Category Archives: Teaching Strategies

Using Quests to Engage and Elevate Laboratory Learning
Sarah Knight Marvar, PhD
American University

My students, like me, enjoy a challenge. Occasionally this challenge comes in the form of staying on track, using our lab time efficiently to achieve the learning outcomes and staying engaged with the material. There are specific topics that we cover in our undergraduate human anatomy and physiology course, such as the skeletal system, that had become a little dry over time. Classes occasionally included students sitting at desks looking disinterestedly at disarticulated bones glancing at their lab manual and then checking their phones. I felt that the students were not getting enough out of our laboratory time and weren’t nearly as excited as I was to be there!

With other faculty members I recently devised some new laboratory activities that include a series of quests that closely resemble a mental obstacle course, to try to encourage engagement with the material and make our learning more playful and memorable. There may also be some healthy competition along the way.

I teach an undergraduate two semester combined anatomy and physiology course, in which I lead both the lecture and laboratory portions. Students who are enrolled in this course are majoring in Biology, Neuroscience, Public Health and Health Promotions. Many of the enrolled students are destined for graduate school programs such as Medicine, Nursing, Physical Therapy, Physicians Assistant and PhD Programs. An example of the quest format we used recently in a bone laboratory is described here.

The Quests

The laboratory is set up with multiple quest stations that each represent a multi-step task on areas within the overarching laboratory topic. All of the tasks are designed to enable students to achieve the learning outcomes of the laboratory in an engaging way. The quest stations are designed to encourage the students to physically move around the laboratory in order to interact with other students, touch the exhibits, explore case studies, complete illustrations and build models. Each student begins with a quest guide which provides instructions and upon which they take notes, answer questions and complete drawings. Students move at their own pace and work in self-selected pairs or groups of three. They are able to ask for assistance at any stage of a quest from either of two faculty members present.   

Clinical case studies

Because of the students’ interest in patient care, we use clinical case studies as a major component of the obstacle course. X-ray images of a variety of pathological conditions as well as healthy individuals challenged students’ ability to identify anomalies in bone structure and surgery outcomes. The images that we used included a skull of a newborn showing clearly the fontanelles, an example of osteoporosis and joint replacement surgery. Students are required to identify anatomical location of the image as well as any anomalies, pathology or points of interest. Because of the student demographic of this class, many of them are destined to enter healthcare professions, they are particularly interested in this quest and are invested in solving the mystery diagnoses.

The Creative Part

Illustrations

An example of a student’s histological drawing.

The coloring pencils and electric pencil sharpener have come into their own in the laboratory and like Grey’s Anatomy illustrator Henry Vandyke Carter created before them, amazing anatomically accurate drawings are appearing on the page. Histology has been a particularly challenging aspect of our course for students with little previous exposure to sectioned specimens. In an attempt to allow students to really process what they are looking at and reflect on the tissue function I have asked students to draw detailed images of the histological specimens, label cell types and reflect on specific cell functions. This exercise aims to elevate the student’s ability to look closely at histological specimens and gain a better understanding of what they are observing and contemplate specific cell function.

Another quest involves categorizing bones and making illustrations of them, making note of unique identifying features and their functions.

3-D Modeling

Student synovial joint models with notes on function

Reminiscent of scenes from my three year old’s birthday party, I brought out the modeling clay and tried to stifle the reflex instruction to “don’t mix the colors”! Students were tasked with creating a 3-dimensional model of structures such as synovial joints. This is a particularly successful exercise in which students work with colored modeling clay to construct models of joints and label parts of the joint and describe the function of each part. This allows students to consider the relationship between the structure and function and move beyond looking at two-dimensional images from their textbooks and lecture slides. Students submit images of their completed models to the faculty for successful completion of the quest.

Other quest stations that were part of this particular laboratory session included Vertebrae Organizing, Mystery Bone Identification and Bone Growth Mechanisms.

