Tag Archives: activities

Synergy – From conference to classroom – The value of attending and doing project-based learning

Monica J. McCullough, PhD
Western Michigan University, Department of Biological Sciences

After attending the 2018 APS – ITL conference for the first time, I walked away with so many actionable ideas to implement in my large classes. One valuable experience was practicing active learning techniques as part of a session. “Doing” helps many to learn much more than “hearing” about best practices. I not only learned much from the active sessions offered at APS-ITL but transferred that experience into my own classroom upon returning.

I decided to try a semester-long project for my Intro to Bio for majors, modifying a project  I learned about from Dr. Beth Beason-Abmayr (http://advan.physiology.org/content/41/2/239) from Rice University.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr introduced ‘The Fictitious Animal Project’ during her session at APS-ITL as one she uses in her Vertebrate Physiology for non-bio majors, averaging around 30 students per semester.  During her session at APS-ITL, we divided into groups, ranging from 2-10, and mimicked the project. I instantly saw the value of this activity and had to add it to my teaching repertoire.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project was to create a fictitious animal that had certain physiological characteristics. Students had categories, such as cardiovascular system, respiratory system, that were randomly selected and answer sets of questions that students would answer about the integration of them, including benefits and trade-offs for the fictitious animal.   They completed scheduled homework sets after topics were discussed in class. The students worked in groups and would present their creations to the class with drawings of their animals. What really piqued my interest was that since students had to create an animal that does not exist in nature, they couldn’t just Google it to create this project, and the potential to bring out their ingenuity to the design. 

Since I was going to teach biological form and function the upcoming Fall, and mind you for the first time, I thought I’d start with this semester-long project for 290 students, which were primarily freshmen. A major component that I wanted to maintain was the student presentations, as this is an important skill for these budding scientists. Obviously, the logistics to maintain this was the first decision, and when factoring in around 75 groups (averaging 4 students per group), I decided that the group presentations would span a total of 4 days at the end of the semester, in a gallery-style presentation. Presenters would line the room with their visual aid and the rest of the class would visit each group with designated rubrics. (Presentation Rubric) Additionally, the individual group members would submit a peer evaluation of their group mates at the end of the day of their presentation. (Group Peer Evaluation). My next modification was to adapt the category options so that the students would create a species that yielded both plant and animal components, as we would be learning about both. There were 5 overall anatomical/physiological categories, including size, circulation, sensory environmental interaction, structure and motility.  These too would be randomized with the use of Google by “rolling the dice” to assign each characteristic. (Project directions)  I continued with Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project checkpoint of homework sets throughout the semester where students work on a subset of the categories and continue to build their species, as we learn about the topics in class. Each group submitted electronically to Dropbox, and allow time for feedback with rubrics. (HW set 1 rubric example) To end, there was a final wrap-around short answer portion on the final exam where students described each category and how it was incorporated with their own species. This allowed me to check for individual understanding of the project as we all know some group projects allow for ‘moochers’ to do and understand little.   

For me, this project is a keeper. It helped reinforce the essential concepts during the semester and practice soft skills needed to excel in the workforce. It was exciting to see how some students really embraced the project, including creating a costume of their species, 3-D print outs, live plants they’ve modified and sculptures. While difficult, there were also some group conflicts that did occur, yet, these emerging adults were able to work through their differences. A key factor to this was each group developing their own contract at the very beginning of the semester and was open for adjustments for the duration of the semester. (Team Contract)  The big take-away for me is, it is worth the risk to try something new in the classroom, no matter how large or small the size. This project helped student gains with the material, and practice throughout the semester. As an educator, I feel it is pivotal to find ways that help our students feel confident with the material and keep them curious and innovative. Just as at the top presentations at our conference, doing science makes concepts stick much more than just hearing about it.  

