longer required so the lab environment is much improved. We continue to use Zoom for some of the class meetings as it is easier for students to share presentations and for instructors to create short course videos. Although we anticipate an on-time, fully in-person start to the spring semester, we still must plan for alternative instruction as we do not know what will happen over the winter break with the omicron variant and the infection rate in Houston and elsewhere.

These past two years have been mentally draining and physically exhausting! The pandemic definitely heightened the need for empathy and compassion in my teaching (see 3). In both lab-based and lecture-based courses, I modified my teaching to

  • Balance flexibility, expectations, and rigor: in addition to reducing the number of assignments, I established flexible due dates for most assignments with “soft” or “hard” deadlines
  • Adapt assessments and feedback: assignments were modified so students could submit them online in our Learning Management System (Canvas), and I gave them more opportunities to revise their work throughout the semester
  • Make the syllabus “An Invitation to Learn:”
  • Connect with students: I now hold my “office hours” via Zoom, which gives me more flexibility for meeting with students outside of regular class hours
  • Create/seek new opportunities for learning: I seek ways to give students more choice and ownership of their work and expand the course content by bringing in guest speakers from Rice or other institutions, either over Zoom or in-person
  • Think of learning goals more broadly: I considered what outcomes are important to help students learn how to think like a scientist and be a good citizen.

One positive outcome of the pandemic-motivated changes to my teaching is confirmation that authentic assessment of student learning is about so much more than just exams or grades! Incorporation of formative assessments that are either low-stakes or completion grades give students opportunities to engage in learning both during and outside of class. Scaffolding of major assignments throughout the semester encourages students to focus on individual components, improve their time management skills, and incorporate my feedback into revisions of their work. In the classroom, students work on both team and individual projects throughout the semester, encouraging collaboration and creativity.

Many of the adaptations I made for instruction during the peak of the pandemic increased student engagement and improved learning, and I will continue to use these approaches post-pandemic. For example, two major changes I implemented as a direct result of the pandemic in the animal physiology course were to 1) shift the weighting of exams from 70% of the overall course grade to 25-30% and 2) make all exams “open resources.”  (Illustration of Kristin Neff’s three steps for self-compassion, graphic recording by Johnine Byrne)

I realize more than ever the role I can and must play in helping students focus on the “big picture” as they learn critical concepts and skills so they don’t get overwhelmed with facts and details. I now incorporate these meta-questions into an end-of-the-semester reflection where I ask students to think about what they have learned:

  • What is one thing from this course that you want to take with you?
  • What one thing did you learn in this course that you will never forget?! How has that changed you?
  • What was the hardest part of this course? What did you do to cope with the difficulty of that aspect?
  • What was your favorite part of this course?

After overcoming my initial resistance to change and dealing with much angst about whether or not my efforts were actually helping students learn, I now accept and have even come to embrace this “new normal” of teaching, which includes both face-to-face and synchronous and asynchronous online instruction for lecture- as well as laboratory-based courses. The silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud is I am much more adaptable and confident in my abilities to change my teaching strategies when necessary to prioritize supporting students and creating learning experiences that include everyone.

As we enter year three of the pandemic, most of us recognize that our teaching will likely never return exactly to the way it was pre-pandemic and appreciate that it shouldn’t be the same as before. That being said, Michael S. Roth reminds us that “Everything Won’t Be Different” (5) and the lessons we have learned during the pandemic with regards to “inequality, connection, and compassion” should continue to shape and guide our teaching as we resume in-person interactions with students and colleagues. I end this post with a reminder that the mental health of faculty and staff is also important – for us to create a compassionate learning environment for our students, we must be kind to ourselves (5,6).

