Gregory J. Crowther, PhD Everett Community College
On June 23, Dr. Chaya Gopalan of Southern Illinois University spoke at the APS Institute of Teaching and Learning on the topic of “The Flexibility of Using the Flipped Classroom as a Virtual Classroom During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The presentation was great — full of empirical data, practical tips, and audience participation.
One of the questions that arose was, assuming that one is flipping a class with video lectures, how long should those video lectures be? I can’t remember what Chaya said about this at the time, but many others used the chat window to weigh in. They mostly argued that shorter is better, with 10-12 minutes being a commonly prescribed upper limit.
I had heard this “shorter is better” mantra many times before, and believed that it was well-supported by the literature. Still, I had resisted any impulse to shorten my own videos. I was already generating one video per chapter per course — 50 videos per quarter in all. If I divided each video into four shorter videos, that would be 200 videos per quarter to manage. Couldn’t my students just hit “pause” and take breaks as needed?
Thus, the video-length issue was making me increasingly uncomfortable. I think of myself as an evidence-based teacher, yet I seemed unwilling to go where the evidence was pointing.
Having battled myself to an impasse, I decided to email Chaya. I wrote:
…If you — as an expert flipper who has read the literature and published your own papers on this — were to tell me, “Come on, Greg, the evidence is overwhelming — for the good of your students you just need to make your videos shorter — stop whining and do it!” then I probably would comply. So … what do you think?
Chaya declined to respond with an ultimatum, but she did note that her own videos vary greatly in length — from 8 minutes to an hour! A lot of this variation is topic-specific, she said; some “stories” need to be told as a single chunk, even if it takes longer to do so.
Chaya’s point about chunking the material according to natural breakpoints was exactly what I needed to hear. While the idea of shortening videos because “shorter is better” did not itself inspire me, the idea of finding those breakpoints and reorganizing the material accordingly seemed utterly worthwhile. Maybe this would help my students more easily track their progress within each chapter. And off I went — I was finally ready to shorten my videos!
So, what lessons can be extracted from this bout of navel-gazing?
The thing that jumps out at me is this: my long-held resistance to a fairly mild idea (“make your videos shorter!”) was suddenly overcome not by conclusive new research, but by a subtle shift in perspective. When Chaya made a particular point that happened to resonate with me, I now wanted to make the change that I had been guiltily avoiding for months.
This was — for me, at least — a valuable reminder that, while evidence-based teaching is undoubtedly a good thing, behavior is rarely changed by evidence alone. There’s just no substitute for direct conversations in which open-minded people with shared values can stumble toward a common understanding of something.
It may be slightly heretical for me to say so, but I’ll take a good conversation over a peer-reviewed paper any day.
Greg Crowther teaches human anatomy and physiology at Everett Community College (north of Seattle). He is the co-creator of Test Question Templates, a framework for improving the alignment of biology learning activities and summative assessments.
Jennifer Rogers, PhD, ACSM EP-C, EIM-2 Associate Professor of Instruction Director, Human Physiology Undergraduate Curriculum Department of Health and Human Physiology University of Iowa
First, a true story. Years ago, when my son was very little, he and his preschool friends invented a game called “What’s In Nick’s Pocket?” Every day before leaving for school my son would select a small treasure to tuck into his pocket. The other 3- and 4- year olds at school would crowd around and give excited “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” as he presented his offering, which had been carefully selected to delight and amaze his friends. And so it is with the PECOP blog forum—as each new post arrives in my inbox I wonder with anticipation what educational gem has been mindfully curated by colleagues to share with the PECOP community.
My contribution? Thoughts on the balance between coursework, student engagement, and time. Student engagement in this context refers to a wide range of activities that exist outside of the traditional classroom that offer valuable opportunities for career exploration and development of professional skills. Examples include:
Internships: either for course credit or independently to gain experience within a particular setting
Study Abroad opportunities
Participation in a student organization
Peer tutor/mentoring programs
Research: either as a course-based opportunity or as a lab assistant in a PI’s lab (paid or unpaid)
Job experiences: for example, as a certified nursing assistant, medical transcriptionist, emergency medical technician
Volunteer and community outreach experiences
Job shadowing/clinical observational hours
These are all increasingly popular co-curricular activities that allow students to apply concepts from physiology coursework to real-world scenarios as an important stepping stone to enhance career readiness and often personal development. At the same time, however, students seem to more frequently communicate that they experience stress, anxiety, and concerns that they “are not at their best,” in part due to balancing coursework demands against time demands for other aspects of their lives. If you are interested in learning more about the health behaviors and perceptions of college students, one resource is the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II (ACHA-NCHA II) Undergraduate Student Reference Group Data Report Fall 2018 (1). Relevant to this blog, over half of the undergraduates surveyed (57% of 11,107 participants) reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do within the past two weeks.
I recently gave an undergraduate physiology education presentation that included this slide. It was an initial attempt to reconcile how my course, Human Physiology with Lab, (a “time intensive course” I am told), fits within the context of the undergraduate experience.
I was genuinely surprised by the number of undergraduates in the audience who approached me afterward to essentially say “Thank you for recognizing what it feels like to walk in my shoes, it doesn’t seem like [my professors, my PI, my parents] understand the pressure I feel. “
In response, and prior to the changes in higher education following COVID-19, I began to ponder how to balance the necessary disciplinary learning provided by formal physiology coursework and participation in also-valuable experiential opportunities. The Spring 2020 transition to virtual learning, and planning for academic delivery for Fall 2020 (and beyond), has increased the urgency to revisit these aspects of undergraduate physiology education. As PECOP bloggers and others have mentioned, this is a significant opportunity to redefine how and what we teach.
It has been somewhat challenging to me to consider how to restructure my course, specifically the physiology labs, in the post COVID-19 era when lab activities need to be adaptable to either in-person or virtual completion. My totally-unscientific process to identify areas for change has been the “3-R’s” test. With regard to physiology lab, there may be many important learning objectives:
An ability to apply the scientific method to draw conclusions about physiological function
The act of collecting data and best practices associated with collection of high-quality data (identification of control variables, volunteer preparation/preparation of the sample prior to testing, knowledge of how to use equipment)
Application of basic statistical analyses or qualitative analysis techniques
Critical thought and quantitative reasoning to evaluate data
How to work collaboratively with others, that may be transferrable to future occupational settings: patients, clients, colleagues
Information literacy and how to read and interpret information coming from multiple resources such as scientific journals, online resources, advertisements, and others, and
Science communication/the ability to communicate information about human function, in the form of individual or group presentations, written lab reports, poster presentations, formal papers, infographics, mock patient interactions, etc.
Arguably, these are all important lab objectives. Really important, in fact.
So, what is the 3 R’s test, and how might it help? The 3 R’s is simply my way of prioritizing. In order to triage lab objectives, I ask myself: What is Really Important for students to master throughout the semester versus what is Really, Really Important, or even Really, Really, REALLY Important? For example, if I can only designate one activity that is Really, Really, REALLY Important, which one would it be? The answer for my particular course is science communication. It is obviously a matter of semantics, but I like being able to justify that all course activities are still Really Important, even if it is only my inner dialogue. Going into the unknowns of the Fall semester, this will help me guide how course activities in physiology lab are transformed.