One of the primary things that I learned from this exercise was that designing game-like scenarios in the classroom is far more enjoyable and entertaining for me as well as for the students, a win-win scenario. Overall from the perspective of the teaching faculty, the level of engagement was significantly increased compared with previous iterations of the class. The quality of the work submitted was high and in addition, this quest-based laboratory design is suitable for a wide range of topics and activities. I am currently designing a muscle physiology laboratory in a similar format that will include an electromyogram strength and cheering station as well as a sliding filament muscle contraction student demonstration station. In reflection I feel that my personal quest to find a novel and interesting way for the students to learn about bones was successful. Now onto the next quest……

Sarah Knight Marvar received her BSc in Medical Science and PhD in Renal Physiology from the University of Birmingham, UK. Sarah is currently a Senior Professorial Lecturer and Assistant Laboratory Director in the Biology Department at American University in Washington DC. Sarah teaches undergraduate Anatomy and Physiology, general biology classes as well as a Complex Problems class on genetic modification to non-majors as part of the AU Core program. Sarah’s research interests include using primary research literature as a teaching tool in the classroom, open educational resources and outreach activities.

Physiology Bumper Stickers for Teaching and Learning
Alice R. Villalobos, BS, PhD
Texas Tech University

As teachers we hope students remember and apply all the physiology they learned in our class.  However, many undergraduate students hope simply to get through this semester of physiology and their other courses.  They dread the amount of material and that ‘so many things go on in the body at one time.’  I asked myself what could be integrated into lecture or lab to help students better learn material in class, study more effectively on their own and ideally, improve recall when taking exams.  Around this time, I attended a teaching workshop focused on short activities and simple tools that could be incorporated into lectures to facilitate learning and recall.  One tool was the ‘bumper sticker’. 

Similar to an actual bumper sticker, the teaching bumper sticker is a short memorable phrase or slogan that encapsulates a thought, principle, or concept.  In this case, a bumper sticker helps students learn and remember a concept or principle.  In all areas of life, we use short sayings or one-liners often of unknown derivation that convey a profound or funny, classic or clever, instructional or encouraging thought.  ‘Righty tighty, lefty loosey.’ means turn the screw to right to tighten and left to loosen.  “I before E except after C.” with the addendum, “… and in words, such as protein or weight.”  Could bumper stickers work in a physiology course?  I already borrowed “Water follows sodium; sodium doesn’t follow water.” from my undergraduate professor.  We all develop short phrases while working on lectures, reading physiology papers and books, or on the fly during lecture.  

Recently, I began using bumper stickers in a more organized manner.  I took a sheet of lined paper, wrote ‘Bumper Stickers for A&P-II’ on the top, and made plenty of copies.  On the first day of class I discussed tips to improve learning and study habits.  I explained the bumper sticker was a teaching/learning tool and gave each student a sheet.  I admitted it was an experiment, but my intention was to give them short phrases to refer to and contemplate when studying on their own or spark a memory on an exam.  That very day we started glycolysis.  The first bumper sticker was “You must spend an ATP to make ATP.”  I explained the first step in glycolysis is phosphorylation, using a phosphate from ATP.  Despite some initial skepticism, bumper stickers caught on and helped many students. 

Rather than repeating your explanation verbatim, students must accurately explain concepts to themselves and others in their own words.  When students study with a partner or in groups, they can refer back to the bumper sticker along with lecture notes, diagrams and textbook to explain the respective concept to each other in their own words and peer-correct.  When students are teaching each other, they are truly ‘getting it’.  Granted, it is essential that students use more exact and scientific vocabulary to describe a mechanism or concept, as is true for any discipline.  For most students this won’t happen the very first time they explain the concept.  Learning physiology or any subject is a process; developing the vocabulary is part of that process.  A memorable bumper sticker is a prompt for stimulating discussion – verbal communication in the context of learning a given physiological mechanism and developing the vocabulary of physiology. 

