Category Archives: Non-majors

Cultivating Belonging through Asynchronous Discussion Assignments and “State Your Perspective”

Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within college classrooms, whether virtual or in-person, has perhaps never been as high a priority as now. One outcome of pandemic teaching has been critical evaluation of historic teaching practices, placing the onus on instructors to provide inclusive learning environments that are responsive and adaptive to a wide range of individualized circumstances. At the same time, some students have expressed feeling isolated and disconnected from peers, reducing motivation and academic persistence. Cultivating a sense of community and belonging in educational spaces, for all learners, is a current hot topic in higher education. In fact, two recent PECOP blogs have centered around the related idea of incorporating team-building practices to enrich learning in physiology education (From a Group to a Team: Medical Education Orientation Curriculum for Building Effective Teams and Developing a Community of Practice in an A&P Course)

Belonging, or the belief that one’s individual abilities and attributes are valued, respected, and on par with others’ abilities, is a strong driving force for persistence in STEM fields (1, 2, see also the Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching webpage: Foster a Sense of Belonging and the Indiana School of Education Building a Sense of Community for All resources). I am not an expert on this, yet I care about supporting the community of learners within the courses that I teach.  This led me to ask: What can I do to build students’ understanding of physiology while also deepening their belief that they belong here, in my classroom, which in turn may foster resilience, persistence, and improved satisfaction within college-level coursework?

Collaborative work is included in all courses I teach. These collaborations take different forms based on the learning goals for the course, learner characteristics (first year versus fourth year students, for example), and topic complexity. Summarized below is one course activity I have used which aims to: (1) help students master challenging physiology concepts through peer-to-peer interactions, (2) develop communication skills related to expressing ideas about human function (a highly-valued professional skill),  and (3) build community and a sense of belonging.

Asynchronous Discussion Assignments and “State Your Perspective”. One course I teach is an in-person, large lecture-style Human Physiology service course for second, third, and fourth year undergraduate students (as well as a handful of graduate students) from biomedical sciences, biomedical engineering, pharmacy interest, public health, and other STEM programs. Many students express trouble “learning how to learn” human physiology, which can be quite different compared with the academic work typical for their varied primary programs of study. They also report feeling isolated in a large classroom and that they have trouble finding study groups, which they value while preparing for exams.

Traditionally, exams in this Human Physiology course were comprised predominantly of multiple choice questions and a few short answer questions (e.g., 3-4 sentences in length). I recently found myself asking: WHAT IF students moved from providing short written explanations on exams that lacked detail due to time constraints to having sufficient time to carefully think through how to explain a physiological process? And, WHAT IF this activity could be designed in such a way to help students recognize what they understand (and what they don’t understand) in advance of an exam, giving them the opportunity to review course materials and try again? And, WHAT IF groups of students were working through this together, leveraging peer-to-peer learning?

These questions, along with experiences from the online and blended instruction I have been doing for many years, gave rise to incorporating asynchronous, online discussion assignments that students would complete in small groups (6-8 students per group). The goal was to give students an opportunity to practice using appropriate anatomical and physiological terminology to precisely describe how the human body functions in a relatively low-stakes setting that supported peer interactions. Students were given a discussion prompt (see below for examples) to which they posted an initial response in the LMS-based virtual discussion forum. Next, all group members were responsible for reviewing their peers’ initial posts and providing two follow-up responses, adding to and building upon the initial physiological descriptions. There were a total of four sets of discussion assignments, one per unit, across the semester. While the discussion assignment structure remained similar from unit to unit, the expectation to communicate increasingly complex ideas was inherent within the discussion prompts.

Specifically to address DEI and belonging, students were to begin their initial responses with a “State Your Perspective” statement. “State Your Perspective” entailed providing a 1-2 sentence summary statement to describe the context by which the topic at hand was viewed. In Human Physiology, this might be knowledge based on prior coursework, the focus of the lab in which they worked, practical clinical experiences for those who work in health care settings, and such. While ice-breaker introductions are frequently incorporated into group work, the use of bolder “State Your Perspective” language is intentional. It helps to move from a generic introduction that generally alludes to differing background experiences to an explicit and purposeful statement intended to summarize the specific context for the way a particular physiological function is understood.

Here are excerpts of the discussion prompts and how “State Your Perspective” is modeled for students.

