14- The External Brain

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External brains are handy…as long as internal brains are used as well.

As some of you probably know, I got a little bit fired up about the External Brain as presented by Jon Runyon (Go Ducks) at the annual conference in Vegas this year.  I have incorporated the External Brain into my course this semester and am curiously observing its effects in my classroom.  When I decided to have my students create their own External Brains, I did so with the goal that they would come to class more prepared to participate in active learning.

The External Brain is a unique resource built throughout the semester by each individual student.  There is an External Brain assignment due at the beginning of each class and my original vision was to immediately check this assignment for completion and return it to the student.  I quickly found this to be logistically impossible with my mere 55 students and then remembered Runyon talking about his “army of TA’s” that helped him carry out this task.  I tend to be a relatively pragmatic human, so when I realized the error of my plan, I started having students check each others’ brains during the first 5 minutes of class. I like the idea of students discussing and evaluating their work with each other.   Students are then rewarded for the quality of their product when they are allowed to use the resource on an “External Brain” portion of each exam.  This part of the exam ends up being about 20% of the total exam points.

I gave my first “External Brain” exam on Wednesday last week during our hour-long lecture period.  My goal was to have the exam questions based entirely on case studies and clinical scenarios.    I ended up with 20 decent questions (though I was still writing the exam at 2am, just 6 hours before I was scheduled to administer it).  Needless to say, my questions will certainly improve over time.  The helpful folks on the HAPS listserv contributed to my favorite question, which asked students to evaluate tracheal tissue samples from smokers and non-smokers.

Unsurprisingly, students performed well on this portion of the exam (82% average with 91% earning a C or higher).  This compares to my written exam (78% average with 66% earning a C or higher) and the practical (73% average with 57% earning a C or higher), both of which were given on the same day.  I was also curious about how students perceived the value of the External Brain.  60% of the students said they found their document helpful during the exam.  40% said it wasn’t that helpful, but many students in this category qualified their responses by explaining that the document hadn’t been very helpful because the act of creating it had been so effective in preparing them for the assessment.

None of this knocks my socks off.  However, the one thing that I find really intriguing about the External Brain is its potential to facilitate a flipped classroom that does not involve video lectures.  I could see an instructor putting together a very well-designed External Brain assignment that guided students through the content, much like a lecture does.  Students who thoughtfully completed the External Brain tasks would then be as prepared for class activities as my students, who watch video lectures online.   I know this works at the University of Oregon with all those pre-meds…would it work for my pre-nursing crew?

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