There is no established technique for the initial delivery of a bumper sticker phrase.  However, its two-fold purpose as a teaching/learning tool is to help students understand and remember a concept; thus, the phrase and initial proclamation must be memorable.  Based on my hits and misses, here are several tips.  First, keep it short, ideally 10 words or less.  Second, timing is key.  Similar to a joke, timing is important but varies with topic and teaching style.  Some use the phrase as a teaser to introduce a topic; others use it to summarize key points.  Third, be as direct as possible and capture students’ full attention.  Some write the phrase on the board or slide and make an announcement, “Listen up.  Write this down.”  Fourth, look directly at your students and state the phrase clearly with meaning, effective voice inflection, dramatic tone, appropriate pause, facial expression, hand gesturing, and/or a little physical comedy.  Fifth, use accurate and scientific terms to explain the meaning of the phrase as it applies to the physiological concept.  This is absolutely critical.  Left to interpretation, students might misunderstand the actual physiological concept.

Bumper stickers for better study and testing strategies

*Use common sense at all times, especially on test day.* At times, students forget obvious and intuitive things.  For example, when applying Boyle’s Law to respiration, don’t forget to breathe.  I remind students that lung volume and intrapulmonary pressure will change such that when we inhale air flows in, and when we exhale air flows out.  Physical laws applied to physiological mechanisms explain relationships among different components of a mechanism, e.g., the pressure of a quantity of gas to its volume.  I assure them, they can and will learn the fundamental physics on which Boyle’s law is based, but keep it simple and remember – when you inhale air flows in, when you exhale air flows out. 

            *Understand the question, before you answer it.* My PhD advisor shared this pearl of wisdom before my qualifying exam.  I encourage students to calmly, slowly and deliberately read the entire question.  On any multiple choice or essay exam, they must be certain of what is being asked, before answering a question.  Do not stop reading the question until you come to a period, question mark or exclamation point.  Students are concerned about wasting precious time.  Slowing down just a bit to answer correctly is worth the time and decreases the odds of second guessing or having to go back to the question.  I make another pitch for reading the text book.  It is a way to practice reading calmly and deliberately and catching differences in font or formatting, e.g., print style, italics, bold, underline, that may indicate key terms for an exam question. 

Bumper stickers for general principles in physiology

*Enough, but not too much.* Many students think every physiological end point is maintained at a constant value.  I explain that various parameters are regulated such that they gently fluctuate within a narrow range.  Plasma sodium must be ‘enough’; if it drops too low osmolarity decreases.  If sodium is ‘too much’, osmolarity increases; plasma volume increases; blood pressure increases.  If an endpoint falls below range, regulatory mechanisms bring it back up into range; should it increase above normal range, regulatory mechanisms bring it back down into range.  

*It’s not a mathematical equation; it’s a relationship.* Many students confess they are ‘really bad at math’ or ‘hate math’.  CO, MAP, renal clearance, alveolar ventilation rate – all math.  Understanding and passing physiology requires math.  I tell students math describes physiological relationships between different factors that regulate or dictate a given endpoint, similar to interactions and relationships among friends or a team.  Actual equations represent precise relationships, e.g., CO = HR x SV.  In that case, cardiac output will increase and decrease in direct proportion to heart rate and stroke volume.  Then there is Poiseuille’s Equation.  Students are not required to memorize that equation, but they must learn and apply the principles of the equation: F α DP, F α 1/R and F α r4.  I clarify the α symbol means ‘in proportion to’, not equals.  I repeat, ‘It’s not a mathematical equation; it’s a relationship.”  I suggest they view a as a hug, and embrace the dependence of blood flow on the pressure gradient, vascular resistance, and the luminal radius.  The 4 means when radius changes even just a little, flow changes a lot!  I provide a more technical explanation of how blood flow can decrease significantly with gentle vasoconstriction and increase with gentle vasodilation; this showcases the essential regulatory role of vascular smooth muscle.  This particular bumper sticker serves to remind them math is critical to our understanding of physiology and hopefully, ease their anxiety.  More math awaits in respiratory physiology, and they revisit and apply F α DP, F α 1/R and F α r4 to air flow.