UNIT 1 Discussion Prompt: One theme for UNIT 1 has been to develop connections between new information and previously-known concepts in order to understand how the human body works:  What have you learned in prior courses that apply to human physiology? Specify (1) the prior knowledge/what you knew before this course, and (2) the new ideas presented UNIT 1 that expands upon your background knowledge and therefore your understanding of human function.

  • “State Your Perspective”: Include a 1-sentence introduction at the beginning of your initial post that includes your major and anything else important for your group members to know that provides context for your perspective. For example “I am a third year biomedical sciences student and I work in a research lab that studies RNA, therefore I have learned ….”.
  • As you will see, some of your group members may have academic backgrounds that are different from yours, and they might present concepts in a different way. This is great! We hope the discussions become more interesting from sharing multiple ways to view the same physiological concept.

UNIT 2 Discussion Prompt: Prepare an answer to one of the Exam 2 Study Guide prompts to share with your group members. Include at least one type of conceptual model within your response: how one “Core Concept of Physiology” can be used to remember this process [see Reference 3 for information about the Core Concepts of Physiology], an originally-created concept map, an analogy, an annotated figure, or another self-generated study tool.

  • Begin your response with a 1-sentence “State Your Perspective” that provides context for your response. For example “I am a pharmacy interest student, and it is important for me to learn about neurotransmitters and receptors because ….”

UNIT 3 Discussion Prompt: Summarize one physiology concept presented in UNIT 3 for your group members, in your own words and including the appropriate anatomy and physiology terminology. Suggested length:  4-6 sentences. NEXT: Create four different 1-sentence statements about your topic, including two statements that are TRUE and two statements that are FALSE (but don’t identify which is which, see below).

  • Begin with a 1-sentence introduction, similar to previous discussion forums so that your new group members understand something about your perspective. Example: “I am an interdisciplinary studies student interested in healthcare; therefore, I found the lecture on hypertension really interesting ….”
  • For your responses to classmates: Carefully review each statement. Select one that you think is false and provide a physiological rationale to support your reasoning. Next, make the appropriate corrections to turn it into a TRUE statement.

Teaching Hint #1: This is manageable in a large lecture course of 150-250 students because I have teaching assistants who understand their primary responsibility is to regularly engage directly with students in the small-group discussions and provide feedback for correct and incorrect descriptions (this is a high priority for students. Practically speaking, this equates to each TA managing 6-10 groups of ~8 students each.

Teaching Hint #2: Once the grading is completed, I ask the TAs to summarize what they learned about how students learn physiology. This has been a good way to mentor TAs and prompt thoughts about their own teaching philosophies. I sometimes ask them what they would change (nothing like grading 50+ discussion assignments based on a poorly-worded prompt…). In fact, this is how the UNIT 3 true/false statements came to be; a graduate student proposed it as a way to incorporate greater critical thought and reasoning within discussion assignments.

So what did students think about this type of discussion assignment? Here are examples of comments provided on the end-of-class evaluation forms, paraphrased and in aggregate form (i.e., these are not actual student comments but represent themes in responses):

  • The discussion assignments were a good way for me to think critically about one idea then communicate my understanding of human function to my peers.
  • Discussions were a great way to see what my classmates were doing to learn human physiology that I could apply to my own learning—my group members proposed study strategies and ways of thinking about the human body that I hadn’t thought of before.
  • I enjoyed learning from my peers, who might know something more than me based on their experiences outside of class.
  • Even though this was a large lecture course with quite a bit of content presented online, I enjoyed interacting with my peers, the professor, and TAs in the discussions. I felt like everyone was there to support my learning.

Despite initial skepticism, very few students conveyed negative comments about the discussion assignments or described them as “busy-work”.

Beyond student feedback, here are a few subjective comments conveying my personal observations about classroom dynamics that arose from this course activity.

