“I Was Too Embarrassed”

Exploring the Reasons Students Don’t Engage with Instructors to Improve Performance

“I was too embarrassed. He would think I was stupid,” replied my private tutoring client. This was her only response to why she did not meet with her professor after failing every exam the first time she took A&P 2 at a nearby university. I told her that most professors I know don’t assume that you are unintelligent if you’re struggling to understand material. The startling part of this exchange was her response to my reassurance, which was to ask, “Really?” She was genuinely surprised to hear that he would not assume she was an incapable student.

I didn’t think too much about this again until I picked up another student who also failed A&P 2 at a nearby community college. The story was the same, with a few added details. Despite failing 4 exams, no attempt was made to meet with the professor to discuss strategies for improvement. I asked her why. “Probably because I was embarrassed I did so poorly. I didn’t want to face my professor. Also, I didn’t think it would be helpful to go back and look, because reading the correct answers doesn’t really help matters if you don’t understand the content to begin with, so why make myself look stupid?” Now my curiosity was peaked. Is this how most students who don’t want to review and discuss their performance feel? Do they assume that they will either be judged, or that there’s nothing to be learned from seeing their mistakes? This might be especially true when exams are not cumulative. They may assume it’s better to just move on, in which case they are likely to repeat the same mistakes in preparing for the next assessment. It is easy to assume that only the students who are struggling will make appointments to review their performance, but from my experience, t’s usually the students hitting close to the average that view their exams, and the high and low scoring cohorts stay silent. The question then remains: Why would embarrassment stop a student from discussing their performance? Wouldn’t the desire to avoid more failure, or repeating a course, outweigh the risk?

Let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that you have created a supportive environment, you make yourself available, and when students do come, you provide constructive feedback that leaves them more confident and better prepared moving forward. However, the students who are struggling still don’t reach out. What else can, or should, an instructor do, for a student afraid of judgment? It is all too easy to write this off as a “silly” emotion, especially if you are a friendly, enthusiastic instructor (and I’ve never met a HAPSter who wasn’t!). However, after my experiences with the tutoring students over the summer, I decided to change up the language I used when I invited exams this academic year. I stressed the importance of failure in success.  I shared stories of my own academic struggles with students, stressing that some topics came naturally, and others were very hard to grasp, and took many hours of self-study outside the classroom to finally take hold. Finally, and what I feel made the biggest difference, I added the simple statement “please do not feel embarrassed to meet with me and review your exam” to my class email. The result? The number of my A&P students who came to review their midterms this year tripled from the five previous years.

For students, it does not always go without saying that we won’t judge their intelligence or ability. Say it. It takes almost no time, but you may see it make a big difference in the number of students who reach out for help. Do the easy things to get them in the door, and they may leave more self-directed, confident students. It may be hard for those of us who work in education to imagine letting embarrassment prevent us from getting better grades, but I’m sure that if we were all honest with ourselves, we could identify something we avoid because of fear of judgement. Students ultimately have to help themselves, but we can certainly help them get out of their own way.


Dr. Krista Rompolski is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Drexel University. 

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!   

Active Learning: A Practical Approach to Implementation

It’s likely that at this point I do not need to convince most of you that active learning can be highly beneficial to student learning.  There is a multitude of resources, including HAPS Educator articles, which discuss successful active learning in a variety of classroom settings.  But here’s the thing. With so many great ideas at our finger tips, where are we supposed to begin if we want to implement active learning in our own courses?  

GOALS

First, step back from the swarm of ideas swirling in your mind and reflect on your goals. What are the goals of your course (which may or may not be content-related)?  Your goals should shape the type of active learning exercise(s) you implement. Here’s what the participants at my workshop at the HAPS Annual Conference in May had to say about their goals with active learning:

Participants in a HAPS worskhop (May 2017) described their goals for active learning.
Participants in a HAPS worskhop (May 2017) described their goals for active learning.

 

PLAN

To ensure your efforts are manageable, start with just one or two sessions.  Upon successful implementation of the initial activity, you can build off it, or incorporating additional methods.  Allow enough time to develop the activity, implement it in class, and give yourself time afterward to assess and for providing student feedback if necessary.  Some (or all) of these steps can take a lot of time!

