“The Wave” – Neuron Action Potential Propagation

Some of our most popular blog posts describe teaching tips developed by HAPS members. We choose a handful of these to publish on the blog, but there are hundreds of tips that have been collected over the years. These little snippets are being linked to the HAPS A&P learning outcomes and posted to the HAPS website, for members only. So join HAPS now, and get access to many more teaching tips like this one.

Enjoy this teaching tip from HAPS Past President, Terry Thompson.


  1. Engage students with a kinesthetic demonstration of the action potential “wave” with ions moving in or out of membrane channels
  2. Generate visual memory tools to help students’ learning and long-term understanding
  3. Motivate critical thinking by having students analyze and evaluate various components of the activity as a model of the physiological events


  • Color-coded cards: multiple cards with Na+/K+ on opposite sides; one card with ACh/Ca2+ on opposite sides; one card with neuron cell body/synaptic end bulb on opposite sides. Can use cardstock or plastic protective sleeves. Use large font to fill single page.


  1. Line students up facing class (or each other if using two lines). Explain that students will represent the axolemma: phosphate “head”, lipid “legs”, voltage-gated channels “arms”.
  2. Give each student a Na+/K+ card and review relative concentration of each ion extracellular and intracellular. Designate: above “heads” as extracellular and floor as intracellular; right hand as voltage-gated Na+ channel and left hand as voltage-gated K+ channel. Start with Na+ card held toward observers, above their heads, in right hand.
  3. Demonstrate the depolarization/repolarization cycle by bringing Na+ card down in front of body, flipping K+ side toward observers as pass to left hand, then move above head.  Have all the students practice this synchronously until they feel comfortable, saying “depolarize” and “repolarize” out loud to help.  Discuss the electrogenic activity of the Na+/K+-ATPase pump as it relates to this kinesthetic demonstration.
  4. Review continuous conduction and challenge them to now complete the same movements but this time in sequence, like the “wave” in a stadium.  Show the “neuron cell body” and “ACh” cards and discuss what initiates the impulse.  Can elaborate on difference between ligand-gated and voltage-gated channels; graded potential, threshold, and action potential; neurotransmitter for motor neuron or other neurons; dendrites, soma and axon hillock; etc.  Students will often come up with ideas of ways you could include other elements in the demonstration, or at least evaluate and understand what this particular activity as a model is NOT showing.
  5. “Start” the first person in line by saying “threshold”, and allow the “wave” to progress down the axon.  This usually elicits lots of laughing and suggestions from the audience.  Allow them to repeat until they produce a reasonable “wave”, starting each with a threshold stimulus.
  6. Finally as a reasonable “wave” is progressing down the line, run to the other end and flip your cards to show synaptic end bulb and hold the Ca2+ card above your head.  When the wave reaches you, bring the Ca2+ down and flip to ACh, passing it above your head for release of neurotransmitter at synapse with muscle or another neuron.  Discuss this added activity to the model as a way to summarize the activity.
  7. Extensions can include discussing what parts of this demonstration could be improved on or don’t accurately reflect the physiology.  Can also discuss what would need to be changed to demonstrate saltatory conduction instead of continuous conduction.

NOTE: This activity was also presented by Terry Thompson at 2016 HAPS Atlanta Conference as part of the group workshop entitled “Add Drama to Your Classroom – Great Kinesthetic Activities for Students.”

Join us in Columbus!

Join us in Columbus for the HAPS annual conference!
Join us in Columbus for the HAPS annual conference!

Looking to meet other A&P instructors and exchange ideas regarding A&P teaching?! Want to learn more about A&P educational products and technology?!  And want to have some fun?!  Look no further!!!  The 2018 HAPS Annual Meeting is being held in Columbus, Ohio from May 26 through May 30.

The first two full conference days at the Greater Columbus Convention Center will include update speakers from a number of organizations including the American Association of Anatomists (AAA), American Physiological Society (APS), American Society for Microbiology (ASM), and The Ohio State University College of Medicine (OSU-COM). There will also be other activities at this location, including presentations of scientific posters, tables of interesting things from exhibitors, and lively social events.  Additionally, during these first two days, we will highlight graduate student research with elevator talks by a number of graduate students, as well as conduct a Women in A&P Panel Discussion. As your conference planners, we’ve put together an engaging and stimulating first two days!

The last two days of the conference will be held at OSU-College of Medicine and will include workshops presented by your fellow HAPSters — with some of these workshops even being held in the cadaver lab.

Go Buckeyes!