 

  1. Beason-Abmayr B, Caprette DR, Gopalan C. Flipped teaching eased the transition from face-to-face teaching to online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, Adv Physiol Edu 45: 384-389, 2021; https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00248.2020.
  2. Beason-Abmayr B. What do I really want my students to learn about animal physiology? January 2021; https://blog.lifescitrc.org/pecop/2021/01/11/what-do-i-really-want-my-students-to-learn-about-animal-physiology/
  3. Schacter HL, Brown SG, Daugherty AM, Brummelte S, Grekin E. Creating a Compassionate Classroom. INSIDE HIGHER ED, December 1, 2021; https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/12/01/compassionate-teaching-yields-most-benefits-opinion.
  4. Roth MS. Everything Won’t Be Different. INSIDE HIGHER ED, January 18, 2021; https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/01/18/three-lessons-pandemic-should-guide-colleges-future-opinion.
  5. Illustration of Kristin Neff’s three steps for self-compassion, graphic recording by Johnine Byrne; https://www.lionsroar.com/three-steps-for-self-compassion-illustrated/
  6. Neff KD. The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion, Self and Identity 2: 223-250, 2003; DOI: 10.1080/15298860390209035
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 (CUREs) and a student-centered animal physiology course. 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. She is a leader with the National Institute on Scientific Teaching (NIST) and co-director of a 2022 Regional Summer Institute (SI). She also is a longtime judge for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition and a member of the iGEM Judging Program Committee. Beason-Abmayr is chair of the American Physiological Society’s 2022 Institute on 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.

 

Expanding “normal” in physiology

We are not formal authorities, rather informal allies who have enacted a few small classroom and content related changes related to diversity and inclusivity in our medical school. We hope that our experience will help you in your pursuits in the education of all students.

It took someone in power (a Departmental Leader and Course Director) to act. Author KSC recognized that key person group diversity content was missing and that societal and student sentiment had shifted. This was in the early fall following the 2020 “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations.  Knowing that even with firm institutional commitment, change would take time, author KSC inserted intentional diversity and inclusivity curricular time into the Cardiovascular Systems course (USA medical year 2, 5-week Fall course) in 2020. The social determinants of healthcare and related topics received some curricular coverage but were less present in foundational coursework. Three required elements were added to the course that would both have learning objectives and corresponding assessment items, as assessment often indicates importance in coverage and content to students.

Having passion and insight does not mean that this person must deliver the content. Author TEW was the person selected to deliver the material since the topic of “normal” had been informing his teaching for several years, especially in developing physiology content for Pediatrics and Gerontology medical blocks and an understanding that 50% of people could be excluded if sex as a biological variable is not included.  In 2017, author TEW also led a teaching workshop at the International Union of Physiological Sciences in Brazil with the goal of challenging physiology educators from across physiology societies to include sex and lifespan material in physiology education and to teach these differences not as special topics but as “normal” physiology.

The three elements covered included: sex, lifespan (older and younger), and USA person groups with historic health disparities. One lecture (“Normal” physiology and how it changes across the lifespan and between sexes – covering respiratory, renal, and cardiovascular systems) and 6 podcasts (Selected sex-specific issues in BP control & hypertension, Selected race & ethnicity issues in BP control & hypertension, An innovative approach to hypertension care in African American males, Sex-specific physiology: CV signs and symptoms, Sex-specific physiology: Heart disease, and CV epidemiology delineated by race and ethnicity) were incorporated and spaced within an integrative organ-based content.  We attempted to have material that was race/culture-informed but not race/culture based, which allows some separation of social constructs, the individual vs. person group, and a determinant vs. prevalence. In other Year 2 medical courses, Department physiologists added information on historical bias in normative prediction equations (pulmonary function testing and glomerular filtration rate) as well as environmental justice and air quality.  These other additions were in the form of one to a few formally presented slides, part of a case presentation, or as a brief class discussion topic.

