Author Archives: Kayla Palmer

My Summer Reading: Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms 2nd Edition by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill

Jessica L. Fry, PhD
Associate Professor of Biology
Curry College, Milton, MA

Ah Summer – the three months of the year when my To Do list is an aspirational and idealistic mix of research progress, pedagogical reading, curriculum planning, and getting ahead.  Here we are in July, and between hiring, new building construction, uncooperative experiments and familial obligations, I am predictably behind, but my strategic scheduling of this blog as a book review– meaning I have a deadline for both reading and digesting this book handed out at our annual faculty retreat — means that I am guaranteed to get at least one item crossed off my list!

My acceptance of (and planning for) my tendency to procrastinate is an example of the self-awareness Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill advocate for teachers in their book “Discussion as a Way of Teaching”.  By planning for the major pitfalls of discussion, as well as the reasons behind why both teachers and students manage discussions poorly, they catalog numerous strategies to increase the odds of realizing the major benefits of discussion in the classroom.  At fifteen years old, this book is hardly dated; some of the discussion formats will be familiar to practitioners of active learning such as snowballing and jigsaw, but the real value in this book for me was the frank discussion of the benefits, drawbacks, and misconceptions about discussion in the classroom that are directly relevant to my current teaching practice.  

My lowest moments as a professor seem to come when my students are more focused on “finding the right answer” than on exploring a topic and fitting it into their conceptual understanding.  Paper discussions can fall flat, with students hastily reciting sentences from the discussion or results sections and any reading questions I may have assigned.  This book firmly makes the case that with proper groundwork and incentive, students can and will develop deliberative conversational skills.  Chapter 3 describes how the principles for discussion can be modeled during lecture, small group work, and formats designed for students to practice the processes of reflection and analysis before engaging in discussions themselves. Chapters 4 and 5 present the nuts and bolts of keeping a discussion going by describing active listening techniques, teacher responses, and group formats that promote rather than suppress discourse, and chapters 9 and 10 illustrate the ways students and teachers talk too much… and too little.  One of the most emphasized concepts in these chapters and threaded throughout the book is allowing silence.  Silence allows for reflection and should not be feared – 26 pages in this book cover silence and importantly, how and why professors and students are compelled to fill it, which can act as a barrier to all students participating in the discussion.   

Preskill and Brookfield emphasize the need for all students to be active listeners and participants in a discussion, even if they never speak a word, because discussion develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.  “Through conversation, students can learn to think and speak metaphorically and to use analogical reasoning…. They can get better at knowing when using specialized terminology is justified and when it is just intellectual posturing” (pg. 32).  What follows is an incredibly powerful discussion on not only honoring and respecting diversity, but a concise well-written explanation of how perceptions of social class and race affect both non-white and non-middle-class students in American college classrooms.  Their explanation of how academia privileges certain patterns of discourse and speech that are not common to all students leading to feelings of impostership should be read by everyone who has ever tone-policed a student or a colleague.  The authors advocate for a democratic approach to speech, allowing students to anonymously report if, for example, another student banging their hand on their desk to emphasize a point seemed too violent, which then allows the group to discuss and if necessary, change the group rules in response to that incident.  The authors note that “A discussion of what constitutes appropriate academic speech is not lightweight or idle.  It cuts to several core issues: how we privilege certain ways of speaking and conveying knowledge and ideas, who has the power to define appropriate forms and patterns of communication, and whose interests these forms and patterns serve” (pg 146).  The idea that academic language can be gatekeeping and alienating to many students is especially important in discussions surrounding retention and persistence in the sciences, where students seeing themselves as scientists is critical (Perez et al. 2014).  Brookfield and Preskill argue that through consistent participation in discussion, students will see themselves as co-creators of knowledge and bring their authentic selves to the community.   

All in all, this book left me inspired and I recommend it for those who imagine the kinds of invigorating discussions we have with colleagues taking place with our students and want to increase the chances it will happen in the classroom.  I want to cut out quotes from my favorite paper’s discussion section and have my students justify or refute the statements made using information from the rest of the paper (pg. 72-73 Getting Discussion Started).  I want my students to reflect on their journey to science and use social media to see themselves reflected in the scientific community (pg. 159-160 Discussing Across Gender Differences), and I want to lay the groundwork for the first discussion I have planned for the class of 2023; Is Water Wet?  All this and the rest of that pesky To Do list with my remaining month of summer. Wish me luck!  

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perez, T., Cromley, J. G., & Kaplan, A. (2014). The role of identity development, values, and costs in college STEM retention. Journal of Educational Psychology. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0034027

Jessica L. Fry Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Biology at Curry College, a liberal-arts based primarily undergraduate institution in Milton, Massachusetts.  She currently teaches Advanced Physiology, Cell Biology, and Introduction to Molecules and Cells for majors, and How to Get Away with Murder which is a Junior Year Interdisciplinary Course in the General Education Program.  She procrastinates by training her dog, having great discussions with her colleagues, and reading copious amounts of science fiction. 

Synergy – From conference to classroom – The value of attending and doing project-based learning

Monica J. McCullough, PhD
Western Michigan University, Department of Biological Sciences

After attending the 2018 APS – ITL conference for the first time, I walked away with so many actionable ideas to implement in my large classes. One valuable experience was practicing active learning techniques as part of a session. “Doing” helps many to learn much more than “hearing” about best practices. I not only learned much from the active sessions offered at APS-ITL but transferred that experience into my own classroom upon returning.

I decided to try a semester-long project for my Intro to Bio for majors, modifying a project  I learned about from Dr. Beth Beason-Abmayr (http://advan.physiology.org/content/41/2/239) from Rice University.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr introduced ‘The Fictitious Animal Project’ during her session at APS-ITL as one she uses in her Vertebrate Physiology for non-bio majors, averaging around 30 students per semester.  During her session at APS-ITL, we divided into groups, ranging from 2-10, and mimicked the project. I instantly saw the value of this activity and had to add it to my teaching repertoire.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project was to create a fictitious animal that had certain physiological characteristics. Students had categories, such as cardiovascular system, respiratory system, that were randomly selected and answer sets of questions that students would answer about the integration of them, including benefits and trade-offs for the fictitious animal.   They completed scheduled homework sets after topics were discussed in class. The students worked in groups and would present their creations to the class with drawings of their animals. What really piqued my interest was that since students had to create an animal that does not exist in nature, they couldn’t just Google it to create this project, and the potential to bring out their ingenuity to the design. 

