Category Archives: Classroom Content

Affective Teaching and Motivational Instruction: Becoming More Effective Educators of Science

As educators, we’re intimately familiar with learning objectives such as, “Using Fick’s principle, calculate the diffusion of a substance across a membrane.” Also, as scientists, we are familiar with technical objectives such as, “Using a micropipette, transfer 5μL of Solution A into the chromatography chamber.” In terms of learning conditions, the first is an intellectual skill and the second is a motor skill.1 One area in which we don’t often give much thought is the third type of skill that was identified by Gagné and Medsker — the affective skill. This is the area that is most often neglected by educators because it is the hardest to evaluate and quantify. We can’t explicitly say to a student, “By the end of the semester you will develop a love of physiology.” We can hope to achieve this through the semester, but as educators, the best that we can do is hope to instill these attitudes, choices, and values in our learners that persist beyond our brief time with them in the classroom.

Instilling attitudes in our learners is a complex goal. This is, in part, because stating an affective goal is at times counterproductive to the goal and interferes with learning. In the example above, it is clearly ridiculous to expect that all students will leave our classrooms with a true passion for our subject matter. Some clearly will, but others will not. That will be shaped by the attitudes with which students enter our classrooms. Those attitudes consist of the knowledge that a learner has about a subject – the cognitive aspect, how the person feels about the subject — the affective aspect, and how the person behaves in response to those influences — the behavioral aspect.2 So despite our best interests to instill a care for the animal and human models we frequently use in experiments, it is completely beyond our ability to control the behavior of our learners outside of the classroom. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still try because the majority of our students will come away with those lessons intact. Additionally, affective learning is difficult to assess. We can test the knowledge and skills necessary and ask about student feelings3, but at the end of the day, our students will make a choice on their behaviors on their own. For that reason, we should not make affective learning objectives part of our formal instruction plan. Because there are so many methods that depend on the affect you might want to influence, I’m going to focus on two areas that are most common: attitude and motivational instruction.

 

Katz and Stotland identified five types of attitudes.4 These types of attitudes vary with differing levels of affective and cognitive components, but the key takeaway is that individual experiences and the results and consequences of previous choices dramatically shape the attitudes with which our learners enter our classrooms. Reward for behavior not only reinforces the behavior, but also the cognitive and behavioral components that drive that behavior.1 When we focus purely on the cognitive and the motor skill aspects of learning, we can often get away with a fair amount of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do-style instruction. The problem with this is that students look to the faculty and other instructors for role model behavior.  Thus, the more accurately that we reflect the attitudes that we want to instill in our learners, the more the students will reflect those ideals.3 One of the easiest ways to bring about these changes of attitudes are through in-class discussions.5 This positive benefit is most likely due to differences that are raised during discussion, sometimes prompting the discovery of a discrepancy between existing attitudes in a learner and new facts that are being presented. The learners then have a choice on how to adapt to the new desired attitudes. Most importantly, never underestimate group acceptance of attitudes, as immediate social reinforcement can be a powerful driver in solidifying attitudes.

 

Having discussed attitude, motivational instruction is another key area that is relevant to affective learning. No two students enter the classroom with the same motivation. One student may be enrolled in your class because of a deep passion for your subject matter while another is there simply to satisfy a requirement for their major. This mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations will drive the overall outcomes of affective learning. The student who is highly motivated by an intrinsic interest in your subject or the student who is extrinsically driven by the reward of a good grade (or fear of a bad grade) will generally excel in class, albeit for different reasons. The student who is there out of obligation to meet a requirement may have very little motivation to do anything beyond what is required of them to get by. To help with those students who are lacking in motivation, JM Keller broke motivational instruction into four components: attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction.6 Gaining the attention of students through demonstrations, discussions, and other active learning techniques may help keep student motivation high. Practical application of concepts and ideas will generally inspire higher motivation than abstract or arbitrary examples.7 Keeping the material relevant will generate motivation for intrinsic learners by providing self-improvement and for the extrinsic learners by providing a reward, such as doing well on the exam. Confidence is a harder area to approach, as students must first believe they are capable of meeting the stated objectives. Making the material too easy will not lead to feelings of accomplishment, while making the material too challenging will undermine confidence in all learners.1 Finally, satisfaction can be achieved by learners of all types, regardless of motivation type when outcomes match objectives. Keeping motivation high by providing opportunities to apply learning will drive further motivation to continue learning.

