|Historically, physiology undergraduate students across the world have undertaken a laboratory-based, fieldwork or critical review research project, their educational purpose for students to gain research experience. However, decreasing numbers of physiology graduates are going onto careers in research, many are leaving science altogether. It is therefore imperative that we, as educators, better prepare the majority of our students, through their projects, for the diverse range of careers they go onto.
Over the last twenty years, physiology and the broader global bioscience educator community, recognizing this diversity of graduate career destinations, have been expanding the range of projects available to their students, introducing for example, public engagement, educational development or enterprise projects. However, the focus and purpose of these projects remained for students to gain research experience. They were traditional research projects but outside of the laboratory. The literature and Accrediting Bodies project criterion still talked about students undertaking “hypothesis-driven research” and “project/research-based assignments”.
Whilst these traditional research projects may have been relevant fifty years ago, they do not enable the majority of current Bioscience graduates to be “work-place ready”. The world is currently going through its fourth industrial revolution (4IR), a world and workplace governed by robotics, artificial intelligence, digitization and automation. Graduate recruiters require graduates with different skillsets, the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) skills1.
I recognized that radical change was required, not only in my School of Biomedical Sciences, but across bioscience Higher Education globally. Collectively, bioscience educators needed to rethink the purpose, practices and outcomes of undergraduate research projects in order to better prepare our students for an increasingly challenging 21st Century global workplace.
My solution was to introduce project-based capstone experiences into my program. their purpose to provide students with opportunities for personal and professional development, and to gain real life work experience.
A highly experienced science communicator, I facilitated ethical debates in High Schools. I realized that this would make an ideal opportunity for my undergraduates – something different as their research project. Starting small, I collaborated with one of my project mentees to co-create and co-deliver an ethics-focused workshop for High School students at the 2005 Leeds Festival of Science2. The capstone experience, as an alternative to traditional research projects, was born.
Over the last sixteen years, I have progressively expanded the range of capstone opportunities in my course. Colleagues within my School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds (UK), recognizing the benefits of capstones to students, joined me. In partnership with our students, we have created a sector-leading portfolio of traditional research projects offered alongside science or industry-focused capstones, and those with a civic or societal focus in the same course (Figure 1)3. Students select the project that best addresses their individual developmental needs and/or future career intentions. By offering this broad portfolio of sixteen opportunities, it is inclusive, there is something for each and every student to realize their full academic potential and personal goals.
Figure 1: Research and capstone project opportunities available to students
My students have wholeheartedly grasped this opportunity, excelling academically. Their course marks are significantly higher than students undertaking traditional research projects (2020: mean ± SD = 71.4±4.4% vs 68.4±5.8%, p<0.05). In 2020-21, 27% selected capstones as their first choice of project, a massive cultural shift given we are a research-intensive (R1) Institution where laboratory projects have traditionally been viewed by both students and Faculty as the “gold-standard”.
Our work as a team has resulted in the award of a prestigious national (UK) higher education prize, an Advance HE Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence.
My work came to the attention of other Bioscience educators. I was invited to run workshops at Institutions across the UK seeking to introduce capstones into their program. I re-wrote one of the two UK Bioscience Accrediting Bodies project accreditation criteria, incorporating my capstone ideas.
And then Covid struck!
With restricted or no access to research facilities, Bioscience educators globally struggled to provide alternatives to traditional research projects. To support colleagues across the world, in partnership with Sue Jones (York St John University, UK) and Michelle Payne (University of Sunderland, UK), I ran virtual workshops, sharing my capstone ideas and resources. I created and shared globally, guides for students4 and educators5, and resource repositories6,7. The workshops were attended by over 1000 educators from as far afield as Australia, Africa and America. The resources viewed 12,000 times from over 50 countries.
A year on, we surveyed both students and Faculty globally. All responding institutions had introduced capstone projects into their programs in 2020-21. More importantly, they are here to stay. Recognizing the benefits to their future employability and careers, a massive 94% of students wanted capstones to be provided alongside traditional research projects. Faculty thought the same. All are not only keeping capstones, but more importantly, are broadening their portfolios going forward. Each new format developing different skill sets and attributes, and therefore preparing students for additional career destinations. We have inspired sector-wide curriculum change!
Going forward, we cannot return to our old ways!
As the world opens up and returns to a new “normal”, we cannot go back to our old ways of just offering traditional research projects. We would be massively letting our students and wider Society down. We need to take the best from what we have learnt and achieved, both before and during the pandemic, and continue to develop and evolve our collective capstone provision going forward.
We are at the start of an exciting Global journey. Capstones across the world are predominantly conservative in nature, for example taught courses, senior seminar series or extended essays. Educators globally have yet to fully realize the transformative (massive uplift in skills and attributes) and translational (preparation for the workplace) potential of capstones.
We need to create capstones that are more representative of the work place for example, multi-disciplinary teams and sub-teams working on the same capstone, and capstones that run over multiple years, with current students taking the previous year’s project outputs and outcomes to the next stage. The events of the past two years have made Universities realize they need to better address their local and global civic and societal responsibilities and missions, so capstones that facilitate societal engagement. We need to move away from traditional dissertations or reports to more authentic real-world assessments.