There are also two post-conference events scheduled for Thursday May 31, including a hands on head and neck anatomy prosection course. And of course, no visit to Columbus is complete without a visit to the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium. Visit the zoo with HAPS on May 31, and you’ll be privy to some special talks! (It pays to be a HAPSter!)

Conference registration and additional information can be found on the HAPS website!

We look forward to seeing you in Columbus, Ohio in May 2018!

Teaching Histology Without a Microscope

This quarter I am teaching a histology unit without a microscopy lab. Wait, histology without microscopes… what!?!? I have never experienced a histology course without a lab component and when I first heard this I was very surprised. How do you teach histology without microscopes? What about the concept of magnification? Isn’t operating a microscope a necessary skill? Then I read a couple of journal articles and considered the merits of a purely virtual histology course.

Everyone loves histology! (Image accessed on 3/18/18 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oligoastrocytoma_histology_HE.jpg)
Everyone loves histology! (Image accessed from wikimedia on 3/18/18)

Unless they are involved in a research project requiring optical microscopy or a pathologist analyzing samples, how frequently does the average researcher or medical professional actually use a light microscope? Could time spent practicing optical microscopy be better used learning other skills more relevant to their studies? Maybe career specific workshops or SPSS training? Microscopes are expensive and require upkeep. Could funds instead be used for resources needed in other courses. *cough cough Gross Anatomy cough*

Virtual microscopy is much more efficient for an institution and the students. A college or university could collect a large bank of images that can be updated continuously and won’t deteriorate over time. Online and long distance students are able to fully participate in labs. Slides can be shared rapidly between institutions without risking damaged or lost mail. Instructors can draw on slides to highlight structures without damaging them and students can compare slides of different magnifications or staining techniques side by side.

Histology curriculum often focuses on identifying structures in tissues and relating cell biology to the function of organ systems more than manual lab work. Students could practice reading slides as part of an active learning activity instead. Could microscopy be a workshop or research elective? Training would still be available for students, but only if they are planning to use this skill. This way students genuinely interested in microscopy could receive more individual attention from faculty.

So really, if you consider it, are students losing that much in a histology unit without a microscope? The course I am teaching is “Cell and Tissue Structure and Function.” It is part of the Biochemistry department. Students learn biochemistry and cell biology for the first seven weeks and end with a histology unit from me. We covered the four basic tissue types, integument, circulatory system, cartilage, and bone. The course is part of a physical therapy program. A laboratory component may be important in a course designed for future histologists, but these are physical therapy students. My lectures are packed with images, I have a workshop day set aside to practice analyzing slides, and I think they’ll be okay. 

These are some of the papers I read while thinking about this change:

Mione, S., Valcke, M., & Cornelissen, M. (2013). Evaluation of virtual microscopy in medical histology teaching. Anatomical Sciences Education, 6(5), 307-315.

Mione, S., Valcke, M., & Cornelissen, M. (2016). Remote histology learning from static versus dynamic microscopic images. Anatomical Sciences Education, 9(3), 222-230.

Thompson, A. R., & Lowrie, D. J.,Jr. (2017). An evaluation of outcomes following the replacement of traditional histology laboratories with self-study modules. Anatomical Sciences Education, 10(3), 276-285.

Post comes from Julie Doll, MS, Anatomy Instructor in the Department of Anatomy for Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine at Midwestern University. 

Quick analogy for subclavian artery name changes

Although it is not a particularly difficult concept, sometimes students have trouble remembering the different names that the subclavian artery takes on as it passes through the superior mediastinum and base of the neck into the axilla (as the axillary artery) and arm (as the brachial artery), or they don’t quite get that it is the same vessel with three different names.

Every one of my students has to drive along these roads to get to school.
Every one of my students has to drive along these roads to get to school.

One thing I do in lecture and lab is to analogize this name change using name changes for streets in town. Fortunately, I work at a university (Benedictine University in Lisle, IL) that is situated on a road (College Road) that changes name to the north (Yackley Avenue) and to the south (Wehrli Road) without changing direction appreciably. Every student has to drive along these roads to get to school. I tell my students that the subclavian artery is like Yackley Avenue, and when it crosses the lateral edge of the first rib (in this analogy, Maple Avenue, see Figure), it changes name to the axillary artery (College Avenue); it changes name again after crossing the inferior margin of the teres major muscle (Hobson Road, see Figure), at which point it becomes the brachial artery (Wehrli Road). I would wager that many (most?) towns in the United States have roads that change names in the same way, so that the analogy could be adapted to local conditions. A particularly good example, in Washington, DC, is Constitution Avenue, which starts as I-66E, changes to US-50E/Constitution Avenue after crossing Roosevelt Bridge, and then turns into Maryland Avenue after crossing 2nd Street NE.