Last week I completed a comprehensive review of our capstone thesis writing course, which has changed dramatically over the past year and a half while I have been the course director. Initially, the goal of the course was to have students write a literature research paper on a physiological topic of their choosing where their grade was entirely dependent upon the finished paper. The students were frequently frustrated with a lack of guidance in the course and the faculty regularly complained about the burden of reading papers of sometimes-questionable quality. Clearly there were issues with the affective components of this course from both the student and faculty side. I’ve de-emphasized the actual paper and refocused the course on the process of writing with stated learning outcomes such as: 1) Develop the language that helps us talk about science; 2) Strengthen research skills to become educated consumers of science; and 3) Gain specialized knowledge in a selected area of physiological research. Focusing the course in this way has yielded measurable results in course evaluations and faculty perceptions of paper quality from the students. By focusing on the affective components of writing and giving students more opportunities to apply their new skills, overall satisfaction has improved. Like all works of science, though, this course continues to evolve and improve. In short, to be effective teachers, we need to go beyond the intellectual and motor skills and make sure we address the affective learning of our students as well.

1 Gagné RM and Medsker LK. (1996). The Conditions of Learning. Training Applications. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

2 Baron RA and Byrne D. (1987). Social Psychology: Understanding Human interaction. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

3 Dick W and Carey L. (1996). The Systematic Design of Instruction. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

4 Katz D and Stotland E. (1959). A preliminary statement to a theory of attitude structure and change. In Psychology: A Study of Science. vol 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.

5 Conrad CF. (1982). Undergraduate Instruction. In Encyclopedia of Educational Research. 5th ed. New York: The Free Press.

6 Keller JM. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development. 10;3. 2-10.

7 Martin BL and Briggs LJ. (1986). The Affective and Cognitive Domains: Integration for Instruction and Research. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

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 teaches cardiovascular and neuroscience in the graduate physiology courses. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise and in improving science pedagogy. When he’s not working, he is a certified scuba instructor and participates in triathlons.
In Defense of the “Real” Thing

Society has moved into the age of virtual reality.  This computer-generated trend has wide-sweeping implications in the classroom.  Specific to anatomy, impressive 3D modeling programs permit students to dissect simulated bodies pixel by pixel.  It is exciting and often more cost-effective.  Virtual dissection, without doubt, can play a significant role in the current learning environment. However, as stated by Rene Descartes, “And so that they might have less difficulty understanding what I shall say about it, I should like those who are unversed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading this, of having the heart of a large animal with lungs dissected before their eyes (for it is in all respects sufficiently like that of a man)”. This idea leads me to my argument; there is no replacement for the real thing.

 

We as teachers must incorporate a variety of learning tools for a student to truly understand and appreciate anatomical structure. Anatomical structure also needs to be related to physiological function. Is there anyone reading this that has not repeated the mantra “form determines function” hundreds or thousands of times during their teaching?  The logistical and financial restrictions to human cadavers, necessitates the frequent incorporation of chemically preserved specimens into our laboratory curriculum. Course facilitators often employ a cat or a pig as a substitute for the human body. I am not advocating against the use of preserved specimens or virtual programs for that matter (and kudos to my fellow facilitators who have learned the arduous techniques required to dissect a preserved specimen). However, it is my opinion that it is a time consuming assignment with limited educational end points. Not to mention the rising specimen costs and limited vendor options. The cost of a preserved cat is now ~$40, while the average cost of a live mouse is only ~$5. Two very important components necessary to understand the concept that form determines function are missing from preserved specimens (even cadavers). These two components are: texture and color. With respect to color, the tissues of preserved specimens are subtle variations of gray, completely void of the Technicolor show of the living organism. Further, texture differences are extremely difficult to differentiate in a preserved specimen. Compare this to a fresh or live specimen and the learning tools are innumerable. You might argue that mice are much smaller, but dissecting microscopes can easily enhance the dissection and in my experience far outweigh the noxious experience of dissecting a chemically preserved organism.

