As a human physiology instructor, one of the most frequent comments I get from students is about how hard the course is. In fact, I have started to bring this up right at the beginning of the semester and offer my students many ways to overcome the challenges, including keeping up with the reading and the homework, coming to office hours with questions, forming study groups, etc… There are several reasons why the students struggle with the physiology course. Physiology can be hard for students due to the amount of material and the nature of the subject which requires integrating knowledge from other fields such as anatomy, biochemistry, cell biology, physics, and chemistry. There is also a lot of heterogeneity among the students learning human physiology. They may be biology majors taking physiology as an elective, or those who are preparing for a career in a health profession, and they may be coming from different backgrounds with varying levels of preparation. Some students may start the course with basic biology knowledge and some pre-conceived notions that may even hinder their ability to learn the intricacies of human physiology.
There is a belief among many physiology students that since there is a lot of factual detail then memorization is the way to go. This inevitably leads to memorization fatigue, and confusion when seemingly contradictory material is encountered. Instead of focusing on the overwhelming number of details, a better strategy would be to focus on common themes or core concepts that once learned will allow the formation of a strong foundation. When the students learn core concepts, they do not need to learn all the details of all the systems, just the common themes and this reduces the cognitive load. By having to remember fewer items, the students can work on learning as opposed to memorizing. Focusing on core concepts allows the students to transfer their learning from one body system to another with an understanding of the basics. Core concepts provide a way to raise the level of knowledge of the students, so that long after they have completed the course, they can continue to learn physiology even if they do not remember all the details.
Michael & McFarland (2011) have compiled a list of 15 physiology core concepts based on physiology faculty surveys that describe the most important parts of teaching physiology. It is clear from Michael et al. (2017) that these core concepts are ‘general models’ as they are widely applicable in most areas of physiology. Some of these core concepts include homeostasis, cell membrane, cell-cell communication, flow-down gradients, and interdependence and provide an excellent framework for the teaching of physiology.
The wide applicability of core concepts allows the instructor to generate models involving animals as well as hypothetical aliens. It may be reasonable to assume that learning core concepts will then enable the students to answer questions and solve problems involving animals and aliens. There are some really good reasons for the use of animal and alien models for teaching core concepts as well as for assessment. The use of animals & aliens in teaching and assessment removes any preconceived notions about how the human body works and can hone in on the most important facets of the concepts that we want the students to learn. Animal & alien models in assessment can be an excellent way to test for comprehension of concepts and the ability to transfer the learning from the known system to a novel scenario.
Problem sets with animals & aliens can be used in teaching as well as assessment. Courses on animal physiology or comparative physiology can shine a spotlight on the common themes between animals and humans. Animal models are routinely used in research to study human diseases as well as to test interventions. Teaching modules that incorporate animal physiology like the one from HHMI Biointeractive on dinosaurs’ ability to maintain their body temperature can engage the students to apply principles of physiology to understanding how dinosaurs were able to regulate their body temperature. Tools like the Fictional Animal project (Batch et al. 2017) help students in their systems thinking to identify the most important physiological models to integrate the various body systems and in addition to understanding the interactions between an animal and its environment.
With the increased interest in space exploration and human travel to moon and Mars, physiology questions on aliens can help us learn more about human physiology and how we might adapt to space. Research on extraordinary life forms at the bottom of the oceans and hydrothermal vents that provide us with more ways to imagine life in space while emphasizing similarities with human physiology. Most importantly, bringing animals, fictional or real, and aliens into the classroom can increase student engagement and impact learning and transfer of knowledge.
One way to use non-human examples is by using the framework of Test Question Templates (TQTs; Crowther et al. 2020), in which clearly articulated Learning Objectives (LO) are used to generate questions. Every TQTs based on an LO can be used to create multiple questions, thus reducing the possibility of memorizing answers. The use of TQTs can result in questions that assess student understanding and application of core concepts, expecting students to use higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. (Casagrand & Semsar, 2017). The consistent use of TQTs can build an appreciation of physiology concepts leading to better preparation for patient care and real-life medical scenarios.
The appeal of TQTs for students, in addition to learning concepts as opposed to facts, is also that they can envision what questions can be asked based on an LO. TQTs can be used in class as models for generating questions in which the students can also participate. As instructors, we like it when our students answer questions, but it is even better when they ask the questions. So, does it matter to a pre-health student whether a dinosaur was endothermic or ectothermic? And the answer to that is if it helps the student understand how temperature regulation works, it certainly does.
Batch, S.A., et al. 2017 Adv Physiol Educ. 41:2 https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00159.2016
Casagrand, K. and Semsar, J. (2017). Adv in Physiol Educ. 41: 170-177. 10.1152/advan.00102.2016
Crowther, G. J. et al. (2020). HAPS Educator 24(1):74-81. https://doi.org/10.21692/haps.2020.006
Michael, J. and J. McFarland (2020). Advances in Physiology Education 44: 752-762. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00114.2020.
Michael, J. & McFarland, J. (2011) https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00004.2011