Within my School of Biomedical Sciences and the broader University of Leeds, we have started down this journey. Ninety percent of the capstones in my course are now team-based. Students choose their primary assessment method (e.g. academic paper, commercial report, e-portfolio) – the one most suited to their particular capstone format and which best showcases their knowledge, skills and attributes. I have introduced Grand Challenges capstones where students work as to teams to create evidence-driven solutions to global Grand Challenges or UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The intention to develop these into trans-national educational opportunities, where students from the Global North and South work collaboratively on the same SDG or Grand Challenge capstone. We have an Institutional requirement that all undergraduate students, regardless of discipline, must undertake a major research-based assignment in their final year of study. I have been awarded a Leeds Institute of Teaching Excellence to work with Faculty across the University to introduce capstones into their programs and to create pan-university multi-disciplinary capstone opportunities for our students.
I do not do things by halves. My vision is not just limited to Leeds, the UK or the Biosciences, but Global!
I have created a global Community of Practice for stakeholders across the world to work collaboratively together, sharing ideas, expertise and resources, to co-create and introduce inspirational multi-disciplinary, multi-national team-based capstone projects that address globally relevant issues into undergraduate and taught postgraduate degree programs across the world. I want to make it a truly global and inclusive community, to include all stakeholders- students, alumni, educators, employers, NGOs, social enterprise, Global North or South, all disciplines or sectors….The list is endless.
If you would like to join this Community of Practice and be part of this exciting journey, please email me (email@example.com). Please share this opportunity amongst your colleagues, networks and across your Institution. The broader the membership, the greater the collective benefits for all.
If we pull this off, the benefits for students, other stakeholders and Society will be phenomenal. Our graduates would be truly global graduates, equipped with the skills and attributes to become leaders in whatever field they enter. As Faculty, we would be providing an exceptional educational experience for our students, properly preparing them for the workplace. Universities, through student capstones, would be better able to address their civic and societal responsibilities and missions. Employers would have graduates able to take their businesses forward and to thrive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. We would be creating solutions to some of the complex problems facing mankind.
Figure 1: Research and capstone project opportunities available to students
1. Gray, A. (2016). The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/
2. Lewis DI (2011) Enhancing student employability through ethics-based outreach activities and OERs. Bioscience Education 18, 7SE https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3108/beej.18.7SE
3. Lewis DI (2020a). Final year or Honours projects: Time for a total re-think? Physiology News 119: 10-11.
4. Lewis DI (2020b). Choosing the right final year research, honours or capstone project for you. Skills career pathways & what’s involved. https://bit.ly/ChoosingBioCapstone
5. Lewis DI (2020c). Final year research, honours or capstone projects in the Biosciences. How to Do it Guides. https://bit.ly/BiosciCapstones
6. Lewis DI (2020d) E-Biopracticals (Collection of simulations & e-learning resources for use in Bioscience practical education. Available at: https://bit.ly/e-BioPracticals
7. Lewis DI (2020e) Open access data repositories (Collection of large datasets, data analysis & visualization tools). Available at: https://bit.ly/OADataRep.
As the 2020-21 academic year ended, I sighed with relief. I had survived the switch to an online teaching format, wearing a mask while teaching when I had to have a class in-person, and the loss of my father. But as quickly as my sighs of relief subsided, I began to wonder, “What will happen next academic year?” Will I be teaching all my classes in-person, will my classes be online, or will I have some classes or labs online and others in-person? As these questions swirled in my head, I began to reflect on this past year. Teaching online was tough. There were activities that bombed. But there were activities that rocked. And there were activities that could be improved. And believe it or not, there were some great things that came from teaching online. Some had to do with content, some had to do with skills, and some had to do with community. Now comes the challenge of choosing what I should take with me, and what I should leave behind? And as I reflected, I realized there are two experiences from this past year I want to use this year, whether I am teaching in-person or online. One had to do with the idea of community and the other had to do with skills. While others came up, I decided to be kind to myself and focus on two.
1. Forming an Inclusive Scientific Community
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had never taught a course online nor had I taken a class online. I had attended webinars but had never presented an online seminar either. Now I was being asked to teach courses online to students I had never met, and these students had never met each other in-person either. When I reflected on my teaching in-person, I realized I had never worried about whether I knew the students immediately or whether they knew each other. I assumed their presence in class with me and with the other students would allow relationships to form and a learning community to be built. But now they were just images on a screen and often, just names since cameras were not always on.
Now that I was teaching online, I had to be more intentional about building a learning community. This was to help not only me but also my students. Research has shown that students do not just want to be faces in a crowd (1, 2). They want to be recognized by the professor and by their peers. And as the pandemic progressed, they needed this more personal interaction. Creating a community would foster interaction and make students comfortable to share in an online environment (1, 2). To begin, I included icebreaker activities to allow me and the students to learn more about each other. And these icebreakers were not a one and done activity. They continued throughout the first several weeks of class. As the semester continued, polls or questions replaced the icebreakers. These were questions anyone could answer. They could be content questions, well-being checks, or simple questions about plans for the weekend or favorite ice cream. All meant to foster community. When in the classroom, peer interactions can be observed by the instructor. In the online classroom, it was more difficult to monitor interactions and those who were uncomfortable with group work could disappear when the breakout rooms opened.