Monica J. McCullough, PhD joined as a Faculty Specialist in the Department of Biological Sciences and Western Michigan University in 2016, prior to which she was faculty at Adrian College. She currently teaches large introductory courses, including Anatomy, Physiology and Biological Form and Function. Dr. McCullough received her BS and PhD from Western Michigan University and studied regulation of neurotrophic factors. Dr. McCullough has 4 young children and has found a great interest in doing science demo’s in her elementary children’s’ classrooms.

Scientific Literacy: A Challenge, a Task, a Poem

Scientific literacy allows citizens to get involved in issues and ideas related to science as a reflective citizen[1]. A scientifically literate person can:

  1. Recognize, offer and evaluate explanations for a variety of scientific and technological phenomena
  2. Describe and evaluate scientific research and propose ways to answer questions and solve problems following the scientific method
  3. Analyze and evaluate data, concepts and arguments in a variety of contexts, reaching appropriate conclusions for the data received[1]

 

The challenge

Quality education is the key to achieving literate societies. Unfortunately, scientific literacy is generally very low in most developing countries. Results of the PISA tests, for example, reveal that competencies in mathematics and sciences in developing countries are below the average of the countries evaluated[2]. This has enormous consequences for the communities by negatively impacting their political, economic and social decision-making.

 

Figure 1. Performance in mathematics and science of different countries in the 2015 Pisa tests. Images Taken from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/.[2]

 

The task

It is very important to open spaces for the general community in developing countries to learn about the practice of science. Many scientific organizations develop training activities that are usually directed at specialized audiences. For this reason, it is important to highlight the task of scientific associations that are concerned with bringing science to the general community such as the American Physiological Society through events such as PhUn week. In the particular case of Colombia, the Colombian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACAC) organizes every two years a very large science fair “Expociencia” that is visited by more than 40,000 elementary, middle and high school students.

 

These science fairs have several objectives:

  1. Allow students to present the results of scientific projects. Students are exposed to an essential component of science, sharing and communicating research. In addition, they have the opportunity to learn from their peers and receive feedback from more experienced researchers.
  2. Open the doors of academic, governmental or industry laboratories to the community. Visitors have the opportunity to know what scientists do, interact with them, expose their visions about science. In addition, visitors can express doubts they have about different concepts, and sometimes they can find answers to their questions.
  3. Generate academic spaces so that researchers can discuss how to work with the community, address their most pressing needs and communicate their results to the public.

Figure 2. Participation of students in academic activities at Expociencia 2018. Images courtesy of Deiryn Reyes, ACAC.

Recently with the support of the Faculty of Medicine of the Universidad de los Andes, I had the opportunity to participate in Expociencia[3]. It was gratifying to see how the children ran from one side to the other having the opportunity to learn about electronics, physics, programming, biology, medicine and anthropology. These children are like sponges that quickly absorb the information they receive and are willing to ask questions without filtering them through mechanisms that adults have learned. In addition, Expociencia promotes spaces for university students to share their experiences and for a moment to be role models for school students. I believe that many lives are changed thanks to the experience of living science.

 

The poem

In the nineteenth century lived a poet who wrote and translated from other languages several of the best-known stories that are known by children and adults in Colombia. His influence on Colombian literature is similar to that of the Grimm brothers in Europe. The name of this writer was Rafael Pombo. A few weeks ago, thanks to my son, I had the opportunity to learn that he also wrote about the importance of knowledge and science. On this occasion I want to share a personal translation of one of Rafael Pombo´s poems, that can be used to discuss with small children and adults the importance of science in our lives.

 

THE CHILD AND THE OX

Rafael Pombo (1833-1912)

The boy

 

-What do you think about all day

Lying on the grass?

You seem to me a great doctor

Enraptured in his science.

 

The ox

-The science, dear child

It is not what feeds me;

That is the fruit of study,

With what God gives humans.

 

Out thinking for me,

Poor animal, hard enterprise;

I prefer to make thirty furrows

Before learning two letters.

 

Chewing well, I care more

that a lesson at school.

