Join Us at the HAPS 2017 Spring Regional

Get your taxes done early!  We are planning a full day of update speakers, workshops, and poster presentations for Saturday, April 15 in Tyler Texas.  Our morning update speaker will be Dr. Michael Beckstead, Associate Professor in the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Dr. Beckstead will be speaking about dopamine neurons and Parkinson’s Disease.  In the afternoon, Dr. Lane Brunner, Dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas at Tyler, will talk about how team-based learning has been implemented in the Doctor of Pharmacy program.

As always, workshops will be given by HAPS members.  Do you have a unique approach to teaching a lab or a new angle to get complicated ideas across?  Have you found a solution to a common challenge or a new tool (or a new way to use an old tool) that helps your students?  If you need to practice your presentation for the national conference in Salt Lake City, or you won’t be able to attend the SLC conference, we’re here for you!  Submit your workshop proposal by March 24.

Posters will be set up adjacent to the workshop rooms. If you have an idea that suits a poster more than a workshop – even if it’s a poster you’ve already presented in another venue – we’ll have a place for you to share what you’ve done.  A simple idea, or an exploratory look at some new teaching tip, tool, or resource can easily be translated into a poster.  Poster submissions have the same deadline as workshop submissions, March 24.

We’ll be meeting in the newly-renovated A&P labs, so you can get some ideas from our faculty about how technology can be implemented in the lab. The use of overhead cameras to show specimens, iPads in the classroom, and structured group activities can be explored.

At the end of the day, we’ll have the opportunity to tour our new nursing and health science facility, including the simulation lab for nursing students (see image below). The first floor has an area that is set up basically as a hospital, so students get real-world training in LVN, surgical technology, and other fields. There is also a working dental clinic.

If you’re planning to come in Friday afternoon or stay over Saturday night, look for a link to the accommodations on the registration page. If you’re bringing family with you, they can explore our Center for Earth and Space Science Education (CESSE, and the Tyler Museum of Art (, both adjacent to the building where our conference will be held.  If there is enough interest, we can plan a social event for either Friday or Saturday evening. I look forward to seeing you all!

Betsy Ott, Conference Coordinator

Busy couple of weeks

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, as I participate in Valerie O’Loughlin’s online HAPS-I course and get ready to attend the annual HAPS conference.  Valerie’s course deals with the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), a subject that should be near to the heart of every one of us who teaches A&P.  Murray Jensen’s latest post on the value of lectures online and classroom time for active learning fits right in with the main ideas of the HAPS-I course, too.  So, I’ve had a lot to cogitate on, particularly since my summer course begins the Monday after HAPS, and I have about 100 students for 2 straight hours a day, 4 days a week for 5 weeks, plus supervising the labs.

It turns out that many scholars in education research have known for years what I’ve personally discovered, that students don’t learn best when we just tell them stuff.  Even telling them in a brilliant, organized, integrated and even entertaining lecture is not optimal for their understanding and retention of information.  Even if they think it is, and get huffy if you ask them to learn things on their own.  It also turns out that reading books isn’t sufficient, either.  I quickly gave up trying to simply read the assignments in Val’s course, and instead started writing outlines of the main points of the chapter.  Hmm, that sounds eerily like something I might have suggested to my own students.

So, I’m eagerly looking forward to 4 days packed with information and strategies to improve my teaching skills.  And, to those that can’t join us in San Antonio, my condolences.  May the anticipation of the next edition of the HAPS-Educator, which will have summaries of the convention sessions, console you.  And, if you have any great ideas for me to implement starting June 1 I’d love to hear from you!

HAPS + Education

I’m at that point in the semester when I really have to start planning for the next terms – both summer and fall – and that makes me dream big at the same time I’m addressing minutiae.  Can I develop the summer test schedule at the same time I’m designing new assignments that will spur deeper learning? Why, yes – yes, I can. In fact, if I don’t start it now, I wont’ have time to get the long-range plans accomplished.  I have to analyze now, while it’s still fresh,what doesn’t seem to be working in this semester’s initiatives, and tweak, or throw out and reinvent, for the brief summer term as well as the new students in the fall.  My first step is to survey this semester’s students to see what resonated with them and what fell flat.  They seem to appreciate videos more than text, and interactive assignments more than straight reading.  Of course, those types of assignments take more time to develop, and I’m constantly looking for inspiration – a new angle, or a new application – along with new technology to record, post, and assess online lessons.