 

To further convince you of the value of dissecting fresh tissue I would like to present a couple of examples. First, why is the color of tissue important? One of the most important bodily pigments is hemoglobin. Hemoglobin, as we all know, is the pigment that gives blood its red color. Therefore the color of a tissue often reflects the level of the tissue vascularity and often (but of course not always) in turn the ability of that tissue to repair or regenerate. Simply compare the color of the patellar tendon (white) to the red color of the quadriceps. Muscles being highly vascularized have a much greater ability to regenerate than non-vascular connective tissue such as the patellar tendon. In addition, muscles contain myoglobin, a red protein very similar to hemoglobin. Two clear examples of teaching opportunities that would be missed with the traditional use of preserved specimens.

 

Texture is completely lost with chemical preservation as tissues become hardened and rubbery. My students are always blown away by the fact you can completely eliminate the overall structure of the brain by pressing it between their two fingers. The tactile experience of holding the delicate brain allows students to explore how form begets function begets pathology. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a hot topic in our culture. We no longer see children riding bicycles without helmets, the National Football League has new rules regarding tackle technique and my 8-year-old soccer player is penalized for headers during game play. What better way to educate a new generation of students just how delicate nervous tissue is than by having them “squash” a mouse brain? Regardless, of the amazing skull that surrounds the brain and the important fluid in which it floats, a hit to the head can still result in localized damage and this tactile experience emphasizes this in a way no virtual dissection could ever accomplish.

 

Finally, I would like to discuss a topic close to my heart that does require a non-preserved large animal specimen. The function of arteries and veins is vastly different based on the structure of elastic or capacitance vessels, respectively. For example, the deer heart allows easy access to the superior or inferior vena cava (veins that are thin and easily collapsed) and the aorta (thick and elastic artery) permitting valuable teaching moments on vessel structural variability for divergent physiological function. These structures on a preserved specimen are usually removed just as they enter the heart making them very difficult to evaluate.

 

These are just some elementary examples. Numerous concepts can be enhanced with the added illustrations of texture and color. When presented with both options, my students always choose the fresh tissue!  The wonder and excitement of handling fresh tissue has become a hallmark of our Anatomy and Physiology course and is regularly mentioned as student’s favorite example of hands-on learning in the classroom.

 

I have to end this with a special shout-out to my dear lab adjunct Professor Elizabeth Bain MSN, RN. Liz has made access to deer heart and lungs an easy task for me.

April Carpenter, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Health and Exercise Physiology Department at Ursinus College. She received her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and completed two postdoctoral fellowships at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Her research interests include the molecular regulation of endothelial function and its impact on all phases of skeletal muscle injury.  Dr. Carpenter currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology, Research Methods and a new Pathophysiology course.
Student Preparation for Flipped Classroom

Flipped teaching is a hybrid educational format that shifts lectures out of the classroom to transform class time as a time for student-centered active learning. Essentially, typical classwork (the lecture) is now done elsewhere via lecture videos and other study materials, and typical homework (problem solving and practice) is done in class under the guidance of the faculty member. This new teaching strategy has gained enormous attention in recent years as it not only allows active participation of students, but also introduces concepts in a repetitive manner with both access to help and opportunities to work with peers. Flipped teaching paves the way for instructors to use classroom time to engage students in higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy such as application, analysis, and synthesis. Students often find flipped teaching as busy work especially if they are not previously introduced to this teaching method. Pre-class preparation combined with a formative assessment can be overwhelming especially if students are not used to studying on a regular basis.

When I flipped my teaching in a large class of 241 students in an Advanced Physiology course in the professional year-1 of a pharmacy program almost a decade ago, the first two class sessions were very discouraging. The flipped teaching format was explained to students as a new, exciting, and innovative teaching method, without any boring lectures in class. Instead they would be watching lectures on video, and then working on challenging activities in class as groups. However, the majority of the students did not complete their pre-class assignment for their first class session. The number of students accessing recorded lectures was tracked where the second session was better than the first but still far from the actual class size. The unprepared students struggled to solve application questions in groups as an in-class activity and the tension it created was noticeable.  The first week went by and I began to doubt its practicality or that it would interfere with student learning, and consequently I should switch to the traditional teaching format. During this confusion, I received an email from the college’s Instructional Technology office wondering what I had done to my students as their lecture video access had broken college’s records for any one day’s access to resources. Yes, students were preparing for this class! Soon, the tension in the classroom disappeared and students started performing better and their course evaluations spoke highly of this new teaching methodology. At least two-thirds of the class agreed that flipped teaching changed the way they studied. This success could be credited to persistence with which flipped teaching was implemented despite student resistance.