Including these activities online allowed me and the students to feel like we were in this class together. While I was not a student, I was no longer “The Sage on the Stage.” We, the professor and the students, were in this online learning community together. When an online activity was successful, we celebrated together. If something did not work, what discussed the activity and what we could change. This community was most evident when my father fell ill and then passed away. These students I had been working with stepped up and helped me during this emotionally challenging time. While I still guided their learning, they took more on themselves, and they helped each other and me. The entire year we had spoken about grace and that we all needed to give and receive it. They gave me grace when I needed it most. Who would not want to take this community into the in-person classroom?
2. Promoting Scientific Soft Skills
With the initial move to online teaching, one of the challenges faced was laboratory experiments. Many laboratory exercises require specialized equipment (3). In my case, this was the Biopac Student Lab System®. One of the benefits of this system is that students get to record physiologic data on each other. The cost of and logistical issues regarding supervision and liability for the Biopac® home system prevented me from using this as an option. However, one of the benefits of the Biopac Student Lab System® is the free access to sample data and the free analysis software for downloading offered by the company (Figure 1). Additionally, as I had been using these systems for over 10 years, I had previously recorded student data at my fingertips (Figure 2). Students could download the software to their personal computers and open any shared data for analysis. While the students were not actually recording the data themselves, this provided an alternative for learning about physiological processes with data from subjects. This also allowed me to have the students focus more on how they presented the results and how they discussed the science behind the results. We could focus on the writing of the results and the understanding of the science because the students were no longer focusing on the possibility of user error as to why they did not get the results expected.
As I was reflecting, I realized that with lab exercises moving online that the reduction in focus on learning how to use equipment and collect data was a positive (3). This allowed students to focus on writing and understanding what they were writing. This made me think that I could expand the use of pre-recorded data to include other skills such as inter-rater reliability and statistical analysis. As stated earlier, in my physiology courses, students consistently would state user error was the reason they did not get the results they expected. While this may have been the case for some experiments it was not always the case. This is where sample raw data, whether the raw data was from the equipment company or recordings from prior years’ labs, is useful. Students can be provided with the same raw data to be analyzed. Students could then compare results with each other and determine if they were following the same directions for analyzing the data. The closer the values to their peers suggested they were analyzing the data in a comparable manner.
Another interesting opportunity that pre-recorded data provides is the ability to discuss statistical significance in a more detailed fashion. Often when students are collecting and analyzing their own raw data, there is not enough time to aggregate the data for statistical analysis. Now students could all be given multiple sets of raw data to analyze, these results could be aggregated, and statistical analysis performed. In upper-level courses, students can then learn when to use t-tests versus ANOVA, learn about post hoc tests, and p-values. As journals and professional societies recommend more in-depth presentation of statistical analysis, this can be added as well. In more introductory courses, this could be modified to focus on mean and standard deviation. Finally, by focusing on inter-rater reliability and statistics, students can further improve their writing of the results and discussion sections.
One of the reasons labs are often popular is because students get to be the scientist. I do not want this to disappear when in-person labs return. I still want students to learn how to use the Biopac® systems and record data from each other when we return to class; seeing the excitement in the students’ eyes when they see the ECG or EMG recording of their own bodies is one of the joys of teaching. But I want to find ways to keep the positive aspects of using pre-recorded data. Could this be a pre-lab activity? Could I take one or two of the experiments we do and provide the data rather than record the data? Could I have students record their own data and exchange the raw data with each other? I am still trying to decide how this might look in my class. Maybe that is my next blog?
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic created a flurry of change in a short period of time. In higher education, we are not used to this quick a change. And as humans, we are typically resistant to change. However, I suggest that instead of being anxious to return to the way we used to be that we look back at this time as a needed push for some change. We should use this opportunity to see what we changed that made our teaching better.
1. Faulkner SL, Watson WK, Pollino MA, Shetterly JR. “Treat me like a person, rather than another number”: university student perceptions of inclusive classroom practices. Communication Education. 2021;70(1):92-111. doi: 10.1080/03634523.2020.1812680.
2. Kirn-Safran CB, Reid AC, Chatman MM. Peer Mentors Prove to be Strong Assets in Virtual Anatomy & Physiology Labs. Imprint. 2021:16-8.
3. Xinnian Chen CBK-S, Talitha van der Meulen, Karen L. Myhr, Alan H. Savitzky, Melissa A. Fleegal-DeMotta. Physiology Labs During a Pandemic: What did we learn? Advances in Physiology Education. 2021;In Press.
Figure 1: Image of free download Biopac Student Analysis Software®. Note you can review a saved lesson, analyze sample data from the company, or analyze data collected in the lab.
Figure 2: Image of pre-recorded spirogram with vital capacity indicated. Values are indicated in the boxes on the top of the spirogram.
Opening image Creator: Victoria Bar; Credit: Getty Images
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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].
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Advances in Physiology Education is one of the family of journals published by the American Physiological Society (https://journals.physiology.org/journal/advances). Submissions of manuscripts to Advances cost nothing and accepted papers are available with free access from their initial posting online. Annually a printed copy of the journal with all 4 issues is available to those who request it. Publications in Advances are contributed from the global community of physiology educators and carefully peer-reviewed by expert colleagues. Of all the APS family of journals, 7 out of the 10 most accessed articles (full-text accesses) during 2019 were published in Advances. The top three accessed Advances articles are briefly described below.