I’ve perused the new edition of the HAPS Educator – a very fine online journal with a variety of articles produced to help us as educators and as science enthusiasts. I’m particularly impressed with examples of HAPS members sharing their tips with their colleagues.  I’ve also attended presentations given by HAPS members at our regional and national meetings, and I always get good ideas, not only from what they present, but also by how they present it.  I’m pondering how we can leverage that into a shared resource, something that we can all tap into when we feel tapped out.

So, I’m looking forward to the HAPS annual meeting in San Antonio at the end of May. We’ll not only get insight into educational research from recognized experts, but also those teaching tips that just smooth our presentations and get our students in the zone.  We’ll experience that electrifying synergy that energizes us all the way home.  We’ll gain lasting resources that will enrich our classes and satisfy our creative sides.  We might even find out what amazing app/software/website is the secret to our students’ success.  I hope to see you there!

A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

Living Science

In Texas, the new state guidelines for teaching A&P at the college level include teaching scientific methods and experimental methods.  While I’m sure most of us cover something about the ways of science, I know at my campus we will be expanding our coverage of the experimental methods used by scientists.  This expansion will include experimental activities in lab, but I also intend to introduce examples of current science research in my lectures.  In line with my desire to make course material more personal to my students, I’ve been looking for relevant case studies that showcase the ways of science as well as teaching human physiology.  I think I’ve found what I need…

I’ve been watching “Cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies” this week on PBS.  It’s a riveting mix of historical accounts and vignettes of recent interviews and profiles of cases.  For example, the history of tobacco use, lung cancer, and the politics of marketing are highlighted in more than one episode.  A brief overview of DNA and cell division help clarify the reasons that mutagens are linked to cancer.

I find it particularly insightful in hearing about the investigations into how cancer was treated a generation or two ago.  Assumptions, such as that cancer spread locally (the reason for radical mastectomies), were so entrenched that anyone challenging that paradigm was professionally ostracized.  The clear lesson in adhering to the methods of science stands out in these stories.  The dedication of those scientists who pushed past the dogma to look for other explanations is inspiring. At around the same time, the shift in patient treatment from killing cancer to palliative care gave everyone a different perspective – not only medical personnel, but also the public at large.

Today’s research initiatives, particularly in how to analyze cancer genomes, are mind-boggling.  The cancer genome atlas has revealed a huge number of mutated genes, revealing that not only oncogenes, but also tumor suppressor genes, can mutate and lead to the development of cancer. It’s particularly satisfying to hear renowned scientists explain complicated information with wonderful clarity.  The computer-generated 3-D animations of molecules developed to fight cancer are incredible.  And, while the realization that cancer cells continually mutate, making treatment continually difficult, is hard to accept, at least we continue to add to our knowledge of cellular mechanisms.

Many of the questions raised certainly go beyond basic and applied science, addressing issues of access to, and cost of treatment, and political aspects of research and regulation of carcinogens.  I can send my students to see the episodes for themselves to get the full story, and I’m betting they will be as entranced as I have been.

As with many other fine productions on PBS, there are educator resources available on the website (at These include online activities and additional resources.  I hope you’ll enjoy these as much as I plan to.

Supplemental Instruction

A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.
A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

We’re just past mid-semester, and that means some of our students are starting to ask for help in catching up on what they should have been doing every week. As with many institutions across the country, we have been working on improving student success and retention for a number of years now.  We assign the textbook-related website, we have our own online resources, and we provide an on-campus open lab for reviewing models and answering questions.  So, you might wonder, what are we missing? Why aren’t all of our students availing themselves of all these wonderful opportunities, and achieving their dreams in A&P?

The HAPS List serve had a lively discussion this week about allowing electronic devices in classes.  One of the points made was that students don’t always make the best choices, and that poor decision-making can, at least in some cases, be explained by their state of maturity (or lack thereof) due to age and experience.  Each of us, as faculty, needs to decide how much we will control in our courses, in terms of student behavior. We all implicitly control student behavior through awarding points for exams, discussions, participation, or other course-related activities, so banning or enhancing the use of electronics is just one more example of options we exercise to control the learning environment.  The exchange of ideas has me wondering if I’m providing enough structure for students to make better choices.  To me, that means setting clear consequences for failure to comply with the requirements I set up – all of which are designed to improve student outcomes.  But do students see these policies in the same light?  Or do they simply recognize additional barriers that they need to circumvent?

