Janet Casagrand

Integrative Physiology

Course context:

The course I taught was IPHY 3470: Human Physiology 1 with approximately 190 students.

Target of improvement/evidence:

Students enter IPHY 3470 thinking that all they need to do to succeed in the course is memorize information. This has been a successful strategy for them in most of their previous science courses. However, my goal for my students is to develop a more conceptual understanding of how body systems work, and what happens when drugs or illness cause changes to the systems. Thus, students need to develop critical thinking skills that allow them to apply information to solve problems.  This leads to two areas for improvement – attitude and skill development. Students need to understand the importance of developing these skills, and want to develop them. Students also need to learn how to do this, and a lack of effective study, test-taking and critical thinking skills can serve as a bottleneck.

What I did:

The purpose of this study was twofold: (1) to determine what study strategies students favored when entering the course, and whether those strategies differed at the end of the course; and (2) to investigate student attitudes on critical thinking, and whether those attitudes differed at the end of the course. To address this, I administered a survey at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester that collected:

  • General information about students (major, year, career goal),
  • Attitudes about physiology and what learning looks like,
  • Attitudes about critical thinking, and
  • Study and test-taking skills.

I also explicitly talked about study strategies in class, especially leading up to, and after, the first exam. In addition, I posted these suggestions on the course website and talked individually with students during office hours. To help students better appreciate the importance and benefits of using the course learning goals to guide their study, I also spent some lecture time to show students several learning goals, an example of a homework problem addressing this goal, and then the exam question that assessed the goal.

What I learned:

Survey demographics: The course population was comprised of 35% sophomores, 50% juniors, 13% seniors, and 2% other/non-degree students, with 75% IPHY only majors, and 24% IPHY and another major. Ninety-five percent of students were interested in entering a health-related field, 3% research, 1% teaching, and 1% business/engineering. The response rate was 89% for both surveys (n=171, 162).

Study strategies: Students favored more passive study strategies at the beginning of the semester. The use of flashcards was the students’ third most popular study strategy, with reading over notes/textbook/course materials as the number one strategy, and using the homework questions as a study tool as the number two strategy. At the end of the semester, there was a shift to using more active study strategies, and the use of flashcards dropped to the least favored study strategy. In addition, use of learning goals as a study strategy went from sixth place at the beginning of the semester to become the third most used study strategy at the end of the semester. Reading over notes/textbook/course materials remained the number one strategy, and using the homework questions as a study tool remained the number two strategy.

I did find on the post-survey that 20% of students reported changing their study or test-taking strategies a lot, and 61% a little.  Forty-seven percent of students reported getting their strategies from me talking about strategies during lecture, and 15% from office hours. (32% of students reported getting their strategies from a fellow student.) Most students who changed their strategies saw improved exam scores, with 36% improving a letter grade or more. Many students’ motivation/interest in physiology also increased (45% agreed or strongly agreed that their motivation/interest increased and 44% were neutral).

Critical thinking: At the start of the semester the majority of students strongly agreed or agreed that defining terms and explaining concepts meant they understood a physiological concept.  By the end of the semester, however, their attitudes about what it meant to understand physiology shifted with the majority of students now strongly agreeing or agreeing that applying knowledge, predicting outcomes, and analyzing data meant they understood a physiological concept. Furthermore, by the end of the semester, student attitudes about whether it was important to solve problems and think critically in order to learn physiology had shifted more heavily towards strongly agree. Students also positively shifted their attitudes regarding the presence of critical thinking in an undergraduate course to more strongly agree by the end of the semester when compared to their attitudes taken at the beginning of the semester.


Previous research suggests that time spent studying does not correlate with exam performance, while percentage of active study strategies used does (for ex., see Tomes et al. 2011; Perlman et al. 2007). Students often do not utilize (and may be unaware of) more effective (i.e., active) study strategies. Students’ performance on exams can improve dramatically (a letter grade or more) when they adjust their study strategies, and their motivation/interest in studying the topic can also increase. Students benefit from instructors discussing study and test-taking strategies. In addition, student experience with critical thinking in a course can also positively impact their attitudes regarding critical thinking and its role in undergraduate courses.


Perlman B, McCann, II, Prust A (2007)  Students’ grades and ratings of perceived effectiveness of behaviors influencing academic performance. Teaching of Psychology 34:236-240.

Tomes JL, Wasylkiw  L, & Mockler B (2011) Studying for success: diaries of students’ study behaviours. Educational Research & Evaluation: An International Journal on Theory and Practice 17(1): 1-12.


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