Since I was going to teach biological form and function the upcoming Fall, and mind you for the first time, I thought I’d start with this semester-long project for 290 students, which were primarily freshmen. A major component that I wanted to maintain was the student presentations, as this is an important skill for these budding scientists. Obviously, the logistics to maintain this was the first decision, and when factoring in around 75 groups (averaging 4 students per group), I decided that the group presentations would span a total of 4 days at the end of the semester, in a gallery-style presentation. Presenters would line the room with their visual aid and the rest of the class would visit each group with designated rubrics. (Presentation Rubric) Additionally, the individual group members would submit a peer evaluation of their group mates at the end of the day of their presentation. (Group Peer Evaluation). My next modification was to adapt the category options so that the students would create a species that yielded both plant and animal components, as we would be learning about both. There were 5 overall anatomical/physiological categories, including size, circulation, sensory environmental interaction, structure and motility.  These too would be randomized with the use of Google by “rolling the dice” to assign each characteristic. (Project directions)  I continued with Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project checkpoint of homework sets throughout the semester where students work on a subset of the categories and continue to build their species, as we learn about the topics in class. Each group submitted electronically to Dropbox, and allow time for feedback with rubrics. (HW set 1 rubric example) To end, there was a final wrap-around short answer portion on the final exam where students described each category and how it was incorporated with their own species. This allowed me to check for individual understanding of the project as we all know some group projects allow for ‘moochers’ to do and understand little.   

For me, this project is a keeper. It helped reinforce the essential concepts during the semester and practice soft skills needed to excel in the workforce. It was exciting to see how some students really embraced the project, including creating a costume of their species, 3-D print outs, live plants they’ve modified and sculptures. While difficult, there were also some group conflicts that did occur, yet, these emerging adults were able to work through their differences. A key factor to this was each group developing their own contract at the very beginning of the semester and was open for adjustments for the duration of the semester. (Team Contract)  The big take-away for me is, it is worth the risk to try something new in the classroom, no matter how large or small the size. This project helped student gains with the material, and practice throughout the semester. As an educator, I feel it is pivotal to find ways that help our students feel confident with the material and keep them curious and innovative. Just as at the top presentations at our conference, doing science makes concepts stick much more than just hearing about it.  

Monica J. McCullough, PhD joined as a Faculty Specialist in the Department of Biological Sciences and Western Michigan University in 2016, prior to which she was faculty at Adrian College. She currently teaches large introductory courses, including Anatomy, Physiology and Biological Form and Function. Dr. McCullough received her BS and PhD from Western Michigan University and studied regulation of neurotrophic factors. Dr. McCullough has 4 young children and has found a great interest in doing science demo’s in her elementary children’s’ classrooms.

The Benefits of Learner-Centered Teaching

Jaclyn E. Welles
Cell & Molecular Physiology PhD Candidate
Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine

In the US, Students at Still Facing Struggles in the STEMs

Literacy in the World Today:
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are approximately 250 million individuals worldwide, who cannot read, write, or do basic math, despite having been in school for a number of years (5, 8). In fact, UNESCO, is calling this unfortunate situation a “Global Learning Crisis” (7). The fact that a significant number of people are lacking in these fundamental life skills regardless of attending school, shows that part of the problem lies within how students are being taught.

Two Main Styles of Teaching – Learner or Teacher-Centered

Learning and Teaching Styles:
It was due to an early exposure to various education systems that I was able to learn of that there were two main styles of teaching – Learner-centered teaching, and Teacher-centered teaching (2). Even more fascinating, with the different styles of teaching, it has become very clear that there are also various types of learners in any given classroom or lecture setting (2, 6, 10). Surprisingly however, despite the fact that many learners had their own learning “modularity” or learning-style, instructors oftentimes taught their students in a fixed-manner, unwilling or unable to adapt or implement changes to their curriculum. In fact, learner-centered teaching models such as the “VARK/VAK – Visual Learners, Auditory Learners and Kinesthetic Learners”, model by Fleming and Mills created in 1992 (6), was primarily established due to the emerging evidence that learners were versatile in nature.

VARK Model of Learners Consists of Four Main Types of Learners: Visual, Auditory, Reading and Writing, and Tactile/Kinesthetic (touch)

What We Can Do to Improve Learning:
The fundamental truth is that when a student is unable to get what they need to learn efficiently, factors such as “learning curves” – which may actually be skewing the evidence that students are struggling to learn the content, need to be implemented (1, 3). Instead of masking student learning difficulties with curves and extra-credit, we can take a few simple steps during lesson-planning, or prior to teaching new content, to gauge what methods will result in the best natural overall retention and comprehension by students (4, 9). Some of methods with evidence include (2, 9):

  • Concept Maps – Students Breakdown the Structure or Organization of a Concept
  • Concept Inventories – Short Answer Questions Specific to a Concept
  • Self-Assessments – Short Answer/Multiple Choice Questions
  • Inquiry-Based Projects – Students Investigate Concept in a Hands-On Project

All in all, by combining both previously established teaching methodologies with some of these newer, simple methods of gauging your students’ baseline knowledge and making the necessary adjustments to teaching methods to fit the needs of a given student population or class, you may find that a significant portion of the difficulties that can occur with students and learning such as – poor comprehension, retention, and engagement, can be eliminated (4, 9) .

Jaclyn Welles is a PhD student in Cellular and Molecular Physiology at the Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine. She has received many awards and accolades on her work so far promoting outreach in science and education, including the 2019 Student Educator Award from PSCoM.

Her thesis work in the lab of Scot Kimball, focuses on liver physiology and nutrition; mainly how nutrients in our diet, can play a role in influencing mRNA translation in the liver. 

Student Evaluation of Teaching – The Next 100 Years

Mari K. Hopper, PhD
Sam Houston State University

Student evaluation of teaching (SET) has been utilized and studied for over 100 years. Originally, SET was designed by faculty to gather information from students in order to improve personal teaching methods (Remmers and Guthrie, 1927). Over time, SET became increasingly common. Reports in the literature indicate 29% of institutions of higher education employed this resource in 1973, 68% in 1983,  86% in 1993, and 94.2% in 2010 (Seldin, 1993).