Were the additions easy? No. It took curricular time, administrative support, and a great deal of learning on our part. Documents such as APS Medical Physiology Learning Objectives do not directly address diversity and inclusivity to guide the field in what is important to include.  Perhaps as a Society this is a change we can implement.  Some take-homes for physiology educators: 1) no matter your background, you can contribute (very few people have formal training in this area), 2) collaborate with other faculty, 3) obtain feedback from all person groups and from students, as perception and intent can be quite different, 4) be intentional and precise with wording, and 5) implement small changes. We encourage you to expand “normal” physiology in one or two ways this upcoming semester, but do not be surprised if students are quite interested and request more.

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Campbell is a Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Physiology. He also in the Co-course Director of the Cardiovascular Course in the Year 2 medical curriculum University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

 

 

Thad Wilson is a Professor and Director of the Graduate Certificate in Physiology Teaching in the Department of Physiology. He also is the Co-course Director of the Respiratory Course in the Year 2 medical curriculum and teaches physiology in several of the other medical courses at University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

 

 

The trepidatious return to in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic: valuable lessons applied from online teaching using Lt in the face-to-face classroom

 

To say that the past 20 months of higher education have been a hardship is a gross understatement. The speed at which educators have embraced new technologies to bridge the pivot to virtual instruction has been remarkable.

This has been particularly difficult in courses where hands-on experiences are the norm, such as in anatomy and physiology laboratory courses. Instructors of laboratory courses where students must gain practical skills and experience the process of science found themselves relying on new (to them) technologies to fill the gap in their newfound teaching methods during the forced switch to virtual instruction (1, 4). As such, many platforms stood out amongst a sea of offerings for physiology educators.

Adapting pedagogical approaches in the virtual landscape is not a new phenomenon for anatomy and physiology educators with many successful reports providing best practices to adapt didactic and laboratory methods to online or hybrid learning (2, 3) long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Although online approaches have demonstrated an effectiveness in achieving course objectives, effective combinations of both online and face-to-face instruction must be investigated to help accommodate the convenience that online approaches offer students as we adjust to the return to in-person modalities.

Our experiences at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) have mirrored our colleagues in the scramble to identify suitable stand-ins for laboratory courses that still provide as robust an experience as possible. Thanks to a fortuitous introduction during the January 2020 CrawFly Workshop we now host annually at UIW in association with ADInstruments, we were introduced to the Lt suite of laboratory courses, most notably their Human Physiology and Anatomy packages. While we were impressed by the capabilities of their labs and lessons, any thoughts of immediate use were placed on the backburner as we already had the Spring 2020 curriculum planned out – or so we thought.

During the confusing and uncertain switch to virtual instruction in March of 2020, fraught with pandemic panic, we haphazardly pieced together the second half of our virtual lab curriculum relying on any lab simulations we knew of that were free and easily accessible to our students. Following this “dumpster fire” of a semester, we reassessed our future directions for what we were sure was going to be another traipse into the virtual landscape, and we knew that our Frankenstein approach would not be suitable going forward. That is when the decision to completely redesign our Anatomy and Physiology I and II Lab curriculum using Lt was made.

Beginning in the Fall of 2020, 12 laboratory activities were selected from the pre-built modules and lessons available in Lt for human anatomy and physiology that met our pre-determined course objectives for both BIOL 2121 (Anatomy and Physiology I Lab) and BIOL 2122 (Anatomy and Physiology II Lab). We used these pre-built lessons as the outline for each lab and edited the material to accommodate an online lab experience. Where the ADInstruments PowerLab stations, sensors, and electrodes would normally be used for data acquisition with Lt software, we replaced these sections with either videos or descriptions of how data would be collected for each lab. These sections providing the theory and sample protocols were followed by using the Lt sample data sets for students to complete data analysis and formulate conclusions. To help facilitate virtual dissections, we took advantage of the dissection videos and guides provided in the pre-built Lt labs that students could refer to in lieu of having their own specimens at home. The final product allowed us to replace the hands-on experience preferred in an undergraduate anatomy and physiology lab in the best way possible when virtual instruction was our only option.