At my institution, we are planning to implement two major changes, which we predict will improve student mastery.  We are requesting approval to add the online text website access as a tuition-related course fee, and to add a contact hour of compulsory open lab attendance.  The process for each involves explaining the rationale for the action, ensuring that it is revenue-neutral (at least), and that it is feasible.  I think we can justify these actions based in part on data provided by our textbook publisher (in terms of success of their online resources) and a small pilot program in our open lab.  Yet, it remains to be seen if we get the level of success we are hoping for.  I hope to use my soon-to-be-acquired educational research skills to help inform future decisions of this sort.

I have yet to find a way to consistently jump-start all students’ intrinsic motivation, curiosity, or mental acumen within a single semester.  I don’t seem to have much impact in determining what students sign up for my course, or whether they are truly readying themselves to focus on their coursework.  So, I try to zero in on what I can do to encourage, enable, and channel their actions toward success.  I’m hoping our new online and in-person supplemental instruction initiatives will have a measurable effect.  I’ll be sure to share results with you all, and hope to hear from you about what you are doing that works well.

Assessing Assessment

A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.
A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

I’ve just returned from the annual assessment conference, held by Texas A&M University.  One of the themes that was repeated by many speakers was strategies to deal with faculty resistant to assessing general education competencies.  Another was the difficult task of assessing critical thinking skills.  A third was the challenge of acquiring and interpreting useful information.

I have encountered faculty resistance to assessment on my own campus, and I still have difficulty understanding its basis.  Our peers in the health sciences and other professional programs routinely carry out assessments as an intrinsic part of their program review.  Is it simply resentment of an additional burden on our time?   At the assessment conference, I heard several speakers state that including faculty in the development of assessment processes helped reduce resentment, as did clarifying the meaning of “academic freedom.”  I have heard some of my peers express doubt that the assessment results have any purpose to the “powers that be,” but the value of assessment to me is that it helps me determine what changes I can make to improve student outcomes. I truly believe that we can use assessment for our own purposes, and at the same time satisfy the requirements of any regulatory bodies.

One of the most challenging assessment tasks is to determine if our teaching of critical thinking is effective.  The state of Texas has charged institutions of higher education to teach critical thinking, but left it up to us to determine what that means and how to accomplish it.  In A&P, we have a holistic understanding of critical thinking and can instantly tell if our students have it, or not – but how do we break that down into teachable skills, and how do we assess it?  This is something we are still working on, and the efforts of educational researchers at the conference are still in progress, too. I think our colleagues in the health science programs have a longer track record of teaching critical thinking, and I look forward to learning more from them in the near future.

Some of the sessions I attended were reports of attempts to find significant links between student demographic information and success and retention in college and in professional careers.  I have zero background in research in social sciences, but my past history in more concrete research makes it hard to accept some of the data presented as reliable or indicative of what the researchers claimed. Can students’ self-interpretation of knowledge and ability be used as a proxy for student learning? Are sample sizes large enough and random enough to generate reliable data? Should institutional decisions be made based on data that is acknowledged to be imperfect and incomplete?  For this last question, the answer of at least some administrators is a qualified “yes,” if for no other reason than that this is all they have on which to base decisions.

So from all this, I have come away with a sense of commitment, if not urgency, to contribute to the collection of useful information.  To me, this means I am measuring what I think I am measuring, that I am collecting reliable data, and that I am interpreting it correctly, with a goal to improve student mastery of the course outcomes.  I know you all have the same values in your professional positions, and I hope we can all work toward the common goal of providing the best A&P courses we can for our students.  I look forward to a lively exchange of ideas at HAPS – San Antonio!

Spring Season

A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.
A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

It’s the season for local athletes to sign letters to commit to teams at the next level, and I find it heartwarming when these young people acknowledge the impact of their coaches and other mentors.  They realize that their opportunity came about not only because of their own talent and drive, but also because they were trained in skills and habits that helped them succeed.  I think that part of the reason these student athletes are so successful is that they accept the need for training and understand the time demands involved in becoming the best they can be.  They realize that their skills and abilities improve over time.

