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.