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?  


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.



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!


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.


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.

Teaching Tips and Learning Outcomes

Since 2003 HAPS members have been sharing teaching tips with each other through HAPS publications. Over the years these teaching tips were archived primarily in whole-publication pdf files of the HAPS Educator. While it was always exciting to see the tips each time a new edition of HAPS Educator was publish, what could you do if you remembered reading about a tip 3-5 (or maybe even 10) years ago? Go rummage through all the pdfs?

A related problem has to do with using the HAPS Learning Outcomes. These represent a vast amount of work and are an incredible resource for HAPS members as well as the broader community (most publishers and many programs have adopted the HAPS Learning Outcomes), but adopting them for your course can be daunting at first.

So we got together this Summer and solved both problems!

Super-HAPSter Kathy Burleson

First, HAPS member Kathy Burleson went through all the back issues of HAPS Educator and uncovered over 220 teaching tips reaching all the way back to 2003. She turned each teaching tip (known over the years as an “edu-snippet”) into a separate document and assigned each to a specific HAPS Learning Outcome. In some cases a tip was assigned to two or three Learning Outcomes.

Then we took all that information and made a website out of it. All the Learning Outcomes are listed in abbreviated form and ones that have associated teaching tips are colored green. At the same time all the teaching tips are listed for each major category of Learning Outcome are grouped where they can easily be browsed.

We added search features that search within each document, so a search for “artery” for example, will pull that term from within each teaching tip that uses it. This should prove to be very handy.

And finally there are short summaries of each teaching tip listed as comments that make it easy to focus on what you need.

Come check out the new site! Just click on the image above.

2017 HAPS-Thieme Award for Excellence in Teaching

Each year Thieme supports great teaching by supporting one of the largest scholarships that HAPS awards.  This is always a very difficult award to give, because HAPS is full of amazing educators.  This year’s winner was also the 2017 Conference Chair and hosted the conference at the University of Utah.  We all congratulate Mark Nielsen on his amazing teaching.  You can read more about Mark below.

Anne Kaiser of Thieme and HAPS President Terry Thompson with Mark Nielsen (center)


Mark Nielsen is a professor of anatomical sciences at the University of Utah where he has taught a wide variety of anatomy courses for the past thirty years. His teaching expertise includes comparative vertebrate anatomy, embryology, neuroanatomy, human anatomy, histology, and the history of anatomy. He has taught anatomy to over 30,000 students, which include undergraduates, medical students, physician assistant students, and massage therapy students. In teaching this diverse population of students he has been recognized as one of the outstanding teachers at the University, where he has received every recognized teaching award from both students and colleagues, some of them multiple times. He has also received a number of national teaching awards. He teaches demanding courses that exact high expectations of his students, but he teaches them how to navigate the details of anatomy through an understanding of principles and patterns of developmental and comparative anatomy. He loves to see students eyes light up as they learn to consume large quantities of information with the elegant patterns he shares with them. He has trained approximately 1,500 teaching assistants through his anatomy teaching program, many who have gone on to become outstanding teachers. He is also the author of numerous nationally and internationally recognized anatomy textbooks and software programs.


Don’t forget that as part of their support for HAPS members, Thieme offers 30% off and free shipping on their products using the code HAPS30 at checkout