Today, SET is employed almost universally, and has become a routine task for both faculty and students. While deployment of this instrument has increased, impact with faculty has declined. A study published in 2002 indicated only 2-10% of instructors reported major teaching changes based on SET (Nasser & Fresko, 2002). However, results of SET has become increasingly important in making impactful faculty decisions including promotion and tenure, merit pay, and awards. A study by Miller and Seldin (2010), reported that 99.3% Deans use SET in evaluating their faculty (Miller & Seldin, 2014)

The literature offers a rich discussion of issues related to SET including bias, validity, reliability, and accuracy. Although discussions raise concern for current use of SET, institutions continue to rely on SET for multiple purposes. As a consequence, it has become increasingly important that students offer feedback that is informative, actionable, and professional. It would also be helpful to raise student awareness of the scope, implications, and potential impact of SET results. 

To that end, I offer the following suggestions for helping students become motivated and effective evaluators of faculty:

  • Inform students of changes made based on evaluations from last semester/year
  • Share information concerning potential bias (age, primary language, perception of grading leniency, etc.)
  • Inform of full use including departmental and campus wide (administrative decisions, awards, P & T, etc,)
  • Establish a standard of faculty performance for each rating on the Likert scale (in some cases a 3 may be the more desirable indicator)
  • Inform students of professionalism, and the development of professional identity. Ask students to write only what they would share in face-to-face conversation.
  • Ask students to exercise caution and discrimination – avoid discussing factors out of faculty control (class size, time offered, required exams, classroom setting, etc.)
  • If indicating a faculty behavior is unsatisfactory – offer specific reasons
  • When writing that a faculty member display positive attributes – be sure to include written comments of factual items, not just perceptions and personal feelings
  • Give students examples of USEFUL and NOT USEFUL feedback
  • Distinguish between ‘anonymous’ and ‘blinded’ based on your school’s policy

Although technology has made the administration of SET nearly invisible to faculty, it is perhaps time for faculty to re-connect with the original purpose. It is also appropriate for faculty to be involved in the process of developing SET instruments, and screening questions posed to their students. Additionally, it is our responsibility to help students develop proficiency in offering effective evaluation. Faculty have the opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to determine the usefulness and impact of SET for the next 100 years.

Please share your ideas about how we might return to the original purpose of SET – to inform our teaching. I would also encourage you to share instructions you give your students just prior to administering SET. 

Mari K. Hopper, PhD, is currently the Associate Dean for Biomedical Sciences at Sam Houston State University Proposed College of Osteopathic Medicine. She received her Ph.D. in Physiology from Kansas State University. She was trained as a physiologist with special interest in maximum capabilities of the cardiorespiratory and muscular systems. Throughout her academic career she has found immense gratification in working with students in the classroom, the research laboratory, and in community service positions. Dr Hopper has consistently used the scholarly approach in her teaching, and earned tenure and multiple awards as a result of her contributions in the area of scholarship of teaching and learning. She has focused on curriculum development and creating curricular materials that challenge adult learners while engaging students to evaluate, synthesize, and apply difficult concepts. At SHSU she will lead the development of the basic science curriculum for the first two years of medical school. Dr Hopper is very active in professional organizations and currently serves as the Chapter Advisory Council Chair for the American Physiological Society, the HAPS Conference Site Selection Committee, and Past-President of the Indiana Physiological Society. Dr Hopper has four grown children and a husband David who is a research scientist.

Fostering an Inclusive Classroom: A Practical Guide

Ah, the summer season has begun! I love this time of year, yes for the sun and the beach and baseball games and long, lazy summer reading, but also because it gets me thinking about new beginnings. I’ve always operated on a school-year calendar mindset, so if you’re like me, you’re probably reflecting on the successes and shortcomings of the past year, preparing for the upcoming fall semester, or maybe even launching into a new summer semester now. As campuses become more diverse, fostering an inclusive learning environment becomes increasingly important, yet the prospect of how to do so can be daunting. So where to start?

First, recognize that there is not just one way to create an inclusive classroom. Often, the most effective tactics you use may be discipline-, regional-, campus-, or classroom-specific. Inclusive teaching is a student-oriented mindset, a way of thinking that challenges you to maximize opportunities for all students to connect with you, the course material, and each other.

Second, being proactive before a semester begins can save you a lot of time, headaches, and conflict down the road. Set aside some dedicated time to critically evaluate your course structure, curriculum, assignments, and language choices before ever interacting with your students. Consider which voices, perspectives, and examples are prominent in your class materials, and ask yourself which ones are missing and why. Try to diversify the mode of content representation (lectures, videos, readings, discussions, hands-on activities, etc.) and/or assessments types (verbal vs. diagrammed, written vs. spoken, group vs. individual, online vs. in-class, etc.). Recognize the limits of your own culture-bound assumptions, and, if possible, ask for feedback from a colleague whose background differs from your own.

Third, know that you don’t have to change everything all at once. If you are developing an entirely new course/preparation, you’ll have less time to commit to these endeavors than you might for a course you’ve taught a few times already. Recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than completely overwhelming yourself and your students to the point of ineffectiveness (Trust me, I’ve tried and it isn’t pretty!)

Below, I have included some practical ways to make a classroom more inclusive, but this list is far from comprehensive. As always, feedback is much appreciated!

Part 1: Course Structure and Student Feedback

These strategies require the largest time commitment to design and implement, but they are well worth the effort.

  • Provide opportunities for collaborative learning in the classroom. Active learning activities can better engage diverse students, and this promotes inclusivity by allowing students from diverse backgrounds to interact with one another. Furthermore, heterogeneous groups are usually better problem-solvers than homogeneous ones.
  • Implement a variety of learning activity types in order to reach different kinds of learners. Use poll questions, case studies, think-pair-share, jigsaws, hands-on activities, oral and written assignments, etc.
  • Select texts/readings whose language is gender-neutral or stereotype-free, and if you run across a problem after the fact, point out the text’s shortcomings in class and give students the opportunity to discuss it.
  • Promote a growth mindset. The language you use in the classroom can have a surprising impact on student success, even when you try to be encouraging. How many of us have said to our students before a test, “You all are so smart. I know you can do this!”? It sounds innocent enough, but this language conveys that “being smart” determines success rather than hard work. Students with this fixed mindset are more likely to give up when confronted with a challenge because they don’t think they are smart/good/talented enough to succeed. Therefore, when we encourage our students before an assessment or give them feedback afterwards, we must always address their effort and their work, rather than assigning attributes (positive or negative) to them as people.
  • Convey the same level of confidence in the abilities of all your students. Set high expectations that you believe all students can achieve, emphasizing the importance of hard work and effort. Perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining high expectations for every student, even those who have performed poorly in the past. However, assuming a student just can’t cut it based on one low exam grade may be as damaging as assuming a student isn’t fit due to their race, gender, background, etc.
  • Be evenhanded in praising your students. Don’t go overboard as it makes students feel like you don’t expect it of them.

