Category Archives: Teaching Strategies

Using the Primary Literature in your Classroom

36233488When I think about the skills I want my students to leave college with the ability to think critically is prominently displayed at the top of the list. Thinking about my own development as a scholar I can see that reading, writing and learning to understand the primary scientific literature are some of the activities that helped me to develop those skills.

Handing an article from the primary literature to a brand new college student without giving them the skills to tackle it is bound to result in some students leaving the activity feeling frustrated and “stupid”. If you approach using the primary literature with a little creativity though I think you’ll find that your students gain in leaps and bounds.

For those of you who teach Physiology a resource by Teresa Alvarez1, located on the LifeSciTRC, is a fun way to get your students working in groups, communicating what they learn to others and reading and understanding the primary literature. Students work in groups and are expected to read an article from the primary literature pertaining to a certain topic in Physiology. The group that reads the article is expected to summarize the article addressing bullet points that are highlighted in the resource and then they present that article to the class.

The C.R.E.A.T.E. method2 has been used and thoroughly tested. Students get down and dirty with the primary literature. They read a series of papers from the same lab, following that lab groups progress through a particular initial question that may morph into other questions. After reading each paper students design a follow up study and then read the next article in that laboratories sequence. They end the activity by sending the authors of the papers a series of questions they generated through this process and discuss author responses at the end of the module. They learn more deeply about the scientific method and scientists in general. The C.R.E.A.T.E. website has a wealth of information that might help you implement this technique in your classes.

I have taken a variety of different approaches to incorporating the primary literature into my classes. I always enjoy the more traditional journal club, where students read an article and present it to the rest of the class. I have found good results with this method when my students are slightly more advanced in their understanding but I have colleagues that have used this technique in lower level classes to great effect.

More recently I’ve been using figures taken from the primary literature in my classes. Students see the figures and answer questions about the figures. I generally start with questions that help them to orient themselves to the graph. I might ask students to identify the dependent or independent variable in the graph. Then I move students toward questions that ask them to describe the results the figures, determine conclusions the authors might draw from the results and finally end with implications of the results.

It is exciting to see students discussing the primary literature in their groups. They often argue about what a figure means and become deeply invested in convincing those on their team that they are right. It is reassuring how often they come to the same conclusion as the authors in the paper.

These are just a few ways to expose your students to the primary literature. How do you do it in your classes? Have you used any of the methods highlighted above? What has been most effective for your classes?


  1. Alvarez, Teresa. 2008. Primary Literature Scavenger Hunt.
  2. CREATE (transform understanding of science). 2014.





Lynn Diener, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Sciences Department Chair and Biology Program Director at Mount Mary College. Lynn regularly teaches Human Physiology, Human Anatomy, and Ecology. She is also a LifeSciTRC Scholar, Fellow, and Advisory Board Member.


Solving a Problem in Online Education – The Asynchronous Chat

39162380Each educator faces challenges in teaching which vary from class to class and year to year. The biology venue I teach in has the challenge that it is completely online. Online education is no longer a new method of delivery, but it is still an educational option that is growing and changing continually. Educators in the online world face challenges such as technology updates and glitches, trying to help students over e-mail, and perhaps most critically finding the best way to teach difficult content in a virtual manner.

A common activity in online courses to facilitate discussion is asynchronous chat, usually in the form of discussion boards. For example, a topic is given to the class and each student provides a response, usually along with replies to other students, on a group discussion board within the course. Asynchronous chat allows for students and educators to participate in discussion without regard to time zone differences and personal schedules. For information on asynchronous chat, the LifeSciTRC provides articles on this topic:

One problem, however, with asynchronous chat is that discussion can be limited such to the point that students feel like engaged discussion does not occur well in online courses (2). This is important in light of Garrison, Anderson, & Archer’s online learning framework which highlights three main domains working together to form the educational experience they term the Community of Inquiry (1). The domains include a social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence (1). Asynchronous chat is a worthy step toward incorporating the domains and making science education more student-centered as directed by Vision and Change, but there is room for improvement.

As with all effective education, curriculum should be updated to reflect changes in content, methodology, and technology. Improvements can be made to asynchronous chat, however, my proposal is to start including synchronous chat, in other words live!  I’m piloting this in my online biology courses using an online meeting software the university utilizes. This software allows for myself to present information live either from my desktop or a webcam, and students call or type in to ask questions and discuss information. Feedback from students has been very positive, and I am currently working on assessing if these sessions positively affect assignment scores. My course does still offer asynchronous chat as scheduling live sessions includes inherent managing issues, but offering a mix allows students to feel more connected to the course, content, and instructor.


