Looking for Community College A & P Instructors Who Wish to Engage in Research on Student Attrition

First, a few questions:

  1.  How many of these abbreviations do you know?
  • SoTL
  • DBER
  • IUSE
  • CAPER
  1.  Where do most students in the USA take entry-level anatomy and physiology?

The answer the first question will be at the end, but it’s the second question that is important now.  Answer: Community Colleges!

Community Colleges are where thousands of instructors are teaching tens of thousands of students lessons in anatomy and physiology every day of the academic year.  Students in these courses often have high hopes – they hope to change their lives by gaining the qualifications to enter allied health professions such as nursing, surgical technology, and emergency medicine.  But as most of us know, many students do not complete the two-semester A & P sequence, and others complete the course but do not have high enough grades to continue in the program.  The course needs to be difficult; it’s a difficult topic. But too many students are failing.

I recently gave a SoTL (Science of Teaching and Learning) workshop at a community college that had an attrition rate of well over 50% in A & P.  The instructors in the program all talked about students being academically ill prepared for the rigors of an A & P course.  Other students, they said, were just too busy with work, kids, and “life” to devote the time required to succeed.  “Stress” was a common theme; stress caused by financial problems, family problems, and in many cases academic struggles.  In the workshop we talked about different strategies that “might help” students who struggle.  We can never “save” all our students, but we can improve the present situation.  We can help a few students succeed in A & P who otherwise might fail.

During the next month, a group of HAPS members will develop a National Science Foundation (NSF) ISUE (Improving STEM Undergraduate Education) grant targeting the attrition problem in community colleges.  If funded, we will work with instructors at community colleges who wish to try out a new teaching practice and conduct a small research project on its effectiveness (i.e., Discipline Based Education Research, or “DBER”).  We have to start out small, but if successful we will expand the program to include larger numbers of instructors and community colleges.  (And of course, NSF grants are hard to get – but you’ll never get one if you don’t apply!)

Are you teaching at a community college?  Are you interested in such a project?  If so, read about our project (CAPER) in the text below, which will also be posted on the HAPS List serve later today.    

And now the answer to the first question:

  • SoTL: Science of Teaching and Learning
  • DBER: Discipline Based Education Research
  • IUSE: Improving STEM Undergraduate Education
  • CAPER: College Anatomy and Physiology Education Research

(CAPER is the name of our HAPS/NSF research project!  So a bonus point if you got that one.)

College Anatomy and Physiology Educational Researchers (CAPER) – We want you!

One topic guaranteed to start up chatter on the HAPS Discussion Board is attrition – the disturbingly high number of students failing and withdrawing from our A & P courses, especially at 2- year colleges.  The HAPS Attrition Task Force has spent the past 18 months gathering data to document the problem.  The causes are complex, and the solutions equally so, but as HAPS members we posit that how we teach matters.   Unfortunately, while many of our members teach at 2-year schools, very little data that we use to inform our practices has actually been gathered at these institutions.  We are submitting an NSF grant application to help address this deficiency, and we need participants.  We are looking for 6 to 8 instructors at large enrolment community colleges serving diverse student populations who are willing to act as partners and participants in this grant. We want people who love teaching, love their students, and want to develop methods to help their students succeed – especially those who struggle.

Our goal is to identify specific classroom interventions that will reduce attrition in diverse student populations.  These interventions will target two important components of student success: conceptual understanding of physiology and psychological distress. Educators involved in this project will work together to develop, implement, and evaluate the impact of curriculum and pedagogy designed to influence one or both of these determinants.  We know full well that we cannot “save” all students, but we know that implementing some simple methods into our regular teaching practice can make a big difference our students’ chance of success.

Here is our preliminary plan, but we are interested in working with grant participants to fine-tune the methods.

What Do I Have To Do?

  1. July to December 2018:  Complete a 1-credit HAPS –I course (Title:  Introduction to Educational Research Methods) that covers basic principles of instructional design and assessment, and the mechanics of carrying out classroom research projects. The course includes online sessions as well as an in-person meeting at a regional HAPS conference in the Fall, and your tuition and travel will be covered by the grant.  We know that many of you are also teaching during this period, so will be asking to commit no more than 3 hours per week for this endeavor during the Fall semester. By the end of the course (probably in early December) you will have a plan for an intervention that you would like to try out, and evaluate, in your course.
  2. While completing the course, you will work with one of the course instructors to refine your classroom research project focusing on your specific student population.  Each participant will test the impact of an intervention on student performance (attrition) and stress levels using tools such as validated student surveys, instructor reports, and/or student interviews.  We will provide you with a list of interventions and research tools to choose from, but participants are also welcome to come up with their own.  For instance, one participant might look at how student stress and performance is impacted by two-stage cooperative quizzes, in which students complete a quiz both individually and in groups (cooperative quiz).  Another participant might decide to investigate if his or her students feel less psychological distress, and/or perform better, if they spend 3-5 minutes at the beginning of each group activity discussing their everyday lives. A third might examine the impact of instituting active learning activities, such as those that will be published in an upcoming Special Issue of the HAPS Educator, the inquiry activities on the HAPS website (HAPS Archive of Guided Learning Activities), or the many teaching tips on the HAPS website (A & P Teaching Tips).  We will also help you get Institutional Research Board (IRB) approval for your project. Note that interventions will be realistic and achievable – we are looking for small-scale interventions, not changing an entire course.
  3. January-May 2019: Carry out, analyse, and write up your classroom research project, with the support of the instructional team.  We hope that all participants can present their findings at the 2019 Annual HAPS conference at the end of May, and we also would encourage participants to submit their findings to the HAPS Educator.
  4. We will also ask each participant to participate in informal entry and exit interviews, in which your will discuss your perspectives on teaching and educational research with an interviewer.

Why?  What’s in it for me?

First of all, the educational community needs your input, and data from your students, to inform our practices.  Second, it will be FUN.  Educational scholarship has the potential to revitalize your teaching, and make your job more interesting, challenging, and satisfying.  Third, we will help support your travel to two HAPS meetings (one regional and one national), and there will be a stipend for completion of the manuscript describing your work.   

Sounds Interesting….What’s the Catch?

First, all participants will need to talk to their administrators. They must know what you are doing (research on teaching and student retention), support you in your efforts, help secure IRB / Human Subjects approval for you to conduct your project with students, and work with us to collect data on attrition.

Second, the project will work best if we have teams of two or three anatomy and physiology instructors from one community college, city, or region.  It isn’t an absolute requirement, but apply with a colleague from your own or neighbouring colleges if you can.  It’s even better if your school in involved in a program such as Community College Biology Instructor Network to Support Inquiry into Teaching and Educational Scholarship, or the SEPAL project.  

And third, please remember that this is a grant proposal, and there is no guarantee that the grant will be funded.  We can only accept 6 to 8 participants for the first year, but, if funded, we would run a second group of 6 to 8 participants in the second year.  

Still interested or have questions?  Email the project lead, Murray Jensen, at msjensen@umn.com.  Please include as much of this information as possible:

  • Names of instructor(s):
  • Name of your school:
  • Number of students enrolled in your anatomy and physiology program each year:
  • A rough estimate of your attrition rate (that is, the percentage of your class that receives a D or an F or withdraws before completion:
  • School involvement in national programs:
  • Name and title of your administrator who will support you in this project:

We need to have the list of participants finalized by November 21, so let us know if you are interested ASAP!   

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