*Know what abbreviations mean, and don’t make up abbreviations.* I explain the names of hormones, especially, are rich in information.  These names indicate source, stimulus for release, and mechanism of action.  For example, atrial natriuretic peptide, ANP, is a peptide hormone secreted from atrial tissue when plasma volume increases that increases urine output (-uretic) and sodium (natri-) excretion.  Not too creative, but self-explanatory.  Couple it with “Water follows sodium …”; problem solved.  

Bumper stickers for chronological order or sequence

For many cellular and organ mechanisms, there is a strict chronological order of events.  During the cardiac cycle, there is a distinct chronological order for each of several different phenomena that occur simultaneously and interdependently.  I use bumper stickers to teach a basic concept of cardiac physiology that help students learn the cardiac cycle – the electrical~mechanical relationship.  First, I show the entire Wiggers diagram and explain it tracks the series of interrelated electrical and mechanical events as they occur in the same timeline of one heartbeat.  I assure them we will take one panel at a time and pull it altogether at the end.  I start with the relationship of the ECG to the 4 ventricular phases, using a set of bumper sticker phrases that I write on the board.  We review the electrical events of P (atrial depolarization), QRS (ventricular depolarization) and T (ventricular repolarization) deflections.  Then, I say, “Pay attention.  Write down each phrase.”

*Electrical then mechanical.* I explain emphatically that first an electrical signal is transmitted and received, then the atrial or ventricular muscle responds.  In the cardiac cycle, electrical events P, QRS, and T each precede atrial or ventricular responses.  

*Depolarizeàcontract.  Repolarizeàrelax.* I explain depolarization triggers contraction; repolarization leads to relaxation.  P wave signals atrial contraction; QRS complex signals ventricular contraction; T wave signals ventricular relaxation.

*Depolarizeàcontractàincrease pressure.  Repolarizeàrelaxàdecrease pressure.*  I remind them changes in pressure gradients across the atrioventricular and semilunar valves determine whether valves open or close and consequently, whether blood flows into or out of the ventricle.  Depolarization leads to ventricular contraction and in turn, an increase in pressure; repolarization leads to ventricular relaxation and in turn, a decrease in pressure. 

*The AV valve is the fill valve; the semilunar valve is the ejection valve.*  A student thought of this phrase!  She explained, “When the AV valve – tricuspid or mitral – is open during diastole, the ventricle fills with blood from the atrium.  When the semilunar valve – pulmonary or aortic – is open during systole, blood is ejected.”  In that moment I thought my work as a teacher was done; my student is teaching herself and others.  I give her full credit, but use her bumper sticker.  I further explain when the ventricle relaxes and pressure drops below the atrial pressure, the AV valve will open, and blood enters the ventricle; when it contracts ventricular pressure exceeds atrial pressure and the AV valve closes; as it continues to contract, eventually ventricular pressure exceeds aortic pressure, the aortic valves opens, and blood is ejected into the aorta. 

Bumper stickers might not be the right tool for every teacher, student, or topic, or be appropriate for undergraduate versus graduate course.  If you decide to implement this tool, you might not have a bumper sticker for every basic or general physiology concept or mechanism or a set of bumper stickers for every organ system.  You might only use a bumper sticker phrase once or twice in a whole semester.  When used appropriately, they truly can make a difference.  On the other hand – if how you teach is working just fine and your students are getting it – then all I have to say is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Alice Villalobos received her Bachelors of Science in biology from Loyola Marymount University and her PhD in comparative physiology from the University of Arizona-College of Medicine.  For the past several years, she has taught Anatomy & Physiology-II and Introduction to Human Nutrition in the Department of Biology at Blinn College and guest lectured at Texas A&M University on the topics of brain barrier physiology and heavy metal toxicology.  She recently relocated to Texas Tech University to join the Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management where she teaches Physiological Nutrition for Exercise.

