Author Archives: Margaret Stieben

Pandemic, Physiology, Physical Therapy, Psychology, Purpose, Professor Fink, Practical Exams, and Proficiency!

Pandemic

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected education would be an understatement.  Physical distancing measures that were introduced across the world to reduce community spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 pathogen), necessitated a cessation or reduction of in-person instruction, and the introduction of what has come to be known as “emergency remote education”(1, 2).  Emergency remote education or teaching (ERE or ERT) is different from remote or online education in that, it is not planned and optional, but rather, a response to an educational emergency (3).

Physiology for Physical Therapy Students

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, as I was trying to keep my primary research program on regenerative and rehabilitative muscle biology moving forward (4), engaging with the scientific community on repurposing FDA-approved drugs for COVID-19 (5, 6), and working on the Biomaterials, Pharmacology, and Muscle Biology courses that I teach each year; I was requested to take on a new responsibility.  The new responsibility was to serve as the course master and sole instructor for a 3-credit, 15-week course on Physiology and Pathophysiology for Professional Year One (PY1) Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students.  I had foreseen taking on this responsibility a couple of years down the road, but COVID-19 contingencies required that I start teaching the course in January 2021.  I had always believed that within the Physical Therapy curriculum, Anatomy, Physiology and Neuroscience, were courses that could only be taught by people who were specialists – i.e. you had to be born for it and should have received a level of training needed to become a master of Shaolin Kung Fu (7).  With less than a year to prepare for my Physiology and Pathophysiology course, and with the acknowledgment that I was not trained in the martial art of Physiology instruction, I looked for inspiration.  The Peter Parker Principle from Spider-Man came to mind – “With great power comes great responsibility” (8).  Unfortunately, I realized that there was no corollary that said “With great responsibility comes great power”.  Self-doubt, anxious thoughts, and frank fear of failure abounded.

Psychology and Purpose

Call it coincidence, grace, or anything in between; at the time when I started preparing to teach Physiology and Pathophysiology, I had been working with a psychological counselor who was helping me process my grief following my father’s passing a couple of months before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.  In addition to processing my grief, through counseling, I had also started learning more about myself and how to process anxious thoughts, such as the fear of failing in my new superhero role of teaching Physiology and Pathophysiology to Physical Therapy students.  Learning how to effectively use my “wise mind” (an optimal intersection of the “emotional mind” and “reasonable mind”), writing out the possible “worst outcomes” and “likely outcomes”, practicing “self-compassion”, increasing distress tolerance, working on emotional regulation, and most importantly embracing “radical acceptance” of the things I cannot change, helped me work through the anxiety induced by my new teaching responsibility.  This does not mean that my anxiety vanished, it just means that I was more aware of it, acknowledged it, and worked my way through it to get to what I was supposed to do.  I also learned through counseling that purpose drives motivation.  I realized that my anxiety over teaching Physiology was related to the value I placed on the teaching and learning of Physiology in Physical Therapy and other health professions.  Being a Physical Therapist and Physiologist who is committed to promoting movement-centered healthcare, I found motivation in the prospect of training Physical Therapists to serve as health educators with the ultimate goal of improving human movement.  Therefore, the idea of developing a course that would give my students a solid foundation in the Physiology and Pathophysiology of Human Movement began to excite me more than intimidate me.  The aspects of my personality that inspired me to publish a paper on the possible pathophysiological mechanisms underlying COVID-19 complications (5), stirred in me the passion to train the next generation of Physical Therapists, who through their sound knowledge of Physiology would likely go on to transform healthcare and promote healthier societies through movement (9).

The point about purpose being a positive driver of motivation, mentioned above, has been known to educational psychologists for a while.  When students see that the purpose of learning something is bigger than themselves, they are more motivated to learn (10).  So, rather than setting up my course as a generic medical physiology course, I decided to set it up as a Physiology and Pathophysiology of Human Movement course that is customized for human movement experts in training – i.e. Student Physical Therapists.  I set my course up in four modules – Moving the Body (focused on muscle and nerve), Moving Materials Around the Body (focused on the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems), Fueling Movement (focused on cellular respiration and the ATP story), and Decoding the Genetics of Human Movement (focused on how genetic information is transcribed and translated into proteins that make movement possible).

Professor Fink

For those of you who have not heard of Professor Steven Fink, you should look him up (11).  A Ph.D.-trained Physiologist and former member of the American Physiological Society (APS), Professor Fink has posted over 200 original educational videos on YouTube, covering Anatomy, Physiology, Pharmacology, and other subjects.  I had found his YouTube videos several years ago, while looking for good resources for my Pharmacology course, and never stopped watching them ever since then.  I would watch his videos while exercising, and listen to them during my commute (and sometimes even during my ablutions!).  There were two topics in Physiology that scared me the most – cellular respiration and genetics.  I had learned these topics just well enough to get me through high school, four years of Physical Therapy School, one year of Post-Professional Physical Therapy training, six years of Ph.D. training in a Physiology laboratory, six years as a Postdoctoral Fellow (also in a Physiology laboratory), and several years as an Assistant Professor in Physical Therapy.  However, despite the “few years” I had spent in academia and my 10+ years being a member of the APS, I never felt that I had gained mastery over the basic physiology of cellular respiration and genetics.  So, when I started preparing to teach Physiology, I decided to up my number of views on Professor Fink’s videos on cellular respiration and genetics.  Furthermore, I reached out to Professor Fink and asked him if he would serve as a teaching mentor for my new course and he very kindly agreed.  I am fortunate to be a teacher-scholar in a department and university, which places a high priority on teaching, and supports training in pedagogy and the scholarship of teaching and learning through consultation with experts within and outside the university.  As part of our mentoring relationship, Professor Fink gave feedback on my syllabus, course content, testing materials and pedagogical strategies.  He also introduced me to “Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 16th Edition, by Gerard J. Tortora, Bryan H. Derrickson, which proved to be a useful resource (ISBN: 978-1-119-66268-6).  Through all these interactions, Professor Fink demonstrated that a person can be a “celebrity professor” and still be a kind and gentle human being.  Having him as my teaching mentor played a significant role in building my confidence as a physiology teacher.  Research shows that academic mentoring is related to favorable outcomes in various domains, which include behavior, attitudes, health, interpersonal relations, motivation, and career (12).

Practical Exams

As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled on through the Winter, Spring/Summer, and Fall semesters of 2020, it became certain that I would have to teach my Physiology and Pathophysiology course in a virtual environment come January 2021.  I had to figure out a way to make sure that the learning objectives of my course would be met despite the challenges posed by teaching and testing in a virtual environment.  Therefore, I came up with the idea of virtual practical exams for each of the four modules in my course.  These practical exams would be set up as a mock discussion between a Physical Therapist and a referring health professional regarding a patient who had been referred for Physical Therapy.  Students would take the exam individually.  On entering the virtual exam room, the student would introduce themselves as a Student Physical Therapist and then request me (the referring healthcare professional) to provide relevant details regarding the patient, in order to customize assessment, goal setting and treatment for the patient.  With the patient’s condition as the backdrop, I would ask the student questions from the course content that was relevant to the patient’s condition.  A clear and precise rubric for the exam would be provided to the students in keeping with the principles of transparency in learning and teaching (13).

Proficiency

As we went through the course, the virtual practical exams proved to be an opportunity to provide individualized attention and both summative and formative feedback to students (14).  As a teacher, it was rewarding to see my Physical Therapy students talk about cellular respiration and gene expression with more confidence and clarity than I could do during my prior 12+ years as a Ph.D.-trained Physiologist.  It was clear to me that my students had found a sense of purpose in the course content that was bigger than themselves – they believed that what they were learning would translate to better care for their patients and would ultimately help create healthier societies through movement.

In the qualitative feedback received through a formal student evaluation of teaching (SET) survey, one student wrote “Absolutely exceptional professor.  Please continue to do what you are doing for future cohorts.  You must keep the verbal practical examinations for this class.  Testing one’s ability to verbally explain how the body functions and how it is dysfunctional is the perfect way to assess if true learning has occurred.”  Sharing similar sentiments, another student wrote “I really enjoyed the format of this class. The virtual exams in this class forced us to really understand the content in a way that we can talk about it, rather than learning to answer a MC question. I hope future students are able to learn as much as I did from this class.”