  1.  Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T, & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2: 87–105.
  2.  Niess, M., & Gillow-Wiles, H. (2013). Developing asynchronous online courses: Key instructional strategies in a social metacognitive constructivist learning trajectory.Journal of Distance Education (Online), 27(1), 1-16.





Danielle Plomaritas is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches biology to undergraduate students and high school students. She teaches undergraduate biology for non-majors, online, through Liberty University in Virginia and biomedical science courses at The ASK Academy charter school in New Mexico. Her passions include teaching students about the wonders of the life through the lens of biology and mentoring students.

Active Learning Ideas from the Great Teachers National Seminar in the Rocky Mountains and the LifeSciTRC

female student sitting at desk with hand raisedGreat Teachers Seminars are open to any college instructor and are held all over the world with National Seminars in Banff, Alberta, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Hawaii.  I was initially attracted to this seminar due to its interdisciplinary nature since my usual professional development activities involve attending discipline-specific conferences.  I was seeking inspiration from great teachers from other disciplines in order to help me create an active learning environment for science majors in my first year anatomy and physiology course as well as for non-science majors in my introductory biology course.  The gorgeous setting in Banff, Alberta didn’t hurt either!  Participants at this year’s seminar came from Alberta, British Columbia, Washington State and Wyoming and instructional areas included the trades, performing arts, English, adult education, mathematics, broadcasting, and communications.

In advance of the seminar, we were each asked to write two single-paged papers: 1) describe a teaching innovation we use in the classroom and 2) describe a teaching problem we would like to discuss with our fellow participants.  I will focus on the teaching problem.  Biology courses are typically content heavy and taught chapter-by-chapter.  In the case of anatomy and physiology, integration of all of this information is vital in studying the maintenance of homeostasis.  To this end I have been assigning homeostasis as an essay topic at the beginning of the course and have asked students to work on this essay throughout the year.  Unfortunately, the final product is lacking in course concepts and terminology.  Within my small discussion group, an English instructor suggested that the students write what they know about this topic during the very first class, submit a copy to me, and then build on it throughout the term.  We can then visualize what learning has taken place.  Genius!  Now at the end of term they are less likely to write “that during the fight-or-flight response the heart rate increases and breathing gets deeper” when this is likely what they knew the first day of classes.  I suspect that they would now realize they need to explain why.

An additional area of interest I wished to pursue at the Great Teachers Seminar was to find ways of making a biology course for Arts majors less intimidating.  I filled my note book with many ideas including ice-breakers for the first day of class such as partner interviews followed by introducing each other to the class, the sorting game where students move into groups based on characteristics such as where they live and if they are a dog person or a cat person, flip-chart drawing of what biology means to them, but my favorite was brainstorming characteristics of the best class ever and the worst class ever as a trick to get students to set the ground rules for the class.

If you would like more ideas about student-centered learning, check out the Interactive Lecture Collection assembled by Marsha Matyas.  Her PowerPoint PDF entitled Student-Centered Learning is a wonderful collection of ideas for matching the type of assessments for its intended purpose, expanding on cookbook laboratory experiments to create inquiry-based projects, and descriptions of many different active learning techniques one could use in the classroom.





Julie Dais is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches at Okanagan College in British Columbia. Julie teaches a variety of first and second year courses including biology for non-majors and second-year Health Sciences. At the end of the day, she hopes her students will want to learn more about biology and health beyond the classroom.


How an interdisciplinary collaboration enhanced my teaching of Human Anatomy

abstractI had done a number of projects with an art professor at my institution and had found her approach to the science content engaging and invigorating. When I proposed that we have a couple of our classes collaborate on a project she was enthusiastic. Students in my Human Anatomy class collaborated with students in her Color Theory class to develop a visual representation of anatomy content, not just illustrations though, much more than illustrations that you would find in a textbook.

My students wrote brief text teaching about some anatomy content they found interesting. They were required to choose their own topic and investigate it in more depth than we did during class. They were required to use language that anyone could understand to transmit their knowledge. Then they met with the Color Theory students giving them their text, talking with them about the content.

The Color Theory students took the text and composed artistic representations of the anatomy content. The pieces they developed were far removed from what you would typically expect to see in an anatomy classroom. Some of them were interpretations of the text, some of them focused on the emotions that were implied by the text, some of them focused more on the social aspects embodied by the anatomy content (for instance skin color, racial identity, white privilege). Very few were literal representations of the anatomy content.