BUY-IN

This can be tough.  Students will sometimes resist the unfamiliar (i.e. not a standard lecture).  Be transparent.  Explain the goals of the activity, and if appropriate, share evidence to support the activity.  Ensure students that it is of the appropriate difficulty level for them and that you’re there to guide them.  Considering giving credit for participation, especially if it’s a regular part of class.  For more on this topic, check out the Cavannagh, et al. (2016) article or this blog post from Bryn Lutes at Washington University.

RESOURCES

Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers by Angelo and Cross is a book that will walk you through identifying your goals, selecting appropriate activities for those goals, and it gives you a detailed guide for implementation of the activities and assessment.  Assessment is a critical part of scholarly teaching!  How else will you know if the original goals were accomplished?

Technology.  A simple, yet effective means of incorporating small snippets of active learning into a lecture can be interactive questions.  Similar to “clicker” questions, there are many web-based platforms which enable faculty to easily incorporate interactive questions (multiple formats) into lectures.  It’s an opportunity to give the students practice retrieving informing, as well as allowing instructors to see where students are in their understanding of the material.

Some audience response systems allow students to touch the correct answer on an image, and the data for the whole class shows up as a heat map!
Some audience response systems allow students to touch the correct answer on an image, and the data for the whole class shows up as a heat map!

Low-tech options.  In lieu of all of the apps and high-tech options out there we sometimes forget that a marker board, or pen and paper can be effective tools.  Drawing or writing out a process in a way that is meaningful to students (and maybe incorporating a drawing) is an effective means to promote learning.  Get creative with other materials too!  Pull ‘n’ Peel Twizzlers make a great model of vascular supply, and playdoh, pipe cleaners, paper, etc. can be used to model many different body parts.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of resources available for us to use in teaching, I hope it helps you get started.  Establish your goals.  Pick an activity to meet those goals. Plan well, and don’t forget to include assessment!  Happy teaching!


Cavanagh, A.J.,  Aragón, O.R., Chen, X., Couch, B.A., Durham, M.F., Bobrownicki, A., Hanauer, D.I., & Graham, M.J. (2016). Student buy-in to active learning in a college science course. CBE Life Sci Educ 15(4).

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Adv Physiol Educ 30: 159-167.

Pierce, R., J. Fox. (2012). Vodcasts and active-learning exercises in a “flipped classroom” model of a renal pharmacotherapy module.  American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 76(10): 1-5.


Audra Schaefer is an Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology who teaches neuroanatomy and histology to first year medical students.  She oversee multiple systems-based integrated courses that are part of the first two years in the medical curriculum.  She also conducts educational research, with interests in metacognition, study skills and remediation.

Getting Them out of Their Funk

Muscles and bones, bones and muscles. How many times have my students learned the deltoid tuberosity in the bone unit, only to complain that they have to learn all these bone names as part of their muscle attachments?! Many of my students come in thinking they are going to simply learn the names of the bones, having little understanding that there is a whole world of terms for bone landmarks. To help my novice students become proficient, I have made two changes.

muscle-attachmentsHistorically, my labs followed a 2 week period of appendicular and then axial bones, followed by a 2 week period of appendicular and then axial muscles. My students scraped an average of around 67% on their weekly practical quizzes. They always did slightly better with their bones, and then much worse with their muscles in part due to that muscle attachment component. I wanted more, so I flipped to appendicular bones one week, followed by appendicular muscles the next week. Their averages went up to 78% for the unit, but I still got a little of the whining related to bone landmarks. Their scores were higher on bone weeks and lower on muscle weeks, so I switched to regional study of the body, bones and muscles of the leg one week, the arm the next and so forth.  For the last three years, my averages for this unit have settled around 75%, but the students are making the connections between bone landmarks and their muscle attachments.

muscle-to-attachmentI remember when I took A&P, my lab instructor handed me a Rubbermaid with the bones for that week and said, “Get to it!” I had the “luxury” of having previously taken  Comparative Anatomy class, so 5 of my peers worked with me to learn the material. Most of my peers left lab and were overwhelmed. So when I started teaching A&P, I tried to help the students whose strategies mimicked my classmates’, but I kept running into an almost total mental shut down the moment I handed out their term list for the week. So I made a second change. Now my labs have 6 stations and students spend about 15-20 minutes at each station. Each station has an objective, which also helps the students chunk up the material into manageable pieces.

skeletonJust what can you do at these stations? One is the dissection/prosection table with the cadaver or cat. One is a pile of bones and they have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again – recognizing left vs right and what the bone names are. Another station has a plastic skeleton with felt muscles and scotch tape to study origin, insertion, action. I have brought in Halloween skeleton decorations and asked the students to look for anatomical inconsistencies. Another table has a few bones with the goal of identifying the landmarks from their list of terms.