Closing Remarks

When I meet students for the first time during a course, I tell them that even though I am their teacher, I am first a student.  I let them know that in order to teach, I first need to learn the content well myself.  Pandemic pedagogy in the time of COVID-19-related emergency remote education has reinforced my belief that, the best way to learn something is to teach it.  Thanks to my Physiology and Pathophysiology of Human Movement course, I learned more about myself, about teaching and learning, and of course about cellular respiration and genetics.  Do I now consider myself a master of Physiology instruction?  No!  Am I a more confident physiology teacher?  Yes!  Has writing this article made me reflect more on what worked well and what needs to be fine-tuned for the next iteration of my Physiology and Pathophysiology course?  Yes!

REFERENCES:

  1. Williamson B, Eynon R, Potter J. Pandemic politics, pedagogies and practices: digital technologies and distance education during the coronavirus emergency. Learning, Media and Technology. 2020;45(2):107-14.
  2. Bozkurt A, Jung I, Xiao J, Vladimirschi V, Schuwer R, Egorov G, et al. A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of Distance Education. 2020;15(1):1-126.
  3. Hodges C, Moore S, Lockee B, Trust T, Bond A. The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause review. 2020;27:1-12.
  4. Begam M, Roche R, Hass JJ, Basel CA, Blackmer JM, Konja JT, et al. The effects of concentric and eccentric training in murine models of dysferlin-associated muscular dystrophy. Muscle Nerve. 2020.
  5. Roche JA, Roche R. A hypothesized role for dysregulated bradykinin signaling in COVID-19 respiratory complications. FASEB J. 2020;34(6):7265-9.
  6. Joseph R, Renuka R. AN OPEN LETTER TO THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY ON THE POSSIBLE ROLE OF DYSREGULATED BRADYKININ SIGNALING IN COVID-19 RESPIRATORY COMPLICATIONS2020.
  7. Wikipedia contributors. Shaolin Kung Fu – Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 2021 [Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shaolin_Kung_Fu&oldid=1026594946.
  8. Wikipedia contributors. With great power comes great responsibility – Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 2021 [Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=With_great_power_comes_great_responsibility&oldid=1028753868.
  9. American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Transforming Society – American Physical Therapy Association [Available from: https://www.apta.org/transforming-society.
  10. Yeager DS, Henderson MD, Paunesku D, Walton GM, D’Mello S, Spitzer BJ, et al. Boring but important: a self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2014;107(4):559.
  11. Fink S. ProfessorFink.com [Available from: https://professorfink.com/.
  12. Eby LT, Allen TD, Evans SC, Ng T, Dubois D. Does Mentoring Matter? A Multidisciplinary Meta-Analysis Comparing Mentored and Non-Mentored Individuals. J Vocat Behav. 2008;72(2):254-67.
  13. Winkelmes M. Transparency in Learning and Teaching: Faculty and students benefit directly from a shared focus on learning and teaching processes. NEA Higher Education Advocate. 2013;30(1):6-9.
  14. Alt D. Teachers’ practices in science learning environments and their use of formative and summative assessment tasks. Learning Environments Research. 2018;21(3):387-406.
Joseph A. Roche, BPT, PhD.  Associate Professor.  Physical Therapy Program.  Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.  

I am an Associate Professor in the Physical Therapy Program at Wayne State University, located in the heart of “Motor City”, Detroit, Michigan.  My research program is focused on developing regenerative and rehabilitative interventions for muscle loss arising from neuromuscular diseases, trauma and aging.  I have a clinical background in Physical Therapy and have received intensive doctoral and postdoctoral research training in muscle physiology/biology.

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joseph-Roche-2

https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=-RCFS6oAAAAJ&hl=en


Things about self-care during the pandemic that you already know but should hear again anyway.

As the pandemic begins to show signs of weakening its grasp on the world, the stress and pressures of the past 15 months continue to wear on educators everywhere. This blog covers some aspects of self-care that may provide helpful reminders to us all for managing the ongoing situation, and a call for us to be honest with ourselves about how we’re doing, to give permission to ourselves to ask for support, and when we need it, to ensure that we get the help that we need.

I don’t actually know how long it feels like it has been since I first learned we went virtual last March. It simultaneously feels like it’s been forever and just a few weeks. I do know that by the time I got to 18 December, the last day of the fall semester, I had nothing left in reserve. I woke up on Saturday morning and I have no idea how long I sat there on the edge of the bed staring at the wall before I realized it. The fatigue and the burnout had been mounting for months and I knew that my self-care had been slipping. It took about 2 weeks of intense rest and recovery before I was able to resume any sort of work and I still find myself fatiguing mentally more quickly than ever before.

I’d outlined this article talking about self-care months ago, and in the spirit of this article, will admit that it was originally due on 18 September. Between asking how I was qualified to talk about this topic as I felt that I was barely holding things together myself, and challenge that there was always one more thing on my to-do list that needed doing, that date came and went on the calendar. So here we are, at the end of another semester, but the topic is as relevant as ever. I’ll focus on 3 key areas here, and share what I can about my successes and challenges in meeting my own self-care needs.

Meet your basic needs

As physiologists, we KNOW that bodies need rest, exercise, and sustenance. But how often do we make sure that we’re getting everything that we need?

The initial work-from-home situation meant that one of my first realizations of the new pandemic reality was that I needed to make myself go outside the house or else I would spend days in a row trudging between the bed, the refrigerator, and my at-home work area. I have added a daily, recurring to-do item on my task manager, “Get outside and move!” Most days this works. I have better success if I do it early in the day, as sometimes I find that I don’t have the energy or motivation after a long day on Zoom. Looking ahead to the fall and returning to campus, my challenge will be to preserve this time for walking, running, and other outdoor activities when my daily commute resumes.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that we get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 times per week, or vigorous activity for at least 20 minutes 3 times per week. Everyone should also engage in muscle-strengthening activities at least 2 times per week.1 That looks like different things to each of us, but the trick is to find something that you enjoy doing. Or at least, that you don’t hate doing.

The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. This amount slowly decreases as we age. This hasn’t ever been an area that I’ve struggled with. I actively use the sleep management features on my phone, with wind-down times, do not disturb hours, and reduced brightness and color hue settings. During the pandemic, however, sleep has been an important marker of my stress and fatigue. As the fall semester progressed, I found my nightly sleep creeping up, at one point getting 10-11 hours of sleep per night and still feeling tired. Make sure to get an appropriate amount of sleep to meet your rest needs, and use any changes in your sleep pattern to help identify changes in your stress and overall mental health.

And finally, I know that I am preaching to the choir telling you that a well-balanced diet is key to both maintaining energy levels throughout the day, supporting your immune system, and keeping up with other aspects of your general health. On this note, I would also bring up that occasionally indulging in a favorite meal or treat can often be mentally restorative, but that moderation is key here. I’m now on my second 50-lb bag of flour of the pandemic and while most of my baking has been breads, pastas, and other staple foods, the occasional cake or batch of cookies can be very powerful in keeping me feeling like my normal self.

Tracking priorities

Someone once explained priority management to me as juggling. Some of the balls in your hands are made of glass, some of them are made of plastic. A few of those balls may be the size of softballs or even a bowling ball, most of them are going to be smaller and more manageable. The trick is to know which of your priorities are the glass balls, the ones that have to be managed and kept up in the air until they are completed. The plastic balls can occasionally be set down, or when things get away from us, sometimes even dropped. I felt bad every time I looked at my task manager and postponed working on this piece for the PECOP blog, but I also knew that it wasn’t one of the balls that were mission-critical for me to keep in the air, so it got set down or shuffled around.

To keep track of which of my to-do items are made of glass and which are plastic, I set them to different priorities in my task manager. There are lots of to-do list and task manager apps. My personal favorite is Todoist, but there are some other fantastic ones out there, including Habitica, Things 3, and others. Find one that works for your organizational style and keeps you motivated to get things done. I’ll admit that I was hesitant to move away from using stickie notes for my to-do lists, but I find that I’m far more organized now then I was with my old system, and it allows me to stay on top of my responsibilities much more accurately. Even if I do postpone some of those tasks a few (or more) times when I know that they have flexibility to them.