Number 1 Most Accessed 2019:
“Applying learning theories and instructional design models for effective instruction” by Mohammed K. Khalil and Ihsan A. Elkhider from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, South Carolina, USA published on April 11, 2016 (Adv Physiol Educ 40:147-156, 2016). In this article from the Best Practices series, the major learning theories are discussed and selected examples of instructional design models are explained. The objective of the article is to present the science of learning and instruction as the theoretical evidence for the design and delivery of instructional materials in the classroom and laboratory. As of June 2020, this article has been downloaded 81,467 times!
Number 2 Most Accessed 2019:
“Measuring osmosis and hemolysis of red blood cells” by Lauren K. Goodhead and Frances M. MacMillan from the School of Physiology, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience of the University of Bristol, Bristol, UK published on May 19, 2017 (Adv Physiol Educ 41: 298-305, 2017). This article from the Sourcebook of Laboratory Activities in Physiology series, describes classroom laboratory experiments to help students visualize and appreciate osmosis (the movement of water and small molecules across selectively permeable membranes of mammalian cells). Animal blood is bathed in solutions with differing osmolarities and tonicities to explore the concept of water movement by osmosis and the resultant hemolysis. As of June 2020, this article has been downloaded 71,180 times.
Number 4 Most Accessed 2019:
“Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more?” by Neil A. Bradbury of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics of Chicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Illinois, USA published on November 8, 2016 (Adv Physiol Educ 40:509-513, 2016). This article presents a Personal View by reviewing the literature on the “common knowledge” and “consensus” that there is a decline in students’ attention 10-15 min into lectures. The author believes that the most consistent finding from his literature review is that the greatest variability in student attention arises from differences between teachers and not from the teaching format itself. Thus, it is the job of the instructor to enhance their teaching skills to provide not only rich content but also a satisfying lecture experience for the students. As of June 2020, this article has been downloaded 39,910 times.
The other four Advances articles in the top 10 most accessed in 2019 included an APS Refresher Course Report on “Smooth muscle contraction and relaxation” by R. Clinton Webb, a Best Practices series article on “Learning theories 101: application to everyday teaching and scholarship” by Denise Kay and Jonathan Kibble, an editorial on “The ‘African gene’ theory: it is time to stop teaching and promoting slavery hypertension hypothesis” by Heidi L. Lujan and Stephen E. DiCarlo, and a Staying Current review on “Recent advances in thermoregulation” by Etain A. Tansey and Christopher D. Johnson. These articles ranged from >20,000 to almost 30,000 downloads.
This short article shows the variety of offerings in Advances in Physiology Education and documents the global demand for these contributions to the literature.
Karen L. Sweazea, PhD, FAHA
Arizona State University
As faculty, we often find ourselves juggling multiple responsibilities at once. Although many of us are interested in adding hands-on or other activities to our classes, it can be difficult to find the time to develop them. This is where more advanced students who have already taken the class or graduate students can help.
A couple of summers ago I requested the help of an extra teaching assistant in my Animal Physiology course. The role of the position I was requesting was unique as I was not seeking a student to help with grading or proctoring exams. Rather, the role of this student was to help develop in-class activities that would enhance the learning experience of students taking the course.
For each lesson, the special graduate student TA was tasked with finding an existing (ex: https://www.lifescitrc.org/) or creating a new activity that could be implemented in the classroom during the last 10-20 minutes of each session, depending on the complexity of the activity. This enabled me to begin converting the course into a flipped classroom model as students enrolled in the course were responsible for reading the material ahead of time, completing a content comprehension quiz, and coming to class prepared to discuss the content and participate in an activity and/or case study. Special TAs can also assist with developing activities for online courses.
While the benefits of having such a TA for the faculty are clear, this type of experience is also beneficial to both the TA as well as the students enrolled in the course. For the TA, this experience provides an opportunity to develop their own teaching skills through learning to develop short lesson plans and activities as well as receiving feedback from the faculty and students. For the students, this is a great way to build cultural competence into the course as TAs are often closer in age to the students and may better reflect the demographics of the classroom. Cultural competence is defined by the National Education Association as “the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture of cultures other than our own.” Increasing our cultural competency, therefore, is critical to student success and is something that we can learn to address. Having special TAs is just one way we can build this important skill.
Karen Sweazea is an Associate Professor in the College of Heath Solutions at Arizona State University. Her research specializes in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She received her PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona in 2005 where her research focused on understanding glucose homeostasis and natural insulin resistance in birds. Her postdoctoral research was designed to explore how poor dietary habits promote the development of cardiovascular diseases.
Dr. Sweazea has over 40 publication and has chaired sessions and spoken on topics related to mentoring at a variety of national and local meetings. She has additionally given over 10 guest lectures and has developed 4 graduate courses on topics related to mentoring and professional development. She has mentored or served on the committees for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students and earned an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from the Faculty Women’s Association at Arizona State University for her dedication towards mentoring.
Katie Johnson, PhD
Programmatic Improvement Consultant
Trail Build, LLC
Educators often find themselves in the role of advisor, either formally or incidentally. If you teach or lead a research group, it is likely students or trainees arrive at your office door with a plethora of questions or issues, seeking your input. Yet, very few academics have formal training in how to advise students.