Part 2: Combating Implicit Bias

Every one of us harbors biases, including implicit biases that form outside of our conscious awareness. In some cases, our implicit biases may even run counter to our conscious values. This matters in the classroom because implicit bias can trigger self-fulfilling prophecies by changing stereotyped groups’ behaviors to conform to stereotypes, even when the stereotype was initially untrue. Attempting to suppress our biases is likely to be counterproductive, so we must employ other strategies to ensure fairness to all our students.

  • Become aware of your own biases, by assessing them with tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) or by self-reflection. Ask yourself: Do I interact with men and women in ways that create double standards? Do I assume that members of one group will need extra help in the classroom – or alternatively, that they will outperform others? Do I undervalue comments made by individuals with a different accent than my own?
  • Learn about cultures different than your own. Read authors with diverse backgrounds. Express a genuine interest in other cultural traditions. Exposure to different groups increases your empathy towards them.
  • Take extra care to evaluate students on individual bases rather than social categorization / group membership. Issues related to group identity may be especially enhanced on college campuses because this is often the first time for students to affirm their identity and/or join single-identity organizations / groups.
  • Recognize the complexity of diversity. No person has just one identity. We all belong to multiple groups, and differences within groups may be as great as those across groups.
  • Promote interactions in the classroom between different social groups. Even if you choose to let students form their own groups in class, mix it up with jigsaw activities, for example.
  • Use counter-stereotypic examples in your lectures, case studies, and exams.
  • Employ fair grading practices, such as clearly-defined rubrics, anonymous grading, grading question by question instead of student by student, and utilize activities with some group points and some individual points.

Part 3: Day-to-Day Classroom Culture

These suggestions fall under the “biggest bang for your buck” category. They don’t require much time to implement, but they can go a long way to making your students feel more welcome in your classroom.

  • Use diverse images, names, examples, analogies, perspectives, and cultural references in your teaching. Keep this in mind when you choose pictures/cartoons for your lectures, prepare in-class or take-home activities, and write quiz/test questions. Ask yourself if the examples you are using are only familiar or relevant to someone with your background. If so, challenge yourself to make it accessible to a wider audience.
  • Pay attention to your terminology and be willing to adjust based on new information. This may be country-, region-, or campus-specific, and it may change over time (e.g. “minority” vs. “historically underrepresented”). When in doubt, be more specific rather than less (e.g. “Korean” instead of “Asian”; “Navajo” instead of “Native American”).
  • Use inclusive and non-gendered language whenever possible (e.g. “significant other/partner” instead of “boyfriend/husband,” “chairperson” instead of “chairman,” “parenting” instead of “mothering”).
  • Make a concerted effort to learn your students’ names AND pronunciations. Even if it takes you a few tries, it is a meaningful way to show your students you care about them as individuals.
  • Highlight the important historical and current contributions to your field made by scientists belonging to underrepresented groups.
  • Limit barriers to learning. You will likely have a list of your own, but here are a few I’ve compiled:
    • Provide lecture materials before class so that students can take notes on them during class.
    • Use a microphone to make sure all students can hear you clearly.
    • Consider using Dyslexie font on your slides to make it easier for dyslexic students to read them.
    • Speak slowly and limit your use of contractions so that non-native-English speakers can understand you more easily.
    • Write bullet points on the board that remain there for the whole class period, including the main points for that lecture, important dates coming up, and key assignments.
    • Be sensitive to students whose first language is not English and don’t punish them unnecessarily for misusing idioms.

As a final parting message, always try to be mindful of your students’ needs, but know that you don’t have everything figured out at the outset. Make time to reevaluate your approach, class materials, and activities to see where improvements can be made. Challenge yourself to continually improve and hone better practices. Listen to your students, and be mindful with the feedback you ask them to give you in mid-semester and/or course evaluations.

For more information, I recommend the following resources:

  1. Davis, BG. “Diversity and Inclusion in the Classroom.” Tools for Teaching (2nd Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. p 57 – 71. Print.
  2. Eredics, Nicole. “16 Inclusive Education Blogs You Need to Know About!” The Inclusive Class, 2016 July 27. http://www.theinclusiveclass.com/2016/07/16-inclusive-education-blogs-you-need.html
  3. Handelsman J, Miller S, Pfund C. “Diversity.” Scientific Teaching. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2007. p 65 – 82. Print.
  4. “Instructional Strategies: Inclusive Teaching and Learning.” The University of Texas at Austin Faculty Innovation Center. https://facultyinnovate.utexas.edu/inclusive

Laura Weise Cross is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Millersville University, beginning in the fall of 2019, where she will be teaching courses in Introductory Biology, Anatomy & Physiology, and Nutrition. Laura received a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Pathology from the University of North Carolina. She recently completed her post-doctoral training in the Department of Cell Biology & Physiology at the University of New Mexico, where she studied the molecular mechanisms of hypoxia-induced pulmonary hypertension. Laura’s research is especially focused on how hypoxia leads to structural remodeling of the pulmonary vessel wall, which is characterized by excessive vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation and migration. She looks forward to engaging undergraduate students in these projects in her new research lab.

Do You Want To Be On TV?

Last summer, some colleagues and I published a paper on how high school students can communicate their understanding of science through songwriting.  This gradually led to a press release from my home institution, and then (months later) a feature article in a local newspaper, and then appearances on Seattle TV stations KING-5 and KOMO-4.

It’s been an interesting little journey.  I haven’t exactly “gone viral” — I haven’t been adding hundreds of new Twitter followers, or anything like that — but even this mild uptick in interest has prompted me to ponder my relationship with the news media. In short, I do enjoy the attention, but I also feel some responsibility to influence the tone and emphases of these stories. In this post, I share a few bits of advice based on my recent experiences, and I invite others to contribute their own tips in the comments section.

(1) Find out how your school/department/committee views media appearances.  In April, I was invited to appear on KING’s mid-morning talk show, which sounded cool, except that the show would be taped during my normal Thursday physiology lecture!  My department chair and my dean encouraged me to do the show, noting that this sort of media exposure is generally good for the school, and so, with their blessing, I got a sub and headed for the studio.

(2) Respect students’ privacy during classroom visits.  After some students were included in a classroom-visit video despite promises to the contrary, I realized that I needed to protect their privacy more strongly. I subsequently established an option by which any camera-shy students could live-stream the lecture until the TV crew left.