With the teeth, I chew,

You, child, with your head.

 

But if you want to be wise

Hopefully seeing me you´ll learn

To ruminate, and ruminate a lot,

Every bit of science.

 

Digesting, not eating,

It is what the body takes advantage of,

And the soul, invisible body,

has to follow such a rule.

 

Without ruminating it well, do not swallow

Not a line, not a letter;

The one who learns like a parrot,

Ignorant parrot stays.

 

References

  1. National Academies of Sciences, E., and Medicine., Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequence. 2016.
  2. OECD. Results by Country. [cited 2018 November 4th]; Available from: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/.
  3. Ciencia, A.C.p.e.A.d.l. Expociencia 2018. 2018 [cited 2018 October 31st]; Available from: https://expociencia.co/home/.
Ricardo A. Peña-Silva M.D., PhD is an associate professor at the Universidad de los Andes, School of Medicine in Bogota, Colombia, where he is the coordinator of the physiology and pharmacology courses for second-year medical students. He received his doctorate in Pharmacology from The University of Iowa in Iowa City. His research interests are in aging, hypertension, cerebrovascular disease and medical education. He works in incorporation and evaluation of educational technology in biomedical education.

He enjoys spending time with his kids. Outside the office he likes running and riding his bicycle in the Colombian mountains.

 

 

 

In Defense of the “Real” Thing

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

In June I attended the American Physiological Society’s Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL) for the first time.  It was a fantastic week of presentations, workshops, and networking, from the opening keynote address on “Student-instructor interactions in a large-group environment” by Prem Kumar (University of Birmingham, UK) to the closing plenary talk on “Inclusive practices for diverse student populations” by Katie Johnson (Beloit College).

 

The week is hard to summarize concisely, yet I can easily identify my most memorable moment.  That occurred on Wednesday morning (June 20th).  Robert Bjork, a UCLA psychologist, had just delivered a fascinating plenary talk on learning, forgetting, and remembering information.  He had reviewed several lines of evidence that the memorization process is more complicated than tucking facts into a mental freezer where they persist forever.  Instead, the timing and context of information retrievals can profoundly affect the success of subsequent retrievals.

 

At the end of the lecture, I stood up with a question (or possibly a monologue masquerading as a question). “It seems that maintaining long-term memories is a really active, dynamic process,” I said. “The brain seems to be constantly sorting through and reassessing its memory ‘needs,’ somewhat like the way the kidney is constantly sifting through the plasma to retain some things and discard others. Is that a reasonable analogy?”

 

“Yes it is,” he answered politely.  “Perhaps,” he added, “you could write a paper on the ‘kidney model’ of how the brain learns.”

 

“I can do even better than that,” I said.  “Here’s a song I wrote about it!”  And I launched into an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml).

 

The audience clapped along in time, then erupted with wild applause!  That’s how I prefer to remember it, anyway; perhaps others who were there can offer a more objective perspective.

 

In any case, singing is not just a mechanism for hijacking Q&A sessions at professional development conferences; it can also be done in the classroom.  And this example of the former, while unusual in and of itself, hints at several useful lessons for the latter.

 

  1. Unexpected music gets people’s attention. In truth, I have no idea whether most ITL attendees found my song fun or helpful. Still, I’m quite sure that they remember the experience of hearing it.  Now think about your own courses.  Are there any particular points in the course where you desperately need students’ undivided attention?  Unexpected singing or rapping is amazingly effective as an attention-grabber, even (especially?) if the performer is not a gifted musician.  Don’t be afraid to use this “nuclear option.”

 

  1. Music is not just for “making science fun” and memorizing facts. Many teachers and students who support the integration of music into science courses do so because they think it’s fun and/or useful as a mnemonic device. Both reasons are legitimate; we do want our courses to be fun, and our students do need to memorize things.  But music can be much more than an “edutainment” gimmick.  “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml), for example, develops an analogy between the way that the brain processes information and the way that the kidney processes plasma.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but one worthy of dissection and discussion (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/imperfect-analogies-shortcuts-to-active-learning/).  Songs like this one can thus be used as springboards to critical thinking.