How do you become a productive advisor who supports the success of your students? For the purpose of our discussion, I am defining advisor as any person who provides guidance, information, or advice to a student or trainee, the advisee. Many productive and inclusive advising strategies align with effective teaching practices.
Inclusive advising strategies interrupt assumptions an advisor may have about the needs, issues, or questions facing an advisee. It also acknowledges and embraces the relationship between the academic, professional, and personal trajectories of each advisee. One approach to inclusive advising is to use a question-focused advising strategy. Rather than advisors serving only as a conduit for information, advisors should ask advisees thoughtful and strategic questions, within the context of a collegial and respectful conversation. When an advisor carefully and attentively listens to the responses provided by the advisee, the advisor gains important information about how to support and assist the advisee.
There are many points to consider when advising, but here are a few suggestions for advisors, followed by examples of questions advisors can ask advisees. These questions are not to be used in sequential order, but rather as needed.
1. Listen carefully. This strategy is a lot harder than it sounds. It is easy to provide information, but is the information the right information? When careful and engaged listening directs advising, advisors are much more likely to provide the information and support needed by the advisee.
Questions to ask advisees: How can I help you? What brings you to my office today? What are your goals for this project/assignment/course? Did we address the issue that brought you in today? Do you think the solutions we talked about today are attainable? Do you have any other questions for me?
2. Believe advisees when they say they are struggling. Again, much harder than it sounds. Help advisees think through productive steps forward, rather than sending them off to figure things out on their own. Check-in with them later to help address lingering questions.
Questions to ask advisees: Can you remember a time when things were going well? What worked for you at that point? What strategies are you using to navigate these issues? If those strategies are not working, can we brainstorm other strategies? Can we work together to find resources to support your success? Do you have local friends you can turn to when you are having difficulties?
3. Guide advisees to identify what they need to achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals. After careful listening, assign advisees homework. Assignments could include visiting a resource on campus or doing directed online research to find the information they need to design a plan to accomplish their goals. Schedule future appointments for the advisee to report back what they found.
Questions to ask advisees: What information do you need to achieve your goals? What information do you have? What resources do you need to find? Is there anyone you know who would be a good resource?
4. Recognize the power dynamic between advisors and advisees. Even the most friendly and welcoming advisors can be intimidating to advisees. It takes courage to talk to an advisor. Given the power dynamic, advisees may be too intimidated to speak-up when they do not understand their advisor’s suggestions or advice.
Questions to ask advisees: Can you explain to me what your next steps should be to address this issue? Is there anything I said that I need to explain in a different way for you to be better prepared to address this issue?
5. Advisors are at a different point in their career than their advisees. It is likely the life priorities of any given advisee and advisor are different. Ask advisees about their priorities, listen carefully, and believe what they say.
Questions to ask advisees: Where do you see yourself in ten years? What is your ideal lifestyle? What is essential to this lifestyle for you to feel successful? How do you like to spend your time?
While these concepts may take time to incorporate into your advising, here are a few quick tips:
1. Really good advising takes time. Make sure to reserve enough time and energy to have productive advising meetings.
2. Successful advising is a continuous process. Expect numerous interactions in the classrooms, hallways, over e-mail, and during private meetings. This multiple check-in approach allows for investigation and reflection.
3. Articulate the expectations and responsibilities of advisees and advisors. It is possible you are your advisee’s first advisor. Advisees may not know the reason or meaning for an advisor or appropriate boundaries. As an advisor, determine your expectations and communicate these expectations to your advisees.
4. Offer options to schedule meetings. While walk-in office hours have some benefits, a dedicated time and space allows both advisee and advisor to focus on the task at hand. Offer designated advising timeslots for advisees. Signing-up for timeslots could occur either on a sheet of paper or using a free online tool that automatically syncs to online calendars.
5. If you expect advisees to meet at your office, make sure you tell your advisees where your office is located. Advisees should also know how to contact you if they must change or miss a meeting.
6. Schedule group advising to work with advisees who have similar academic or professional (NOT personal) issues. This will save the advisor time, and the advisees benefit from conversations with students or trainees asking similar questions.
7. Recruit a more advanced student or trainee to meet with advisees about standard advising issues, such as program requirements or course registration. It is effective if this meeting occurs prior to the advisor-advisee meeting, so unanswered questions and clarifications can be provided by the advisor.
8. You do not need to know the answer to everything. Know your limits and your resources. Institutions often have services and professionals trained in handling various student situations. Have their phone numbers or emails readily available so you can connect advisees directly to the assistance they need. Know your responsibilities around state and federally mandated reporting.
Productive and inclusive advising is an opportunity to help and to support students and trainees as they develop their own paths to success. What an amazing perk of being an educator! Happy Advising!
Chambliss DF. How College Works. Harvard University Press, 2014.
Cooper KM, Gin LE, Akeeh B, Clark CE, Hunter JS, Roderick TB, Elliott DB, Gutierrez LA, Mello RM, Pfeiffer LD, Scott RA, Arellano D, Ramirez D, Valdez EM, Vargas C, Velarde K, Zheng Y, Brownell SE. Factors that predict life sciences student persistence in undergraduate research experiences. PLOS ONE 14: e0220186, 2019.