Another worthy goal, in light of academic stress and allocation of effort for maximum benefit, is to improve the transparency of expectations for students. A common question that arose during the spring semester was if students would still learn what they needed to in preparation for future coursework or post-graduation opportunities. The identification of one or two primary learning outcomes (the Really, Really, REALLY important ones) may attenuate feeling overwhelmed by a long list of lab-related skills to master if there is another abrupt shift to virtual instruction mid-semester; course objectives can still be met even if we discontinue in-person lab sessions.
To return to the original topic of balancing time demands allocated to formal coursework and valuable experiences, the two broad conclusions I have reached fall under the categories what I can do in my own courses and suggestions for conversations to be had at the program level.
In My Courses: COVID-19 has sped up the time course for revisions I had already been considering implementing in physiology labs. Aligning course activities with what is Really, Really, REALLY important will help me manage preparation efforts for the coming fall semester (and hopefully keep my stress levels manageable). Another important goal is to improve the transparency of course goals for students, ideally alleviating at least a portion of their course-induced stress through improved allocation of effort. Ultimately, I hope the lab redesigns reinforce physiology content knowledge AND provide relevant experiences to promote career readiness. *It is also necessary to emphasize to students that both will require focused time and effort.
At the Program Level: Earning a degree in physiology is not based on acquired knowledge and skills in a single course, rather it is an end-product of efforts across a range of courses completed across an academic program. Here are some ideas for program-wide discussion:
Faculty should identify the most important course outcome for their respective courses, and we should all meet to talk about it. Distribute program outcomes throughout the courses across the breadth of the program. (Yes, this is backward design applied to curriculum mapping.) From the faculty perspective, perhaps this will reduce feeling the need to teach all aspects of physiology within a particular course and instead keep content to a manageable level. From the student perspective, clear communication of course objectives, in light of content presented within any particular course, may promote “buy in” of effort. It may also build an awareness that efforts both inside and outside of the classroom are valuable if the specific body of content knowledge and aptitudes developed across the curriculum, relevant for future occupational goals, is tangibly visible.
Review experiential/applied learning opportunities. Are there a sufficient number of opportunities embedded within program coursework? If not, are there other mechanisms available to students, for example opportunities through a Career Center or other institution-specific entities? Establishing defined pathways for participation may reduce student stress related to not knowing how to find opportunities. Another option would be to consider whether or not the program would benefit from a career exploration/professional skills development course. Alternatively, could modules be developed and incorporated into already existing courses?
Lastly, communicate with students the importance of engaging in co-curricular activities that are meaningful to them; this is more important than the number of activities completed. Time is a fixed quantity and must be balanced between competing demands based on personal priorities.
As we consider course delivery for Fall 2020, the majority of us are reconsidering how we teach our own courses. There are also likely ongoing conversations with colleagues about plans to navigate coursework in the upcoming semesters. If everything is changing anyway, why not take a few minutes to share what is Really, Really, REALLY important in your courses? The result could be an improved undergraduate experience related to balancing the time and effort allocations required for success in the classroom along with opportunities for participation in meaningful experiences.
1. American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate Student Reference Group Data Report Fall 2018. Silver Spring, MD: American College Health Association; 2018.
Jennifer Rogers completed her PhD and post-doctoral training at The University of Iowa (Exercise Science). She has taught at numerous institutions ranging across the community college, 4-year college, and university- level higher education spectrum. Jennifer’s courses have ranged from small, medium, and large (300+ students) lecture courses, also online, blended, and one-course-at-a-time course delivery formats. She routinely incorporates web-based learning activities, lecture recordings, and other in-class interactive activities into class structure. Jennifer’s primary teaching interests center around student readiness for learning, qualitative and quantitative evaluation of teaching strategies, and assessing student perceptions of the learning process.
Kristen L.W. Walton, PhD Biology Department Missouri Western State University
COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) is caused by infection with SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus-2). Current evidence suggests that this zoonotic coronavirus originated in China in late 20191, and it subsequently spread rapidly across the globe, causing significant morbidity and mortality. To help contain the spread of this virus, many countries have implemented policies and orders aimed at reducing contact between people. The terms “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” have been rapidly imbued in our culture. Indeed, a Google Trends search shows a significant surge in searches for “social distancing” between the week of March 1-7, 2020 and the week of March 29-April 4, 20202. In the United States, to help mitigate the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a few colleges and universities began to announce in early March that they would be suspending face-to-face classes and shifting to all-online instruction, and soon most postgraduate institutions in the USA followed suit, including my institution.
In early March, as the situation became recognized as increasingly urgent by the higher education institutions in our region, the administration at my institution, Missouri Western State University (MWSU), made a decision to extend spring break by one week, through March 22. Then, in the middle of that second week of spring break, the university administration announced that MWSU would cancel all face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester, and students would have several options regarding their grades for the spring 2020 semester3. Higher education institutions across the USA have grappled with how to handle grades in this unprecedented time. Students who did not sign up for online classes are finishing their face-to-face courses, in many if not most cases, as hastily-constructed online versions. Many institutions have chosen to make all classes pass/fail, others have opted to keep letter grades as the only option, and still others, including MWSU, have given students flexible options to choose a pass/fail option or a letter grade. The MWSU administration also gave faculty flexibility in determining whether to create a “culminating experience” for students who elected to complete their courses. This could mean anything from reducing the amount of content and/or assessments, changing the format of assessments (for example, a final paper in lieu of a final exam), or essentially continuing as originally planned but with online course delivery and assessments. This flexibility for faculty was intended to recognize that some types of classes are more amenable than others to a shift to online delivery. Students whose midterm grade was a C or higher could elect to choose the “credit” (pass) grade option for the course if they chose not to complete the culminating experience; students who chose to complete the culminating experience earned a letter grade based on their course grade at the end of the semester. To increase flexibility for students, this option was available to students up until the last day of classes, April 24. The deadline for a withdrawal from the class was also extended to April 24.
For me, as a biology faculty member, the flexibility allowed by our administration in how to structure the last five weeks of my classes led to a lot of thought about my courses and how to best achieve the course objectives for each of them. I spent many hours considering this, discussing options with my colleagues in a socially distant manner, through emails and our first Zoom department meeting, a somewhat difficult transition for our close-knit group of faculty used to frequent in-person conversations. I also spent time reading a flurry of articles and blog posts about the importance of being understanding of the major disruption to our students’ lives and college experience4; the importance of recognizing the difficulty in creating a high-quality online course experience with a few days’ notice5; and, not to be overlooked, the importance of tending to one’s own needs, both professional and personal, in this high-stress time.
Depending on one’s personal situation, a faculty member could also be dealing with changes in family schedules and responsibilities due to children who were suddenly not attending school or day care. Illness could strike any of us or our friends and family members, certainly adding to the stress and anxiety experiences. Partners could be furloughed as businesses shuttered their doors due to the pandemic. While some academics touted their ability to be highly productive during the quarantine and even cited the invention of calculus by Sir Isaac Newton during the black plague as inspiration, others pointed out that quarantine is not universally a time when one can focus solely on work and scientific discovery. This is true for me, on a personal level. I have two elementary school-aged children whose school closed a week after my university suspended face-to-face classes. I have had sole responsibility for child care and helping them with their school work at home, while also moving my classes online and maintaining other work responsibilities. Many of the students in my classes are non-traditional and have similar child care and “home school” responsibilities. Others have financial stress due to job layoffs, or, conversely, increased work stress and time demands for those working in the health care field. Another concern is that many of our students have poor access to broadband internet and technology to access class materials online. Several of my students emailed me during the transition stating that they were using only a smartphone to access course materials and had no access to a laptop or desktop computer, printer, or other technology, and no high-speed internet.