 

  1. The effectiveness of any musical activity is VERY context-specific. After my musical outburst at ITL, I was flattered to receive a few requests for a link to the song. I was happy, and remain happy, to provide that. (Here it is yet again: http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml.)  But here’s the thing: while you are totally welcome to play the song for your own students, they probably won’t love it.  To them, it’s just a weird song written by someone they’ve never heard of.  They won’t particularly care about it unless the production quality is exceptional (spoiler: it’s not) or unless they are going to be tested on the specific material in the lyrics.   Or unless you take other steps to make it relevant to them – for example, by challenging them to sing it too, or to explain what specific lines of lyrics mean, or to add a verse of their own.

 

 

In conclusion, music can function as a powerful enhancer of learning, but it is not pixie dust that can be sprinkled onto any lesson to automatically make it better.  As instructors, for any given song, you should think carefully about what you want your students to do with it.  That way, when the music begins, the wide-eyed attention of your incredulous students will be put to good use.

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.
Fastballs, houses, and ECG’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A few mornings ago, I was listening to a television commercial as I got ready for work.  “What is critical thinking worth?” said a very important announcer.  “A whole lot” I thought to myself.

But what exactly is critical thinking?  A Google search brings up a dictionary definition.  Critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue to form a judgement.”  The example sentence accompanying this definition is “professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking among their students.” WOW, took the words right out of my mouth!

Have any of you had the following conversation? “Dr. A, I studied and studied for this exam and I still got a bad grade.  I know the material, I just can’t take your tests!”  The student in question has worked hard. He or she has read the course notes over and over, an activity that has perhaps been rewarded with success in the past.  Unfortunately re-reading notes and textbooks over and over is the most common and least successful strategy for studying (4).

In my opinion, as someone who has been teaching physiology for over 20 years, physiology is not a discipline that can be memorized.  Instead, it is a way of thinking and a discipline that has to be understood.

Over the years, my teaching colleague of many years, Sue Keirstead, and I found ourselves during office hours trying repeatedly to explain to students what we meant by thinking critically about physiology.  We asked the same probing questions and drew the same diagrams over and over.  We had the opportunity to formalize our approach in a workbook called Cells to Systems Physiology: Critical Thinking Exercises in Physiology (2).  We took the tough concepts students brought to office hours and crafted questions to help the students work their way through these concepts.

Students who perform well in our courses make use of the workbook and report in student evaluations that they find the exercises helpful. But we still have students who struggle with the critical thinking exercises and the course exams.  According to the comments from student evaluations, students who struggled with the exercises report they found the questions too open ended.  Furthermore, many of the answers cannot be pulled directly from their textbook, or at least not in the format they expect the answer to be in, and students report finding this frustrating.  For example, the text may discuss renal absorption and renal secretion in general and then the critical thinking exercises asks the student to synthesize all the processes occurring in the proximal tubule.  The information is the same but the organization is different.  Turns out, this is a difficult process for our students to work through.

We use our critical thinking exercise as a type of formative assessment, a low stakes assignment that evaluates the learning process as it is occurring.  We also use multiple choice exams as summative assessments, high stakes assessments that evaluate learning after it has occurred.  We use this format because our physiology course enrollment averages about 300 students and multiple choice exams are the most efficient way to assess the class.  We allow students to keep the exam questions and we provide a key a couple of days after the exam is given.