Johnson KMS, Briggs A, Hawn C, Mantina N, Woods BC. Inclusive practices for diverse student populations: Experimental Biology 2017. Adv Physiol Educ 43: 365–372, 2019.
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. As a Programmatic Improvement Consultant, Dr. Johnson assists institutions and organizations to develop innovative solutions to curricular and assessment challenges. Prior to becoming an independent consultant for Trail Build, LLC, 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 the American Physiological Society.
Jaclyn E. Welles
Cell & Molecular Physiology PhD Candidate
Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine
Literacy in the World Today:
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are approximately 250 million individuals worldwide, who cannot read, write, or do basic math, despite having been in school for a number of years (5, 8). In fact, UNESCO, is calling this unfortunate situation a “Global Learning Crisis” (7). The fact that a significant number of people are lacking in these fundamental life skills regardless of attending school, shows that part of the problem lies within how students are being taught.
Learning and Teaching Styles:
It was due to an early exposure to various education systems that I was able to learn of that there were two main styles of teaching – Learner-centered teaching, and Teacher-centered teaching (2). Even more fascinating, with the different styles of teaching, it has become very clear that there are also various types of learners in any given classroom or lecture setting (2, 6, 10). Surprisingly however, despite the fact that many learners had their own learning “modularity” or learning-style, instructors oftentimes taught their students in a fixed-manner, unwilling or unable to adapt or implement changes to their curriculum. In fact, learner-centered teaching models such as the “VARK/VAK – Visual Learners, Auditory Learners and Kinesthetic Learners”, model by Fleming and Mills created in 1992 (6), was primarily established due to the emerging evidence that learners were versatile in nature.
What We Can Do to Improve Learning:
The fundamental truth is that when a student is unable to get what they need to learn efficiently, factors such as “learning curves” – which may actually be skewing the evidence that students are struggling to learn the content, need to be implemented (1, 3). Instead of masking student learning difficulties with curves and extra-credit, we can take a few simple steps during lesson-planning, or prior to teaching new content, to gauge what methods will result in the best natural overall retention and comprehension by students (4, 9). Some of methods with evidence include (2, 9):
- Concept Maps – Students Breakdown the Structure or Organization of a Concept
- Concept Inventories – Short Answer Questions Specific to a Concept
- Self-Assessments – Short Answer/Multiple Choice Questions
- Inquiry-Based Projects – Students Investigate Concept in a Hands-On Project
All in all, by combining both previously established teaching methodologies with some of these newer, simple methods of gauging your students’ baseline knowledge and making the necessary adjustments to teaching methods to fit the needs of a given student population or class, you may find that a significant portion of the difficulties that can occur with students and learning such as – poor comprehension, retention, and engagement, can be eliminated (4, 9) .
Jaclyn Welles is a PhD student in Cellular and Molecular Physiology at the Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine. She has received many awards and accolades on her work so far promoting outreach in science and education, including the 2019 Student Educator Award from PSCoM.
Her thesis work in the lab of Scot Kimball, focuses on liver physiology and nutrition; mainly how nutrients in our diet, can play a role in influencing mRNA translation in the liver.
As an Assistant Professor, you are under a lot of pressure to teach new classes, perform service and of course publish. Often times you do not have a mentor to guide you and you are off on your own pathway to tenure. While I had many good ideas about some teaching research I wanted to perform with my students I needed help in executing a study and publishing my work. While the goal was clear, the plan and the execution were not. Where to start was the biggest and most difficult hurdle.
I assumed incorrectly that the best way to be successful in publishing was to do it on my own. After all, I would only be accountable to myself and need not worry about collaborators who might be hard to reach and would take a long time to complete their portion of a manuscript. I tried this path initially and it was incredibly difficult as I could only work on one project at a time. The turning point came when I attended an Experimental Biology (EB) meeting Teaching Section symposium several years ago; I vividly recalled an excellent presentation where the speaker showed us an elegant study of how he used active learning and student grades improved. This talk inspired me and I got excited to try this with my class by performing a similar study. The excitement abruptly ended when he stated the two sections of students he used for his study had 250 and 300 students respectively. My own classes are between 12-20 students, quite small in comparison and I was completely disheartened thinking it would take years of study before I surveyed that many students. After the talk, I went up to him to ask a question, there was someone in front of me that asked the question that I had planned to ask. She said “I have small classes and for me to do a study of significance would take years”. I chimed in “I am in the same situation”. He answered us both with one word “Collaborate”. I walked away disheartened as I did not know anyone that I could collaborate with on a study.
After some time to reflect that this course of action was what I needed I developed an active plan to execute at the next EB meeting. At the Claude Bernard Lecture, I introduced myself to Barb Goodman. This was an excellent choice, as Barb knows everyone and she was kind enough to introduce me to everyone who approached her. From there my confidence grew. The next smart decision I made was to sit in the front during the lecture and all future Teaching Section Symposia. Do not hide in the back as people sometimes come in late and this can be distracting. In the front of the room are the friendly people who are very happy to talk with you and share ideas.