I taught another course entitled Biology of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases, which is required for Exercise Science majors and met three times per week. Although students in this course participated without any resistance, their unsolicited student evaluations distinctly mentioned how difficult it was to keep up with class work with this novel teaching approach. Based on this feedback, I set aside one meeting session per week as preparation time for in-class activities during the other two days. This format eased the workload and students were able to perform much better. This student buy-in has helped improve the course design significantly and to increase student engagement in learning. Flexibility in structuring flipped teaching is yet another strategy in improving student preparation.

While one of the situations required persistence to make flipped teaching work, the other situation led me to modify the design where one out of three weekly sessions was considered preparation time. In spite of these adaptations, the completion of pre-class assignment is not always 100 percent. Some students count on their group members to solve application questions. A few strategies that are expected to increase student preparation are the use of retrieval approach to flipped teaching where students will not be allowed to use any learning resources except their own knowledge from the pre-class assignments. Individual assessment such as the use of clickers instead of team-based learning is anticipated to increase student preparation as well.

Dr. Chaya Gopalan earned her Ph.D. in Physiology from the University of Glasgow. Upon her postdoctoral training at Michigan State University, she started teaching advanced physiology, pathophysiology and anatomy and physiology courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in a variety of allied health programs. Currently she teaches physiology and pathophysiology courses in the nurse anesthetist (CRNA), nurse practitioner, as well as in the exercise science programs. She practices team-based learning and flipped classroom in her everyday teaching.
Fastballs, houses, and ECG’s

As adults of ever increasing age, I am sure almost every one of you has had a conversation lamenting your loss of physical abilities over the years. “I used to be able to do that.” “I used to be good at that.” As a parent to two young, energetic, fearless boys I hear (and think) these sentiments almost daily. While watching children play on a playground, sprinting for hours, hanging upside down, contorting their bodies into nearly impossible positions, jumping (and falling), twisting and turning, and literally bouncing off walls, parent conversations almost always include incredulous statements about children’s’ physical capacity followed immediately by a statement of the parents’ lack thereof. More than once I’ve heard a parent say, “If I did that, I’d be in the hospital.”

But have you ever actually thought, “Why can’t I do that anymore?” The answer isn’t just “I’m too old”. Obviously the physiologic changes of age are undeniable, but it’s a more complicated reason. At some point in your life, you stopped playing like children play. You stopped running and jumping and twisting and turning. You move in straight lines. You sit for hours. You don’t try that new move. It looks too hard. You might hurt yourself. As physiologists, we all know about homeostasis and adaptations, and it’s no surprise that our lifestyles have contributed to our physical inability in adulthood. Of course you would hurt yourself if you tried ‘that’, but only because you haven’t tried anything like that in years. Start trying ‘that’ though, and over time you’ll find yourself much more physically capable despite the aging process.

This childhood to adulthood performance decrement is not exclusive to physical capacity though. We are doing much the same to our mental capacity with age. A child will take physical risks on the playground, much as they also take mental “risks” in the classroom. Ask a group of 3rd graders a question, any question, almost all of them raise their hand hoping to answer…even if they don’t know the answer. And the student who got it wrong, will raise his hand again after the next question. Give them a challenge or a mystery to solve and they will dive right in. Let them touch and feel and manipulate. They don’t hesitate. They are on their mental playground. This is how they learn. As adults though, we aren’t going to the mental playground, because that’s not what adults do. We sit in chairs. We watch lectures. We make notecards. We read papers. We study the learning objectives and the PowerPoints.

Just as adults could physically benefit from some time on the playground every day, adults (and I’m including college students in this category) can also benefit from time on a mental playground. Even as educators of other adults, we need to remember this. We often forget the multitude of ways that we can put our students on the mental playground. We don’t do an activity, because the students might think it’s ridiculous. It might waste too much time, and there is too much material to cover today. I have found in my classrooms though, that activities that would work with kindergarteners can work equally well for college students.