Consideration of my students’ access to technology, stress, and other burdens, as well as the other factors described above led me to make different choices for each of my three classes this spring. For my honors colloquium, titled, ironically enough, Plagues That Changed the World, my co-instructor and I decided not to try to coordinate the student-led presentations that were scheduled for the last 6 weeks of the semester and instead only required a final paper. Seven of 13 undergraduates in this course chose the credit grade based on their midterm grade, and did not complete this rather minimal culminating experience. For my upper-division biology majors course, Molecular Basis of Disease, which is a capstone-type elective course that is not a prerequisite for any other classes, I chose to culminate the lab portion by keeping a scheduled lab quiz, but not attempt to recreate the planned five-week group research project. For the lecture portion of that class, students who elected to complete the culminating experience wrote a literature review article as originally planned and were given one online exam instead of two in-class exams. Even with this reduced workload, 6 of the 15 undergraduates enrolled in the course chose to take a credit grade and did not complete the course. My third course this spring, Pathophysiology, is primarily populated by pre-nursing majors and population health majors, with a few pre-health-professions biology majors. It would not have been appropriate to drop content or assessments of content knowledge from this course, because the overwhelming majority of students in the course needed to learn that content for success in later coursework. As it happens, I have taught this lecture-only course in an online format in the summer for several years, so transitioning it to an online delivery mode was relatively easy, with a few exceptions: increased modes of accessing the material, and exams. I have structured the all-online previous version of that class to be asynchronous, based on knowledge of my student population, many of whom work full time while also taking classes. I felt that was still the best choice in these uncertain times. However, in addition to posting video lectures, I downloaded the audio-only podcasts and posted them separately for students who did not have regular high-speed internet access or were working solely from a smartphone with a small screen. I also made additional course notes available.
As for the exams, I have always required proctored exams in the online version of this course, and structured them similarly to the written exams taken by students in the traditional, face-to-face version of the course. Proctored online exams would not have been feasible in the COVID-19-induced chaos that ensued in late March and early April, as some of my students were moving home many states away, finding themselves under self-quarantine, caring for family members, etc., and I myself had schedule considerations to juggle with children and their school work and Zoom meetings which competed for our limited bandwidth home internet. I tried to strike a balance between several considerations: best practices for online unproctored exams, such as making them open-book and not easily Google-able; the format and level of rigor students were used to from the first two written, face-to-face exams; and being mindful of unequal access to technology among my students. In this class, 81 of 86 undergraduates completed the culminating experience, a high proportion driven largely by the requirement of their specific majors for a letter grade in this required course.
As I write this, I still have several papers to grade and final course grades to enter. I can say with certainty, however, that the choices for assessments and content coverage that I made for my Pathophysiology course did not appear to substantially disadvantage the majority of students, and the course grade distribution will be noticeably higher than usual, aside from the small number of students who did not complete the course. Several of my colleagues have observed similar increases in their course grades this semester. In that course, I erred on the side of leniency with the exams, but since I could not in good conscience drop content from that course – pre-nursing students still need to have learned about diseases of the digestive tract, even if COVID-19 interrupted their semester! – I am comfortable that they will at least have a reasonable degree of preparation for their subsequent courses. For my other two courses, grades will not be higher and in some cases students submitted work that was of lower quality than I expected from their work earlier in the semester. I strongly suspect that many students who chose to complete those courses did not have the focus or the ability to do so as well as they would have in the face-to-face courses. I do not have survey data to help clarify what the students were thinking, but I suspect the students who needed the letter grade for subsequent coursework approached this altered, online part of the semester differently from those who were only taking an elective where a credit grade would suffice or a GPA issue was not anticipated. Informal feedback from all three of my classes included several students commenting about how they did not sign up for online classes because they prefer traditional-format classes, comments about family issues (helping children with school work, moving back home because of job loss, stressful quarantine situations), and comments about missing deadlines because of work or other outside responsibilities.
Although I still need to submit my final course grades for the spring 2020 semester, the summer session is already looming. My institution chose a few weeks ago to offer only 100% online summer classes, so my usual summer online Pathophysiology class will need to have exam structure revamped away from the written, proctored format that I have previously used. In addition, many institutions including my own are having discussions about the fall semester. At this time, we just don’t know what the COVID-19 situation will be in late August. We have been told to prepare for something unusual, whether it will be a fully online semester, a restructured semester with two or three shorter block sessions, or some other plan. In preparing for that, I will be considering these questions for each of my classes:
1. How can the course learning objectives best be accomplished in an altered course format?
2. What are the best ways to transition a heavily hands-on lab course to an online or shortened course format?
3. What are the needs of the student population in this course?
4. What is the appropriate balance between flexibility versus maintaining appropriate expectations in the course?
Considering the course goals and learning objectives is a critical component of any course design or transition to a different format, and the course may need to change if the different format is not amenable to the original goals and learning objectives. In this time of forced transitions to altered course structures and the impacts of COVID-19 mitigation strategies on us and our students, choices might be different from the choices we would otherwise make. It’s also important for faculty, administrators, and students to recognize that different types of courses may be more or less easy to convert to an all-online format. And while online instruction can be excellent and perhaps this experience will encourage broader use of certain online course components in future face-to-face classes for many faculty, it is not the “college experience” that many students expect and there is speculation among higher education administrators that enrollments will be down this fall, adding to the financial distress that many universities and colleges are already experiencing. Although I have read some opinion pieces that higher education should use this spring as a springboard to shift to more online courses permanently, I would argue that it’s also important to recognize that a large proportion of our students and faculty, myself included, strongly prefer those face-to-face classes and hope to return to them as soon as we can. I am certain that as a global community of physiology educators we will continue to interact and support each other as we navigate all of the upcoming transitions.
Coronaviridae Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The species Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus: classifying 2019-nCoV and naming it SARS-CoV-2. Nat Microbiol. 2020;5:536–44.
Kristen Walton is a Professor in the Biology Department at Missouri Western State University. She earned her PhD in Physiology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2001 and was a SPIRE (Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education) Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2001-2006. In 2006, she began her current position at Missouri Western State University, a primarily undergraduate institution. She has taught a variety of undergraduate courses including animal physiology, pathophysiology, immunology, molecular basis of disease, introductory cell biology, public health microbiology, and human anatomy & physiology. Her research interests are in intestinal inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease, and in discipline-based education research.
Andrew M. Roberts, M.S., Ph.D., FAPS Associate Professor Department of Physiology University of Louisville School of Medicine Louisville, KY
Our graduate physiology courses at the University of Louisville School of Medicine evolved from a lecture-based format supplemented by recitation sessions and modules for each topic. Students work in groups to identify learning issues and discuss concepts needed to understand and solve assigned questions. They present their findings to the class and respond to questions from faculty and students. We found this to be an important forum whereby students gain experience applying their physiological knowledge.