You may be thinking that this doesn’t get to every student, but I have noticed is I now have students who either pass their lab quiz well, or they really, really don’t pass. There aren’t so many in the middle. It tells me the students who are studying, vs not spending the time studying and I have fewer students who are all out “tanking with pride,” as I call it. It seems to be working. A student came to me yesterday and told me that she had attempted to take A&P at another institution, but she got so lost in all the material, she didn’t know where to start. She felt my lab set up helped her divide and conquer the content into manageable pieces.

It’s easy to become complacent with our students, and forget that sometimes our students need ideas presented in a way that helps them begin to categorize and learn the material. What is so simple to us may be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back for them.  It’s a lot of work to help our students figure out where to start and learn how to be a learner, but so rewarding when it works.


Nichole Warwick teaches biology at Clatsop Community College and is a proud member of the HAPS Communications Committee.

Join HAPS– for the conversations!

The HAPS Discussion group (also known as HAPS-L and before that as “the listserv”) is the place where the most interesting conversations in A&P are happening.  This discussion group has hundreds of members, is very active, and has often features amazingly high level conversations among leaders in the field.  This group was started in 1998 as an email listserv, and some still call it that, but it is a modern discussion group with email preferences and a web archive.  The HAPS discussion group is open to all current HAPS members and is one of the most valuable perks of membership.

This week, one discussion revolved around the most accurate classification of bone types. In this discussion, Mark Nielsen (University of Utah Anatomy Professor and winner of the 2017 HAPS-Theime Excellence in Teaching Award) shared multiple illuminating contributions to the conversation. Check out the excerpt below…and then imagine having content like THIS delivered to your email box on a regular basis.

WOW, there is a lot of interesting discussion going on here, this is one of the nice things about the HAPS listserve. It is always great to share and discuss. While I agree with many of the sage comments about classification and “does it really matter because the bones do not care or know where they fit in the scheme of things”, it is still important to recognize that there is correct and incorrect within a classification scheme. Following is the bases of the classification scheme:

Long bone = what is the one characteristic shared by long bones that none of the other bone types have, one thing and one thing only, a medullary cavity, and yes all the phalanges, even the small distal phalanges have a medullary cavity, as does the clavicle. The following bones have a medullary cavity:

  • clavicle
  • humerus
  • radius
  • ulna
  • metacarpals
  • proximal phalanges of hand
  • middle phalanges of hand
  • distal phalanges of hand
  • femur
  • tibia
  • fibula
  • metatarsals
  • proximal phalanges of foot
  • middle phalanges of foot
  • distal phalanges of foot

I believe someone stated that long bones are characterized because they have a diaphysis with proximal and distal epiphyses. This is not true. Many long bones only have epiphyses at one end and not the other. This is the case for many of the phalanges. Again, the characteristic that defines a long bone is the presence of a medullary cavity. Besides, many bones have epiphyses – for example, short bones and irregular bones have epiphyses.

Short bones = are characterized by a core of spongy bone with an outer covering of compact bone. They typically have a length, width, and depth that are approximately of equal dimensions. The carpal and tarsal bones are placed in this category.

Flat bones = the true flat bones of the body all reside in the skull, but the ribs are also often considered to fall in this category because their bone structure is similar to the flat bones of the skull. These are bones that are characterized by external and internal tables (laminae) of compact bone sandwiching dense trabecular diploe, the diploic spaces of the trabecular bone being filled with hemopoetic red marrow in the living subject. This would include the parietal bones, frontal bone, squamous portion of the occipital bone and temporal bone, sutural or wormian bones that are ossification centers that never fused with the fore mentioned bones.