Of course, every semester the students and I question the sanity of anatomists and city planners alike for changing a perfectly good name again and again. I wonder how many students, driving home from my anatomy class, are thinking about the different names for the main artery of the upper limb as they drive along Yackley Avenue/College Road/Wehrli Road?

Robert McCarthy is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Benedictine University in Lisle, IL, where he teaches human anatomy and evolution to undergraduate biology and health science students. Robert is a biological anthropologist who studies the evolution of speech and language, the primate skull, hominin evolution, and human anatomic variation.

Introducing… the HAPS Anatomy Learning Outcomes!

In the early 2000s, the HAPS Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) committee embarked on a multi-year project that resulted in the development of HAPS Anatomy & Physiology (A&P) learning outcomes.  These learning outcomes were developed for 2-semester human A&P courses, and served as a benchmark for instructors who are currently teaching A&P courses, or as a guide for those individuals developing new A&P courses.  These learning outcomes were well received, and many publishers have since adopted or incorporated these outcomes into their own learning materials.  In addition, the HAPS Comprehensive A&P exam questions were developed by mapping to these learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, the A&P learning outcomes are not as useful for those of us who teach stand-alone anatomy (or stand-alone physiology) courses.  A new set of learning outcomes needed to be developed for each of these stand-alone courses.  With that in mind, the HAPS Testing Committee embarked on a multi-year project to create and develop the HAPS Anatomy Learning Outcomes.

Why the HAPS Testing committee and not the C&I committee, you ask?  We quickly realized that anatomy-specific learning outcomes needed to be developed by individuals who teach stand-alone anatomy courses – and most of the C&I members did not teach such a course, whereas many members of the HAPS Testing committee did.  In addition, the HAPS Testing committee also has the goal of creating a HAPS anatomy-specific comprehensive exam – but before an exam could be created, the learning outcomes needed to be fleshed out.

The process of creating anatomy-specific learning outcomes involved multiple revision cycles involving members of the Testing Committee as well as members of the Anatomy Testing task force (experts charged with the task of developing the HAPS anatomy exam, under the purview of the HAPS Exam Program).  We used the HAPS A&P learning outcomes as a template, but ensured the learning outcomes were written with a stand-alone anatomy course in mind.  We greatly appreciate the assistance of ADInstruments, as they helped fund several off-site meetings with the task force in order to finalize these learning outcomes.  We completed our task in early 2018 and introduce to you all – the HAPS anatomy learning outcomes!  Please visit the website to learn more and download the outcomes.

As with the A&P learning outcomes, the HAPS Anatomy learning outcomes are to serve as a guide and benchmark only.  We do not expect all anatomy instructors to cover every single learning outcome, they may address the learning outcomes in whatever order they like, and they are welcome to include additional learning outcomes in their own courses.

We hope you find these learning outcomes of use in your anatomy courses! Many thanks to the HAPS testing committee members and the HAPS anatomy exam panel for their hard work in this effort.

Go to the Anatomy Learning Outcomes now

HAPS Exam Demonstrates Comparability Across Teaching Modalities

This week's post comes from HAPSter Susan McDonald.
Meet HAPSter Susan McDonald of Western Iowa Tech Community College.

Administrators and faculty have questioned the effectiveness of online, hybrid and dual credit sections of a course as opposed to a traditional face to face section.  The opinion voiced most often is that the online and dual credit sections cannot begin to equal the learning in a traditional face to face classroom.  Indeed, in our era of transparency in education, this question has arisen amongst state and federal education agencies as well as the administrative offices of colleges and universities.  Studies have been conducted to compare modalities of delivery effects on student satisfaction, student retention, GPAs, as well as other parameters.

To address this question, Western Iowa Tech Community College Science Department in Sioux City, IA implemented a common assessment requirement for Human Anatomy & Physiology I and II.  Initially the A&P common assessment consisted of an in-house exam created by full-time A&P Instructors.  When HAPS re-created the comprehensive final exam and piloted A&P I and A&P II versions of the exam in 2014, WITCC students participated in the pilot.  WITCC’s choice for separate A&P I and II exams was based on the observation that not all students complete their 2 semesters sequentially.  Occasionally students begin their study of Anatomy & Physiology while to complete coursework during their wait to be admitted.  Occasionally a student is accepted into their program more quickly than expected resulting in the withdrawal of the student from the second semester to focus more completely on their program specific courses.  