An additional step that fostered student understanding was problem-based learning modules where student groups discussed and answered exam type questions. For the “pre-test” component, each group discussed and chose their answers together. This was followed by a “post-test” with different but, similar questions answered by each student individually. Our metrics clearly indicated students’ ability to apply their knowledge increased significantly.
Another component which bolstered student performance and encouraged use of multiple resources for information was online quiz questions for each learning module. Questions were made available on “Blackboard” and answered according to a schedule. Students received notification whether they answered correctly and could change their answer choices within an allotted time. Team-based learning with activities that encouraged students to incorporate multiple information sources improved students’ grasp of physiological concepts and mechanisms.
In summary, we developed ways to effectively engage our students who have diverse educational backgrounds and learning preferences. It is important to note that the classroom environment, with face to face instruction, provides the opportunity to teach and motivate students through interactions with faculty members and fellow students. However, other types of activities work well to augment and encourage student learning.
In the last year, our faculty has been discussing the possibility and usefulness of supplementing our program with online course options that could enhance students’ academic backgrounds whether they were on or off campus. Online learning has become prevalent as another teaching tool for a diverse student group and accommodates a variety of learning preferences. It offers flexibility whether used to supplement a “classroom” physiology course, or course taught exclusively online. Over the last year, our experience with online learning platforms indicated instructors could teach to an entire class simultaneously.
Students can be divided into discussion groups for problem-based learning and instructors can virtually interact by “joining” the groups. In addition, the platforms allow everyone to be seen and to be heard. Furthermore, it is easy to link slide as well as video presentations and record class sessions. Traditionally, we posted lecture notes and supplemental material on “Blackboard” for students to read before class and provided access to recorded lectures. There also is a forum for students to interact with each other and faculty members.
Educational methods are ever changing and can go forward and back again. With this in mind, online learning is not necessarily a replacement for face-to-face learning but, can be an additional learning tool. Even faculty less familiar with online learning have found the latest learning platforms to be relatively easy to use and actually to enhance their teaching styles. A key ingredient to the success of our program, is having designated faculty members and staff available as teaching resources! With the necessity for implementing social distancing during the COVID- 19 pandemic, online learning and video conferencing allowed us to continue and sustain our courses and academic program during this difficult time hopefully without jeopardizing student lifelong learning.
Andrew M. Roberts, MS, PhD, FAPS is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his PhD in Physiology at New York Medical College and completed a postdoctoral training program in heart and vascular diseases, as well as, a Parker B. Francis Fellowship in Pulmonary Research at the University of California, San Francisco at the Cardiovascular Research Institute. His research focuses on cardiopulmonary regulatory mechanisms with an emphasis on neural control, microcirculation, and effects of local endogenous factors. Current studies include microvascular responses altered by inflammatory diseases and conditions, which can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome. Additional studies include obstructive sleep apnea. He teaches physiology to graduate, medical, and dental students and has served as a course director as well as having taught allied health students.
Emilio Badoer, PhD Professor of Neuropharmacology School of Health & Biomedical Science with the College of Science, Engineering & Health Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Bundoora (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)
Patricia A. Halpin, PhD Associate Professor of Biological Science and Biotechnology & Visiting Associate Professor at RMIT University Department of Life Sciences, University of New Hampshire at Manchester (Manchester, NH)
I was thrilled to spend my sabbatical performing education research at RMIT University in Australia during the spring semester of 2020. I met my collaborator Emilio Badoer at the APS ITL in 2016 and at that time we vowed to collaborate someday. I had a smooth flight to Melbourne AU and as we left the airport, I got my first view of the city covered in a smoky haze from the bushfires to the north1. The radio broadcast playing on the car stereo was alerting everyone to the tropical cyclones headed for the east coast and these would soon cause massive flooding in New South Wales. “Welcome to Australia” Emilio said, little did we know at the time that the worst was yet to come. The COVID-19 outbreak in China had caused Australia to close its borders on February 12,3 to foreign nationals who had left or transited through mainland China. I arrived February 9 and the focus of my attention was the excitement and anticipation of starting our two research projects. At my small college, my courses usually enroll 10-24 students, at RMIT our first study was working with a large nursing class (n =368) with the primary goal of using Twitter to engage them outside of class with the course content.
The nursing cohort started two weeks prior to the start of the term, and in the third week, the students went on clinical placements for five weeks. This course is team-taught and Emilio taught during the first two-week period so that content was the focus of our research for this study. We designed the study to collect data using paper surveys to be distributed at face-to-face class meetings at the beginning and end of the term to ensure a high rate of survey completion. The second study performed with his Pharmacology of Therapeutics class (n=140) started on March 2 with one face-to-face meeting followed by four weeks of flipped teaching (FT). During the FT period, we would engage them on Twitter with course content and they would meet during weekly face-to-face Lectorial sessions for review during the usual scheduled class time. Students completed the paper pre-survey in the first class meeting and the scheduled paper post-surveys were to be distributed during the final Lectorial sessions on March 19 and 20. Then on Monday March 16th everything changed; Victoria declared a state of emergency to combat the COVID-19 pandemic4 and Qantas announced that they would cancel 90% of their international flights5, with the remaining flights cancelled on March 31.
I was contacted by friends and family back home urging me to come home right away. RMIT announced the decision that learning would go online starting March 23. In the United States, colleges had previously announced that students heading home for spring break should stay home as their classes would be delivered online due to the COVID-19 concerns 6. The faculty at the US schools had spring break to prepare the transition of their course content for the new delivery mode. At RMIT, they had recently started their semester with no spring break normally scheduled and the only break on the horizon was the distant Easter holiday (April 10-13) long weekend. Our hopes for data collection were quickly dashed as during the last Lectorial sessions only a few students attended, and we would not be able to survey the nursing students in person when they returned from placements.
My focus shifted to leaving the country as soon as possible. The only way to change my airline ticket home was through a travel agent and my personal travel agent spent a total of 11.5 h on hold with Qantas over a two-day period to secure my ticket home. I left Australia with hordes of anxious Americans. The airports were overwhelmed as we formed long lines trying to check in and then go through security. Everyone had a story to tell of how they had to cut their trip short and then changed their tickets. In Los Angeles I was joined by more Americans who were coming from New Zealand. Many of the American travelers were undergraduates very disappointed that their universities had called them home and they were leaving their semester abroad adventures. We would all soon arrive home safely to a country living in a new reality.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the situation at universities evolved rapidly. In line with the Australian Government mandate, students were told that all new arrivals into the country must self-isolate for 14 days effective March 16. Public gatherings of over 500 people were no longer allowed. Although universities were specifically exempt from this requirement, RMIT University proactively cancelled or postponed any events that were not related to the core business of learning, teaching and research. It also foreshadowed a progressive transition to lectures being delivered online where possible. The University also indicated that students would not be disadvantaged if they chose not to attend face-to-face classes during the week of March 16. In response to the rapid changes occurring internationally, on March 20, the Australian Government restricted all non-Australian citizens and non-Australian residents from entering the country. While Australian Universities could remain open and operating it was clear that this would not last for long 7. In response, RMIT University mandated that from Monday March 23 lectures were to be made available online but tutorials and seminars and non-specialist workshops could continue face-to-face until March 30.