If my A&P students had the mind-set of student athletes, I think they could all make it to the pros.  They would drill on their weaknesses and get personal coaching to correct problems, knowing that they would be accumulating additional knowledge and skills.  They would attend every practice session and review videos of their performance – okay, well maybe not that last, but they would watch the videos I post for them and complete homework assignments, anyway. They would know at the outset the commitment they needed to make, and they would fit the rest of their lives – temporarily at least – around the demands of mastering the curriculum that forms the foundation of their chosen profession.

Some of my students seem really detached from the course requirements – they don’t appreciate why, for example, we assign adaptive reading modules. As a consequence, they circumvent the deep learning that is supposed to occur, and they “phone in” their performance.  If an athlete demonstrated that same mind-set at practice, I think the coach would very effectively communicate his/her displeasure!  The invisibility of their poor preparation allows them to dodge, deny, or at least defer, the consequences of a poor performance.

So, it seems to me that one of my roles is to help coach my students to up their game.  I can make sure they know what they’ve signed up for, time-wise, and help them develop personal schedules that include enough prep time.  I can suggest they see themselves as professionals-in-training, rather than the passive students many of them were in high school.  I can do more than convey content; I can help them develop basic academic skills, adopt habits of mind, and embrace a set of ethics and values that will serve them in both school and work.  And maybe, they will all make it to the pros at some level, and when they do, some of them will remember the coaching staff that helped them find their way.

Reasons for Reason

A message from HAPS-President Elect, Betsy Ott.
A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

I’ll be guiding my students through an introductory exploration of the body’s resistance to disease tomorrow morning. Traditionally, I would start with the types of resistance, the layers of defense, and the components of nonspecific mechanisms before digging into adaptive immunity in a later lecture.  Last semester, however, I started with a conversation about risks to health-care workers due to contagious diseases.  We discussed aspects of risk evaluation, particularly complications of vaccines versus risk of serious illness.  The conversation was lively, and students appeared to internalize not only the information but also the process of analysis. They practiced assessing pros and cons and applying that to their career choices.  Some shared personal stories of family members who couldn’t tolerate vaccines, and we related that to the benefit of herd immunity, so they could see beyond the benefit/risk to a single individual.

I don’t think I’ll have any trouble coming up with examples of cases that crop up when people don’t get vaccinated. There was a local case here in east Texas of an other-wise healthy young man who almost died of complications of flu.  The measles cases in southern California are very recent, but we also had a cluster of cases in the Fort Worth area, centered at a church run by a pastor who was vocal in his opposition to vaccination.  The horrible deaths due to Ebola help remind us all of the ravages of epidemic diseases and the value of vaccination.

Knowing that I would be discussing this in class, I’ve been reading web posts on Ebola, measles, and influenza, but also Big Pharma, toxins in vaccines, and other conspiratorial secrets of mainstream medicine.  I think it’s important to focus on scientific reasoning from the get-go, but also to explore the basis of decision-making by people with limited understanding of physiology and medicine.  I’m dismayed by the uncivil language in many of the comments on web posts, but I read through them anyway, to see if I can glean common threads in the thought processes of people who proclaim their rejection of aspects of modern medicine.  Students in my class might be on the front line of discussions with people making such decisions in the near future, and I want them to be able to demonstrate clear thinking and rational decision making while recognizing the emotional basis of decision making in others. It’s not easy, when claims of competing ‘facts’ aren’t evaluated on their merits.

I remember reading an article on cultural anthropology that explored the ability of individuals to assess risk.  Basically, any tragedy that is personally witnessed is perceived to be a greater risk than any other potential – but unseen – problem, even if the odds of it happening again are quite small.  This is why the risk of dying of measles seems more remote than the possibility of developing autism.

So, I use valuable class time to reinforce and practice the processes of science.  I model and guide the application of logical reasoning to reliable evidence.  I teach students to evaluate sources as well as examine information.  And then, I hope they will use these skills in the real world, to make smart decisions on issues that impact the health of us all.

Resolution Review, and Looking Forward

A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.
A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

I’m feeling kind of unsettled this month. After taking a break from blogging over the month-long year-end break, I’m finding it difficult to kick-start myself.  In preparing this post, I looked back at my resolutions – and I want to assure you, I’ve kept them as well as I can.  Although, I did have a student today ask if he should finish the “pre-lab 2” assignment before or after attending lab 2.  It’s hard to know how much clearer I can make assignment titles.