Take a break

I think this one is the hardest, especially during the pandemic. Work-from-home has made it easier than ever to get a few more things done since we didn’t have to commute to the office anymore. Add in the pressure of social media posts telling us how others have had time to learn new musical instruments, pick up hobbies, and engage in elaborate projects, it’s easy to feel like we are underachieving in our own personal lives. For me personally, I’ve spent more time in office hours with students and the email flow has at least doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels when the semester is in session. That feeling of always having something to do and never being done makes it hard for me to disengage at the end of the day. Not only does this lead to prolonging our working hours, but it may have negative health consequences. A new report from the World Health Organization gives new evidence that work weeks longer than 55 hours may lead to increased risk of ischemic heart attacks, strokes, and other adverse events.2

I’ve talked about using a task manager with my list of things I need to be working on; I use that tool in concert with my calendar app to tell me where I need to be and when I need to be there. As much as possible, I will only add things to one or the other, but not both. The two exceptions that I make to this is scheduling my exercise on busy days when I’m likely to put it off or get side tracked into other tasks and blocking out periods of time where my explicit task is to walk away from work and relax for a little bit. Another useful tool is using the in-office hour settings on my calendar app and do-not-disturb features on my mobile devices to help enforce no-work hours when I am done for the day.

The difficult thing about our current situation is that I don’t think I’ve said anything that we don’t already know, that we haven’t been told numerous times by others, and that we probably often repeat to our colleagues when we provide words of comradery and support to one another. As educators, we often find ourselves in the role of care givers, so it’s far easier for us to tell others to take care of their basic needs, manage our priorities, and take breaks then it is for us to follow our own advice. On that note, the one thing that I will add to this article is this:

It’s okay to not be okay. The stress and pressure are real and we are each dealing with the current situation in ways that may or may not be keeping us together. Just because someone has their stuff together on the outside doesn’t show us what they need on the inside. I love that we’re asking each other how we’re doing more often, but I fear that we’re giving the easy answers and not taking full advantage of our wonderful community for the support that it can provide. Give yourself permission to take those breaks, to leave those emails unanswered for an extra day, and to make sure that you’re getting the self-care that you need. And for those times when everything is too much? Reach out and utilize your support networks and health care options to make sure that you are getting what you need. Finally, as a community of educators, we see you, we feel you, and together, we’ll get through this together.

1 ACSM. Physical Activity Guidelines. https://www.acsm.org/read-research/trending-topics-resource-pages/physical-activity-guidelines. Last accessed 15 May 2021.

2 Pega F, et al. (2021). Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury. Environmental International. In press, corrected proof. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106595

Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Co-Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in improving science pedagogy and in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise. When he’s not working, he spends time as a certified scuba instructor, baking bread, and playing board games.

Ryan Downey, Ph.D., M.A.
Assistant Professor
Co-Director, Graduate Physiology Program
Team Leader, Special Master’s Program in Physiology

Department Pharmacology and Physiology
Georgetown University Medical Center
Washington, D.C.

 

Down the custom path: Adaptive learning as a tool for instruction and assessment in science education

The spread of COVID-19 via the SARS-CoV-2 virus led colleges and universities around the world to close on-campus instruction for the safety of students, faculty and staff.  This left many instructors, specifically those in the sciences, struggling to find effective methods to present information to students in a manner that both encouraged learning and allowed for assessment of knowledge attainment.  Non-traditional colleges and universities, those that offer most or all of a degree to students in the online environment, were poised to transition easily; continuing to use the tools available in the virtual world to both guide students and assess learning.  As institutions wrestle with the decision to move courses back to the on-campus setting, this blog implores those in higher education, even science education, to consider adaptive learning as a vital component of curriculum.

Prior to my appointment as Lead Faculty at Colorado Technical University, I taught a variety of science courses in on-campus class and laboratory settings.  Both exams and laboratory practica could be cumbersome, both in prep and in grading.  While the questions could be mapped back to unit and/or course learning outcomes, this would require input of each student’s response to each question into a data sheet for analysis.  Even with online administration of exams, assessment methods were limited and instructors like myself were reliant on continuous creation of lectures, worksheets, activities, and online simulations to present course materials.  When it came time to transition to online, students would navigate through a learning management system and open a variety of files, videos, interactive activities, practice sheets, and practice quizzes for one unit in a course.  There had to be a better way to incorporate all the things we know drive student inquiry into one area while allowing assessment of their knowledge, right?  There was.

Enter adaptive learning technology.  Colorado Technical University relies upon Intellipath™ to deliver content to students in the asynchronous classroom in a variety of subjects, including natural sciences, math, engineering, nursing, and health studies.  I entered into teaching and managing faculty as a novice in this tool, and now I want to sing its praises to anyone who will listen. Adaptive learning does just as the title suggests.  It adapts based on the student’s knowledge, adding questions in areas where they need additional practice and allowing those already determined to have a certain understanding of topics to skip on to new materials.  Once these lesson nodes are designed, they can be used over and over again and questions can be delivered in a variety of ways to assess the same outcome. Gone is the need to continuously upload materials as they are all housed within the adaptive learning platform.  Instructors have the ability to see how a student is doing not just in terms of their progress through the unit but also their mastery of a specific topic.  Students have the ability to earn high marks when they demonstrate competency in the subject on their first attempt but are able to improve their score when they didn’t do as well as they had hoped.

The system rolls instruction, interaction, and formative and summative assessments all in together in one data rich place.  Instructors can tailor their outreach and additional instruction to specific students or overall trends within a specific cohort.  Those tasked with the assessment of effectiveness portion of curriculum can pull these data to discern what outcomes are being met.  In modern higher-ed, what students know is important but how we know they know what they know is also a priority.  We have to be able to paint a quantitative picture that our curriculum is effective.

Students are re-evaluating their choices for universities and it is wise of all of us to consider our options for content delivery and knowledge assessment.  I think many educators in colleges or universities have attended at least one meeting at this point to discuss the decline in the number of “traditional” college students and some of us may have even been tasked with figuring out what to do about it.  More and more students are faced with the dilemma of needing to manage being caregivers, members of the workforce, or other life challenges while also attaining a degree.  This is our time to be bold and innovative in the classroom and really personalize a student’s experience.  Will there always be “traditional” college classes?  Only time will tell.  I cannot predict where we will be as educators in a decade but I can say that it will be my goal to evolve to meet the demands of the profession.  Science leads us to advances and adaptations so shouldn’t we be advanced and adaptive in science education?

Dr. Tiffany Halfacre (she/her) earned undergraduate degrees from Berea College (Biology) and Saint Petersburg College (Funeral Services), an MSMS from Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida, and a DHSc from A.T. Still University College of Graduate Health Studies.

She has a varied background as an educator spanning over 10 years.  She has taught courses in general biology, human biology, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and health sciences in addition to interdisciplinary work in medical humanities.  She has been involved in course development, programmatic and institutional accreditation, and institutional research and effectiveness.  Her research and service interests include exploring health and nutrition literacy as they relate to geographical and socioeconomic differences. Outside of the classroom, she has been involved in chapel series lectures including one on “Truth in Grief” and was awarded the Excellence in Academic Advising award during her tenure at Carson-Newman University for her work advising pre-health professions students.  Dr. Halfacre currently serves as a Lead Faculty and an Assistant Professor of Health Studies at Colorado Technical University where she not only focuses on faculty preparation and support but also initiatives to retain and encourage success in first year and first generation college students.

Her hobbies include anything outdoors, running, amateur photography, and enjoying various arts, specifically music.

Considering Student Evaluations of Your Teaching

After a long and trying academic year, student evaluations of your teaching will soon be in your inbox. A bit of courage is required to take a first glance at student comments about your course. Given the substantial increase in time and effort this academic year has required, critical comments may feel even more harsh.

When you do look over your student evaluations, take a few minutes to copy or write down some of the positive comments. Believe and appreciate these comments. Students value your knowledge, talents, and hard work. Then, put the evaluations away for a few days. Come back to them when you have time and energy for self-reflection.

The act of teaching is extremely personal, and it is difficult not to take critical comments as a personal attack. To compound these feelings, student evaluations are often central to the reappointment, promotion, and tenure processes. While some institutions have taken proactive measures to mitigate the effect of the pandemic on these processes, uncertainty about how review committees will consider student teaching evaluations from these terms can increase anxiety for educators.

There are other problematic issues with student evaluations. Current tools used to survey student opinions about their learning experiences are flawed. Meta-analysis indicates there is little to no relationship between what students learn and how they evaluate their teachers (1, 2). Common evaluation survey methods also have well-established biases against women and people of color (3). There are clear steps institutions can take to mitigate these issues, including educating students on the important aspects of teaching evaluations (4), adapting evaluation tools to decrease bias (5), and adopting multi-faceted evaluation methods (6).