To give examples of ways to put college students on the mental playground, I would like to share two activities that I have done in a physiologic assessment of health course that have been very effective. The course consists of juniors and seniors who have already taken several biology, chemistry, and physiology courses beyond anatomy and physiology. The first assignment that I give them is to work with a partner to draw a picture of a person with as many health risk factors as they can think of. I have found that most students who take this class (instructor included) are horrible artists, but this adds to the fun of the assignment. The students love it and come up with thousands of creative ways to represent health risk factors. We have a discussion over which drawings have incorporated the most “official” risk factors (as designated by national organizations like ACSM, AHA, etc.) and why some of the others are certainly not healthy (setting off fireworks indoors), but not listed as official risk factors.  Something about taking the time to draw silly pictures on a specific topic really aids in student understanding (anecdotally in my class, but evidence exists that this is effective (Ainsworth S, Prain V, Tytler R. Drawing to Learn in Science. Science. 333 (6046),1096-1097, 2011.).

Another assignment I’ve had good results with to get students onto the mental playground is half mystery for the students to solve and half drawing pictures. I tell the class that we are going to learn about how the heart works and talk about the electrocardiogram. The first thing I ask them to do is to get out of a sheet of paper and to draw a picture of the house they grew up in as if they were looking at it from the road. Normally confusion ensues and the students want to know if it’s for a grade (yes), and why they’re doing it (trust me, it’ll make sense later). After giving the students time to sketch their house, I ask permission to show each to the class, and then ask the question to the class. “Whose house is bigger?” Ultimately the students come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible to tell without knowing the perspective and distance from the artist and the other views of the house (the front view is only one of multiple views that would be needed to construct the 3-dimensional size of the house). Then, still without talking about the heart, I ask them to draw a picture of a baseball (just the baseball) being thrown. Once again I show the drawings to the class. All usually agree that everyone probably knows the approximate size of a baseball, but then I highlight how different people drew different sizes on the paper. Once again I discuss perspective and how large a baseball looks when it’s about to hit you in the face, because it takes up your entire field of vision, but if it were thrown at you, it would look smaller relative to your field of vision at the start. If you’re watching people playing catch equidistant from both, the ball might move back and forth without appearing to change size relative to the visual field. But all the baseballs are still the same size!

Finally, after the house and baseball drawings I ask, “what did all of that have to do with the heart and electrocardiograms?” After a few minutes, most students understand the theory behind the electrocardiogram without ever having analyzed one. I’ve even had a strong student who was finishing her clinical exercise testing degree that semester say that even though she had taken several courses on ECG analysis and knew how to read them to get good grades on ECG tests, this was the first time she truly “got it.”

Thousands of other ways to engage students on the mental playground are out there as well. Discussing muscle physiology? Hand out rubber bands before class starts and ask them to think about how muscles and rubber bands are remarkably similar yet not the same at all. Teaching about bones? Pass out a few models to let them hold and manipulate. Then ask the students to pretend they’re cavemen and they need to build all of their tools out of bones, which bones would make a good hammer? A good bowl? Spoon? Fork? Weapon? Teaching about brain physiology? Have the students invoke thoughts, memories, feelings or movements and then tell them which part of the brain is responsible. Be creative and remember that just like our bodies, our minds work best when they’re stretched and twisted and used in different ways on a regular basis.

I do not know enough about educational psychology to understand the underlying mechanisms by which these types of activities work (my PhD is in Kinesiology after all – a content expert told to teach well!).  And admittedly most of my evidence that they work is anecdotal or comes by way of gradually improved student scores on final exam and practical questions related to my course objectives over several semesters in which I certainly adjusted more than one variable. However, I do know that in learning, students attend to touch and feel, emotion, and mystery. The same thing you’ll witness at an elementary school playground. Incorporating these into your lessons, even in the simplest of ways can be beneficial for all different types of learners. I’m asking you to turn your classrooms into intellectual playgrounds. Encourage risk taking. Validate atypical approaches. Make it fun. Make it engaging. All the memorized note cards might be forgotten by next semester if it’s not.