At the end of the project the students came together again. The Color Theory students did a short presentation on their pieces and how they related to the anatomy content they had been presented with. I was amazed by the diversity of visual work that resulted and the creative ways that the work related to the anatomy content. My students felt the same. It made the anatomy content relevant in a way that was distinctly more personal and emotionally poignant.

It was invigorating as the instructor to see both the Anatomy and Color Theory students relating to the anatomy content in such a unique way. I saw them personally connecting with the material and becoming excited about it. The anatomy students later told me that they felt like they had helped other people really understand content in anatomy. It got my students talking with art students and having really interesting conversations. I would recommend that everyone enhance their teaching with interdisciplinary collaborations!

If you would like to get your toes wet there are a number of resources available on the LifeSciTRC to help you get your anatomy students doing some relevant art work in your class.  The following resource describes a method for using clay modeling to help students learn anatomical structures: A second resource: describes using body painting to teach anatomy. Either could be used to get students doing more artistic activities in class. I recommend seeing if an art instructor at your institution would be interested in collaborating as well.

What have you done in your classroom that is interdisciplinary? Have you done anything specifically combining art into your classes? Do you have any ideas you might like to implement in the future?




Lynn Diener, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Sciences Department Chair and Biology Program Director at Mount Mary College. Lynn regularly teaches Human Physiology, Human Anatomy, and Ecology. She is also a LifeSciTRC Scholar, Fellow, and Advisory Board Member.


Bringing Active Learning to the Lecture

As teachers, we are entrusted with giving opportunities for students to ‘think actively’ in the classroom. Bombarding students with information with no room for thinking and reflecting does not serve the purpose of imparting quality education. Balancing teaching and active learning in the classroom is a challenging task for me. I try to use active learning strategies in my classroom as and when time permits. I would like to describe two such activities I used and continue to use during teaching.

The first activity is asking the students at the end of the class to design 3 questions from the topic which I covered in each lecture class. I make the students work in groups. In the next lecture class, before I start my lecture, I ask students in different rows to read aloud their questions and provide answers for the same. This activity was found to generate a lot of discussion in the classroom and students seemed to enjoy it. It also provided an opportunity for me to give feedback to the students regarding the quality of the questions and also the correctness and completeness of the answers.

Another activity which I did during my endocrinology lectures was to ask students to write stories on any endocrine disorders which they learnt. Again this was a group activity, where they had to work together outside class hours. Students commented that the story writing activity helped them to apply their knowledge and facilitated their creativity. Putting thoughts and creative ideas in writing was indeed learning through fun, as commented by the students.

Reem Abraham




Reem Rachel Abraham, PhD is an Associate Professor of Physiology at Manipal University. She teaches MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery), BDS (Bachelor of Dental Surgery) and Allied Health Science courses through lectures, practical sessions, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), and Self-Directed Learning (SDL) sessions. Reem is a past LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow.


Student Learning Responsibility – Stop the Turkey Baking Approach to Studying

The Issue

There can be a big disconnect between how students define studying and preparing for an exam and how the instructor assesses student learning. After the first exam in my core biology class, I tend to hear statements from the students such as “I knew the material, you just didn’t ask me the right question.”  After grading their exams, many times I’m left wondering “I prepared them for the material. Why didn’t they do better on the exam?”

turkeyTo some degree, the disconnect in my class was related to the students not understanding that there needed to be a greater level of comprehension of the material.  Most students have no idea about Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning or how it might apply to their studying and learning.  My students, mostly freshman, believed in the turkey baking approach to studying…..if they study X hours=done!

I was very surprised to find that a large portion of the students felt learning biology was about memorization instead of analyzing and interpreting information and observations. Students felt reading the textbook or looking over Powerpoint slides was sufficient for studying for exams.  I presented Bloom’s taxonomy to the students in class and gave examples of questions at each level that related to the class. I felt that I had explained to the students that their study habits from high school may not be sufficient for what was expected at the college level but did not observe many students changing the study habits they brought with them from high school even though they may not be working for them now.  I didn’t see a difference in how they performed.

The Solution

I decided that the students needed to be more reflective and proactive in regards to their study skills and exam assessments.  I decided to create a post-test analysis assessment after reading a number of different assessment articles.  The specifics of the three part assessment can be found in the Life Science Teaching Resource Community.