Addressing these systemic issues around teaching evaluations is critical. However, what can you do now with your current teaching evaluations to help shape and improve your teaching? Here are a few things for you to consider:

 

  1. Are they venting? This has been a difficult time for all of us, including your students. Are they using this evaluation to release some of their frustrations? If so, attempt to disconnect the intensity of the complaint from constructive points.
  2. What are the common themes? What are your students saying? Do you see similar comments across your student evaluations? Are comments focused on specific lectures or activities? Course design? Grading? Communication? Take note of these themes.
  3. What are the institutional expectations for teaching? What aspects of your teaching are most important to your institution? Conversations with your department chair or other mentors may help you prioritize the actions you take in response to your evaluations. If it is possible to gain access to comparative evaluation data, this will provide further insight into your own evaluations.
  4. What is the context for this course? What are you trying to accomplish in this course? Are you implementing an evidence-based pedagogy which steers away from lecture? If so, students could be scoring you lower because, even though they are learning more, they don’t perceive this increased learning (7). Are you communicating your expectations for this type of learning, so they know what to expect?
  5. What incremental changes are you going to make next time you teach the course? Given the student evaluation themes, institutional expectations, the course context, and your strengths, what changes are you going to prioritize? Focus on incremental changes, as it gives you an opportunity to test and assess the impact of these small changes. For example, are you going to be more intentional about explaining to your students why you teach the way you do and what they should expect? Are you going to incorporate more structure or feedback in your assignments? Are you going to decrease content to focus on large concepts? This would also be a great time to bounce ideas around with colleagues and mentors – or check-out different options in the literature.

 

While reviewing your evaluations and considering your next steps, document the themes you decide to address. Pull a few representative comments from your teaching evaluations and write a paragraph or two about changes you are planning in response to the comments. This documentation will be helpful for the next time you teach the course. This reflection can also inform self-narratives required for the review process or–if you are looking for another job–crafting your teaching statement. This reflection is even more important as you consider what aspects of your teaching were particularly effective during this academic year of pandemic teaching. You may want to keep successful aspects of your course even if we transition back into a more traditional educational setting.

A huge thank you to educators who made it work this year! Your students and colleagues appreciate everything you have done. A special thank you to those who discussed your experiences with teaching evaluations with me, but wished to remain anonymous, in preparation for my symposium presentation at EB2021, hosted by the APS Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee, entitled “Using Teaching Evaluations to Enhance Your Career Trajectory” from which this post was based.

 

References

 

  1. Uttl B, White CA, Gonzalez DW. Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related. Stud Educ Eval 54: 22–42, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.stueduc.2016.08.007.
  2. Boring A, Ottoboni K. Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness. ScienceOpen Research, 2016. DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1
  3. Chávez K, Mitchell KMW. Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity. PS Polit Sci Polit 53: 270–274, 2020. DOI: 10.1017/S1049096519001744.
  4. Hopper M. Student Evaluation of Teaching – The Next 100 Years [Online]. PECOP Blog: 2019. https://blog.lifescitrc.org/pecop/2019/06/21/student-evaluation-of-teaching-the-next-100-years/ [2 May 2021].
  5. Peterson DAM, Biederman LA, Andersen D, Ditonto TM, Roe K. Mitigating gender bias in student evaluations of teaching. PLOS ONE 14: e0216241, 2019. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216241.
  6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Recognizing and Evaluating Science Teaching in Higher Education: Proceedings of a Workshop–in Brief [Online]. The National Academies Press: 12, 2020. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25685/recognizing-and-evaluating-science-teaching-in-higher-education-proceedings-of.
  7. Deslauriers L, McCarty LS, Miller K, Callaghan K, Kestin G. Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proc Natl Acad Sci 116: 19251–19257, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116.
Katie Johnson, Ph.D., is an experienced practitioner and evaluator of inclusive teaching and mentoring practices. Dr. Johnson advises and serves on national STEM education initiatives and committees, working with a diverse network of collaborators. Her work has been recognized by the American Physiological Society Teaching Section, as she has been presented both the Research Recognition and the New Investigator Awards. As an independent consultant at Trail Build, LLC, Dr. Johnson assists institutions and professional organizations as they develop, implement, and assess innovative solutions to curricular and programmatic challenges. Prior to becoming an independent consultant, Dr. Johnson was Chair and Associate Professor of Biology at Beloit College. She earned her Ph.D. in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University and her B.S. from Beloit College. Disclosure: Dr. Johnson serves as an external consultant for APS.
Less is more – focusing on the core concepts

When it comes to teaching a subject in depth and breadth, an instructor may face the challenges of limited time versus unlimited contents. To this end, the instructor may focus on covering as much as possible material in a lecture, or on the key concepts that help prioritize contents and overarch a myriad of information. The former strategy is highly content-centered and can be overwhelming to both the instructor and students, and in fact, studies have shown that instruction time is not necessarily proportional to learning outcome [1]. By contrast, the latter strategy makes time for the instructor and student to interact, discuss, and apply the key concepts to problem solving activities, which fosters an active and interactive learning environment. In line with the evidence showing that students benefit more from an active and interactive learning experience [2], educators have called for less coverage and more inquiry aiming high beyond just the facts so that student’s learning can be enhanced by talking, writing, and collaborating [3-4].

How can one effectively prioritize contents by focusing on the key concepts pertaining to the latter strategy? One of the possible ways is to use learning objectives or anticipated learning outcomes to navigate content prioritization. It is overwhelming to start with materials for teaching planning due to fast growing research and knowledge explosion. However, using a backward design may change the game. Backward design of a course starts with developing clear learning objectives, which aligns selection of lecture contents with anticipated learning outcomes [5-6]. For instance, to accomplish the objective of building students’ critical thinking skills, an instructor will strategically plan time for not only covering materials but also information processing and application. Other than concentrating student learning on facts only, the class will be fueled by problem-based collaborative learning. To this end, it is critical for the instructor to elaborate the key principles or concepts, the very guides students need to address complex problems that demand more than simple factual answers. The collection of facts relevant to the class can be provided as supplemental information or resources for students to look up for problem solving, while it can limit student learning as a major commitment of memorization.

Mastery of basic principles plus being detail-oriented is required for success in experimentation and authentic research in a lab course [7]. To this end, students are expected to pay attention to experimental details in addition to core concepts, raising the question as to how course contents can be prioritized. First, the strategy of backward design still applies. Secondly, the learning objectives or anticipated learning outcomes can be defined such that they focus on core principles and transferrable or interchangeable skills. For instance, the course Laboratory Techniques in Molecular Nutrition covers several sets of lab techniques, one of which is immunoassays. Immunoassays represent a set of methods based on antigen-antibody binding reactions, including Western blotting (WB), immunoprecipitation (IP), co-immunoprecipitation (co-IP), chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP), ChIP sequencing (ChIPsec), immunohistochemistry (IHC), immunocytochemistry (ICC), and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Each method may take 1-2 weeks (5 hours/week) to cover the principles and operational procedures, and the set of immunoassays alone may occupy a semester. Obviously, it is very challenging to elaborate on each of the immunoassays within a semester given the limited time and resources, plus the needs to cover non-immunoassay techniques. However, it is practical for students to learn about the techniques within 4-5 weeks (5 hours/week) with a prioritized focus by elaborating on the core concepts shared by the eight immunoassays and contrasting the major differences among them. The core principles are shared by all the immunoassays regarding immobilization, blocking, immunobinding, washing, and detection processes. Yet, they are different in assay microenvironments including the solid phases, blocking solutions, antibodies, targets of interest, washing solutions, and detection reagents and instruments. Priority can be given to elaborating the core concepts and major differences (1-2 weeks) and to practicing the most used and accessible immunoassays such as WB, IP, and ELISA (3 weeks).

Practically, use of flipped classrooms can further enhance students’ mastery of key concepts and their ability to apply the concepts to solving problems. In a flipped classroom, the instructor lectures less in class but the course materials and recorded lectures are uploaded to the course management site (e.g., Canvas) for students to study in advance. Students tend to learn more through problem-solving activities with the instructor and peers in class that build critical thinking skills. As such, the learning outcomes can be increased and go beyond the contents by enhancing students’ critical thinking skills, which will benefit their lifelong learning after college.