   Ed Merritt is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Ed received his doctorate in Kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cellular and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Ed was a faculty member at Appalachian State University until family ties brought him back to central Texas and Southwestern University. Ed’s research focuses on the molecular underpinnings of skeletal muscle atrophy after trauma and with aging, but he is also equally involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning and melding educational outreach activities with service learning.
Teaching Backwards

 

Generating new ideas and cool learning experiences has always been natural and fun for me. My moments of poignant clarity often came during a swim workout or a walk with my dog as I reflect on my classes. As I visualize this activity, my students are as enthusiastic as I am and are learning. Then, reality returns as I grade the next exam and see that less than half of the class answered the question related to that activity correctly. Accounting for the students who learn despite what I do, I quickly see that I only reached a quarter of my students with this great activity. Why did this happen? What can I do about this?

Well, my life as an instructor changed the day I walked into my first session of University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) Learning Fellows at Case Western Reserve University.  This program is a semester long session on how learning works where the focus is on evidence-based learning practices and provides an opportunity to discuss successes and failures in teaching with peers.  It was here that I learned about “Backwards Design”1.

What is Backwards Design?

Essentially, it is designing your course with the end in mind. I think of it as “Teaching Backwards” – that is, I visualize my students 5-10 years from now in a conversation with a friend or colleague discussing what they learned from my class. I ask myself these questions:

  1. How do I want them to describe my class? Hansen refers to this as the “Big Idea” or broad objective. An example from one of my classes is provided in Table 1.
  2. What do I want them to be able to tell their friend or colleague that they learned from the class in 5 to 10 years? Hansen has termed this as “Enduring Understanding” (see Table 1).

The next phase is to write learning objectives for each of the enduring understandings (see Table 1). We continue the journey backwards into linking learning objectives to assessment methods and developing the details of each class session. During this process, we must always take into account the student’s prior knowledge (refer to How Learning Works2).

Table 1: Example of Backwards Design Concepts for “Exercise Physiology and Macronutrient Metabolism” class.

Class: Exercise Physiology and Macronutrient Metabolism
Big Idea Enduring Understanding Learning Objective
Exercise-Body Interaction Substrate utilization during exercise depends on type, intensity, and duration of exercise. Students will be able to describe substrate utilization during exercise.
Fatigue during exercise has been associated with low glycogen levels, but scientists are not in agreement as to the underlying cause of fatigue. Students will be able to debate the theories of fatigue.

What did backwards design do for me?

Backwards design provided me focus. It allowed me to step back and ask myself: What are the key take-aways? Does that cool, creative idea I have help to achieve my end game for the course? Is there a better way to do this? Overall, the framework has helped me develop a higher quality course. With that said, I still run into exam questions where I thought I did better at teaching the material than represented by the students’ responses.  So, while there is always room for improvement, this has definitely been a step in the right direction for better learning by my students.

References:

  1. Hansen EJ. Idea Based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding. Sterling VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC; 2011.
  2. Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett M, Norman MK.How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Points for Teaching. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

 

Lynn Cialdella-Kam, PhD, MBA, MA, RDN, LD joined CWRU as an Assistant Professor in Nutrition in 2013. At CWRU, she is engaged in undergraduate and graduate teaching, advising, and research. Her research has focused on health complications associated with energy imbalances (i.e. obesity, disordered eating, and intense exercise training). Specifically, she is in interested in understanding how to alterations in dietary intake (i.e., amount, timing, and frequency of intake) and exercise training (i.e., intensity and duration) can attenuate the health consequences of energy imbalance such as inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance, alterations in macronutrient metabolism, and menstrual dysfunction.  She received her PhD in Nutrition from Oregon State University, her Masters in Exercise Physiology from The University of Texas at Austin, and her Master in Business Administration from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.  She completed her postdoctoral research in sports nutrition at Appalachian State University and is a licensed and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).
How Much Material Should We Cover?

womanedhatI’m not sure where the phrase “the tyranny of content” was first coined, but picturing this bloated and oppressive ruler issuing dictates from on high does seem apt at times. Now, of course, there is no one telling us[1] that we have to cover every last bit of Physiology, but yet we often end up trying to do just that. This is in spite of numerous articles and publications telling us and showing us that trying to cover less is more effective[2].

Last spring I taught a 300 level[3] physiology course at my previous institution, and this course is their first and usually only exposure to physiology while the students are undergraduates. I thought I had finally put together a pretty awesome course. I reorganized the material in a manner similar to Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative A&P course[4] which has a structure that seems to reflect the 5 Core Concepts in Biology and “Core Principles” of Physiology[5]. I mapped out all of my learning outcomes for each unit and aligned my activities and assessments. It wasn’t until after the semester that I happened to put all of the learning outcomes into a single spreadsheet and realized I had 105!