(3) Anticipate and explicitly address potential misconceptions about what you’re doing.  I’ve worried that these “singing professor” pieces might portray the students simply as amused audience members rather than as active participants, so, during the classroom visits, I’ve used songs that are conducive to the students singing along and/or analyzing the meaning of the lyrics. (Well, mostly. “Cross-Bridges Over Troubled Water” wasn’t that great for either, but I had already sung “Myofibrils” for KING, and KOMO deserved an exclusive too, right?)

(4) Take advantage of your institution’s public relations expertise.  Everett Community College’s director of public relations offered to help me rehearse for the talk show — and boy am I glad that she did!  Being familiar with the conventions and expectations of TV conversations, Katherine helped me talk much more pithily than I normally do. In taking multiple cracks at her practice question about “how did you get started [using music in teaching]?” I eventually pared a meandering 90-second draft answer down to 30 seconds. She also asked me a practice question to which my normal response would be, “Can you clarify what you mean by X?” — and convinced me that in a 4-minute TV conversation, you don’t ask for clarifications, you just make reasonable assumptions and plow ahead with your answers.

(5) Ask your interviewers what they will want to talk about. Like a novice debater, I struggle with extemporaneous speaking; the more I can prepare for specific questions, the better.  Fortunately, my interviewers have been happy to give me a heads-up about possible questions, thus increasing their chances of getting compelling and focused answers.

Readers, what other advice would you add to the above?

Gregory J. Crowther, PhD has a BA in Biology from Williams College, a MA in Science Education from Western Governors University, and a PhD in Physiology & Biophysics from the University of Washington. He teaches anatomy and physiology in the Department of Life Sciences at Everett Community College. His peer-reviewed journal articles on enhancing learning with content-rich music have collectively been cited over 100 times.

Embracing the Instability of Positive Feedback Loops

Feedback loops are a physiology professor’s bread and butter.  From blood sugar to body temperature, negative feedback ensures that no physiological variable strays from its set point (or range) and that homeostasis is maintained.  Positive feedback loops, on the other hand, are inherently unstable.  In these loops, the response elicited by a stimulus drives the variable further from its set point, reinforcing the stimulus rather than reducing it, and continuing until some outside influence intervenes1.  The classic physiological example of positive feedback is childbirth – pressure from the baby on the mother’s uterus and cervix triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, which triggers uterine muscle contractions that further push the baby toward the cervix.  This loop of pressure, oxytocin release, and contractions continues until an intervening event occurs – the delivery of the baby.

While physiological positive feedback loops are fascinating, they are greatly outnumbered by negative feedback loops; thus, they don’t usually get much attention in our physiology classrooms.  We usually tell students that the instability of positive feedback loops is what makes them so uncommon.  However, I’d like to use my platform here to argue for a larger place for positive feedback loops in not just our physiology courses, but all of our courses.

 

Positive Feedback Loop Learning

I mentioned above that positive feedback loops are inherently unstable because they drive variables further from their set points, so you may be thinking, “why would I ever want my classroom to be unstable?”  Imagine it this way:  in this feedback loop, the stimulus is an idea, concept, or problem posed by the instructor.  The response is the student’s own investigation of the stimulus, which hopefully sparks further curiosity in the student about the topic at hand, and drives him or her toward more investigation and questioning.  Granted, this system of learning could certainly introduce some instability and uncertainty to the classroom.  Once sparked, the instructor does not have control over the student’s curiosity, which may take the student outside of the instructor’s area of expertise.  However, I maintain that this instability actually enriches our classroom by giving students the space to think critically.

 

Why Encourage Positive Feedback Loops?

Though often misattributed (or even misquoted), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (poet, essayist, physician, and father of US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) once wrote “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”2 Neuroscience research supports this assertion.  In rodents, exposure to novel stimuli in enriched environments enhances neuronal long-term potentiation, the cellular correlate of learning and memory in the brain3.  Human brains both functionally and structurally reorganize upon learning new information.  A magnetic resonance imaging study examined gray matter volume in the brains of German medical students who were studying for their “Physikum,” an extensive exam covering biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, human anatomy, and physiology4.  Brain scans taken 1-2 days after the Physikum demonstrated significantly increased gray matter volume in the parietal cortex and hippocampus compared to baseline scans taken 3 months prior to the exam (and prior to extensive exposure to new information during the study period)4.  Thus, while the brain may not literally be “stretched” by new ideas, as Holmes proposed, the process of learning (acquisition, encoding, and retrieval of new information) certainly reshapes the brain.

In the model I’ve presented above, new ideas, concepts, and questions are the stimuli in our positive feedback loop.  These stimuli promote changes in our student’s brains.  And, if these stimuli spark curiosity, these brain changes (and thus learning) will be amplified as students respond – meaning, as they construct new ideas, concepts, and questions based on their own interests.  Thus, the loop feeds into itself.

 

Designing Stimuli That Elicit Positive Feedback

How can we structure our teaching so that the stimulus we present to our students is strong enough to elicit a response?  First, it is crucial that our stimuli elicit curiosity in our students. In his essay surveying recent research on the role of curiosity in academic success, David Barry Kaufman wrote, “Stimulating classroom activities are those that offer novelty, surprise, and complexity, allowing greater autonomy and student choice; they also encourage students to ask questions, question assumptions, and achieve mastery through revision rather than judgment-day-style testing.”5  Project-based learning, a teaching technique focused on extended engagement with a problem or task as a means of constructing knowledge, checks many of Kaufman’s boxes6.  As an example, in the past two iterations of my Physiology course, my students have participated in the “Superhero Physiology Project” in which they develop interactive lesson plans for middle school students.  Based on the work of E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D. (author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of Superhero7 and multiple APS Advances in Physiology Education articles), my students choose a superhero to base their lesson upon, and work over the course of several weeks to create interactive, hands-on activities to teach kids about a physiological system.  While I give my students feedback on the plausibility of their ideas (within our time and budgetary constraints), I leave much of the structure of their lessons open so that they have the opportunity to work through the complexities that come with keeping 20 or more middle schoolers engaged.  Often, my students tell me that figuring out the best way to communicate physiological concepts for a young audience encouraged them to go beyond our textbook to search for new analogies and real-life examples of physiology to which middle schoolers could relate.