To gauge student satisfaction with this new platform, and importantly to determine if the educational goals for our students were being met, a survey was designed and administered to students at the end of the semester. This was used to adjust the lab offerings and fine-tune the activities that were used again in proceeding semesters. Figure 1 shows an improvement in the overall rating for Lt where students provided scores in between 1 and 5 with 5 being the highest rating from Fall 2020 to Spring 2021 by just over 8% (from a score of 4.18 to a score of 4.53 in the spring semester). Both semesters were conducted using remote instruction; therefore, the increase is attributed to improvements made to the existing labs in spring based on student feedback.

Moving forward to Fall 2021, our labs returned to mostly in-person instruction with only 30% offered with either asynchronous online or synchronous online instruction. The same Lt Student Survey was administered as the current semester has come to an end and the data demonstrate a further increase in the overall rating for Lt with an average rating of 4.7 (Figure 1). Although we hypothesize that this increase is mostly attributed to the transition back to in-person instruction as students mostly cited comments similar to, “Visually and physically being able to carry out the experiment and dissection labs,” or “Being able to learn things in person and on Lt really helped my learning and broadened my knowledge,” when asked, “What are one to three specific things about the course or instructor that especially helped to support student learning?” This indicated to us that the more hands-on approach with the return to in-person instruction was helping to support our students’ learning.

Importantly, when asked, “If you took an Anatomy and Physiology Lab online in a previous semester, and are currently taking an Anatomy and Physiology Lab in-person with Lt, what about your experience has changed or improved?” students replied with comments such as, “Definitely improved from A&P1 lab, still used Lt in lab but in person as well helped,” or “The labs have definitely improved and the course work… I think that I learned better in person than online.”

Given the data we have collected thus far, we are learning that while students appear to prefer in-person lab instruction, the flexibility provided by the online Lt lab platform still allows for the inevitability of students in quarantine who are unable to attend in-person labs. And although we are still in a period of uncertainty and flux, we think we are finding an effective combination of online and in-person lab instruction to best serve our students and maintain the rigor expected of an undergraduate anatomy and physiology lab experience.

References:

1.       Alves, N., Carrazoni, G. S., Soares, C. B., da Rosa, Ana Carolina,de Souza, Soares, N., & Mello-Carpes, P. (2021). Relating human physiology content to COVID-19: a strategy to keep students in touch with physiology in times of social distance due to pandemic. Advances in Physiology Education, 45(1), 129.

2.       Anderson, L. C., & Krichbaum, K. E. (2017). Best practices for learning physiology: combining classroom and online methods. Advances in Physiology Education, 41(3), 383.

3.       Attardi, S. M., Barbeau, M. L., & Rogers, K. A. (2018). Improving Online Interactions: Lessons from an Online Anatomy Course with a Laboratory for Undergraduate Students. Anatomical Sciences Education, 11(6), 592-604.

4.       Lellis-Santos, C., & Abdulkader, F. (2020). Smartphone-assisted experimentation as a didactic strategy to maintain practical lessons in remote education: alternatives for physiology education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advances in Physiology Education, 44(4), 579.

Dr. Bridget Ford is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio, Texas. She obtained her bachelor’s degree at St. Mary’s University in Biological Sciences with a minor in Chemistry. She then went on to earn her Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine at UT Health San Antonio in 2012. Bridget completed her postdoctoral fellowship training at the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research in the Extremity Trauma and Regenerative Medicine task area and at UT Health at San Antonio between the Magnetic Resonance Imaging Division and the Department of Medicine.

 

Bridget serves as the Anatomy and Physiology I and II Lab Course Coordinator and teaches Anatomy and Physiology I and II lecture courses, Endocrinology, and Cell Biology at UIW. She is dedicated to mentoring undergraduates in the research laboratory where her research focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in renal cell injury in diabetic kidney disease. The overall goal she has for all her trainees is to apply what they learn in the classroom to ask scientific questions in the quest to become independent and creative thinkers.