The next step was to follow the program and attend the Teaching Section luncheon. At this event, a small group of people dedicated to teaching and student success sit and talk about the different classes they teach and share ideas about teaching challenges. The tables are small and round so you can meet everyone at your table. Another key event to attend at EB is the Teaching Section Business meeting and dinner. At the dinner, you get a chance to meet more people in a relaxed setting. Some of the attendees have attended the other events and this is a great way to practice your recall and talk with them on a first name basis.
The final step in meeting people with whom to collaborate is to participate in an Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL). There have been three of these meetings so far (2014, 2016 & 2018) and the meeting actively encourages you to meet new people at each meal and form new collaborations. Through this meeting, I met many of my collaborators and successfully published abstracts and papers (listed below), received one grant, was a symposium speaker, and chaired a symposium. The meeting is energizing as the program is packed with new ideas and teaching strategies to try in your classroom. It is easy to ask questions and be an active participant in the discussions. Thus, taking advantage of a number of opportunities for physiology educators through the American Physiological Society can be just the push you need to get going on a successful promotion and tenure process. Join the APS and its Teaching Section to keep up-to-date on what is going on in physiology education.
- Aprigia Monteferrante G, Mariana Cruz M, Mogadouro G, de Oliveira Fantini V, Oliveira Castro P, Halpin PA, and Lellis-Santos C (2018). Cardiac rhythm dance protocol: a smartphone-assisted hands-on activity to introduce concepts of cardiovascular physiology and scientific methodology. Advances in Physiology Education, 42: 516-520, doi:10.1152/advan.00028.2017.
- Blatch, SA, Cliff W., Beason-Abmayr, B. and Halpin PA. (2017).The Artificial Animal Project: A Tool for Helping Students Integrate Body Systems. Advances in Physiology Education. 41: 239-243 DOI: 10.1152/advan.00159.2016
- Gopalan C., Halpin PA and Johnson KMS (2018). Benefits and Logistics of Non-Presenting Undergraduate Students Attending a Professional Scientific Meeting. Advances in Physiology Education. 42: 68-74. DOI.org/10.1152/advan.00091.2017
- Halpin PA, Golden L, Zane Hagins K, Waller S, and Chaya Gopalan C. (2018). SYMPOSIUM REPORT ON “Examining the Changing Landscape of Course Delivery and Student Learning;” Experimental Biology 2017. Advances in Physiology Education, 42: 610–614. doi:10.1152/advan.00096.2018.
- Lellis-Santos, C and Halpin PA (2018).”Workshop Report: “Using Social Media and Smartphone Applications in Practical Lessons to Enhance Student Learning” in Búzios, Brazil (Aug. 6-8, 2017). Advances in Physiology Education, 42: 340–342. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00011.2018.
An average medical student, like myself, would agree that our first year in medical school is fundamentally different from our last, but not in the ways most of us would expect. Most of us find out that medical school not only teaches us about medicine but it also indirectly teaches us how to learn. But what did it take? What is different now that we didn’t do back in the first year? If it comes to choosing one step of the road, being a teaching assistant could be a turning point for the perception of medical education in the long run, as it offers a glimpse into teaching for someone who is still a student.
At first, tutoring a group of students might seem like a simple task if it is only understood as a role for giving advice about how to get good grades or how to not fail. However, having the opportunity to grade students’ activities and even listen to their questions provides a second chance at trying to solve one’s own obstacles as a medical student. A very interesting element is that most students refuse to utilize innovative ways of teaching or any method that doesn’t involve the passive transmission of content from speaker to audience. There could be many reasons, including insecurity, for this feeling of superficial review of content or laziness, as it happened for me.
There are, in fact, many educational models that attempt to objectively describe the effects of educating and being educated as active processes. Kirkpatrick’s model is a four-stage approach which proposes the evaluation of specific aspects in the general learning outcome instead of the process as a whole (1). It was initially developed for business training and each level addresses elements of the educational outcome, as follows:
- Level 1- Reaction: How did learners feel about the learning experience? Did they enjoy it?
- Level 2- Learning: Did learners improve their knowledge and skills?
- Level 3- Behavior: Are learners doing anything different as a result of training?
- Level 4- Results: What was the result of training on the business as a whole?
Later, subtypes for level 2 and 4 were added for inter-professional use, allowing its application in broader contexts like medicine, and different versions of it have been endorsed by the Best Evidence in Medical Education Group and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (1) (2). A modified model for medical students who have become teachers has also been adapted (3), grading outcomes in phases that very closely reflect the experience of being a teaching assistant. The main difference is the inclusion of attitude changes towards the learning process and the effect on patients as a final outcome for medical education. The need for integration, association and good problem-solving skills are more likely to correspond to levels 3 and 4 of Kirkpatrick’s model because they overcome traditional study methods and call for better ways of approaching and organizing knowledge.
These modifications at multiple levels allow for personal learning to become a tool for supporting another student’s process. By working as a teaching assistant, I have learned to use other ways of studying and understanding complex topics, as well as strategies to deal with a great amount of information. These methods include active and regular training in memorization, deep analysis of performance in exams and schematization for subjects like Pharmacology, for which I have received some training, too.
I am now aware of the complexity of education based on the little but valuable experience I have acquired until now as a teacher in progress. I have had the privilege to help teach other students based on my own experiences. Therefore, the role of a teaching assistant should be understood as a feedback process for both students and student-teachers with a high impact on educational outcomes, providing a new approach for training with student-teaching as a mainstay in medical curricula.