I spent quite a bit of time over the holiday break refining my courses, particularly the online instructions.  I actually had a student tell me she was intimidated by how much she was going to have to wade through just to start the course.  I’m not sure how to fix that.  I remember when I started teaching microbiology lab, that my pre-lab briefs were pretty short.  As my experience increased, the length of my briefs did, too – I kept adding to the things that could go wrong, as students continued to find new ways to mess up the lab.  So now, I find myself adding to the instructions about how the course works, to the point (apparently) that students are overwhelmed by the instructions before they even get to the content.

So, I’ve decided to look for expert help.  I will ask our resident instructional designer to review my course orientations, and see if they can be streamlined – or if they are fine the way they are.  I”m reading about teaching and learning, which I’ll report on in future posts.

Most significantly, I’ve signed up for Valerie O’Loughlin’s HAPS-I course on educational research.  After thirty-plus years of being a professional educator, I suppose it’s high time I actually get some professional development on education.  I’m looking forward to creating a system of asking, and answering, questions about how my students learn and what I can do to facilitate their success.  Particularly as I am chair of the college’s General Education Committee, I feel compelled to collect meaningful information that measures parameters that matter, rather than just what is easy to quantify.

One of the best aspects of a HAPS-I course is the interaction with peers.  With a focus on a specific outcome, the quality of discourse can be amazing, and I’m looking forward to working with HAPS colleagues to explore aspects of metacognition and the scholarship of teaching.  I encourage you to join us – or to find some other avenue to enhance your scholarship of teaching.  Have a great spring semester!

Betsy Ott

New Semester Resolutions

A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.
A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

Okay, it’s that time in the semester when I have to force myself to focus on the positive – not on the desperate pleas for just half a point, or the snarky comments that I don’t know how to teach.

So, here is my list of New Semester Resolutions. I hope to actually keep these resolutions (unlike the ones I’ll make on Dec. 31).

1. I will make my course policies crystal clear. This will mean reading, and re-reading how I have the policies stated so they can’t be misinterpreted. Who knew that calling an assignment “practice” and including a message that “this is not for a grade” does not clearly state that completing the assignment is not mandatory? Seriously, it’s important to know that students don’t always read sentences the way we meant them to, and it’s just as important to write course policies clearly as it is to word-smith our test questions.

2. I will provide more small-stakes practice assignments. I will, of course, make sure that if they are mandatory, I will be quite explicit about that fact. My plan, only partially formed, is to have daily assignments (online, auto-graded) that are available only for 24 hours, to encourage students to check in online every day and recharge their content familiarity. I’ll drop enough of them to not penalize students who can’t get online every day (and to reduce complaints that I have to respond to). I’ll make them comprehensive, to help students review and rehearse the quickly-accumulating load of anatomical terms and physiological concepts.

3. I will post more short videos. Students apparently like to know that I am out here, telling them what they have to know, and apparently, sending emails and posting text announcements isn’t as effective as posting videos, according to course-end feedback. Teaching is a particularly human endeavor, so anything I can do to enhance that human contact will add intrinsic value to my online course communications, even for my face-to-face courses.

4. I will provide more choices in what students can complete for a grade. According to my course-end survey, the most valuable and popular course assignment is the discussion. Except that in the same survey, discussion is the least effective and least valuable assignment. Ditto for every other course assignment category. So, providing choices and allowing students to choose the type of assignment that resonates with them will be more likely to meet their needs. I’ve read recently that allowing student choice in assignment type increases engagement and satisfaction and can improve student outcomes.

5. I will provide feedback on student mastery. According to some of my students, my standards are unrealistically high and I expect too much out of them. This, from students who don’t answer the simple, direct questions I ask, and skip the easy and/or optional assignments. But, I can at least let them know whether the work they turn in meets standard expectations of college-level work. This is an opportunity to use the HAPS Outcomes, so students know it’s not just me that expects them to know this stuff.

6. I will try to remember that my course is not my students’ highest priority. This one is tough, so all I can resolve is to try. Students come to us with a mixed set of skills, and an assortment of competing claims on their time. I know that my course, while important to them, is not the most important priority for them, and I shouldn’t penalize them for not loving A&P the way I do.

I look forward to hearing your suggestions for other resolutions. What have you gleaned from your students this semester that motivates you to make changes for your spring courses?