Taken together, focusing on facts less in class but targeting core concepts and knowledge application more may serve as an effective strategy to build students’ critical thinking skills. The “less” by no means refers to an easy class. Instead, both the instructor and students spend more time outside the class preparing and studying course materials. This is to prepare everyone for more higher-order-thinking activities (e.g., analysis, evaluation, and application) in class. The “less” for “more” pedagogy may benefit student’s lifelong learning experience.

 

References and further reading

[1] Andersen SC, Humlum MK, Nandrup AB. Increasing instruction time in school does increase learning.

Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2016 Jul 5;113(27):7481-4.

[2] Dolan EL, Collins JP. We must teach more effectively: here are four ways to get started. Mol Biol Cell. 2015 Jun 15;26(12):2151-5.

[3] Luckie DB, Aubry JR, Marengo BJ, Rivkin AM, Foos LA, Maleszewski JJ. Less teaching, more learning: 10-yr study supports increasing student learning through less coverage and more inquiry. Adv Physiol Educ. 2012 Dec;36(4):325-35.

[4] DiCarlo SE. Too much content, not enough thinking, and too little fun! Adv Physiol Educ. 2009 Dec;33(4):257-64.

[5] Allen D, Tanner K. Putting the horse back in front of the cart: using visions and decisions about high-quality learning experiences to drive course design. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2007, 6(2): 85–89

[6] Hills M, Harcombe K, Bernstein N. Using anticipated learning outcomes for backward design of a molecular cell biology Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience. Biochem Mol Biol Educ. 2020 Jul;48(4):311-319.

[7] DiCarlo SE. Cell biology should be taught as science is practiced. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2006 Apr;7(4):290-6.

Dr. Zhiyong Cheng received his PhD in Analytical Biochemistry from Peking University, after which he conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Harvard Medical School. Dr. Cheng is now an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Science at the University of Florida. He has taught several undergraduate- and graduate-level courses (lectures and lab) in human nutrition and metabolism (including metabolic physiology). As the principal investigator in a research lab studying metabolic diseases (obesity and type 2 diabetes), Dr. Cheng has been actively developing and implementing new pedagogical approaches to build students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Synchronous and asynchronous experiences in Advanced Exercise Physiology Courses: what teaching tools work best for my students?

Covid-19 caught all of us off guard, but educators were hit particularly hard and uniquely. I already have flipped classroom teaching and active learning, so the transition was not too difficult for me. However, I found myself incorporating many technological innovations. Was I doing too much? Which features were helping my students, and which ones were overwhelming? In this blog, I want to share some of the strategies I used with undergraduate students taking Advanced Exercise Physiology synchronously and asynchronously.

 

Additionally, within this blog, I am sharing the student’s perceptions of these technological innovations. In total, fifty-two students enrolled in different sections of “Advanced Exercise Physiology” culminating undergraduate experience (CUE) were invited to participate in a short survey regarding their learning experiences during this current Spring 2021 semester. A total of thirty-nine (n=39) students completed the confidential survey about whether different technological innovations helped them understand the material and study.

Who completed the survey?

Figure 1: Fifty-two students enrolled either in synchronous or asynchronous undergraduate advanced exercise physiology sections were invited to participate, and thirty-nine (n=39) responses were obtained. Seventy-two percent of the responders were enrolled in the asynchronous section, and 27.78% were enrolled in the synchronous section.

 

 

Video assignment for glucose metabolism

 During pre-COVID-19 times, I would teach using active-learning team-based instruction. For the first team-based assignment, student teams were asked to discuss and explain in easy terms one of the most difficult topics for my students: glucose metabolism. For this activity, I would bring Legos, markers of different colors, magnets, and other toys; and students were asked to use the materials and make a video of the complete oxidation of a glucose molecule. This in-class, graded assignment seem to help students to understand the metabolic pathways.  I modified the project due to distance learning, so each student has to create a video using any material desired to explain in simple words (without chemical formulas). This assignment is based on the constructivism theory of learning. It makes it innovative because the students learned that glucose is a six-carbon molecule that has to be fully “broken down” (oxidated) through different stages. Once they understand the steps, they could “name” each step and each enzyme. Some students used coins, Legos, or wrote down the step while explaining the process verbally. Some examples of the submissions can be seen in the links below:

Example submission glycolysis  one and example complete glucose oxidation.

 Students perception on making a video assignment for glucose metabolism

Figure 2: Students’ responses to the question “Having to make the video of metabolism in assignment two helped me understand glucose metabolism.” 71.43% responded true (it was helpful), and 28.57% responded false (it was not helpful)

 

 

 

Incorporation of Virtual Lab Experiences using Visible Body and Lt Kuracloud platforms.

One of the main concerns for me was to maintain and increase engagement while teaching virtually or remotely. I incorporated the Lt Kuracloud, a platform for interactive assignments, immediate feedback, videos, and physiology laboratory experiences in all my courses. I took advantage of the free trial, and I used it for some assignments. I received unsolicited emails from students expressing how helpful they found these assignments.  I also used Visible Body Anatomy and Physiology, which I used for lectures. I recommended it to students as supplemental material and for self-graded quizzes. Visible Body Anatomy and Physiology is available at no cost to students as our Institution’s library obtained the subscription for all the students.

Students’ perceptions: “How helpful do you find the following features? “

Figure 3: Responses to the question: How helpful do you find the following features (from 0 to 100 being 0 not useful to 100 very useful). The mean value for assignments in Lt Kuracloud was 79.08/100 (sd= 21), and for Visible Body was 74.74/100 (sd= 24)

 

Old Reliable Discussion Board

I recently completed my training on Quality Matters (QM) certification (1), and so my courses follow the rubrics of QM Higher Education General Standards. Specifically, QM Module 1 suggests using an introductory welcoming video encouraging the students to introduce themselves to the class using a video, a meme, a photo, or text. The best, and probably the only feature on Blackboard to do this is the “Discussion Board.” The discussion board is a great feature that allows students to increase participation. After all, students are the biggest consumers of social media, videos, and memes. The Discussion Board should be the closest FERPA approved version of TikTok or Facebook, right? WRONG! It worked fine for the first thread entitled “welcome,” most of the students responded by typing to answer the questions. Nobody made a voice thread, a meme, or a video. Afterward, I encouraged participation on the discussion board by posting questions and suggesting posting questions on the discussion board. After a few “virtual crickets” on Discussion Board, I quit posting questions there and developed interactive lectures with pop-up quizzes. As expected, Discussion Board was not very popular among my students.

Students’ perceptions: “How helpful do you find the discussion board on Blackboard? “

 Figure 4: Responses to the question: How helpful do you find the following features (from 0 to 100 being 0 not useful to 100 very useful). The mean value for the discussion board was 43.08/100 (sd= 25).

 Interactive pre-recorded lectures

Pre-recorded lectures are integral components of my synchronous and asynchronous course sections. These are developed using the interactive feature in Camtasia, in which I developed animated lectures. Thus, students are asked to watch the lessons and complete short quizzes that provide immediate feedback. If the concept is mastered, the student continues watching. If not, they are redirected to the lecture or part of the lecture where the concept is explained.

 Students’ perceptions: “How helpful do you find the interactive pre-recorded lectures? “

Figure 5: Responses to the question: How helpful do you find the following features (from 0 to 100 being 0 not useful to 100 very useful). The mean value for interactive pre-recorded lectures was 79.27/100 (sd= 16.8), and for Visible Body was 81.74/100 (sd= 17.8)

 

Quizlet and Quizlet live game

Like many educators worldwide, I teach my students and support their learning throughout our virtual synchronous meetings. Indeed, this is not easy. One day, as I was finishing my class, I heard screams and laughs! My ten-year-old was having so much fun in his most favorite subject. What is going on? I asked, “it was a close one,” my son said, “I got second place.”  It turned out that he was playing a “Quizlet Game.” Quizlet and Quizlet live have been used by teachers and students to reinforce learned material. I decided to try it, and I created a teacher profile to play games during the remote lectures. Every class, I started a Quizlet game; students use their phones or computers to play a race (team and individual). They play a “race” at the beginning of the class and again at the end of the class. This low-risk activity provides me with important information about misconceptions or concepts that are not mastered yet. Students play again towards the end of the class. This simple activity takes 10 minutes of instruction (5 minutes each “race”). However, it has been proven to be both helpful and fun for the students. Quizlet live was used only in my synchronous classes, but the Quizlet study sets were available to both synchronous and asynchronous sections.