When a student comes to see me after having “blown” an exam, I typically ask him or her to go through the exam, question by question.  I encourage them to try to identify how they were thinking when they worked through the question.  This can be a very useful diagnostic.  Ambrose and colleagues have formalized this process as a handout called an exam wrapper (1).  Hopefully, by analyzing their exam performance, the student may discover a pattern of errors that they can address before the next exam.  Consider some of the following scenarios:

Zach discovers that he was so worried about running out of time that he did not read the questions carefully.  Some of the questions reminded him of questions from the online quizzes.  He did know the material but he wasn’t clear on what the question was asking.

This is a testing issue. Zach, of course, should slow down.  He should underline key words in the question stem or draw a diagram to make sure he is clear on what the question is asking.

Sarah discovers that she didn’t know the material as well as she thought she did, a problem that is called the illusion of knowing (3). Sarah needs to re-evaluate the way she is studying.  If Sarah is cramming right before the exam, she should spread out her studying along with her other subjects, a strategy called interleaving (3).  If she is repeatedly reading her notes, she should put her notes away, get out a blank piece of paper and write down what she remembers to get a gauge of her knowledge, a process called retrieval (3).  If she is using flash cards for vocabulary, she should write out learning objectives in her own words, a process called elaboration (3).

Terry looks over the exam and says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.  I saw something about troponin and I picked it.  This really frustrates me. I study and study and don’t get the grade I want.  I come to lecture and do all the exercises. I don’t know what else to do.” It is a challenge to help this student.  She is not engaging in any metacognition and I don’t claim to have any magic answers to help this student.  I still want to try to help her.

I feel very strongly that students need to reflect on what they are learning in class, on what they read in their texts, and on the activities performed in lab (3).  I have been working on a project in one of my physiology courses in which I have students take quizzes and exams as a group and discuss the answers collaboratively.  Then I have them write about what they were thinking as they approached the question individually and what they discussed in their group.  I am hoping to learn some things about how students develop critical thinking skills.  I hope I can share what I learn in a future blog posting.

  1. Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett M, Norman MK. How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Points for Teaching. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
  2. Anderson LC, Keirstead SA. Cells to Systems: Critical Thinking Exercises in Physiology (3rd ed). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Press, 2011.
  3. Brown PC, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014
  4. Callender AA, McDaniel, MA. The limited benefits of rereading educational text, Contemporary Educational Psychology 34:30-41, 2009. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0361476X08000477/1-s2.0-S0361476X08000477-main.pdf?_tid=22610e88-61b4-11e7-8e86-00000aacb35e&acdnat=1499281376_e000fa54fe77e7d1a1d24715be4bbf50 , June 22, 2016.

 

 Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. She completed training in muscle physiology at the University of Minnesota. She collaborates with colleagues in the School of Nursing on clinical research projects such as the perioperative care of patients with Parkinson’s disease and assessment of patients with spasticity. She directs a large undergraduate physiology course for pre-allied health students.  She also teaches nurse anesthesia students, dental students and medical students.  She is the 2012 recipient of the Didactic Instructor of the Year Award from the American Association of Nurse Anesthesia.  She is a co-author of a physiology workbook called Cells to Systems: Critical thinking exercises in Physiology, Kendall Hunt Press. Dr. Anderson’s teaching interests include teaching with technology, encouraging active learning and assessment of student reflection.
Course Preparation for a First Timer – Tips and Example Steps to Take

 


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This summer has been a uniquely exciting time for me as I prepare to teach my very first course, Human Physiology! What are the steps you take for preparing your courses? If it is your first time teaching, preparation seems overwhelming, and a challenge to figure out where to even begin. In this blog, I will be describing the steps I’ve taken to get ready for teaching my first course at our nearby minority-serving community college this fall. Full disclosure — I am definitely not an expert in course preparation, but I’ve included some tips and resources for what has worked for me.

Step 1: Reflection and determining my teaching philosophy

Reflecting on my time as an undergraduate student, I realize that learning how to learn did not come easy. It took me more than half way through my undergraduate years to figure out how to do it, and it was not until I was a graduate student that I mastered that skill. Thinking about my future students, I sought training opportunities to aid me in becoming a teacher who effectively facilitates student learning. I especially am interested in teaching practices that foster learning in first-generation college students who are not yet experienced with knowing how to learn and study. I want to make sure that my teaching style is inclusive of as many diverse student populations as possible. To do this, I have to educate myself on learning theories and effective teaching methods.