  • By design, one aim of “State Your Perspective” statement was to help students recognize that they hold certain views on a topic based on their background experiences. For some 20-something year-olds, it might not be intuitive that they, in fact, have certain perspectives and attitudes that they bring into group work. “State Your Perspective” has the potential to be affirming—when articulating prior experiences it can become more explicit, to ourselves and others, that we all have something unique to contribute to group work.
  • Sharing perspectives, along with the underlying narrative (but briefly, in 1-2 sentences), seemed to normalize the idea that we all have different backgrounds and experiences so OF COURSE we may hold different perspectives, or ways of viewing things.
  • Because the context for why discussion prompts were answered with a particular focus was evident, it seemed to reduce the pressure that every student should know “everything”. Instead, over time and through several rounds of discussions, students became more comfortable talking about what they understood and what they didn’t understand. Clarifications could be made and misperceptions could be corrected by peers, who almost always demonstrated remarkable diplomacy and kindness toward their classmates.
  • In some cases, the online and asynchronous nature of these discussions seemed to reduce barriers with regard to asking for help. It seemed to move students from a mindset of “I should know this but I don’t/everyone knows this but me” to the non-threatening “This is a topic maybe I need to ask about.” Students seemed less self-conscious when asking questions.

In summary, collaboration during small group, asynchronous discussion assignments seemed to promote a sense of community and belonging among students in a Human Physiology for non-majors course. As the instructor, it was rewarding to see improvement in students’ abilities to explain physiological processes across the semester. It was also extremely rewarding to see the great care exhibited by students to be inclusive and supportive of their peers.



  1. Herman J, Hilton M. Supporting Students’ College Success The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies (Consensus Study Report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2017.
  2. Wilton M, Gonzalez-Nino E, McPartlan P, Terner Z, Christoffersen RE, Rothman JH. Improving academic performance, belonging, and retention through increasing structure of an introductory biology course. CBE Life Sci Educ, 18:1-13, 2019.
  3. Michael J, Cliff W, McFarland J, Modell H, Wright A. The Core Concepts of Physiology A New Paradigm for Teaching Physiology. New York: Springer, 2017.
My Perspective: I am an Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa. I am the Program Director for the B.S. Human Physiology program, which serves approximately 625 majors. I am also an active participant in several undergraduate student success initiatives at the collegiate level.  The most rewarding part of my job is learning about how students learn physiology, in their own words. I solicit student feedback for their academic experiences regularly.

Jennifer Rogers, PhD

Associate Professor of Instruction

Department of Health and Human Physiology

University of Iowa


Back into a cactus? Now what? Engaging Nonscience Majors in Physiology

snow cactus 2

It’s February in Tucson, Arizona, and you’re out in the desert attempting to photograph the unique phenomenon of snow on cactus. You find an ideal subject to shoot but need to be slightly further away to best frame the picture. Backing up while looking through the viewfinder, you suddenly leap forward and subsequently feel a pain in your derriere. Heart racing, you turn around to face your offender, only to blush, discovering that you had inadvertently backed in to a prickly pear cactus.

(from Fundamentals of Human Physiology, beginning of Lecture #6)


Teaching science to non-science majors creates many challenges even to the most seasoned scientist and science teacher. The fear of science for many non-science students presents immediate roadblocks to learning especially if the topics are not presented in a way that connects with them. The difficulty we often face is maintaining the rigor of science courses while ensuring student learning and progress in the subject. One approach I’ve had success with is to engage students right away using introductory scenarios that present the topics as they occur in the “real world”, setting the stage for the advanced content to be covered in the lecture and/or explored in the lab.


The Introductory Scenario

Each component of the above scenario demonstrates a complex aspect of the nervous system: the neuronal method of rapid communication, spinal reflexes for the sudden leap, sensory perception, voluntary movement, cognition, and autonomic and limbic control of emotions and homeostasis. When discussed as separate entities, these topics are often difficult, alien and overwhelming to the science neophyte, and usually prompt questions such as “why do we have to know this?” or “what does this all mean?”

After listening to the above scenario, the 75 non-science undergraduates in the Fundamentals of Human Physiology course, instead begin offering suggestions for the “real-life” components of the scenario, setting up, step-by-step, how things happened: first the jump forward, then the feeling of pain, next slowly turning around to see “who bit you”, etc.… And, with just a little prompting, they begin to identify the functions and characteristics the nervous system must possess to be able to accomplish these tasks: e.g., rapid communication over long distances, priorities of functions, automated responses, memory storage and possibility of inhibitory influences. The scenario has helped establish a connection between scientific information and daily life, enabling students to become actively engaged in their learning and to start putting together the various science details and concepts during subsequent instructional activities.


Benefits of the Approach

Use of cases or scenarios in science education, especially in physiology, where real-life situations are much more easily captured, has been a great tool for many of us. They work well to promote critical thinking and problem solving on a topic and/or to pull together ideas or assess learning after the fact. However, I have found that they are also ideal for getting the topic started.