- Roland D. Proposal of a linear rather than hierarchical evaluation of educational initiatives: the 7Is framework. Journal of Educational Evaluation for Health Professions. 2015;12:35.
- Steinert Y, Mann K, Anderson B, Barnett B, Centeno A, Naismith L et al. A systematic review of faculty development initiatives designed to enhance teaching effectiveness: A 10-year update: BEME Guide No. 40. Medical Teacher. 2016;38(8):769-786.
- Hill A, Yu, Wilson, Hawken, Singh, Lemanu. Medical students-as-teachers: a systematic review of peer-assisted teaching during medical school. Advances in Medical Education and Practice. 2011;:157.
The idea for this blog was suggested by Ricardo A. Pena Silva M.D., Ph.D. who provided guidance to Maria Alejandra on the writing of this entry.
“Rather than squeeze everyone into preordained roles, my goal has always been to foster an environment where the players can grow as individuals and express themselves creatively within a team structure” –Phil Jackson (1)
Recently, I was reading the PECOP blog “Paradigm Shifts in Teaching Graduate Physiology” by Dr. Andrew Roberts. His discussion focused on how we need to change the way physiology is taught to graduate students as technology has evolved. But, one particular line caught my eyes as I was preparing my blog: “if it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me.” Many university faculty members believe the “If it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me” approach is the major issue with the current biomedical graduate student training system, which stands at a crossroad and is threatening its own future if appropriate corrections are not made (2, 3).
The document I read for this blog, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (4) is an updated version of the report published in 1995 (5). It is rather large (174 total pages) and contains information on various topics about the current status of STEM graduate education and a call for systematic change. I will limit my discussion to the current status of the PhD training system and recommendations for changes in the programs.
Issues at the heart: Gap between the Great Expectation and Hard Reality
Both the 1995 and the current documents list several issues associated with the STEM graduate training programs in the U.S. However, the common thread that runs through both documents is associated with the gap between how our graduate students are trained and what has been happening in the job market. The current STEM graduate program still is designed with the general expectation that students will pursue a career in academia as a tenure-track faculty member at a research institution. However:
- The majority of growth in the academic job market has come from part-time positions, adjunct appointments, and full-time non-tenure-track positions (i.e. instructors, lecturers, research associates) rather than tenure-track positions in research-intensive institutions.
- The employment trend for STEM PhDs is shifting away from academia to non-academic positions.
The gap in the expectation of the training programs and the reality of job market creates several problems, including:
- Those who wish to pursue a career in academia often require a longer time to secure permanent employment and often work in positions that under-employ them (i.e. part-time, non-tenure track) and/or under-utilize their training (i.e. positions that do not require a PhD).
- Graduates who pursue non-academic positions, especially in the private sector, lack adequate preparation to enter their positions and become successful.
Many non-academic employers have voiced concerns that current STEM education is no longer acceptable for the current job market, as it does not provide sufficient training to make students more attractive and versatile to be employed outside of academia, which is becoming more international and diverse. In particular, employers are concerned that current STEM graduates lack skills in areas such as:
- Teaching and mentoring
- Problem solving
- Technology application
- Interdisciplinary teamwork
- Business decision making
- The ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds in a team setting
Changes needed for the system: Let students discover their destiny
The major change needed in the current STEM education system is that we need to let students figure out which career path is for them and provide appropriate training opportunities, rather than trying to force them to fit into one mold. Phil Jackson, whom I quoted earlier, writes: “Let each player discover his own destiny. One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people.” (1). Jackson goes on to say: “On another level, I always tried to give each player the freedom to carve out a role for himself within the team structure. I’ve seen dozens of players flame out and disappear not because they lacked talent but because they couldn’t figure out how to fit into the cookie-cutter model of basketball that pervades the NBA.” We need to foster a graduate training environment that encourages each student to discover their role without any pressure, stigma, or discouragement.
Dr. Keith Yamamoto from the University of California San Francisco says that graduate training needs to be student-centered so that graduates can find their roles and meet the needs of the society (3). Faculty mentors have the responsibility of training students so that students become successful in what they choose to do. Faculty mentors, academic departments, and institutions also need to make a concerted effort to provide opportunities for students to develop additional skills necessary to become successful in what they choose to do. This includes teaching, especially if they want to work in a teaching-intensive institution (like the one in which I work). Faculty mentors may fear that allowing students to work on skills unrelated to the research area may hinder student success. They may also fear that students serving as graduate teaching assistants may extend the time needed to complete their degree. However, students need opportunities to develop these other skills, along with discipline-specific skills to become competitive in the job market and competent employees. Again, the focus needs to be on the students and what they want to pursue, as well as what is needed for them to succeed after they walk out of the laboratory. And, we need to trust students that they will find their paths on their own. Dr. Yamamoto concludes his seminar by saying: “Inform/empower students to make appropriate career decision…. Students will get it right.” (3)
References and additional resources:
- Jackson P, Delehanty H (2013). Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (Penguin, New York).
- Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Vermus H (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaw. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111(16):5773-5777.
- Yamamoto K (2014) Time to rethink graduate and postdoc education. https://www.ibiology.org/biomedical-workforce/graduate-education/
- The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2018) Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).
- The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (1995) Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).