I used this with graduate students enrolled in Human Physiology in the previous semester, and it was a hit! Students loved it, and class after class, this became very competitive. Not only were my students very well prepared for class, but also the competition made it so much fun!

Similar to Quizlet are such programs as Kahoot, Brainscape,  and others that are available for free or very affordable options.

Students’ perceptions: “How helpful do you find Quizlet study sets and Quizlet live? “

Figure 6: Responses to the question: How helpful do you find the following features (from 0 to 100 being 0 not useful to 100 very useful). The mean value for Quizlet sets was 76.86/100 (sd= 24), and for Quizlet live was 68.31/100 (sd= 28). One limitation is that most responders were students in the asynchronous section who did not participate in Quizlet live games.

 

MS Teams meetings and/or virtual office hours

 I chose Microsoft Teams (MS) for my virtual meetings simply because it is widely adopted at my Institution, and I prefer to keep it simple for students. For my synchronous section, I used a flipped virtual model, in which we meet once per week, and the other day they work on their own on assignments. I did this to avoid screen burnout students in the synchronous section. However, I have been happily surprised with students attending remote classes and the various office hours I provide. Yes, I do provide different office hours; very much this semester, I made every space available on my calendar as extra office hours. I realize that for many, meeting online for “virtual office hours” is more accessible to them (and perhaps less intimidating) than attending office hours in my office, as we did pre-pandemic.

Why did I offer so many office hours? First of all, because I could. Since I can’t conduct research studies with humans during the pandemic, it freed some time I had set aside for data collection to teaching.

Additionally, not driving to and from campus saved me an average of 75 minutes per day, which allowed me to have another office hour option. In reality, I did not use all these hours in meetings with students. Many times nobody needed to meet. However, there were a couple of times in which I’d meet with a student who was struggling. Not with the class or the content. But struggling with life, some students had somebody close to them sick or dying; some lost their job or financial aid, some were working exceptionally long hours as essential workers. For some, isolation was too much. One student, in particular, told me recently, “I do not have any questions today; I just needed some social interaction.” Flexible and various virtual office hours seemed beneficial for students, particularly for those in asynchronous e-learning experiences.

Students’ perceptions: “How helpful do you find the MS Teams meetings and virtual office hours? “

 

Figure 7: Responses to the question: How helpful do you find the following features (from 0 to 100 being 0 not useful to 100 very useful). The mean value for MS Teams and Virtual Office Hours was 75.86/100 (sd= 21).

 

 

 Conclusions

 Like most higher education instructors, I had to adapt quickly and shift to e-learning due to the pandemic. Fortunately, I had already taught online several times before and introduced several components to my flipped courses. However, I still struggled to find more interactive ways to keep my students engaged. Not only educators have to deal with the mental exhaustion of finding pedagogical tools that work in this new scenario when we have not had the time to produce evidence-based successful approaches to teaching remotely. But also, we are teaching distraught students. From the scarce but rapidly growing literature, we know that “our college students are currently struggling to stay hopeful and positive in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic” (2). When asked about their feelings during the transition to virtual classes, students reported that they felt “uncertain” (59.5%), “anxious” (50.7%), “nervous” (41.2%), and “sad” (37.2%). (3) We have to teach students that are dealing with a lot of negative emotions and stress. We, educators, are also living with many of those emotions. My goal with this blog was to share some of my experiences teaching virtually and provide some ideas for any physiology educator that may need them.

References

Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition. Quality Matters. Retrieved from Specific Review Standards from the QM Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition

  • Munsell, S. E., O’Malley, L. & Mackey, C. (2020). Coping with COVID. Educational Research: Theory and Practice, 31(3), 101-109.
  • Murphy, L., Eduljee, N. B., Croteau, K. College Student Transition to Synchronous Virtual Classes during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Northeastern United States. Pedagogical Research,5(4), em0078. https://doi.org/10.29333/pr/8485
Dr. Terson de Paleville teaches Advanced Exercise Physiology, Neuromuscular Exercise Physiology, and Human Physiology courses. Her research interests include motor control and exercise-induced neuroplasticity. In particular, Dr. Terson de Paleville has investigated the effects of activity-based therapy on respiratory muscles and trunk motor control after spinal cord injury. Additional research project involves the assessment of the effects of exercise training in elementary and middle school students on balance, visual efficiency, motor proficiency, motor control and behavior in the classroom and at home. Dr. Terson de Paleville is interested in elucidating any links between physical activity and academic skills and performance.

 

Repurposing the notecard to create a concept map for blood pressure regulation

One amazing aspect of physiology is the coordinated, almost choreographed function of millions of moving parts.  The body has mastered multitasking, maintaining hundreds of parameters within narrow and optimal ranges at the same time.  This very aspect of physiology fuels our passion and enthusiasm for teaching physiology and piques the interests of students.  The networks of numerous overt and subtle interdependent mechanisms and signaling pathways between multiple organs and tissues that regulate plasma calcium or energy intake, for example, also represent major challenges to understanding and learning physiology for students.  We ask our students to combine the wisdom of two old sayings: “You can’t see the forest for the trees’, and “The devil is in the details.”  They need to understand both the bigger picture of the whole animal and the nuanced interlinking of mechanisms, and even molecules, that seamlessly and dynamically maintain different parameters within narrow ranges.  It can be frustrating and discouraging for students.  Furthermore, passing with high marks in systems physiology or anatomy-physiology II is a criterion for eligibility to apply to various health profession programs.  As educators we must acknowledge the complexity of physiology and find ways to help our students literally see and master smaller sections of the larger regulatory network so they can recreate and master the larger network.

For even the best prepared student, as well as the student who cannot take all recommended prerequisite courses for A&P-II or basic physiology, the collection of numerous parts, mechanisms, equations and connections, principles, and laws can represent an obstacle to learning.  Student comments such as, “There is so much to know.”, “It’s so complicated.”, and “Physiology is hard.” are accurate and fair, but also warrant validation.  A little bit of validation and communicating the challenges we encountered as students goes a long way in helping our students’ willingness to endure and continue to strive.  Physiology courses are not impossible, but they are difficult and might well be the most difficult courses a student takes.  I will not pretend or lie to my students.  If I were to dismiss physiology as a whole or a given concept as easy and simple, I risk my student thinking they should be learning principles effortlessly or instinctively and begin to doubt themselves and give up.  It helps to confess apprehensions you yourself felt when first learning various physiological concepts or phenomena.  As a novice physiology student, I had many moments at which I wanted to tap out.  ne major example was my introduction to the beautiful, albeit daunting display of all the electrical and mechanical events that occur in only the heart during a single cardiac cycle in just 0.8 seconds, i.e., the Wiggers diagram.  Every time I project this diagram on the screen, I give students a moment to take it in and listen for the gasps or moans.  I admit to my students that upon seeing that diagram for the first time I looked for the nearest exit and thought to myself, ‘Are you kiddin’ me?”  Students laugh nervously.  They sigh in relief when I tell them that my professor broke down the diagram one panel at a time before putting all together; his approached worked, and that is what I will do for them.  Dr. Carl Wiggers was committed to teaching physiology and developed the diagram over 100 years ago as a teaching tool for medical students (1).  The diagram is instrumental in teaching normal cardiac physiology, as well as pathophysiology of congenital valve abnormalities and septal defects.  Nevertheless, students still need help to understand the diagram.  Again, here an example of the function of just one organ, the heart, being a central element to a larger network that regulates a major parameter – blood pressure.  Learning regulation of blood pressure can be an uphill battle for many students.