Using this introductory scenario strategy has at least three benefits. First, it engages the students at the very beginning, having them actively involved in setting up the outline of the lecture real time.  Each student contributes to the framework that is familiar and can be used to organize the forthcoming new information. This familiarity, or connection with the student’s own experience, helps to break through the fear and alienation often felt by non-science undergrads during their required exposure to science courses. What is created is a “want to know”, an interest in learning about the topic. The student is ready for the once feared content.

Second, the more familiar everyday language used for the initial scenario description enables students to enter into the discussion of the material at the outset, before having to learn considerable vocabulary and jargon.  Then having a graspable framework for the new material, the subsequent transition to their use of appropriate vocabulary and scientific details is more effective and long lasting.

Third, the scenario strategy paired with group discussion can serve as a diagnostic for students’ prior knowledge. It can reveal the students’ background and perspectives, allowing for quick modification of the content, the approach and/or the examples used to illustrate the principles under discussion.  It can also expose misconceptions or faulty knowledge based on “old wives” tales and past experience. These revelations can be very instructive as the class attempts to analyze the “kernels of truth” underlying these tales. However, these prior misconceptions can still be very difficult for the neophyte student to let go of.  While using the scenario discussion is useful to jumpstart a topic, it isn’t always sufficient to convince some students to give up strongly held beliefs.  Meaningful and multiple follow up experiences have proven necessary to help solidify the science content for some.



So does this work?   Several semesters comparing pre and post-class surveys revealed insights on the type of expectations nonscience students have about science and what type of teaching and teacher-student interactions are most valued. The pre-survey revealed some very strong beliefs about 1) science classes in general: although they enjoyed some topics, they also thought that science content is too hard and confusing, often not applicable to life,  and 2) the way that science was taught: too often it is dull, boring, rigid and inflexible, with little compassion for students’ inability to understand the topic.

The post-survey revealed that the majority were pleasantly surprised that they enjoyed the class utilizing this scenario strategy.  Students reported to have gained or learned information that was relevant and valuable, being able to apply this new knowledge to their own lives and find benefits.   However, they still found the course to be quite challenging, the tests to be intensive and several topics especially difficult. They also considered the time commitment for the course to be substantial–both the time spent in the lab as well as the time required to study and adequately prepare for exams. We felt that this was a significant finding: students found the material challenging and, at times, difficult, yet still exhibited an enthusiasm for the course and science in general.  They enjoyed physiology within the context of real-world applications and hands-on experiences despite that many were thought to be quite challenging. This finding agrees with the many advocates of creating meaningful learning environments in science.

And the key assessment – demonstration of knowledge on exams or assignments – has shown that their understanding of the material is quite sound and transferable.  When faced with a novel, integrative scenario, the students are able to pull together ideas and details to satisfactorily explain the physiology at work, though obviously more controlled research on this would be helpful.

This method can be adapted to any course at any level.  All of the topics or lectures in the Human Physiology course were started using this strategy, but I also use this in freshman interdisciplinary colloquia, upper division courses for physiology majors and in medical school. However, one of the most challenging aspects of beginning this type of teaching is coming up with imaginative appropriate scenarios that are engaging and instructive. Fortunately the media and news continually provide examples of human physiology at work.  I tend to utilize an amalgam of experiences from my own life or that of friends and family to create ‘real-life’ scenarios.  And there are amazing databases available to instructors that provide cases or scenarios as well as teaching notes to jump-start the imagination intensive aspect of this process.  (e.g., The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science directed by CF Herreid at SUNY Buffalo.)



National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, CF Herreid, SUNY Buffalo.


Lucinda RankinLucinda (Cindy) Rankin, University of Arizona  
Questions such as “I wonder how this works?” or “Why does it do that?” characterize my life-long approach to science. These questions have progressively narrowed in focus to how the body works (physiology), how we move (neuromuscular biology), and how we learn (science education). The array of courses that I have developed and teach allows me to continue pursuing these questions while sharing the excitement with students, from freshmen in non-science majors to 2nd yr med students and veteran high school science teachers. My approach has evolved continually over the past 30+ yrs teaching in/out of the classroom (at Univ of Arizona since 1980), but has at its heart setting context and relevance for the content and getting the students actively engaged in the material from day 1. Now also serving as the UA Research Integrity Officer, an additional question has been added to my platform: how can we assure that research is done in an ethical and responsible manner?