Another way to design stimuli that elicit curiosity and positive feedback learning is by capitalizing on a student’s naiveté.  In this approach, described by education expert Kimberly Van Orman of the University of Albany in The Chronicle of Higher Education8, “students don’t need to know everything before they can do anything” – meaning, curiosity is most easily sparked when possibilities aren’t limited by your existing knowledge, because you don’t have any!  For me, this approach is somewhat difficult.  Like all instructors, I regularly feel the pressure to ensure we “get through the material” and often plow through concepts too quickly.  However, my physiology students last fall showed me the power of the “naïve task” firsthand when I observed the Superhero Physiology lesson9 they gave at the middle school.  They decided that before teaching the middle schoolers any physiological terms or concepts didactically, they would present them with a hands-on experiment to introduce the concepts of stroke volume and vasoconstriction.  Their rationale and approach (below) illustrate their mastery of using naiveté to spark curiosity.

Rationale:

The students should be provided with very little, if any, background information on the heart models and the reasoning behind the varying sizes of the materials. By providing little information up front, we hope to intrigue their curiosity regarding the lesson and its significance. Students will be told what to do with the instruments; however, they will not receive any advice on which instruments to use.

The Experiment:

  1. Divide the class into two groups (within each group there should be 4-5 “holders” for the tubes and 4-5 “pumpers” managing water and pipets). Group 1 will be given large diameter tubing, a large funnel as well as 3 large volume pipettes. Group 2 will receive smaller tubing, a smaller funnel and only one smaller volume pipet.
  2. Instruct the students that they will be transporting the water from a large bucket into another bucket 8-10 feet across the room without moving the bucket.
  3. The groups will have 10 minutes to construct their apparatus, and 5 minutes for the actual head-to-head “race” in which the winner is determined by who moves the most amount of water in the allotted time.
  4. After the students have completed the first experiment they will return to their seats for the lecture portion of the lesson which will connect the different parts of the build to different portions of the cardiovascular system.

 

Not only did the middle school students have a fantastic time building their apparatus (and accidentally on purpose getting each other wet!), but as the experiment progressed, they began to get curious about why the other team was so behind or ahead.  Soon after, discussions between groups about tubing diameter and pipet size emerged organically among the middle schoolers, and they were able to easily apply these concepts to later discussions of blood flow and cardiac output.

 

Embracing Instability

While I think most educators aspire to elicit positive feedback learning in their students, there can be barriers to putting it into practice.  As I mentioned above, pressure to cover content results in some of us shying away from open-ended activities and projects.  Not all students in a given class will come in with the same motivations for learning (as discussed in Dr. Ryan Downey’s December 2018 PECOP Blog post10), nor will they all respond to the same stimuli with curiosity.  However, it just takes one stimulus to put a positive feedback loop into action – and once it gets going, it’s hard to stop.  Once a student’s curiosity is piqued, the classroom may feel a bit unstable as their interests move out of the realm of your expertise as an instructor.  But ultimately, we all as educators live for that moment when a connection crystallizes in a student’s mind and they discover a new question they can’t wait to answer.

 

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful to Wabash students James Eaton, Sam Hayes, Cheng Ge, and Hunter Jones for sharing an excerpt of their middle school lesson.

 

References

1 Silverthorn DU. (2013).  Human physiology, an integrated approach (6th Ed.). Pearson.

2 Holmes OW. (1858). The autocrat of the breakfast-table. Boston:  Phillips, Sampson and Company.

3 Hullinger R, O’Riordan K, Burger C.  (2015).  Environmental enrichment improves learning and memory and long-term potentiation in young adult rats through a mechanism requiring mGluR5 signaling and sustained activation of p70s6k.  Neurobiol Learn Mem 125:126-34.

4 Draganski B, Gaser C, Kempermann G, Kuhn HG, Winkler J, Büchel C, May A. (2006).  Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning.  J Neurosci 26(23):6314-17.

Kaufman,SB. (2017, July 24).  Schools are missing what matters about learning.  The Atlantic.  Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/the-underrated-gift-of-curiosity/534573/

6 What is PBL? (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl

7 Zehr, EP. (2008).  Becoming Batman: the possibility of a superhero.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

8 Supiano, B. (2018, June 7). How one teaching expert activates students’ curiosity. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-One-Teaching-Expert/243609

9 Eaton J, Hayes S, Ge C, Jones H. (2018).  Superhero cardio: the effects of blood vessel diameter, stroke volume, and heart rate on cardiac output. Unpublished work, Wabash College, Crawfordsville, IN.

10 Downey, R.  (2018, December 13).  Affective teaching and motivational instruction: becoming more effective educators of science. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.lifescitrc.org/pecop/2018/12/13/affective-teaching-and-motivational-instruction-becoming-more-effective-educators-of-science/

 

Heidi Walsh has been an Assistant Professor of Biology at Wabash College since 2014. She received a B.S. in Neuroscience from Allegheny College, a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Virginia, and completed post-doctoral work in the Department of Metabolism & Aging at The Scripps Research Institute’s Florida campus.  Heidi’s research lab studies the impact of obesity-related stressors, including endoplasmic reticulum stress, on gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons. She teaches courses in Cell Biology, Physiology, and Molecular Endocrinology, and enjoys collaborating with students on science outreach projects.
Engaging students in active learning via protocol development

Physiology, particularly metabolic physiology, covers the fundamentals of biophysics and biochemistry for nutrient absorption, transport, and metabolism. Engaging pre-health students in experimentation may facilitate students’ learning and their in-depth understanding of the mechanisms coordinating homeostatic control. In addition, it may promote critical thinking and problem-solving ability if students are engaged in active learning.

Traditionally, students are provided instructions that detail the stepwise procedures before an experiment or demonstration. Although students are encouraged to ask questions before and during the experiments, an in-depth discussion would not be possible until they understand each step and the underlying principles. This is particularly true nowadays when commercial kits come with stepwise instructions where no explanation can be found of principles behind the procedure. The outcomes may contrast in three ways: (1) students are happy with the perfect data they acquire by following the instructions provided by the manufacturer, but they miss the opportunity to chew on the key principles that are critical for students to develop creative thinking; (2) students are frustrated as they follow the instruction but fail the experiments, without knowing what is wrong and where to start for trouble shooting; and (3) driven by self-motivation, students dig into the details and interact intensively with the instructor to grasp the principles of the procedure. As such, the students can produce reliable data and interpret the procedure and data with confidence, and in addition, they may effectively diagnose operational errors for trouble shooting. Evidently, the 3rd scenario demonstrates an example of active learning, which is desirable but not common in a traditional model of experimentation.

