Teaching a large (nearly 400 students), introductory survey course in human anatomy and physiology is a lot like trying to hit a constantly moving target. Once you work out a solution or better path for one issue, a new one takes its place. You could also imagine a roulette wheel with the following slots: student-faculty ratios, student preparation, increasing enrollments, finite resources, limited dissection specimen availability (e.g., cats), textbook prices, online homework, assessment, adaptive courseware, core competencies, learning outcomes, engagement, supplemental instruction, prerequisites, DFW rates, teaching assistants, Dunning Kruger effect, open educational resources, GroupMe, student motivation, encouraging good study habits, core concepts, aging equipment … and the list goes on.
If the ball lands on your slot, are you a winner or loser?
Before getting ahead of myself, I need to provide an overview of A&P at the University of Mississippi. Fall semesters start with 390 students enrolled in A&P I within one lecture section, 13 lab sections at 30 students each, anywhere from 10-13 undergraduate teaching assistants, 2 supplemental instruction (SI) leaders, and at least six, one-hour SI sessions each week. The unusual class size and number of lab sections is the result of maxing out lecture auditorium as well as lab classroom capacities. I am typically the only instructor during the fall (A&P I) and spring (A&P II) terms, while a colleague teaches during the summer terms. The two courses are at the sophomore-level and can be used to fulfill general education requirements. There are no prerequisites for A&P I, but students must earn a C or better in A&P I to move on to A&P II. Approximately one-third of the students are allied health (e.g., pre-nursing) and nutrition majors, one-third are exercise science majors, and the remaining one-third of students could be majoring in anything from traditional sciences (e.g., Biology, Chemistry, etc.) to mathematics or art.
The university supports a Supplemental Instruction program through the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (https://cetl.olemiss.edu/supplemental-instruction/). The SI program provides an extra boost for students in historically demanding courses such as freshman biology, chemistry, physics, accounting, etc. SI leaders have successfully passed the courses with a grade of B or better, have been recommended to the program by their professors, agree to attend all lectures for the courses in which they will be an SI leader, and offer three weekly, one-hour guided study sessions that are free to all students enrolled in the course. SI leaders undergo training through Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and meet weekly with the course professor. Students who regularly attend SI sessions perform one-letter grade higher than students who do not attend SI sessions.
It can be as easy for an instructor to be overwhelmed by the teaching side of A&P as it is for the student to be overwhelmed by the learning side! I know that a major key to student success in anatomy and physiology courses is consistent, mental retrieval practice across multiple formats (e.g., lectures, labs, diagrams, models, dissection specimens, etc.). The more a student practices retrieving and using straightforward information, albeit a lot of it, the more likely a student will develop consistent, correct use. Self-discipline is required to learn that there are multiple examples, rather than one, of “normal” anatomy and physiology. However, few students know what disciplined study means beyond reading the book and going over their notes a few times.
To provide a model for disciplined study that can be used and implemented by all students, I developed weekly study plans for A&P I and II. These study plans list a variety of required as well as optional activities and assignments, many of which are completed using our online courseware (Pearson’s Mastering A&P) and include space for students to write completion dates. If students complete each task, they would spend approximately 10 out-of-class hours in focused, manageable activities such as:
- Completion of active learning worksheets that correlate to learning outcomes and can be used as flashcards.
- Practice assignments that can be taken multiple times in preparation for lecture exams and lab practicals.
- Self-study using the virtual cadaver, photographic atlas of anatomical models, interactive animations of physiological processes, virtual lab experiments, and dissection videos.
- Regular graded assignments aligned with course learning outcomes.
Weekly study plans are also useful during office visits with students. I can easily assess student progress and identify changes for immediate and long-term improvement. An advantage of using online courseware to support course objectives is the ability to link various elements of the courses (e.g., lecture, lab, SI sessions, online homework, group study, and self-study) with a consistent platform.
All of this sounds like a great sequence of courses, doesn’t it? Yet, the target has kept moving and the roulette wheel has kept spinning. Imagine for the story within this blog that the roulette ball has landed on “using adaptive courseware to improve supplemental instruction.”
In 2016 the University of Mississippi was one of eight universities chosen by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with support of the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities to increase the use of adaptive courseware in historically demanding general education courses. Thus, began the university’s PLATO (Personalized Learning & Adaptive Teaching Opportunities) Program (https://plato.olemiss.edu/). The PLATO grant provides support for instructors to effectively incorporate adaptive courseware into their courses and personalize learning for all affected students. Administrators of the grant were particularly supportive of instructors who could use adaptive courseware to support the SI sessions. This challenge was my personal roulette ball.
I decided to use diagnostic results from Mastering A&P graded homework assignments to prepare for weekly meetings with SI leaders. Diagnostic data on percent of University of Mississippi students correctly answering each question as well as percent of UM students answering incorrect options are compared to the global performance of all Mastering A&P users. For each question incorrectly answered by more than 50% of the students, I write a short (4-6 sentences) explanation of where students are making errors in expressing or using their knowledge and how to prevent similar errors in the future. I then searched for active learning activities and teaching tips associated with the challenging questions from the LifeSciTRC (https://www.lifescitrc.org/) and Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS; https://www.hapsweb.org/) websites. I specifically search for active learning exercises that can be conducted in a small, group setting using widely available classroom resources (e.g., white board, sticky notes, the students, etc.).
By using online courseware diagnostics, selecting focused learning activities, and communicating regularly with SI leaders, I was able to create value and unique learning opportunities for each student. The SI session format has been extremely well-received by the students and they immediately see the purpose in the study session experience. The best part is that it takes me only 30-40 minutes each week to write up explanations for the diagnostics and find the best learning activities.
I would say that we are all winners with this spin of the wheel.