Most of the remaining bones did not fit into one of these three categories. Like the short bones and flat bones all the remaining bones had an outer covering of compact bone and an internal core of spongy bone and no medullary cavity, but they were not short and they were not flat. This led to the next category that became the catch all:

Irregular bones = a variety of bone shapes consisting of an outer covering of compact bone and a central core of spongy bone, with some bone surfaces that are so flat and thin that they lack spongey bone completely e.g., the scapula, ethmoid. Most of the other bones fall in this category – vertebrae, the bones of the facial skeleton and inferior cranial vault bones, hyoid, malleus, incus, stapes, and the scapula and os coxae.

The final category is the sesamoid bones = these are bones that form within tendons. In human anatomy they are similar in bony structure to short bones but have a unique classification as sesamoid bones because of their location within tendons. In some other vertebrates they are very long slender bones within tendons.

One other recognized category is a pneumatized bone. These are bones that contain air spaces within their cores and can overlap with other categories. For example, the frontal bone is both a flat bone and a pneumatized bone. The ethmoid bone, sphenoid bone, and petromastoid part of the temporal bone are both irregular bones and pneumatized bones.

So there is a logic to classification and it is not a random thing that we can bend to our whims. We now have the choice to ignore it or teach it correctly.

So if you’re a HAPS member, by all means, join this discussion group. And if you’re not a member, JOIN HAPS so you can join the discussion group. (Then adjust your email settings, because most HAPSters have experienced the infamous “blown up email box” that results from some of the more rigorous conversations! Thankfully, executive director Peter English wrote a blog post with instructions for doing just that.)

No More “Syllabus Day!”

Before last fall, when I would start to plan out my first day of A&P, I always greatly underestimated the time it would take to go over the syllabus, class expectations, and introductions. Typically, I would plan all those activities to fit into 15 minutes, leaving plenty of time left in the class period to start Chapter 1. However, we all know the reality of first day time management – if we are lucky, we get through the introductions, syllabus, and course expectations. In fact, students count on this reality, calling the first day “Syllabus Day,” meaning nothing really happens.

Last summer while attending my first HAPS conference in Atlanta I met some wonderful people, and heard about what others did in their courses. Specifically, I learned how Brian Reid and other lab TAs from Georgia State University had lab syllabus quizzes that students had to complete in order to unlock other lab quizzes. In a workshop, Wendy Riggs shared her experiences making lecture videos and the importance of showing your face in the video so students feel you are talking to them.

I took the ideas of Brian and Wendy and decided to combine them to make an online syllabus video with an accompanying syllabus quiz. In my video (see screen shot below) I have three windows which I record through a full screen capture.

Screen Shot of a Syllabus Video
Screen Shot of a Syllabus Video

One window is a recording of myself (my least favorite part); a second window shows the course online platform (in my school’s case Canvas) so I can demonstrate where to access homework assignments, or view grades; and the third window has the syllabus document, which I walk through explaining everything from my office hours and contact information, to the course objectives, and the course policies (on attendance, homework grading, etc.). Accompanying the video is a 5-point online quiz, and the questions are written so that students need to look through the entire syllabus to find the answers. The quiz is set up for unlimited attempts, with no time limit, but it is graded all or nothing – students either get all the questions correct or they get a “0.” The last encouragement I give students is extra credit. One week before classes start, Canvas becomes available to all students; I send out an email to my students providing instructions on how to log on to Canvas and access the course. In this email I outline the first couple of assignments, including the syllabus quiz, which are due the second day of class. If students complete the syllabus quiz prior to the first day of class and they answer all the questions correctly, they can earn double points.

After making a syllabus video and assigning a syllabus quiz for a couple of semesters I have found that students tend to be readier on the first day as they have “met” me through the video, there is less anxiety because they know the format of the course, and much of the troubleshooting related to access to the online course page or getting the right textbook, etc, has already been dealt with. Having this assignment sent out before the start of class also helps me identify which students are not checking their school emails on a regular basis or are unable to log on to Canvas. By going over the syllabus before the start of class, I now have more time on the first day to start content related activities and utilize as much time as possible covering material.

While making these videos has increased my anxiety (e.g. is that really what I sound like?), the benefits make it worthwhile.


Post from Shanna Nifoussi, Ph.D, Assistant Professor in the School of Applied Science in the Natural and Applied Science Department at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts.

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.