To engage students in active learning, one of the strategies is to remove the ready-to-go procedure from the curricular setting but request the students to submit a working protocol of their own version at the end of an experiment. Instead of a stepwise procedure (i.e., a “recipe”), the students are provided with reading materials that discuss the key principles of the analytical procedures. When students show the competency in the understanding of the principles in a formative assessment (e.g., a 30-min quiz), they are ready to observe the demonstrations step by step, taking notes and asking questions. Based on their notes and inspiration from discussion, each student is requested to develop a protocol of their own version. Depending on how detail-oriented the protocols are, the instructor may approve it or ask students to recall the details and revise their protocols before moving forward. Once students show competency in the protocol development, they are ready to conduct the steps in groups under the instructor’s (or teaching assistant, TA’s) supervision. Assessment on precision and accuracy is the key to examine the competency of students’ operation, which also provides opportunities for students to go back to improve or update their protocols. In the case of unexpected results, the students are encouraged to interpret and justify their results in a physiological setting (e.g., fasting vs. feeding states) unless they choose not to. Regardless, students are asked to go back to recall and review their operation for trouble shooting under the instructor’s (or TA’s) supervision, till they show competency in the experiment with reproducible and biologically meaningful data. Trouble shooting under instructor’s or TA’s supervision and inspiration serves as an efficient platform for students to take the lead in critical thinking and problem solving, which prompts students to go back to improve or update their protocols showing special and practical notes about potential pitfalls and success tips.

Often with delight, students realize how much they have grown at the end of experimentation. However, frustration is not uncommon during the troubleshooting and learning, which has to be overcome through students’ persistence and instructor’s encouragement. Some students might feel like “jumping off a cliff” in the early stage of an experiment where a ready-to follow instruction is not available. Growing in experience and persistence, they become more confident and open to pursue “why” in addition to “what”.

Of note, logistic consideration is critical to ensure active learning by this strategy. A single experiment would take up to 3-fold more time for the instructor and students to work together to reach competency. To this end, the instructor needs to reduce the number of experiments for a semester, and carefully select and design the key experiments to maximally benefit students in terms of skill learning, critical thinking, and problem solving. Furthermore, group size should be kept small (e.g., less than 3 students per group) to maximize interactive learning if independent experimentation by individuals is not an option. Such a requirement can be met either by increasing TA support or reducing class size.

 

 

Zhiyong Cheng is an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Science at the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Dr. Cheng received his PhD in Analytical Biochemistry from Peking University. After completing his postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Cheng joined Virginia Tech as a faculty member, and recently he relocated to the University of Florida. Dr. Cheng has taught Nutrition and Metabolism, with a focus on substrate absorption, transport, and metabolism. As the principal investigator in a research lab studying metabolic diseases (obesity and type 2 diabetes), Dr. Cheng has been actively participating in undergraduate and graduate research training.
Where does general education fit into an undergraduate degree?

I am currently serving on a taskforce which has been given the job of revising our general education program. As a member of this taskforce, I have been reading, analyzing, and using data to design and implement a program that many faculty struggle to explain and that many students often question. This made me think. What do schools mean by general education?

If we look at definitions, most people would say this is the part of a student’s education which is meant to develop their personalities or provide skills and knowledge which will help students succeed not only in their chosen major but also in their careers and life. If we look at this more closely, many faculty members see general education as the place for students to develop some of those soft skills that are often talked about by employers. These soft skills include communication skills, listening skills, critical thinking/problem solving, and interpersonal skills to name a few.

If general education is the place for the learning of these skills, where do we as faculty fit into general education? After all, isn’t it my job to provide the knowledge for Biology classes? That is why I have my Ph.D. and the institution hired me. Surely, there are other members of the campus community that can also guide students on successful acquisition of these skills? For example, I was never taught how to teach writing so why should I teach writing? But is this statement true? I was taught how to write. In elementary, junior high, and high school, I was taught how to construct sentences to ensure that all verbs had a subject. I was taught how to put together an outline so that my thoughts were organized in a logical manner. In college, I was taught how to now take difficult concepts and use them to develop a hypothesis. I was taught how to present the methodology of my experiments. And finally, I was taught how to analyze and present data and then discuss what that data meant. Graduate school asked me to use these skills and bring them to a higher level. I could list similar instances and experiences for thinking and problem solving, collaboration, and other soft skills as well. Are these experiences enough for me to be able to teach writing in our general education program? That is the million dollar question our taskforce is trying to answer. There is a part of me, that says, “YES! I can teach students how to write.” I have had papers published. I write all the time for different committees, classes, and other activities. There is a second part of me that is terrified of the idea of teaching writing in a more general class. Those scary terms like logic and rhetoric seem overwhelming to this Biology professor. Can I even give an example of rhetoric? I know that if I stepped back and took a breath, I could give an example of rhetoric. But this raises another question. Do the students deserve someone better trained (and less afraid of these terms) to guide them while learning these skills? That question is still one our taskforce is trying to answer.

The other question our taskforce has had to face is, “How do we get students to buy into general education?” What can we as faculty and staff do to promote the importance of those skills learned in our institution’s general education programs? Are we so focused on the knowledge and skills of the major that we forget that those soft skills can make or break a successful employee? Knowledge and skills specific to a job can get the applicant to the interview. It is the soft skills that can get the applicant the job. If this is the case, then isn’t it our job as professors and teachers to not only help our students gain the knowledge but also to help them gain those skills that will help them to succeed in their careers and lives? And if that is our job, how do we as faculty support and allow for equal importance of both technical knowledge and skills and these so-called soft skills?

Let me preface, I am certainly not telling faculty that they need to get rid of their grading scales. And I am not telling students they should forget about their grades. But I am questioning how we measure success in today’s academic world and in our global society. If we look at surveys and reports that have been published, employers are having trouble finding students/potential employees with soft skills. Does this mean all of these higher education institutions are failing in their general education of students? I would like to think that we aren’t failing. But I am suggesting we might need to find a better way to illustrate the importance of the skills learned in general education classes. This could be in how we discuss general education to how we define successful completion of general education. Most teachers always ask how to assess soft skills. Is it possible that maybe a grading scale isn’t the only way to define success when it comes to learning some skills? Again, our taskforce hasn’t come up with the golden answer yet.

Serving on this taskforce has been eye opening and I have learned that putting together a successful general education program requires a great deal of guesswork. There have been questions raised that I truly do not have answers for, and I don’t know that answers are available for these questions. But these questions and this process have made me question what the future of general education looks like.  The current generation of students have access to technology and possess skills and talents that did not even exist when many faculty were students. As faculty we learned skills that helped us succeed back when we were graduating and looking to move to the next phase of life. And we have adapted as changes to the world have come. While I cannot say for sure what general education will look like in the future, I can say that we need to be training students for the requirements of today’s workforce and the ability to adapt for the future workforce. And unless we have a crystal ball which can predict the future, what that looks like will remain unknown.