This process has been completed in two different sections of the course over the last year and included approximately 140 students.  What was apparent was that students were not very accurate at predicting their exams scores immediately after completing the exams. Students over-estimated their exams scores by an average of over 9% on the first exams.  Essentially, they thought they were performing a whole letter grade better than they were. Students became better at predicting their performance by the second exam [3% average difference in actual vs predicted performance]. And it wasn’t just that they were getting better at predicting their scores but that they were doing better on the exams.  Overall the average on the second exam increased by more than 13%!  Around 70% of the students self-reported that they altered their study techniques for the second exam as well.

So what did I learn from all of this?  Students were talking more about understanding a concept in the classroom instead of memorizing a fact after doing the first post-test assessment.  In addition, the students appeared to be better informed of what is expected of them during exams.  They self-reported that they utilized new techniques for studying while stating they weren’t really studying longer [thus not just burning the turkey].

In the end, their average grades on exams increased after asking them to reflect and judge their own studying techniques and habits.  Asking them to be more responsible for their studying seems to have given them a feeling of control over their exam performance that they didn’t feel initially.  Hopefully they will take this new understanding of cognitive learning and studying along the rest of their college journey.






Kelly Wentz-Hunter is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches biology to undergraduate students. She serves as an Associate Professor of Biology, Allied Health Coordinator, and Pre-professional Advisor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, IL and is Director of STEP Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities. Kelly has developed a number of curricula including a Cellular and Molecular Biology Curriculum for MedEdPORTAL.

How I Learned to Write, Use, and Evaluate Case Studies


I have been using case studies in my courses for a few years now in order to improve student engagement. In a nutshell, case studies are stories that stimulate student interest in a topic as well as hone critical thinking skills.  Many of the cases I have used in my general biology course and my second-year nursing pathophysiology course have come from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) website. I was introduced to this wonderful collection of case studies through the LifeSciTRC. The NCCSTS website contains a variety of different styles of case studies for many subject areas in the sciences.  In order to expand the collection, the center offers training programs such as a five-day case study writing workshop each May in Buffalo, NY.  I decided to attend this year in order to learn how to write my own case studies.

Different Types of Case Studies

The director, Dr. Clyde (Kipp) Herreid, began the week by introducing different types of case studies and demonstrating different methods of delivering them in the classroom.  Examples of case study formats include analysis cases which involve contemporary or historical issues.  Students work through the information in the case to see what actually occurred and discuss possible measures that could have been taken to alter the outcome.  In contrast, dilemma or decision cases present students with a situation to analyze and determine for themselves what action could be taken.  Dr. Herried also informed us that the timing of case studies delivery within a course unit can vary.  Trigger cases, given at the beginning of a topic prompt the student to investigate the subject further, while capstone cases used at the end summarize the previous material and stimulate further application of concepts.

Methods of Teaching Case Studies

Dr. Herreid demonstrated various methods of case study teaching to our workshop group which included standard lecture style, directed discussions, interrupted cases, and team learning.  Interrupted case studies consist of information delivered in sequential parts, interrupted with questions for the student.  He explained additional techniques such as public hearings, debates, trials, clicker-cases, and individual, directed case studies resulting in researched, written responses from the students.

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science Collection

A number of case studies from the NCCSTS collection can be found in the LifeSciTRC.  The most popular case based on downloads (according to Dr. Herreid) is Chemical Eric – Dealing with Disintegration of Central Control written by Eric Ribbens.  This is a fine example of the interrupted case study method chronicling a patient’s life long issues with hypersecretion of pituitary hormones.  This case study, along with the other 500 plus cases on the website, includes teaching notes and answer keys (available to educators who register).

Writing and Presenting Case Studies

After two and half days of learning about different types of case studies, we began the process of writing our own.  Some people came prepared with material to write their own case study, while others worked in partners.  This was especially appealing to those new to the process.  Not only were our workshop facilitators available to help with the writing process, we also bounced ideas off of each other.

Learning to write our own case studies for publication on the NCCSTS website was one of the main objectives of this workshop. However, to see if our cases were effective, we had to teach them to classes of paid, keen students during the remaining two days.  Watching my fellow workshop participants guide their classes of 16 students through their cases turned out to be the highlight of my week!

If you would like to learn more about the NCCSTS case study collection or find out about training opportunities for learning to write case studies, check out their website.





Julie Dais is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches at Okanagan College in British Columbia. Julie teaches a variety of first and second year courses including biology for non-majors and second-year Health Sciences. At the end of the day, she hopes her students will want to learn more about biology and health beyond the classroom.