Teaching Physiology with Educational Games
Fernanda Klein Marcondes
Associate Professor of Physiology
Biosciences Department
Piracicaba Dental School (FOP), University of Campinas (UNICAMP)

Educational games may help students to understand Physiology concepts and solve misconceptions. Considering the topics that have been difficult to me during my undergraduate and graduate courses, I’ve developed some educational games, as simulations and noncompetitive activities. The first one was the cardiac cycle puzzle. The puzzle presents figures of phases of the cardiac cycle and a table with five columns: phases of cardiac cycle, atrial state, ventricular state, state of atrioventricular valves, and state of pulmonary and aortic valves. Chips are provided for use to complete the table. Students are requested to discuss which is the correct sequence of figures indicating the phases of cardiac cycle, complete the table with the chips and answer questions in groups. This activity is performed after a short lecture on the characteristics of cardiac cells, pacemaker and plato action potentials and reading in the textbook. It replaces the oral explanation from the professor to teach the physiology of the cardiac cycle.

I also developed an educational game to help students to understand the mechanisms of action potentials in cell membranes. This game is composed of pieces representing the intracellular and extracellular environments, ions, ion channels, and the Na+-K+-ATPase pumps. After a short lecture about resting membrane potential, and textbook reading, there is the game activity. The students must arrange the pieces to demonstrate how the ions move through the membrane in a resting state and during an action potential, linking the ion movements with a graph of the action potential.  In these activities the students learn by doing.

According to their opinions, the educational games make the concepts more concrete, facilitate their understanding, and make the environment in class more relaxed and enjoyable. Our first studies also showed that the educational games increased the scores and reduced the number of wrong answers in learning assessments. We continue to develop and apply new educational games that we can share with interested professors, with pleasure.

Contact: ferklein@unicamp.br

Luchi KCG, Montrezor LH, Marcondes FK. Effect of an educational game on university students´ learning about action potentials. Adv Physiol Educ., 41 (2): 222-230, 2017.

Cardozo LT, Miranda AS, Moura MJCS, Marcondes FK. Effect of a puzzle on the process of students’ learning about cardiac physiology. Adv Physiol Educ., 40(3): 425-431, 2016.

Marcondes FK, Moura MJCS, Sanches A, Costa R, Lima PO, Groppo FC, Amaral MEC, Zeni P, Gaviao KC, Montrezor LH. A puzzle used to teach the cardiac cycle. Adv Physiol Educ., 39(1):27-31, 2015.

Fernanda Klein Marcondes received her Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences at University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Campinas – SP, Brazil in 1992. She received her Master in Biological Sciences (1993) and PhD in Sciences (1998). In 1995 she began a position at Piracicaba Dental School, UNICAMP, where she is an Associate Professor of Physiology and coordinates studies of the Laboratory of Stress. She coordinates the subjects Biosciences I and II, with integration of Biochemistry, Anatomy, Histology, Physiology and Pharmacology content in the Dentistry course. In order to increase the interest, engagement and learning of students in Physiology classes, she combines lectures with educational games, quizzes, dramatization, discussion of scientific articles and group activities. Recently she started to investigate the perception of students considering the different teaching methodologies and the effects of these methodologies on student learning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benefits of Learner-Centered Teaching

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

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

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

Two Main Styles of Teaching – Learner or Teacher-Centered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Evaluation of Teaching – The Next 100 Years

Mari K. Hopper, PhD
Sam Houston State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fostering an Inclusive Classroom: A Practical Guide

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Course Structure and Student Feedback

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

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

Part 2: Combating Implicit Bias

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

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

Part 3: Day-to-Day Classroom Culture

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

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

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

For more information, I recommend the following resources:

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

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

Do You Want To Be On TV?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing the Instability of Positive Feedback Loops

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

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

 

Positive Feedback Loop Learning

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

 

Why Encourage Positive Feedback Loops?

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

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

 

Designing Stimuli That Elicit Positive Feedback

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

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

Rationale:

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

The Experiment:

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

 

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

 

Embracing Instability

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

 

Acknowledgements

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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