 

Melissa A. Fleegal-DeMotta, Ph.D. earned her BS in Biology from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. After working at Penn State’s College of Medicine, she then earned her PhD from the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL. Following postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Florida, University of Arizona, and Saint Louis University, she has been a professor at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA for over 10 years. During her time at Clarke, she has developed an interest in how the general education of a liberal arts university fits with the education of science majors.
The Large Lecture: Minor Adjustments, Major Impacts

Large lecture courses are hard, for both students and faculty alike, and while an exhaustive body of Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SOTL) research boasts benefits of smaller classes (Cuseo, 2007), budgetary and a myriad of other restrictions leave many higher education institutions with few options for reducing class sizes.  Accordingly, many instructors are forced to figure out a way to best serve our students in this unideal setting.

Three years ago, in my first year as a full time faculty member, I found myself teaching one of these large lecture classes.  There were ~250 students, split across two sections, piled into an outdated auditorium.   The setting was intimidating for me, and if one thing was certain, it was that however intimidated I felt, my students felt it even harder (and as an aside, three years later, I still find myself, at times, intimidated by this space).  So, in a high-stakes, pre-requisite course like Anatomy & Physiology that is content-heavy and, by nature, inherently intense, what can be done in a large lecture hall to ease the tension and improve student learning?

When looking to the SOTL research for evidence-based recommendations on student engagement and active learning ideas in high-enrollment courses such as mine, I quickly became overwhelmed with possibilities (not unlike a kid in a candy store).  Before I knew it, finding meaningful ways to reshape my class in the best interest of the student became defeating – how was I supposed to overhaul my course to integrate best-practice pedagogy while still juggling the rest of my faculty responsibilities?

Thankfully, last year a colleague introduced me to a book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, by James Lang.  Admittedly – I still have not finished this book (rest assured – I am currently in a book club studying this book, so I WILL finish it!); that being said, Lang’s powerful message about the significance of small changes resonated with me pretty early on in the text.  Minor, thoughtful adjustments to the daily classroom routine are capable of eliciting substantial impacts on student learning.  In other words, I did not need to reinvent the wheel to better serve my students; instead, I set a goal for myself to try out one or two small, reasonable adjustments per semester.  While I am still navigating best-practice teaching and experience a healthy dose of trial-and-error, here is what I have found useful thus far:

 

1. Learning names. This is perhaps the most straightforward, obvious classroom goal, but when you have a large number of students, something as simple as learning student names can quickly slip through the cracks.  Now, I appreciate that implementing this goal takes considerable time and intention, and depending on the structure of your high-enrollment course, it may or may not be feasible.  In my course, for example, it is a two-part series, which means I have the same students for an entire academic year rather than one semester.  Moreover, in addition to lecture, I have all of my students in smaller lab sections.  Accordingly, I have plenty of opportunity to interact with students and pay attention to names.

From a purely anecdotal observation, if and when a student musters up the courage to ask a question in the large auditorium, addressing them by name appears to increase the likelihood of the student asking again.  Moreover, it seems to have an impact on other students in the classroom, too; anecdotally, I have noticed in lectures where I address student questions using student names, the number of different students asking questions appears to increase.  Overall, addressing students by name seems to communicate a message that students in our classrooms are not simply a body in a seat or a number in the system, but they are a member of a learning community.

2. Finding an inclusive platform for voicing questions. Despite reaching a point in the academic year where everyone knows each other by name, some students will never feel comfortable enough raising their hand to ask questions in the big lecture hall. Knowing this, along with the notion that student confusion rarely exist in isolation, this semester I made it a point to explore alternative platforms for asking questions during lecture.  Cue in the Google Doc: this handy, online word-processing tool gave me a platform for monitoring student questions in real time during lecture.  On the logistical end, it is worth noting that I have a TA monitoring our Google Doc during lecture, so that when a stream of questions comes through, common themes in questions are consolidated into one or two questions.  A few times during the lecture, I will check in with our TA and address questions.  It is also worth mentioning that the document has been set up such that student names are linked to their comments; this was implemented as a measure to keep comments appropriate and on track.  So far, this has turned out to be a great platform, not only for students asking lecture questions in real time, but also for facilitating some really great discussion amongst students.

 

3. Holding students accountable for in-class activities.  I quickly realized in my large lecture class that students were generally unmotivated to participate in any in-class activity unless I collected it and assigned points (which, by the way, can be a logistical nightmare with 250 students).  Yet, as I learned in Making it Stick: The Successful Science of Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (a previous book club endeavor of mine), engaging students in activities like 5 minute recall exercises is widely supported as an effective tool for long-term learning and retention.  So, I decided to piggy back off my previous idea of the Q&A Google Doc, and open up an entire classroom folder where, in addition to our Q&A doc, students had daily folders for submitting in-class activities (again, in real time).  As of now, the way that it works is as follows: upon completing the short recall exercise, or other in-class activity, students will snap a photo of their work and upload it to our Google drive.  Then, I choose a piece of student work to display as we review the activity prompt, which has proven to be a great method for maintaining student accountability (I disclosed to the students that I will randomly choose a few days in the semester to award extra credit for those who submitted during class).  Additionally, this provides quick feedback to me (in real time) regarding student comprehension and common misunderstandings; in fact, I will occasionally choose to review a student submission that represents a common mistake to highlight and address a common problem area.

In summary, implementing these small changes has offered realistic approaches to improving my students’ experience and creating community in an otherwise challenging setting: the large lecture.  While I retain other long-term teaching goals that require more of a time commitment, Lang’s sentiment that small ≠ insignificant provides a solid ground for improvement in the present.

References:

Brown, PC, Roediger, HL, and McDaniel, MA (2014). Making it Stick: The Successful Science of Learning.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cuseo, Joe. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. Journal of Faculty Development: 21.

Lang, James (2016).  Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

 

Amber Schlater earned her B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh in Biological Sciences, and her M.S. and Ph.D. from Colorado State University in Zoology; she also completed a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at McMaster University.  Currently, Amber is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at The College of Saint Scholastica in beautiful Duluth, MN, where she teaches Human Anatomy & Physiology, Super Physiology (a comparative physiology course), and mentors undergraduate research students.  Outside of work, Amber enjoys hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, and doing just about anything she can outside with her family.