I had the good fortune of moving into a new position right after that semester, one where I am responsible for training and mentoring graduate students and post-docs who are developing and teaching a course for the first time[6]. Sadly, this means I don’t get to teach Physiology any more[7] – but it has allowed me to really reflect on how I approach teaching. This one big question keeps popping back up for me: How much material is the right amount of material to cover?[8]

In preparation for a workshop here at UW-Madison, I went through all of those learning outcomes and pared the list down to ~50. Is that still too many or too few? At the risk of mixing metaphors, am I preventing my students from being buried under this mountain of information or am I just dooming them to being buried later when they go on to professional school?

I think that this gets to one of the big underlying issues associated with managing course content, and that is maybe more important than counting learning objectives – What do I want my students to be able to do once the course is over? My initial response is a partially tongue-in-cheek “understand physiology.” But, even if I was being completely serious that is still a really vague idea. So where to, from here?

A colleague recently related a story to me about a teaching talk that they had heard once upon a time. In it the faculty member discussed how they had for years taught all of these molecular structures, which students would promptly forget as soon as they were out the door after an exam. This faculty member then decided to really focus on 1-2 structures and work with students to make sure that they really understood those structures and the rules that govern them. This would then give them the skills to figure out other structures. Great! What are those handful of things that we could focus on in a human physiology course though?

The “Core Principles” that I mentioned earlier emphasized the following concepts: the importance/function of the cell membrane, homeostasis, cell-to-cell communications, interdependence between cells/structures/organs, and flow down gradients. If a student understands those principles, it would definitely give them the tools to figure out what is going on behind many physiological processes. Obviously a physiology course would need to cover more than just those five areas though, but what? And maybe more importantly, how?

As someone who now mentors first time college science instructors, it has become even more apparent to me that we tend to default to teaching the way we were taught, but all it takes is the right example or the right conversation to spark an entirely new approach to a course. So, this is the point in the process where I want to hear ideas. You can comment on these blog posts, and I’d like to see comments about ideas that you’ve had in terms of focusing your content for human physiology/A&P courses, as well as ideas on making these courses more conceptual/skill-based.  Thanks for your input.


Footnotes

[1] For most of us at least

[2]Brewer, C. A., & Smith, D. (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC. www.visionandchange.org

Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). (2007). College Learning for the New

Global Century. Washington, D.C.: AAC& U.

Handelsman, J., Ebert-May, D., Beichner, R., Bruns, P., Chang, A., DeHaan, R., & Wood, W. B. (2004).

Scientific teaching. Science, 304(5670), 521-522.

National Research Council. (2003) BIO 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future

Research Biologists Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Schwab, J. J. (1962). The Teaching of Science as Enquiry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Schatz, G. (2012). The endangered bond. Science. doi:10.1126/science.1219756

Etc..

[3] So, sophomore & juniors mostly. Almost all ‘pre-health’ of some sort.

[4] http://oli.cmu.edu/courses/free-open/anatomy-physiology/

[5] Michael, J., Modell, H., McFarland, J., & Cliff, W. (2009). The “core principles” of physiology: what should students understand? Advances in Physiology Education, 33(1), 10–16. doi:10.1152/advan.90139.2008 – AND –

Michael, J., & McFarland, J. (2011). The core principles (“big ideas”) of physiology: results of faculty surveys. Advances in Physiology Education,35(4), 336–341. doi:10.1152/advan.00004.2011

[6] Sorry…shameless plug http://biology.wisc.edu/TeachingFellows.htm

[7] At least for the time being

[8] Spoiler Alert! I don’t have the answer, or even AN answer. I am mostly ruminating on this idea.

 
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Chris Trimby is the (Interim) Director of the Teaching Fellows Program and Pre-Faculty Development for WISCIENCE at University of Wisconsin-Madison. As part of this position he mentors graduate students and post-docs while they gain experience teaching and developing course materials. Chris’s research background was in gene therapy and neurotrauma, but that focus has shifted to education practice. He did his Ph.D. in Physiology at University of Kentucky.