On Sunday March 22 the State Government of Victoria (where the main RMIT University campus is based) mandated the shutdown of all non-essential activity from Tuesday March 24 to combat the spread of COVID-19 7. Immediately, RMIT University suspended all face-to-face learning and teaching activity on all its Australian campuses. Overnight, faculty became online teaching facilitators. Emilio produced and is continuing to produce new videos (15-30 minutes duration) covering the content normally delivered during the face-to-face large lecture session. Each week 3-5 videos are produced and uploaded onto Canvas (RMIT’s online learning management system) for the students.
Unlike many of the US schools that are using Zoom, RMIT is using Collaborate Ultra within Canvas as its way of connecting with students on a weekly basis. Collaborate Ultra has the ability to create breakout groups and faculty can assign students to a specific breakout group or allow students to self-allocate to a specific breakout group. Emilio has allowed students to move between breakout groups to increase engagement. The only stipulation was to limit the group size usually to no more than six. Each student was originally registered to attend one small group Lectorial session that meets once per week for one hour and these groups have between 45-50 students each. The Lectorials were replaced by Collaborate Ultra sessions that were organized for the same times and dates as the normally scheduled small Lectorial sessions. The students and facilitators would all meet in the so-called “main room” where Emilio would outline the plans for the session. The main room session was conducted with Emilio’s video turned on so the students were ‘invited “into his home” and could feel connected with him. Dress code was also important. Emilio was conscious of wearing smart casual apparel as he would have worn had he been facing the students in a face-to-face session. In this way he attempted to simulate the normal pre-COVID-19 environment.
Following the introductory remarks outlining the tasks for the session, students were ‘sent’ to their breakout rooms to discuss and work on the first problem / task discussed in the main room. The analogy used by Emilio was that the breakout rooms were akin to the tables that were used in their collaborative teaching space in which he normally conducted the Lectorial sessions. Each table in that space accommodated approximately six students (hence the stipulation of no more than six in each breakout group). Emilio and another moderator ‘popped’ into each breakout room to guide and facilitate the students in their discussions. To date, the level of engagement and discussion amongst the students themselves generally appears to be much greater than that observed at face-to-face sessions which was a fantastic surprise. After a set time had elapsed, students re-assembled in the main room where the task was discussed with the whole class. This ensured that all students understood the requirements of the task and they had addressed all points that were needed to complete the task to the satisfactory standard. Next followed another task that differed from the first providing variety and maintaining the interest of the students.
Examples of tasks performed.
1 – Practice exam questions
A short answer question requiring a detailed response that would normally take at least 10 minutes in an exam environment to answer properly. Such questions were based on that week’s lecture (now video) course content and was contextualized in a scenario in which physiological/pathophysiological conditions were described and the pharmacological treatments needed to be discussed in terms of mechanisms of action, adverse effects, potential drug interactions or pharmacogenomic influences etc.
2 – Multiple choice questions – Quizzes
Emilio ran these using the Kahoot platform. By sharing his screen, Emilio could conduct such quizzes live providing instant feedback on student progress. This allowed Emilio to provide formative feedback, correct any misconceptions and discuss topics. Additionally, students were able to gauge their own learning progress. These tasks were performed in the main room with all participants.
3 – Completing sentences or matching answers
These could be done effectively in the breakout rooms, where a ‘lead’ student could utilize the whiteboard function in Collaborate Ultra which allowed all students in the group the opportunity to write on the whiteboard allowing discussion regarding the answers written.
4 – Filling in the gaps
Here Emilio would share his screen in which a diagram / figure / a schematic of a pathway etc. with labels/ information missing was provided and students were asked to screenshot the shared information. Then in breakout rooms, one student shared the captured screen shot with the group and the missing information was completed by the members of the group.
The Collaborate Ultra sessions were also utilized to provide students with a platform in which group work could be performed. With a lockdown in force and gatherings of groups forbidden, this utility was very important for enabling connection between students working on group projects. It also provided a sense of belonging within the student cohort.
In conclusion, with minimal preparation, a huge Australian University converted face-to-face teaching and learning to an online digital teaching and learning environment where working remotely was the new norm. It is almost inconceivable just a few short weeks ago that such a transformation could have happened in the timeframe that it did. It is a truly remarkable achievement.
1 Alexander, H and Moir N. (December 20, 2019). ‘The monster’: a short history of Australia’s biggest forest fire. Sydney Morning Herald Retrieved on April 10, 2020 from https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/the-monster-a-short-history-of-australia-s-biggest-forest-fire-20191218-p53l4y.html
Professor Badoer has held numerous teaching and learning leadership roles including many years as the Program Coordinator for the undergraduate Pharmaceutical Sciences Program at RMIT University in Bundoora AU and he coordinates several courses. He is an innovative instructor that enjoys the interactions with students and teaching scholarship. He has also taught pharmacology and physiology at Melbourne and Monash Universities. In addition, he supervises several postgraduate students, Honours students and Postdoctoral Fellows.
Patricia A. Halpin is an Associate Professor in the Life Sciences Department at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester (UNHM). Patricia received her MS and Ph.D. in Physiology at the University of Connecticut. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth Medical School. After completion of her postdoc she started a family and taught as an adjunct at several NH colleges. She then became a Lecturer at UNHM before becoming an Assistant Professor. She teaches Principles of Biology, Endocrinology, Cell Biology, Animal Physiology, Global Science Explorations and Senior Seminar to undergraduates. She has been a member of APS since 1994 and is currently on the APS Education committee and is active in the Teaching Section. She has participated in Physiology Understanding (PhUn) week at the elementary school level in the US and Australia. She has presented her work on PhUn week, Using Twitter for Science Discussions, and Embedding Professional Skills into Science curriculum at the Experimental Biology meeting and the APS Institute on Teaching and 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
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.
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’
Large lecture courses are hard, for both students and faculty alike, and while an exhaustive body of Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SOTL) research boasts benefits of smaller classes (Cuseo, 2007), budgetary and a myriad of other restrictions leave many higher education institutions with few options for reducing class sizes. Accordingly, many instructors are forced to figure out a way to best serve our students in this unideal setting.
Three years ago, in my first year as a full time faculty member, I found myself teaching one of these large lecture classes. There were ~250 students, split across two sections, piled into an outdated auditorium. The setting was intimidating for me, and if one thing was certain, it was that however intimidated I felt, my students felt it even harder (and as an aside, three years later, I still find myself, at times, intimidated by this space). So, in a high-stakes, pre-requisite course like Anatomy & Physiology that is content-heavy and, by nature, inherently intense, what can be done in a large lecture hall to ease the tension and improve student learning?
When looking to the SOTL research for evidence-based recommendations on student engagement and active learning ideas in high-enrollment courses such as mine, I quickly became overwhelmed with possibilities (not unlike a kid in a candy store). Before I knew it, finding meaningful ways to reshape my class in the best interest of the student became defeating – how was I supposed to overhaul my course to integrate best-practice pedagogy while still juggling the rest of my faculty responsibilities?
