Axe, Meet Learning Objectives. Part. II: The Lecture

As I write this, I’m putting a bow on the urinary system. Yeah, I’m thinking about all the great stuff we discussed in lecture, but I can’t stop thinking about the “what-ifs”. What if they really needed to know how bicarbonate ions are formed and recycled? What if those type A intercalated cells really matter? What if, but I axed it? Ran out of time. Convinced myself that it’s not important.

The Next Day: I’m commuting to work. I fire up a podcast and my favorite metabolic physician is interviewing an endurance specialist. Together, they are both promoting the importance of, wait for it, bicarbonate ion recycling and blood pH balance. I freaked out. I was careless with my axe and failed to prepare my students. My worst “what if” fear was confirmed.

And here we are today. End of the semester. I’d love to crack some snarky, arrogant statement about not caring. I want to be Bender from the Breakfast Club. “Screws fall out all the time. The world’s an imperfect place.” Truth is, I struggle with this. I do it, though. As stated in the intro for this series, I cut and chop. I feel devilishly liberated, but also nervously frustrated that there is no clean validation for what I teach.

Look at those freakin’ textbooks. It’s an ambush of information. That is the pressure. Because somewhere there is a renal physiologist who insists that the counter current multiplier…thing is of utmost importance. I get it. I do. I’m a neuroscientist and I think Goldman–Hodgkin–Katz voltage equation is imperative for grasping the basics of the nervous system. We win some. We lose some. So how do I decide what stays and what gets the axe? The bag-o-tools drives the format of my class sessions, and backwards design drives the content that makes it past the axe.

The Bag-o-Tools

Tools. Oh, those wonderful tools I stuffed in my tool bag. The ones from the summer teaching workshops. The ones from the webinars (ugh). The ones from great organizations that promote A&P. I want to use them. I will use them. I have a few pedagogical gadgets in my bat utility belt. Always on rotation. No excuses. Just a sample of my favs include the 10 minute chunk. Breaking the lecture into 10min chunks of learning objectives immediately followed by student Q&A.  I also like having students swap notes with a classmate and checking their notes for clarity and organization.  There are several more. Too many to list here. But, I must use them. No excuses

There is a warning label: To effectively use these tools, teachers must momentarily pause lecture.

That’s right. No more Guinness World Records for longest lecture on a single breath. I may sacrifice up to 15 minutes a lecture on class interactions. Definitely losing some content-stuffing yapping time. But these tools will not be sacrificed for the obligation of content volume.  Now that I’ve cemented this immovable criterion, I fill in the remaining measures with…

The Backward Build

Thanks to Brandy Doleshal at Sam Houston State for this one. I plan backwards. I look at the chapter and think about 3, *maybe* 4, big objectives that I want my students to digest. Gotta cover the basics. Which means I need to define what the basics are. I go through each section of that chapter. I write my mini objectives that support and align with my 3 (maybe 4) big objectives. As I plan and scheme, I remind myself of the time constraints courtesy of the first criterion. The axe starts axing. The scraps fall to the floor. There’s some quality stuff that doesn’t make the team.

But. But. But. Yes, Jordan’s tortured head, I hear you. After further review of your own self-imposed criteria, the Goldman–Hodgkin–Katz voltage equation will be omitted.

So what does all of this look like? The lectures = lean. The presentation slides = digestible. There is calmness (that, or they’re asleep).  We talk and uncover confusion and misconceptions before pushing forward.

So how do I feel? There is that sweet temptation to abandoned the bag-o-tools. Maybe just for one lecture because I really want to cover this or that. Just one lecture and I’ll reinstate criteria 1 next time. I PROMISE. Nope. I resist. And I know some of the dirty tricks to circumvent the system. Record mini lectures with additional material not covered in class. Let the students watch and review from the comforts of home. No way!  That’s dishonest to my criteria.

Next, we’ll walk down the stairs and across the hall to the lab. For some reason, I don’t have the anxiety about hacking up the lab content. Maybe because it’s been a long time coming. The list and more lists. Watching all those identified structures, under intense hydrostatic pressure, blow out of their skulls as soon as they out the lab. I’m feeling a bit snarky for this next installment.


Jordan Clark is the course coordinator and head instructor for anatomy and physiology and applied microbiology at Sam Houston State University. He earned a BS in psychology at Florida State University and a Ph.D in neurobiology at University of Kentucky, where he conducted research in spinal cord and brain injury. He served four years in the US Army. Currently, his primary research interest is developing engaging and active teaching strategies for large capacity courses. Free time? Consuming synth wave pop culture, daydreaming of being a master woodworker, and always seeking great geeky adventures with his awesome wife and and two kids.

4 thoughts on “Axe, Meet Learning Objectives. Part. II: The Lecture

  1. I love your posts, Jordan! Such a great reminder of what we should be doing for our students. More and more it’s hard to even justify asking them to read unless you’re going to get super granular with the reading assignments or cover everything! What role do you see textbooks playing moving forward?

  2. Thanks! I still think we’re a bit away from cutting ties with published texts (ie..create your own text). I base my course materials more for the online learning systems that just happen to include the e-text. I think AP texts are written with the assumption that teachers can pick and choose what they feel as important. Kinda like those TV/movie streaming platforms where 75% is meh…but you may find a couple of gems.

    • I tell my students “the text book is NOT a novel”. I would shout and jump up and down as I say this, if I thought it would help (I actually tried this, and it did not work, maybe I should try again now that I am a little less inhibited?). Instead the standard A&P text books are more like encyclopedias – where you look at specific topics and read about them. I try to create study guides that will help them know which specific topics to look at.
      I find that the better students tend to use their text books a lot, even when the books are not ideal. So for the rest of the students, would using the book more help them? I don’t know and I don’t know any way to find out (research on human subjects involves… rather a lot of variables). So I try lots of things to “spice up” lectures, and to provide additional possible learning options.
      Jordan – thanks so much for your post. It was interesting and entertaining, but it also made me wonder if we (HAPS teachers) give ourselves enough credit for how much effort we put into this enterprise. By the way – that reflection is not based on your words alone, but also on other descriptions from various HAPS folk describing their teaching.
      My two cents – as people sometimes say.

  3. Did I miss the next installment on labs?? That is where I need help as a lab coordinator. I am attached to my anatomy terms but know the students leave lab and it all drains out on the floor. I try to teach the language and that knowing how things are named allows them to be detectives and likely figure out disease and structures they never had to learn by just breaking the words down. I love anatomy, so it is hard for me to decide what to cut and what to add instead so they actually retain something, hopefully for years to come. My “A” students tell me they love to know all the parts and it is interesting, but the rest would be happy with no anatomy at all. Looking forward to you addressing the woes of the lab material and the “axe”!

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