It is the ultimate challenge and lifelong pursuit of educators to facilitate learning among students with different educational backgrounds, first languages, and learning styles. Concurrently, we work to foster individual strengths and ideas that each student brings to our classroom. With no single right way to get through to everyone, each class presents us with the awesome challenge of a lifetime!
So how can we assess our teaching methods and students’ knowledge acquisition without a test? Or better yet, before the test they will ultimately have to take? And how can we make the learning fun?
For me, one answer is a creative project. Students in Human Anatomy and Physiology spend much of their time memorizing copious facts hoping to apply them at exam time. The act of creating something from those facts is an enjoyable way for students to take material that is complex, break it down into digestible components, tap into their creative side and ultimately ignite different aspects of their brain into flames of learning. One of my favorite creative assignments calls upon students to write a children’s storybook based on a topic we have covered. Students must capture the big picture and then focus on filling in the details that are most relevant to their own particular stories.
Recently, three of my students created a children’s story after learning about the kidneys. The title of their story was The Mighty “Kid“neys: Where‘s Sodium? The “Kid”neys are a group of three friends (shaped like kidneys) who help the kidneys work properly. In the episode Where‘s Sodium? there is a problem in the distal convoluted tubule (DCT). As the “Kid”neys get filtered, and wind their way through a nephron they finally make it to the DCT where they encounter the villain: Caffeine (da da dum). In their story, Caffeine has somehow banished the friendly Al Dosterone. The students were clever enough to make the shape of Caffeine and Al Dosterone similar enough so that readers could imagine how caffeine might interfere with aldosterone’s action. In the end, the “Kid”neys save the day by contacting the brain’s thirst centers.
Similar children’s stories submitted for this assignment also show how creative work engages and helps students personally assimilate an overarching theme in Human Anatomy and Physiology. Then the added nuances, unique to each students’ work, display knowledge of details that make the stories informative, engaging and interesting. Usually the illustrations are adorable. Creating a children’s story allows students to assess their understanding by breaking down the material, rebuilding it and adding their own unique subset of details with personal creative essence. Those students who can do this demonstrate their understanding of learning objectives.
Feedback from students who engage in this type of assignment is very positive, initiating comments such as, “We had a lot of fun with this project and hope you enjoy it as much as we did.” As a teacher, reading the stories of my students makes me happy because I know I got through to them with the core material; but then to watch them interact with that material in their own unique way makes me a very proud professor.
Bridgit Goldman has been teaching college level biology since 1998. She has a Ph.D. in Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology from The Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York. Since 2007 she has designed, developed and taught all the lecture and laboratory classes in Human Anatomy and Physiology at Siena College.