Thankfully, last year a colleague introduced me to a book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, by James Lang. Admittedly – I still have not finished this book (rest assured – I am currently in a book club studying this book, so I WILL finish it!); that being said, Lang’s powerful message about the significance of small changes resonated with me pretty early on in the text. Minor, thoughtful adjustments to the daily classroom routine are capable of eliciting substantial impacts on student learning. In other words, I did not need to reinvent the wheel to better serve my students; instead, I set a goal for myself to try out one or two small, reasonable adjustments per semester. While I am still navigating best-practice teaching and experience a healthy dose of trial-and-error, here is what I have found useful thus far:
1. Learning names. This is perhaps the most straightforward, obvious classroom goal, but when you have a large number of students, something as simple as learning student names can quickly slip through the cracks. Now, I appreciate that implementing this goal takes considerable time and intention, and depending on the structure of your high-enrollment course, it may or may not be feasible. In my course, for example, it is a two-part series, which means I have the same students for an entire academic year rather than one semester. Moreover, in addition to lecture, I have all of my students in smaller lab sections. Accordingly, I have plenty of opportunity to interact with students and pay attention to names.
From a purely anecdotal observation, if and when a student musters up the courage to ask a question in the large auditorium, addressing them by name appears to increase the likelihood of the student asking again. Moreover, it seems to have an impact on other students in the classroom, too; anecdotally, I have noticed in lectures where I address student questions using student names, the number of different students asking questions appears to increase. Overall, addressing students by name seems to communicate a message that students in our classrooms are not simply a body in a seat or a number in the system, but they are a member of a learning community.
2. Finding an inclusive platform for voicing questions. Despite reaching a point in the academic year where everyone knows each other by name, some students will never feel comfortable enough raising their hand to ask questions in the big lecture hall. Knowing this, along with the notion that student confusion rarely exist in isolation, this semester I made it a point to explore alternative platforms for asking questions during lecture. Cue in the Google Doc: this handy, online word-processing tool gave me a platform for monitoring student questions in real time during lecture. On the logistical end, it is worth noting that I have a TA monitoring our Google Doc during lecture, so that when a stream of questions comes through, common themes in questions are consolidated into one or two questions. A few times during the lecture, I will check in with our TA and address questions. It is also worth mentioning that the document has been set up such that student names are linked to their comments; this was implemented as a measure to keep comments appropriate and on track. So far, this has turned out to be a great platform, not only for students asking lecture questions in real time, but also for facilitating some really great discussion amongst students.
3. Holding students accountable for in-class activities. I quickly realized in my large lecture class that students were generally unmotivated to participate in any in-class activity unless I collected it and assigned points (which, by the way, can be a logistical nightmare with 250 students). Yet, as I learned in Making it Stick: The Successful Science of Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (a previous book club endeavor of mine), engaging students in activities like 5 minute recall exercises is widely supported as an effective tool for long-term learning and retention. So, I decided to piggy back off my previous idea of the Q&A Google Doc, and open up an entire classroom folder where, in addition to our Q&A doc, students had daily folders for submitting in-class activities (again, in real time). As of now, the way that it works is as follows: upon completing the short recall exercise, or other in-class activity, students will snap a photo of their work and upload it to our Google drive. Then, I choose a piece of student work to display as we review the activity prompt, which has proven to be a great method for maintaining student accountability (I disclosed to the students that I will randomly choose a few days in the semester to award extra credit for those who submitted during class). Additionally, this provides quick feedback to me (in real time) regarding student comprehension and common misunderstandings; in fact, I will occasionally choose to review a student submission that represents a common mistake to highlight and address a common problem area.
In summary, implementing these small changes has offered realistic approaches to improving my students’ experience and creating community in an otherwise challenging setting: the large lecture. While I retain other long-term teaching goals that require more of a time commitment, Lang’s sentiment that small ≠ insignificant provides a solid ground for improvement in the present.
Brown, PC, Roediger, HL, and McDaniel, MA (2014). Making it Stick: The Successful Science of Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cuseo, Joe. (2007). The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. Journal of Faculty Development: 21.
Lang, James (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Amber Schlater earned her B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh in Biological Sciences, and her M.S. and Ph.D. from Colorado State University in Zoology; she also completed a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at McMaster University. Currently, Amber is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at The College of Saint Scholastica in beautiful Duluth, MN, where she teaches Human Anatomy & Physiology, Super Physiology (a comparative physiology course), and mentors undergraduate research students. Outside of work, Amber enjoys hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, and doing just about anything she can outside with her family.
One of the primary factors that attracted me to my current position, a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Biology at a small teaching-intensive liberal arts college, was the fact that my new department gave me the freedom to update and, in the end, completely overhaul the existing Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) curriculum. This position allowed great academic freedom, especially to a new professor, and department support for trying new teaching strategies and activities was, and still is, very high. So as a new entrant into the field of physiology education, and as someone who is interested in pedagogical research, this opportunity and level of freedom excited me.
My predecessor, while a fantastic educator, had built the year-long A&P sequence in the traditional form of one to two weeks on a specific topic (e.g. histology, the skeletal system, or the respiratory system) and an exam every so often that combined the previously covered topics. Both the topics covered and the exams could very much stand on their own, and were more like separate units. This course design was exactly the way I took the A&P course, longer ago than I care to admit, although at a different institution. In fact, most of my college courses were taught this way. And while that may be appropriate for some fields, the more I was reading and learning about teaching A&P the more I was starting to convince myself that I wanted teach A&P in an integrated fashion as soon as I got the chance.
So here I was, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newly minted Assistant Professor of Biology, with the academic freedom to teach A&P in the best way that I saw fit. One important thing to note: this course sequence (A&P I and II) is an upper-division junior and senior level course at my college, and class sizes are very small (20-24 students) allowing for maximum time for interaction, questions, and instructor guidance both in lecture and lab. (That latter point is key, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.)
I entered the 2017-2018 academic year with a brand-new, shiny, exciting, and most importantly, integrated A&P course plan and a lot of enthusiasm. Along the way I took meticulous notes on what worked, what didn’t work, and the areas that needed improvement. Now in the 2018-2019 academic year I’m teaching this integrated course sequence for the second time, all while taking those same meticulous notes and comparing student feedback. Below I’ve compiled what I deem (so far) to be some of the most important lessons that I learned along the way:
1) Use an integrative textbook.
This I was fortunate to do from the start. While this is an A&P course (not just P), I decided to use Physiology: An Integrated Approach by Dee U. Silverthorn as my primary text. Not only is the book already designed to be used in an integrative fashion, but there is ample introductory material which can be used to remind students of previous course material that they need to know (see lesson #2 below) and there are entire chapters dedicated to the integration of multiple systems (e.g. exercise). The assessment questions in the text are also well organized and progressive in nature and can be assigned as homework for practice or pre-reading assignments. Anatomy information, such as the specifics of the skeletal system and joints, muscles, histology, etc., was supplemented through the use of models and other reference material in hands-on lab activities.
2) Start building and assessing students’ A&P knowledge from the ground up, and build incrementally.
There are two important parts to this lesson: A) previous course knowledge that is applicable to this upper-division A&P course, and B) the new A&P material itself.
In my initial run of the course I made the mistake of starting out at a bit too advanced of a content level. I assumed more knowledge was retained from previous courses by the students than actually was. I learned very quickly that I needed to take a step back, but not too far. Instead of re-teaching introductory chemistry, biology, and physics, I took the opportunity to remind them of the relevant key principles (e.g. law of mass action) and then pointed them to pages in the text or provide additional material where they could review.