Cardiovascular physiology is typically a single unit in an undergraduate physiology course, and it is often the most challenging and difficult exam of the semester.  Several years ago, when preparing to teach this section in an AP-II course I felt compelled to find ways to help students break-down and reconstruct pieces of complex regulation of blood pressure.  I considered the many high-tech digital learning resources and online videos available to our students but wondered whether those resources help or hinder students.  I was also looking for tools that would facilitate multisensory learning, which is shown to yield better memory and recall (2).  Despite all these high-tech resources, I noticed students were still avid users of notecards and were convinced they held the secret to success in AP-I and thus, must also be the key to success in AP-II or systems physiology.  I found this quite amusing, because we used notecards back when I was in college in the 80s – when there were no digital learning platforms and highlighters only came in yellow.  Students tote around stacks of hand-written, color coded notecards that grow taller as the semester progresses, but often their comprehension and ability to connect one concept or mechanism to the next does not increase with the height of the stack.  Students often memorize terms on note cards but cannot readily connect the mechanism listed on one card to that on the next card or explain the consequence of that mechanism failing.  Around this time a non-science colleague was talking to me about her successful use of concept maps with her students.  To me, concept maps look a lot like biochemical pathways or physiological network diagrams.  It dawned on me.  I did not need to reinvent the wheel or make a newer better teaching tool.  I simply needed to help my students connect The Notecards and practice arranging them to better pattern regulatory networks.  Students were already writing a term on one side of the card and a definition and other notes on the back.  Why not build on that activity and more deliberately guide students to use cards to build a concept map of the network for regulation of blood pressure which is central to cardiovascular physiology?

 

Blood pressure is a physiological endpoint regulated by a nexus of autoregulatory, neural and hormonal mechanisms and multiple organs and tissues.  Blood pressure is directly dependent on cardiac output, vascular peripheral resistance, and blood volume, but can be altered by a tiered network of numerous neural, hormonal and cellular mechanisms that directly or indirectly modulate any one of the three primary determinants.  The expansive network, e.g., numerous organs and tissues, and multiple and intersecting effects of different mechanisms within the network, e.g., the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system modulates both vascular resistance and blood volume) make it difficult to see the network in its entirety.  Nevertheless, students must understand and master the entire network, the individual mechanisms, and the nuances.  Thus, in preparing for the cardiovascular section and planning how to implement the concept map, I made a list of all components that comprised the regulatory network for blood pressure with the first terms being blood pressure, cardiac output, vascular peripheral resistance, and blood volume.  At this point in the semester, the students had learned the basics of cellular respiration and metabolism.  I began the very first cardiovascular lecture with an illustration of the human circulatory system projected on the screen as I worked at the white board.  In the center of the board, I drew a cell with a single mitochondrion and three simple arrows to indicate the use of glucose and oxygen to convert ADP to ATP.  Guided through a series of questions and answers, students collectively explained that the heart must pump blood through arteries and veins to deliver oxygen and glucose and fat needed to generate ATP, as well as to remove carbon dioxide and other wastes.  Using the illustration of the human circulatory system, I then carefully explained the human circulatory system is a closed system comprised of the blood (the medium carrying oxygen, nutrients, CO2 and other wastes), the heart (the pump), and the arterial and venous vessels (the conduits in which blood flows from the heart to the tissues where oxygen and nutrients are delivered and CO2 and other wastes are removed).  If adequate pressure is sustained, blood continues to flow through veins back through the heart and to the lungs to unload CO2 and reoxygenate blood and then back to the heart to make another round.  I further explained blood pressure must be regulated to ensure blood flow to tissues optimally matches both metabolic need for oxygen and nutrients and production of CO2.  On the board, I then wrote “Blood Pressure (BP)” and stated that because this is a closed circulatory system, blood pressure changes in direct response and proportion to cardiac output or volume of blood pumped out of heart into systemic vessels in one minute, the total volume of blood in the system, and the vascular resistance that opposes flow and will be predominantly dependent vasoconstriction and vasodilation.  I wrote the terms “Cardiac Output (CO), Blood Volume (BV), and Vascular or Total Peripheral Resistance (VPR) one at a time underneath BP, each with an arrow pointing directly to BP.  I stated that any factor that changes cardiac output, blood volume, or vascular resistance can indirectly alter blood pressure.  For example, a change in heart rate can change cardiac output and thus, alter blood pressure.  I then distributed the series of hand drawn diagrams shown below.  As I pass out the sheets and display on slides, I tell them they will be learning about all these various factors and mechanisms and will be able to recreate the network and use it as a study aid.

To get students started, I handed out the list of cardiovascular terms, hormones, equations, etc. and several small pieces of paper, e.g., 2”x2” plain paper squares, to each student.  [I found free clean scratch paper in various colors in the computer lab and copy room recycling bins.]  Students can also take their trusty 3”x5” cards and cut each in half or even quarters or use standard-size Post-It® notes.  I explained that as I introduce a term or mechanism they will write the term or conventional abbreviation on one side of the paper and the definition and pertinent information on the other in pencil for easier editing.  [I emphasized the importance of using conventional abbreviations.]  For example, Blood Pressure would be written on one side of the paper and ‘pressure exerted against vessel wall’ on other, along with ‘mm Hg’, and later the equation for mean arterial pressure (MAP) can be added.  I had my own set of terms written on Post-It® notes and arranged BP, CO, BV, VPR and other terms on a white board so they could see the mapping of functional relationships take shape.  As new concepts were taught and learned, e.g., CO = Stroke Volume (SV) x Heart Rate (HR), the respective terms were added to the concept map to reflect the physiological relationships between and among the new mechanism to the existing mechanisms or phenomena already in the concept map.  In that case, on the back of the CO paper or card one might write “volume of blood ejected from ventricle in one minute into aorta”, “CO = HR x SV“, “If HR is too fast, CO will decrease!”, “Right CO must equal Left CO!”  I explained students can lay out their terms on a table, floor, their bed, etc.  I reminded students how important it was to say the terms out loud as they wrote the terms in their best penmanship.  This helps students slow down and deliberately think about what they are writing and refer to their lecture notes or textbook (be it an actual book or e-book).  I had given students copies of the complete concept map of all terms but did not dictate exactly what they should write on the back of the cards.  The small size of the paper or card, almost forces students to annotate explanations; this helped them better encapsulate their ideas.  I was open to checking their annotation and reflecting back to students the apparent meaning of their word choice.  While studying alone or with study partners, students were encouraged to audibly define terms and relationships among mechanisms as they arranged their maps in the correct configuration.  They were encouraged to ‘shuffle the deck’ and recreate subsections of the network to understand mechanistic connections at different points in the network.  Because I had given them the diagrams or concept maps for cardiac output, blood volume, and vascular resistance, students were able to check their work and conduct formative assessments alone or in groups in an accurate and supportive manner.

Students expressed that manually arranging components allowed them to literally see functional and consequential relationships among different mechanisms.  The activity complemented and re-enforced quizzes and formative assessments already in use.  It’s not a perfect tool and certainly has room for improvement.  There are quite a few pieces of paper, but students found ways to keep the pieces together, e.g., binder clips, Zip-lock bags, rubber bands.  Nonetheless, it is simple, portable, and expandable concept map students can use to learn cardiovascular physiology and represents a tool that can be applied to teach and learn other regulatory networks, such as those of the digestion-reabsorption-secretion in the GI tract and calcium homeostasis.

  1. Wiggers C. Circulation in Health and Disease. Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger, 1915.
  2. http://learnthroughexperience.org/blog/power-of-context-learning-through-senses/
Alice Villalobos, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Education at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas.  She received her B.S.in biology from Loyola Marymount University and her Ph.D. in comparative physiology from the University of Arizona-College of Medicine.  Her research interests are the comparative aspects of the physiology and stress biology of organic solute transport by choroid plexus.  She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in integrative systems physiology, nutrition and toxicology.  However, her most enjoyable teaching experience has been teaching first-graders about the heart and lungs!  Her educational interests focus on tools to enhance learning of challenging concepts in physiology for students at all levels.  She has been actively involved in social and educational programs to recruit and retain first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities in STEM.

 

Person First Teaching in Physiology

Many of us are continuously trying to be as inclusive in our teaching as possible. One early concept I learned in this effort was to use person-first language, where one “puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is”. This small change can lead to a more comfortable and inclusive classroom and also model behavior that future health professionals (the majority of my students) will need to employ in their careers.

 

Yet, there’s another ‘person first’ approach that I take in my classes and interactions with students that I think also builds inclusivity and perhaps more importantly, trust and understanding between my students and me. I try to be a person first, and a professor second. I try to see my students as people first, and students second. In the past year, during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, this has been especially important as we all attempt to deal with additional life stresses, course modalities, and uncertainties.

 

As a person, the past year has not only been marked by the pandemic, but rather a significant medical challenge. In March 2020, amidst emergency planning to send students home permanently for the semester and move to remote teaching, I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. In 2014, in my second year as a faculty member, I had gone through chemo, surgery, radiation, and continued therapy for what was at that time stage III breast cancer. Remission lasted nearly five years. Since the original diagnosis, while I never felt like cancer defined me, it became an essential part of me, as a person, and as a professor.