Early this summer, I attended the West Coast National Academies’ Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching to educate myself on teaching methods, and went home with understanding of the practices that fit my style and my philosophy. I highly recommend others to take advantage of these types of events or workshops (such as those offered by CIRTL) to familiarize yourself with various techniques. Aside from formal workshops, informal meetings with teaching mentors or experienced teachers gives valuable insight into the kinds of things to expect, things to avoid, suggestions and tips, teaching experiences, and inspirational words of wisdom. Use your network of mentors! Overall, inward reflection, formal workshops, and informal conversations with experienced mentors are ways that have helped me formulate the teaching practices that I will use for the course.

Step 2: Book and technology selection for the course

This sounds like an easy task, however, it can be a challenge if it is the first time you learn how to deal with choosing a book and the technology for your course. Luckily, one of my teaching mentors introduced me to the publisher’s local representative who met with me for several hours to discuss various book options and the technological tools that could be combined with my order. The rep helped me register my course in their online tool (Mastering A&P) and trained me to use this technology for creating homework, quizzes, interactive activities, rosters and grading. Thus far, I’ve spent countless hours exploring and learning how to use this technology before class starts. After all, I can’t expect my students to maneuver it if I can’t do it myself!

Step 3: Creating a syllabus, alignment table, and rubrics

The most important, hence time-consuming, task thus far is selecting the major topics and level of depth for the course while deciding the most important concepts, ideas, and skills for students to take away from the course. In order for students to meet expectations and become successful learners in the course, both the instructor and students should have this information clearly written out and understood at the very start of the course. The course syllabus is the first place where overall learning goals, outcomes, and expectations for the students for this course is presented. Furthermore, the syllabus should include information about grading, and any institutional policies on attendance, add/drop deadlines, and disability services.

Fortunately, the course that I am preparing has been offered multiple times previously, and thus I do not need to completely design a new course from scratch. However, I am re-designing and modifying sections of the course to include active and interactive teaching techniques. To guide this process during the semester, creating an alignment table for the course is beneficial to effectively execute learning activities and teach key concepts, ideas and skills. The components included in this table are: course learning goals, daily learning objectives, assignments, summary of activities, and assessments for each class period.

Take note that assessments should be determined first in order to prepare the content and activities for the class period accordingly (backwards design). Assessments could include an in-class activity, post-class assignments, exam and quiz questions. Rubrics of assessments should be made without ambiguity to formally assess students and to make sure the class period addresses the major points that students will be expected to learn. Preparing each class period, with flexibility for modifications based on gauging student grasp of the material, will help the semester run more smoothly and with less difficulties.

Step 4: Preparing content presentation and materials for activities

The last step I will take for course preparation is making and uploading any PowerPoint slides, handout materials, assignments, quizzes and exams, and any other material required for activities. With an alignment table already made, this portion of preparation should be relatively easy, but it will still take a significant amount of time.

Final Tips

Overall advice, plan ahead!! At minimum, it should take an entire summer to successfully prepare for a new course. With a well-planned course ahead of time, the hope is to be able to spend more energy throughout the semester to transfer and translate faculty enthusiasm for teaching into student enthusiasm for learning physiology!

Additional resource: Course Preparation Handbook by Stanford Teaching Commons

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Angelina Hernández-Carretero is an IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow at UC San Diego and is an adjunct faculty member at San Diego City College. She earned her Ph.D. in Cellular & Integrative Physiology from Indiana University School of Medicine. Her research interests involve diabetes, obesity, and metabolism. Angelina has a passion for mentoring, increasing diversity in STEM education and workforce, and inspiring the next generation through outreach.