I applied this same philosophy as we progressed through new material. Lower-order Bloom’s principles should be assessed and mastered first, before progressing to the higher-order skills for each new section. In my second iteration of the course I implemented low-stakes (completion-based grade) homework assignments to be completed before the class or lab period, which were aimed to get a head-start on the lower-order skills. Then in class we reviewed these questions within the lecture or lab and added on with more advanced questions and/or activities. This format of pre-class homework was very well received by the students, and even though it is more work for them, they said that it encouraged them to keep up with the reading and stay-on track in the class. As the class progressed, I added in more advanced homework problems that integrated material from previous chapters. Obviously, if you are going to teach in an integrated fashion then you will need to assess the students in the same way, but a slow-build up to that level and ample low-stakes practice is key.
3) Create a detailed course outline, and then be prepared to change it.
This lesson holds true for just about any course, but I found it especially true for an integrated A&P course. As an instructor, not only did I need to be well versed in A&P, but I also needed to see the big picture and connect concepts and ideas both during the initial course construction and as the course progressed. I went into the course with an idea of what I wanted (and needed) to cover and during the course students helped guide what topics they struggled with and/or what they wanted to learn more about. So while still sticking to covering the basics of a course, I was still able to dive a bit deeper into other topics (such as exercise) per student interest. This also helped boost motivation for student learning when they feel they have some agency in the material.
Another aspect of the lesson is the addition of what I call “flex days”. Students will find this style of teaching and learning challenging and some will need more time and practice with the material. I found it very helpful to add in a “flex day” within each unit where no new material was covered, but instead time was dedicated to answering questions and additional practice with the concepts. If a full class day can’t be dedicated, even 30 minutes can be put to great use and the students really appreciate the extra time and practice.
4) Constantly remind your students of the new course format.
Students will want to revert back to what they are comfortable with and what has worked for them in the past. They will forget that information needs to be retained and applied later in the course. I found that I needed to constantly remind students that their “cram and forget” method will not serve them well in this course. But, simply telling them is not enough, so I allowed for practice problems both in and outside of class that revisited “older” material and prepared them for the unit exams with integrative questions which combined information from different chapters. I even listed the textbook chapters at the end of the question so that they would know where to find the material if needed.
Along with this, I found that tying material back to central themes in physiology (e.g. structure-function, homeostasis, etc.) also helped the students connect material. I am fortunate that the entry level biology courses at this college teach using the Vision and Change terminology, so the basic themes are not new to them, making integration at least on that level a bit more approachable.
5) Solicit student feedback.
Students love to be heard and they love to know that their input matters. And in the design of a new course I want to know what is working and what is not. I may think something is working, but the students may think otherwise. Blank notecards are my best friend in this instance. I simply have a stack at the side of the room and students can or cannot fill them out and drop them in a box. I often ask a specific question and solicit their input after an activity or particularly challenging topic. Of course, the second part of this step is actually reading and taking their input seriously. I’ve often made some last minute changes or revisited some material based on anonymous student feedback, which also ties back to lesson #3.
6) Be prepared to spend a lot of time with students outside of the classroom.
Some students are great about speaking up in class and asking questions. Other students are more comfortable asking questions outside of class time. And of course, I found that students of both flavors will think that they know a particular concept, and then find out, usually on an exam, that they do not (but that is probably not unique to an integrative course). So, after the first exam I reached out to every student inviting them to meet with me one-on-one. In these meetings we went through not only the details of the exam, but study skills. Every student needed to be reminded and encouraged to study a little bit every day or at least every other day to maximize retention and success. This also helped create an open-door policy with students who needed and wanted more assistance, increasing their comfort level with coming to office hours and asking for help.
As you may have inferred, teaching this type of course takes a lot of time. I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t necessarily mentally or physically prepared for the amount of time it took to design and run this course, especially in my first year of teaching, but I made it work and I learned a lot. During this process I often discussed course ideas with department colleagues and A&P instructors at other universities. I perused valuable online resources (such as LifeSciTRC.org and the PECOP Blog) for inspiration and guidance. I also found that I spent a lot of time reflecting on just about every lecture, activity, and lab to ensure that the content connections were accurate, applicable, and obtainable by the students. And while I know that the course still has a ways to go, I am confident in the solid foundation I have laid for a real integrative A&P course. And, just as I am doing now with its second iteration, each run will be modified and improved as needed to maximize student learning and success, and that is what makes me even more excited!
Now I turn the conversation over to the MANY seasoned educators that read this blog. Do you have experience designing and teaching an integrated A&P course? What advice do you have for those, like me, that are just starting this journey? Please share!
Jennifer Ann Stokes is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Centenary College in Shreveport, LA. She received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Following a Postdoctoral Fellowship in respiratory physiology at UCSD, Jennifer spent a year at Beloit College (Beloit, WI) as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology to expand her teaching background and pursue a teaching career at a primarily undergraduate university. Now at Centenary College, Jennifer teaches Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II (using an integrative approach), Nutritional Physiology, Medical Terminology, and Psychopharmacology. Jennifer is also actively engaged with undergraduates in basic science research (www.stokeslab.com) and in her free time enjoys cycling, hiking, and yoga.
Recently I was faced with a teaching challenge: how to incorporate active learning in a huge Introductory Biology lecture of 400+ students. After searching for methods that would be feasible, cost effective, and reasonably simple to implement in the auditorium in which I was teaching, I came up with clickers. Our university has a site license for Reef Polling Software which means I wouldn’t add to the cost for my students—they could use any WiFi enabled device or borrow a handset at no cost. I incorporated at least 4 clicker questions into every class and gave students points for completing the questions. 10% of their grade came from clicker questions and students could get full credit for the day if they answered at least 75% of the questions. I did not give them points for correct answers because I wanted to see what they were struggling to understand.
I’m now a clicker convert for the following 3 reasons:
Clickers Increase Student Engagement and Attendance
In a class of 400+, it is easy to feel like there is no downside to skipping class since the teacher won’t realize you are gone. By attaching points to completing in-class clicker questions, about 80% of the class attended each day. While I would like perfect attendance, anecdotally this is much better than what my colleagues report for similar classes that don’t use clickers. Students still surfed the internet and slept through class, but there was now more incentive to pay a bit of attention so you didn’t miss the clicker questions. In my opinion, getting to class can be half the battle so the incentive is worth it. In my small classes I like to ask a lot of questions and have students either shout out answers or vote by raising their hands. Often, students won’t all vote or seem to be too embarrassed to choose an answer. I tested out clickers in my small class and found an increased response rate to my questions and that I was more likely to see the full range of student understanding.
Clickers Help Identify Student Misconceptions in Real Time
Probably the biggest benefit of clickers to my teaching is getting a better sense of what the students are understanding in real time. Many times I put in questions that I thought were ‘gimmes’ and was surprised to see half the class or more getting them wrong. When that happens, I can try giving them a hint or explaining the problem in a different way, having them talk with their group, and then asking them to re-vote. Since I don’t give points for correctness, students don’t feel as pressured and can focus on trying to understand the question. I’m often surprised that students struggle with certain questions. For instance, when asked whether the inner membrane of the mitochondria increases surface area, volume, or both, only half of the students got the correct answer the first time (picture). Since this is a fundamental concept in many areas of biology, seeing their responses made me take time to really explain the right answer and come up with better ways of explaining and visualizing the concept for future semesters.