 

The hormonal treatment regimen I followed from 2015-2019 provided a real-life example of many of the principles of the endocrine system that I taught my mid-level Human Physiology students. Along with an example of my grandmother stubbornly tapering off high-dose IV steroids after a kidney infection, I began to teach “my story” as our application of the endocrine system chapter in my flipped-classroom course.

 

I present a case study on “Patient X”, only revealing that I am in fact patient X after the relevant physiology is covered. As I explain to students, it’s not just an example to allow them to apply what they are learning to a clinical situation. Rather, it’s my attempt to demonstrate that the knowledge they are (hopefully) gaining, the vocabulary and critical thinking skills are not meant to just serve their future professional goals, but their personal life as well. They may be the one in the future helping a loved one navigate a challenging health situation. I’ve been forever grateful for my own physiological knowledge helping me to deal with my diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis.

 

This year, with the progression of my disease, the lesson takes a slightly different tone (although better this semester since my current infusion treatment has led to some regression of lung metastases). I also take the time to have a “soapbox moment” (and yes, I call it that…) to also inform students about metastatic breast cancer in general, some statistics, and the importance of early detection. I remind the students about the importance of drug discovery and clinical trials in changing people’s lives, mine included.

 

This year, in anticipation of writing this post, as part of the pre- and post- reflection students complete about “why is important to understand hormones?” I asked them for feedback on my person-first approach of sharing my own story. In addition to many students reflecting that they did in fact “see the bigger picture” of why we learn basic physiology, many provided comments that support my approach. A selection of some of their responses:

 

I really liked that you incorporated your own personal story into class because it made me feel like I genuinely knew you better as a person rather than just my professor – students really don’t get to see their teacher’s lives outside of class, but I think it’s really special when they do and when they are vulnerable with us and can share things like you did. It also gave us some insight as to why you do the things you do and why you are interested in what you teach. Thank you for sharing!”

You sharing your story today and being vulnerable with us gave real-life application to what we are learning. We are able to now better understand that learning this information is not just about memorizing facts to get a good grade. Rather, it shows us the importance of what we are studying and how we can use it to help others throughout our lifetime. So, thank you very much for sharing and inspiring other teachers to share as well.”

I am really happy that you shared your personal story. I think case studies are a great way to learn in general, but actually knowing the person in the case makes is so much more powerful. I will never forget today’s class and I genuinely have a much better understanding and appreciation for the material that we covered.”

Obviously, not everyone has their own story to tell, but my guess is that we all have ways that we can be vulnerable and connect the material to our own lives, encouraging our students to do the same. Storytelling and narrative medicine have received recent attention as ways to promote empathy and build trust. Why not then share our own stories? Why not put the person first in our teaching?

To summarize, I am a person with cancer. I am a person who teaches physiology. I am a person who utilizes my cancer to help me teach physiology.


Anne Crecelius 
(@DaytonDrC) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Dayton..  She teaches Human Physiology, Introduction to Health Professions, and Research in Sport and Health Science. She returned to her undergraduate alma mater to join the faculty after completing her M.S. and Ph.D. studying Cardiovascular Physiology at Colorado State University.  Her research interest is in the integrative control of muscle blood flow.  She is a member of the American Physiological Society (APS) and on the leadership team for the Physiology Majors Interest Group (P-MIG).
Flipped Teaching to Remote Flipped Teaching

Although flipped teaching design has been around for years, the term ‘flipped teaching’ was only coined slightly over a decade ago, mainly when Salman Khan used this teaching method to his cousins over the internet that subsequently gained attention. Advancements in educational technology must be given credit for the origin of this new term as well.

 

About a decade ago, I started using flipped teaching, but the terms ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ were not associated with it at that time. About four years ago, in one of the conferences, I was introduced to synchronous online teaching for the first time. Since I also teach an online class without flipped instruction, I tried to modify my asynchronous online course to a synchronous one but had difficulty doing so. The students in my online class worked full time, and there was not a single common time convenient for the entire class.

 

My flipped teaching design has been steadily evolving since I first started using it (Figure 1). Briefly, there are two significant components of this teaching method- the pre-class and the in-class. The flipped teaching’s pre-class portion is where students first explore new course content in their personal space and time. In-class time is deliberately designed around student engagement and inquiry, allowing students to apply and elaborate on course concepts (DeLozier & Rhodes, 2017; Jensen, Kummer, & Godoy, 2015). In-class sessions typically entail collaborative active learning strategies. My fascination for the retrieval exercise in facilitating learning (Dobson, Linderholm, & Stroud, 2019) led to its blending in conjunction with flipped teaching (Figure 1). There are challenges with this contemporary teaching method. One of them is student buy-in. Yet another one is student motivation. However, I have developed strategies that have helped overcome these challenges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Flipped Teaching to Remote Flipped Teaching

COVID-19 was the unexpected challenge every instructor had to face in 2020. Since COVID 19, the original flipped teaching design had to be revised to shift to remote teaching. One advantage for those using flipped teaching was the use of the pre-class portion that was already available. The term ‘pre-class’ suddenly became synonymous with the ‘asynchronous’ part of online instruction. The in-class activities would now be referred to as the ‘synchronous’ sessions. Although some modifications had to be made for the in-class or synchronous portion of the flipped teaching, such as the Zoom’s breakout rooms for group work and a clicker activity for the in-class individual assessments, the in-class content that was already prepared was reusable. Thus, evolved a new form of flipped teaching called remote flipped teaching (Figure 1). It must be noted that flipped teaching must have some form of synchronous time with the students. Otherwise, it would simply be referred to as an online course. The remote flipped classroom is where students engage with course content in an online platform prior to attending a virtual face-to-face course session. Pairing flipped classroom pedagogy, in which students engage with content independently before a synchronous class, with online learning objects intentionally designed to promote independent learning, helps build a strong foundation (Humrickhouse, 2021).

References

DeLozier, S. J., & Rhodes, M. G. (2017). Flipped classrooms: a review of key ideas and recommendations for practice. Educational Psychology Review29(1), 141-151.

Dobson, J. L., Linderholm, T., & Stroud, L. (2019). Retrieval practice and judgements of learning enhance transfer of physiology information. Advances in Health Sciences Education24(3), 525-537.


Humrickhouse, E. (2021). Flipped classroom pedagogy in an online learning environment: A self-regulated introduction to information literacy threshold concepts. The Journal of Academic Librarianship47(2), 102327.

Jensen, J. L., Kummer, T. A., & Godoy, P. D. D. M. (2015). Improvements from a flipped classroom may simply be the fruits of active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education14(1), ar5.

Dr. Chaya Gopalan received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bangalore University, India, and Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Dr. Gopalan wanted to follow her passion for teaching. She started as an adjunct faculty position at Maryville University in St. Louis, which led to tenure-track positions at St. Louis Community College and St. Louis College of Pharmacy, and now at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). She has been teaching anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology at graduate and undergraduate levels for health professional programs. Dr. Gopalan has been practicing evidence-based teaching using team-based learning, case-based learning, and flipped classroom methods. Besides her passion for teaching, Dr. Gopalan has kept up with lab research in neuroendocrine physiology. She is currently working on two research projects: gonadal steroid hormones in the sexual dimorphism of the brain and the other study on obesity, intermittent fasting, and physical and mental exhaustion.

 

Dr. Gopalan has received many teaching awards, including the Arthur C. Guyton Educator of the Year award from the American Physiological Society (APS), the Outstanding Two-Year College Teaching award by the National Association of Biology Teachers, and the Excellence in Undergraduate Education award by SIUE. She has also received several grants, including an NSF-IUSE, an NSF-STEM Talent Expansion Program, and the APS Teaching Career Enhancement awards.

 

Besides teaching and research, Dr. Gopalan enjoys mentoring not only her students but also her peers. She regularly conducts workshops and participates in panel discussions related to higher education. Dr. Gopalan is very active in the teaching section of the APS and has served on many committees. She has published numerous manuscripts and case studies and contributed several textbook chapters and question banks for textbooks and board exams.
 

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

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

 

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

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

3.       Appreciate the importance of animal physiology

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

5.      Exercise responsibility and teamwork.

 

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

 

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

How were we assessing student learning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 How will I know if my students learned animal physiology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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