Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within college classrooms, whether virtual or in-person, has perhaps never been as high a priority as now. One outcome of pandemic teaching has been critical evaluation of historic teaching practices, placing the onus on instructors to provide inclusive learning environments that are responsive and adaptive to a wide range of individualized circumstances. At the same time, some students have expressed feeling isolated and disconnected from peers, reducing motivation and academic persistence. Cultivating a sense of community and belonging in educational spaces, for all learners, is a current hot topic in higher education. In fact, two recent PECOP blogs have centered around the related idea of incorporating team-building practices to enrich learning in physiology education (From a Group to a Team: Medical Education Orientation Curriculum for Building Effective Teams and Developing a Community of Practice in an A&P Course)
Belonging, or the belief that one’s individual abilities and attributes are valued, respected, and on par with others’ abilities, is a strong driving force for persistence in STEM fields (1, 2, see also the Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching webpage: Foster a Sense of Belonging and the Indiana School of Education Building a Sense of Community for All resources). I am not an expert on this, yet I care about supporting the community of learners within the courses that I teach. This led me to ask: What can I do to build students’ understanding of physiology while also deepening their belief that they belong here, in my classroom, which in turn may foster resilience, persistence, and improved satisfaction within college-level coursework?
Collaborative work is included in all courses I teach. These collaborations take different forms based on the learning goals for the course, learner characteristics (first year versus fourth year students, for example), and topic complexity. Summarized below is one course activity I have used which aims to: (1) help students master challenging physiology concepts through peer-to-peer interactions, (2) develop communication skills related to expressing ideas about human function (a highly-valued professional skill), and (3) build community and a sense of belonging.
Asynchronous Discussion Assignments and “State Your Perspective”. One course I teach is an in-person, large lecture-style Human Physiology service course for second, third, and fourth year undergraduate students (as well as a handful of graduate students) from biomedical sciences, biomedical engineering, pharmacy interest, public health, and other STEM programs. Many students express trouble “learning how to learn” human physiology, which can be quite different compared with the academic work typical for their varied primary programs of study. They also report feeling isolated in a large classroom and that they have trouble finding study groups, which they value while preparing for exams.
Traditionally, exams in this Human Physiology course were comprised predominantly of multiple choice questions and a few short answer questions (e.g., 3-4 sentences in length). I recently found myself asking: WHAT IF students moved from providing short written explanations on exams that lacked detail due to time constraints to having sufficient time to carefully think through how to explain a physiological process? And, WHAT IF this activity could be designed in such a way to help students recognize what they understand (and what they don’t understand) in advance of an exam, giving them the opportunity to review course materials and try again? And, WHAT IF groups of students were working through this together, leveraging peer-to-peer learning?
These questions, along with experiences from the online and blended instruction I have been doing for many years, gave rise to incorporating asynchronous, online discussion assignments that students would complete in small groups (6-8 students per group). The goal was to give students an opportunity to practice using appropriate anatomical and physiological terminology to precisely describe how the human body functions in a relatively low-stakes setting that supported peer interactions. Students were given a discussion prompt (see below for examples) to which they posted an initial response in the LMS-based virtual discussion forum. Next, all group members were responsible for reviewing their peers’ initial posts and providing two follow-up responses, adding to and building upon the initial physiological descriptions. There were a total of four sets of discussion assignments, one per unit, across the semester. While the discussion assignment structure remained similar from unit to unit, the expectation to communicate increasingly complex ideas was inherent within the discussion prompts.
Specifically to address DEI and belonging, students were to begin their initial responses with a “State Your Perspective” statement. “State Your Perspective” entailed providing a 1-2 sentence summary statement to describe the context by which the topic at hand was viewed. In Human Physiology, this might be knowledge based on prior coursework, the focus of the lab in which they worked, practical clinical experiences for those who work in health care settings, and such. While ice-breaker introductions are frequently incorporated into group work, the use of bolder “State Your Perspective” language is intentional. It helps to move from a generic introduction that generally alludes to differing background experiences to an explicit and purposeful statement intended to summarize the specific context for the way a particular physiological function is understood.
Here are excerpts of the discussion prompts and how “State Your Perspective” is modeled for students.
UNIT 1 Discussion Prompt: One theme for UNIT 1 has been to develop connections between new information and previously-known concepts in order to understand how the human body works: What have you learned in prior courses that apply to human physiology? Specify (1) the prior knowledge/what you knew before this course, and (2) the new ideas presented UNIT 1 that expands upon your background knowledge and therefore your understanding of human function.
- “State Your Perspective”: Include a 1-sentence introduction at the beginning of your initial post that includes your major and anything else important for your group members to know that provides context for your perspective. For example “I am a third year biomedical sciences student and I work in a research lab that studies RNA, therefore I have learned ….”.
- As you will see, some of your group members may have academic backgrounds that are different from yours, and they might present concepts in a different way. This is great! We hope the discussions become more interesting from sharing multiple ways to view the same physiological concept.