WITCC’s results for semesters where all A&P students were tested included traditional face to face classes, hybrid sections where the students are provided an hour of lecture and 2 hours of lab per week, league classes which are dual credit high school students where the high school instructor is also the college instructor, hybrid league classes where there is both a college instructor and a high school instructor, and online students from WITCC only.    Below is a graph of all of the data for the modalities  demonstrating the comparability of instruction between the modalities.  In addition to the scores and test statistics, users of the exams are provided statistics for all of the exams twice a year in June and again in December.  These statistics are provided by school type such as 4-year college, 2-year college, technical college, etc.  It is helpful to be able to compare my student performance with that of the students in other colleges similar to mine.2-12-18

The effects of course delivery modality on student satisfaction and retention and GPA in on-site vs. hybrid courses

A Comparison of Teaching Modalities for Student Success http://zone2.asee.org/papers/proceedings/3/56.pdf

Comparing Student Performance in Online and Face-to-face Delivery Modalities  https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1030563.pdf

The HAPS Standardized Exam, Course Performance and Subsequent Professional School Performance

In 2014, when I was teaching at a school of nursing, I was asked to develop a Human Anatomy and Physiology course sequence for undergraduates at our university who were interested in pursuing a degree in nursing.  Human Anatomy and Physiology was required for admission to our school, and we were interested in attracting more undergraduates from our university.  We wanted to make these undergraduates more aware of nursing as a possible career path, particularly bright students who already expressed an interest in science.  Additionally, we were seeing that many students who matriculated into our traditional BSN program (to obtain a first bachelor’s degree) either were not well prepared, or seemed to have forgotten a significant portion of their basic science coursework.  A colleague and I developed a pilot course that combined Human Anatomy and Physiology II (a common nursing prerequisite course) with Health Assessment (a course that is often offered early in the professional nursing curriculum) into a novel course that we called Physical Assessment:  Normal Human Form and Function.  Students in this novel course would take the traditional Human Anatomy and Physiology II lecture but would have a separate lab where the Health Assessment skills would be taught.  We got approval from our university’s IRB, and also from our School’s curriculum committee.  We obtained funding through a small grant from our university’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, and funds from the Center for Science Education.  Our pilot course launched in the spring of 2016 with 10 students.

Our hypothesis was that students who participated in the pilot offering of this novel course would demonstrate improved learning of the basic anatomy and physiology concepts, as well as better retention of these concepts, than students who did not participate in the innovative pilot course.  We used the HAPS standardized exam as a pre-test / post-test to measure students’ improvement from the beginning of the course sequence (August 2015) to the end (May 2016).   We found that all students had significantly improved post-test scores on the HAPS exam when compared to the pre-test scores.  We did see that participants in our pilot study did outscore non-participants in terms of exam scores, overall course scores and HAPS exam scores.  These students appeared to be more satisfied with their overall experience.  Further, participants also appeared to have stronger course scores in Pathophysiology, the first science course they encountered as professional nursing students, than non-participants.  We noted a correlation between the learning gains on the HAPS exam and scores in Pathophysiology – this may be the first observation of correlation of pre-professional coursework performance with professional performance.  Our pilot course experience resulted in a poster presentation at the 2017 annual HAPS meeting in Salt Lake City.

The biggest limitation of our study was the small sample size – our pilot cohort was 10 students.  We chose the students in this cohort carefully for this first iteration in an attempt to minimize the potential disruption to their entry and progression through a professional nursing curriculum (ie, we chose students that appeared likely to be successful).  Thus, we cannot generalize our results widely to pre-nursing students, and we cannot rule out the possibility that the participants would have out-scored their non-participant counterparts in any case.  

There were several challenges specifically associated with the HAPS exam we faced as we developed this course.  One challenge was the cost of the HAPS exam – about $10 per student.  Since we opted to use the exam as a pre-test / post-test assessment, we needed $20 per student to obtain this data.  Funding from the CFDE / Center for Science Education covered the cost of the exams.  Another challenge in the use of the HAPS exam was that it is completely online.  One required element in administering the exam is a professionally-supported computer lab.  Students were not allowed to use their own computers, and there is no compatibility with any “lock-down browser” mechanisms that would prevent students from accessing online resources during the exam.  While our school of nursing still had a computer lab, many schools have stopped supporting these in lieu of having students provide their own computers.  Some students taking the HAPS exam at the beginning of the academic year expressed their anxiety when viewing their scores, and some dropped the course shortly afterward.  Additionally, we did not include an incentive for students to perform to their best ability on either the pre-test or the post-test, which may have indicated that their HAPS exam score was not important.

This post comes from Dr. Ann Massey, PhD, Senior Lecturer for the Department of Cellular Biology at The University of Georgia.