Curriculum that Works:  Classroom Activities that Promote Conversations and Questions

Consider this post an invitation to submit classroom activities for possible publication in a special issue of the HAPS Educator!

My boss, Robin, and I were talking one day about our best classroom activities.  “Do you have anything that’s a guaranteed hit?” she asked.  “I have two or three,” I said. Robin replied with “That’s good!  I have one, or maybe two.”

Wow.  After several years of developing curriculum for the active learning classroom (pictured below) you would think that we would have more than that.  Nope.  Curriculum development is far from easy; it requires the right combination of students, topics, questions, graphics, and more.

The open learning classroom
An active learning classroom at the University of Minnesota.  Nine students sit at a round table, and there are 14 tables in the classroom.

The days I use the “Inside and Outside” activity with entry level students I know will be good.  And by good I mean students will be talking with each other using the language of anatomy and physiology and there will be many moments where you witness students thinking, doubting, questioning, and even going back and revising answers to previous questions.  There will be good questions generated by the students.  There will be learning!

I use the “Inside and Outside” activity as an introduction to the digestive system, but I have many colleagues in other entry-level classes using it to introduce the respiratory system, others use it to introduce the integumentary system, and a couple even use it on the first day of the semester. The activity involves one graphic and several guiding questions that help students develop a conceptual understanding of what is inside and outside the body and the anatomical barriers involved.  The following questions are included; and it’s important to note that the answers to these questions are quite obvious to us (experts) but are quite novel, and sometimes even a bit troubling, for entry level students.

  1. Is air that is inside the lungs considered inside or outside the body?
  2. Is a piece of gum that is inside the stomach inside or outside the body?
  3. Is a fetus developing inside the uterus inside or outside the body?
  4. Is a tattoo inside or outside the body?

Learning, and more specifically conceptual learning, is slow and non-linear.  Students frequently pause, think, ask questions, think some more, and slowly…slowly…figure…things…out.  To show this process, I videotaped a group of four freshmen completing the “Inside and Outside” activity.  (I especially like watching the body language of students while engaging in good active learning lessons: squirming, leaning in, leaning back, looking up in the air, etc…all evidence that learning is indeed taking place.)  It’s painfully slow to watch, and many old-school lecturer instructors would obviously ask “why don’t you just tell them the answer!”  Unfortunately, conceptual learning is not that easy; for students to understand a concept (e.g., how do you know if something is inside vs. outside the body), they must construct their own understandings, they must “figure it out for themselves,” and cannot simply be told what to know.

A key factor in the success or failure of curriculum is its fit with the students – it’s not a “one size fits all” thing.  What provokes and engages students in one classroom might be quite bland and flat in another.  For example, advanced anatomy and physiology students zip through the “Inside and Outside” activity and have few, if any, questions.  Entry level students, however, work slowly and have many questions, and also have more than a few “aha!” moments.

Over the next few years, our research team of Kyla Ross, Ron Gerrits, Kerry Hull and myself, hope to develop a library of curriculum materials for HAPS members.  The library will be an on-line collection of curriculum activities that enable HAPS members to pick and choose activities that best fit their students and course goals.  We’re starting that endeavor with a special edition of the HAPS Educator that is to be published this Fall.

For this special edition we’re asking all HAPS members the following question:

Do you have any curriculum that works?  Do you have a classroom activity that is a sure thing in terms of generating classroom conversation?  Generating those “aha!” moments?

If so, please consider submitting your activity for possible publication in a special edition of the HAPS Educator.

We’re starting this process with two activities that can serve as examples.  First is the “Inside and Outside” activity that targets entry level anatomy and physiology students, and the second, from Ron Gerrits, is on cardiovascular control and targets physiology students.  Both follow the format that is required for the submission process.

Links to the two sample activities, as well as more information for activity submission, can be found on the HAPS website.

Transforming, or “flipping,” your classrooms from traditional lecture to active learning is a huge endeavor, and you should not try to do it all at once.  But with help from colleagues in HAPS, and sharing good curriculum (curriculum that works!), the process can be a lot easier, student learning can be increased, and you are almost guaranteed to love the conversations and questions you’ll have with your students.


This week’s post is from Dr. Murray Jensen, Associate Professor of Biology Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

One thought on “Curriculum that Works:  Classroom Activities that Promote Conversations and Questions

  1. Thank you for sharing! I plan to use the Inside/Outside activity next week on Day 1 of my high school A&P course. The video posted on Youtube to see the activity in action is really helpful.

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