Clickers Increase Student Learning (I hope)
At the end of the day, what I really hope any active learning strategy I use is doing is helping students better understand the material. To try to facilitate this, I ask students to work in groups to solve the problems. I walk around the class and listen while they solve the problem. This can help me get an idea of their misconceptions, encourage participation, and provide a less scary way for students to ask questions and interact with me. While working in groups they are explaining their reasoning and learning from each other. Interspersing clicker questions also helps to reinforce the material and make sure students stay engaged.
I’m convinced that clickers are helping to improve my teaching and students seem to agree. Of the 320 students who filled out course evaluations one semester, 76 included positive comments about clicker questions. Here are two of my favorites:
“I like how we had the in-class clicker questions because it made me think harder about the material we were learning about in that moment.”
“I enjoyed doing the clicker questions. If the class disagreed with something she would stop and reteach the main point and hope we would understand. That was really helpful on her part.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t end by thanking the many researchers who have studied how to incorporate clickers into your class to maximize learning. I decided to try them after hearing Michelle Smith talk at the first APS Institute on Teaching and Learning and highly recommend seeing her speak if you have the chance. If you only want to read one paper, I suggest the following:
Smith, Michelle K., et al. “Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions.” Science 323.5910 (2009): 122-124.
I hope you will comment with how you use clickers or other strategies to engage large lecture classes. For more resources I’ve found helpful designing my classes click here.
Katie Wilkinson, PhD is a newly minted Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at San Jose State University. She completed her undergraduate work in Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh and her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. She was an NIH IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow in Research and Scientific Teaching at Emory University. At SJSU her lab studies the function of stretch sensitive muscle proprioceptors. She teaches Introductory Biology, Vertebrate Neurophysiology, Integrative Physiology, Pain Physiology, and Cardiorespiratory Physiology to undergraduate and masters students.
When Vision & Change: A Call to Action was published and distributed, University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Biology department (like many other departments across the country) answered the call. The rubrics for Vision and Change gave people a means to evaluate one’s department and how student instruction occurred. This led to great discussions on what needed to be remodeled within our courses and curriculum. This was good. The previous UAA Introductory Biology course had a 20% withdrawal rate and (by estimates only) an additional 20% of students who would not succeed in the course (D or F grade). If we wanted to increase retention in the major and increase the diversity of people pursuing a biological sciences undergraduate education, something needed to be done.
I want to take this opportunity to spend a bit of time on our process; not simply because I am excited about the positive changes that are happening at our biology department, but to share our brief story in hopes to hear from others.
The problem – UAA had a 2 semester introductory biology (survey based) course that had, in some instances, 40% reduction of students for each semester.
Our solution – Create a 1 semester laboratory/experiential learning introductory biology course (Principles and Methods of Biology; BIOL A108) that is founded on the principles laid forth in Vision and Change.
What does this really look like, other than a lot of work?
The basic flow is to have 3, 5-week (10 sessions) modules within the semester, which focus on three core concepts: evolution, information flow, and structure and function. These modules are tied together by principles of the scientific method and student led experiments. Each module has a different content lead instructor. The unifying instruction is led by a lab coordinator that follows the theme of scientific method to ensure students are practicing and utilizing each part of the scientific method throughout the duration of the course.
Module 1 focuses heavily on observation, creating and testing hypotheses, finding and using credible sources, and creating basic graphs for communication purposes.
Module 2 continues to build on observation, creating and testing hypotheses, creating graphs, and adds the component of applying the collected data into a greater context using credible sources.
Module 3 takes the components of modules 1 and 2 and asks the students to interpret their data using credible sources.
These modules culminate at the end of the course by having the students present a hypothetical experiment based on a current biologically relevant observation.
This course set up requires a large amount of group work and coordination among the students. We encourage discussions through specific assignment prompts and ask the students to present their data (6 times) as a group (they switch group members for each module). Presentations are assessed on flow of information, clarity of information, and accuracy of information. We include concept quizzes (3 per module), but no high stakes exams. There are a series of assignments that are formative to allow instructor feedback to be incorporated into summative assignments (presentations and experimental write ups).
Is it working? – We’ve tracked these changes with pre/post tests and student retention rates. Initial data show 96% of students passed (defined as a C or better grade) with a withdrawal rate of 2% in the first semester (Fall 2015). Data from the current semester (Spring 2016) suggest a similar trend. A second goal of the program revision was to increase student learning and engagement about the process of the scientific method; in this our data suggest we were successful. Within one month of BIOL A108, students have improved their use of the scientific method to tackle challenging biological questions and core concepts. Preliminary assessment data show 96% of BIOL A108 students can create and use hypothesis statements correctly. Additionally, BIOL A108 student pre/post data indicate a 25% improvement in their comprehension of Mendel’s principles.
These changes have required a lot of work by many people; including learners from all levels. Transparent communication between instructors and students have been paramount to our initial success. This communication includes informing the students that the changes within the course structure are based on discipline based educational research and is founded by using current data from evidence-based teaching to shape the course.
Additional data that we are collecting include student demographics and end of semester student perception surveys. I hope to gather information regarding how this course is perceived by students and their personal successes as scientists. Why would we care about our student demographics? Anchorage, Alaska has three high schools in the top ten diversity ranking of high schools. A majority of our students enrolled in UAA’s biological science degree program are from the Anchorage and greater Alaska area. Collectively, if we want to increase the diversity of people trained in the biological sciences; UAA’s biological sciences program is one place to start. Maybe our course redesign will help others with their curricular transformations.
I am really interested in learning about how other departments and programs have remodeled their courses following the guidelines of Vision and Change, and what outcomes they are tracking. Let’s share ideas and materials within the LifeSciTRC and PECOP resources!
Aguirre, K. M., Balser, T. C., Jack, T., Marley, K. E., Miller, K. G., Osgood, M. P., & Romano, S. L. (2013). PULSE Vision & Change Rubrics. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 579-581.
Brewer, C. A., & Smith, D. (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.
Brownell, S. E., & Kloser, M. J. (2015). Toward a conceptual framework for measuring the effectiveness of course-based undergraduate research experiences in undergraduate biology. Studies in Higher Education, 40(3), 525-544.
Farrell, Chad R. (2016). “The Anchorage Mosaic: Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Urban North.” Forthcoming chapter in Imagining Anchorage: The Making of America’s Northernmost Metropolis, edited by James K. Barnett and Ian C. Hartman. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press
Hanauer, D. I., & Dolan, E. L. (2014). The project ownership survey: measuring differences in scientific inquiry experiences. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(1), 149-158.
Rachel Hannah is an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at University of Alaska, Anchorage. Helping people become scientifically literate citizens has become her major career focus as a science educator. As a classroom and outreach educator, Rachel works to help people explore science so they can apply and evaluate scientific information to determine its impact on one’s daily life. She is trained as a Neurophysiologist and her graduate degree is in Anatomy and Neurobiology from the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Recently, Rachel’s research interests have migrated to science education and how students build critical thinking skills.