Tag Archives: inquiry

Engaging students in active learning via protocol development

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

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

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

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

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



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

Students have an innate desire to learn and more learning takes place when doing rather than when listening. (4)  This begins in pre-school and kindergarten when children have fun while learning by playing with blocks, coloring, drawing, etc.  This is their first experience with active learning.  But then as education progresses through grade school, high school and college, something bad happens.  That is, fun learning activities are slowly replaced with often very boring listening activities filled with inane factoids, and consequently, students often become disinterested.  The disinterest is seen in the form of poor class attendance, and the lack of motivation is palpable through continual yawns, bobbing heads, and walking to the back of the classroom and looking at student laptops to see how many are streaming Netflix or shopping for shoes.  As educators that take part in this process, we actively destroy their innate desire to learn.  We do not do this intentionally, as all of us want our students to learn as much as possible.  However, with the ever increasing and endless mountain of information, we cannot teach them everything, and often feel that we should be actively teaching, rather than letting them actively learn. (3)  Thus, after hours, days and years of sitting in class “listening”, the traditional “sage on the stage” can slowly chip away at the inner desire to learn.  But, if this internal motivation can be decreased by boring activities, can it also be increased by fun or intriguing activities?


As educators, we hold an awesome power that has the potential to inspire and increase student motivation.  Student-centered learning activities that include but are not limited to collaborative group testing, inquiry-based learning, team-based learning and laboratory exercises (5) provide students with the opportunity to apply their minds, to have fruitful discussions with their peers (2) and to see and appreciate the complex beauty that science and medicine are.  If we can provide our students with learning activities that open their imaginations and make them feel excitement, we can actively increase their innate desire to learn, and improve their chances of success. (1)  In doing so, the awesome potential power that we hold can become fully realized in the form of life-long learners.



  1. Augustyniak RA, Ables AZ, Guilford P, Lujan HL, Cortright RN, and DiCarlo SE. Intrinsic motivation: an overlooked component for student success. Adv Physiol Educ 40: 465-466, 2016.
  2. Cortright RN, Collins HL, and DiCarlo SE. Peer instruction enhanced meaningful learning: ability to solve novel problems. Adv Physiol Educ 29: 107-111, 2005.
  3. DiCarlo SE. Too much content, not enough thinking, and too little fun! Adv Physiol Educ 33: 257-264, 2009.
  4. Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, and Wenderoth MP. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111: 8410-8415, 2014.
  5. Goodman BE. An evolution in student-centered teaching. Adv Physiol Educ 40: 278-282, 2016.



Robert A. Augustyniak is an Associate Professor and Physiology Discipline Chair at Edward Via college of Osteopathic Medicine- Carolinas Campus, Spartanburg, SC. Rob received his Ph.D. in Physiology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, MI, and subsequently completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX. A cardiovascular physiologist by training, his studies have focused on the blood pressure regulation during exercise and in heart failure and hypertensive states. In 2009, Rob became a founding faculty member at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine where he began to focus on the scholarship of medical education. These research interests continued to grow when he moved to Spartanburg, SC in 2013. He is profoundly interested in how medical student motivation impacts learning and in finding best practices in teaching and assessment that can increase motivation. For the past several years, he has been and continues to be active within the leadership of the APS Teaching Section.

Guided Inquiry: A Flexible Technique for Engaging Students

shutterstock_124813237Like many instructors, I am continually looking for ways to better engage students and, hopefully, benefit their learning. To this end I have incorporated a variety of techniques into my courses; including inquiry labs, case-based studies, clicker questions (without actually using clickers), and various electronic supplements. These have been met with varying degrees of success, as assessed solely by student feedback. And although I continue to use all of these to some extent, my new “favorite” active learning activity is guided inquiry. I find it a flexible method that can used in class, as homework, or in labs. It can also be used to focus on graphical interpretation, which is a skill I have a particular interest in.


What is Guided Inquiry?

Guided inquiry is a form of inquiry-based learning, the latter of which is a broad category of learning where students focus on solving problems, scenarios or posed questions in a manner that aids them in constructing knowledge. The phrase “guided inquiry” is not always defined consistently, with some experts only using this term when the solution to the presented scenario is not already known, and others using it to describe any process that “guides” students through the learning cycle.  I personally apply the phrase in the same manner in which is it presented by the POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) Project, where it is used to describe the following process:

  1. Model Exploration. Models are often figures or graphs, but could include objects, videos, etc. Exploration commonly involves direct questions, which can be answered by appropriately examining the model and interpreting the information correctly. In a presentation of figures of a homeostatic feedback loop, model exploration might involve listing the components of the loop.
  1. Concept invention. Additional questions require students to identify patterns in the model. In the example of the homeostatic feedback loop, such questions might focus on the interactions between components and their reliance on one another.
  1. Students are asked additional questions that require them to apply the concept to a different or new scenario. Such questions may be convergent (students should have similar answers) or divergent (where there may be multiple reasonable answers).

As in many types of active learning, this process is best carried out in small groups of students. When process skills are added into the overall activity, such as teamwork or oral communication, the activity is often described with the trademark POGIL acronym, although this label should only be used after the activities have been reviewed and approved by the POGIL office.


How I Use Guided Inquiry in my Physiology Courses

When I started teaching 15 years (or so) ago, I was the “typical” lecturer, presenting information on slides (overheads to start), hoping that the students would passively absorb the information. In my teaching there have always been certain figures, such as the oxyhemoglobin dissociation curve, that I would spend significant time presenting information about. Today, as a reformed educational facilitator, I have a goal of using guided inquiry (or another active learning technique) to have students investigate such figures. To this end, I use guided inquiry in lectures, in some labs and occasionally as homework. The benefits of using these “in class” include the ability to roam the room and eavesdrop on student conversations and to include a “report out”, which can stimulate discussion even amongst the groups.


I am Interested, How do I Get Started?

Guided inquiry activities can take significant effort to put together, especially without good examples to work from. If you are a member of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS), you can access five activities free from their site. There are also currently two books that contain POGIL activities for physiology, and they would be a great way to get started. The collection of guided inquiry activities for physiology is growing, which should provide additional options for those of us looking for added options to use in our classes.




Ron Gerrits is a Professor of biomedical engineering at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). He earned his BS degree in biomedical engineering from MSOE in 1994 and his Ph.D. in Physiology from the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) in 1999. That same year he returned to MSOE to become the coordinator of the health science courses. Since that time he has taught a variety of courses, including cell biology, microbiology, nutrition, physiology, pathophysiology and pharmacology, to nursing, biomedical engineering and perfusion students. His main professional interest is science education. To this end he has been active with the Biology Scholars program, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, Project Lead the Way, and various summer programs for high school students. He has also been the program director of the Masters of Science in Perfusion program since 2002.