UNIT 2 Discussion Prompt: Prepare an answer to one of the Exam 2 Study Guide prompts to share with your group members. Include at least one type of conceptual model within your response: how one “Core Concept of Physiology” can be used to remember this process [see Reference 3 for information about the Core Concepts of Physiology], an originally-created concept map, an analogy, an annotated figure, or another self-generated study tool.
- Begin your response with a 1-sentence “State Your Perspective” that provides context for your response. For example “I am a pharmacy interest student, and it is important for me to learn about neurotransmitters and receptors because ….”
UNIT 3 Discussion Prompt: Summarize one physiology concept presented in UNIT 3 for your group members, in your own words and including the appropriate anatomy and physiology terminology. Suggested length: 4-6 sentences. NEXT: Create four different 1-sentence statements about your topic, including two statements that are TRUE and two statements that are FALSE (but don’t identify which is which, see below).
- Begin with a 1-sentence introduction, similar to previous discussion forums so that your new group members understand something about your perspective. Example: “I am an interdisciplinary studies student interested in healthcare; therefore, I found the lecture on hypertension really interesting ….”
- For your responses to classmates: Carefully review each statement. Select one that you think is false and provide a physiological rationale to support your reasoning. Next, make the appropriate corrections to turn it into a TRUE statement.
Teaching Hint #1: This is manageable in a large lecture course of 150-250 students because I have teaching assistants who understand their primary responsibility is to regularly engage directly with students in the small-group discussions and provide feedback for correct and incorrect descriptions (this is a high priority for students. Practically speaking, this equates to each TA managing 6-10 groups of ~8 students each.
Teaching Hint #2: Once the grading is completed, I ask the TAs to summarize what they learned about how students learn physiology. This has been a good way to mentor TAs and prompt thoughts about their own teaching philosophies. I sometimes ask them what they would change (nothing like grading 50+ discussion assignments based on a poorly-worded prompt…). In fact, this is how the UNIT 3 true/false statements came to be; a graduate student proposed it as a way to incorporate greater critical thought and reasoning within discussion assignments.
So what did students think about this type of discussion assignment? Here are examples of comments provided on the end-of-class evaluation forms, paraphrased and in aggregate form (i.e., these are not actual student comments but represent themes in responses):
- The discussion assignments were a good way for me to think critically about one idea then communicate my understanding of human function to my peers.
- Discussions were a great way to see what my classmates were doing to learn human physiology that I could apply to my own learning—my group members proposed study strategies and ways of thinking about the human body that I hadn’t thought of before.
- I enjoyed learning from my peers, who might know something more than me based on their experiences outside of class.
- Even though this was a large lecture course with quite a bit of content presented online, I enjoyed interacting with my peers, the professor, and TAs in the discussions. I felt like everyone was there to support my learning.
Despite initial skepticism, very few students conveyed negative comments about the discussion assignments or described them as “busy-work”.
Beyond student feedback, here are a few subjective comments conveying my personal observations about classroom dynamics that arose from this course activity.
- By design, one aim of “State Your Perspective” statement was to help students recognize that they hold certain views on a topic based on their background experiences. For some 20-something year-olds, it might not be intuitive that they, in fact, have certain perspectives and attitudes that they bring into group work. “State Your Perspective” has the potential to be affirming—when articulating prior experiences it can become more explicit, to ourselves and others, that we all have something unique to contribute to group work.
- Sharing perspectives, along with the underlying narrative (but briefly, in 1-2 sentences), seemed to normalize the idea that we all have different backgrounds and experiences so OF COURSE we may hold different perspectives, or ways of viewing things.
- Because the context for why discussion prompts were answered with a particular focus was evident, it seemed to reduce the pressure that every student should know “everything”. Instead, over time and through several rounds of discussions, students became more comfortable talking about what they understood and what they didn’t understand. Clarifications could be made and misperceptions could be corrected by peers, who almost always demonstrated remarkable diplomacy and kindness toward their classmates.
- In some cases, the online and asynchronous nature of these discussions seemed to reduce barriers with regard to asking for help. It seemed to move students from a mindset of “I should know this but I don’t/everyone knows this but me” to the non-threatening “This is a topic maybe I need to ask about.” Students seemed less self-conscious when asking questions.
In summary, collaboration during small group, asynchronous discussion assignments seemed to promote a sense of community and belonging among students in a Human Physiology for non-majors course. As the instructor, it was rewarding to see improvement in students’ abilities to explain physiological processes across the semester. It was also extremely rewarding to see the great care exhibited by students to be inclusive and supportive of their peers.
- Herman J, Hilton M. Supporting Students’ College Success The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies (Consensus Study Report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2017.
- Wilton M, Gonzalez-Nino E, McPartlan P, Terner Z, Christoffersen RE, Rothman JH. Improving academic performance, belonging, and retention through increasing structure of an introductory biology course. CBE Life Sci Educ, 18:1-13, 2019.
- Michael J, Cliff W, McFarland J, Modell H, Wright A. The Core Concepts of Physiology A New Paradigm for Teaching Physiology. New York: Springer, 2017.