Ruth Heisler

Integrative Physiology

CVA Bottleneck Results

Students have a tendency to want to regurgitate what they have learned instead of synthesize it into the bigger picture.   I want them to see the way in which the tissues and systems connect with one another, and in so doing eliminate the need to rememorize the same information over with each system, not realizing they already know it!


At the beginning of the semester, I chose several different methods to address bottlenecks in the course.  Having never taught the course before, these were hypothesized problems which I think were fairly realistic.  Overall, I felt the methods I used were effective.  However, as a first time course the time I had to invest in each lecture did have an impact on how frequently and effectively I was able to implement my plan.  The results were mixed, but having these tools in hand as I developed the course was great.  I feel I can build from what I learned, and continue to work on my goals with the students in mind. 


Below are each of my original ideas, with the results described below each in red. 


#1.  Getting them to realize the importance of learning the basic information so that they can build from it.


IDEA:  Demonstrating how the information will be used when talking about systems later in the semester.  May be a case study?

1 minute paper ideas:  Ask them to identify what is similar about the epithelial types of the digestive system.  Ask them to identify what is similar about all fish scales.  What similarities did you see in todays lecture about the vertebrate stomach and last weeks lecture about the heart?  Focus on SIMILARITIES since the tendency in this course is to follow the changes.

I tried this a few times within topic areas where there was similar types of information repeated throughout the different organs, and it worked well with that particular subset of material.  Digestive system was one where this proved helpful in helping them organize information.


#2.  Getting them to think about the big picture and get away from just memorizing.

10 MINUTE take-away question:  Work in groups of 2 or 3 on a problem similar to what might be on an exam.  Have them turn it in before they leave.  At the start of the next lecture show all of their answers (anonymously) and have them rank them in order of best to worst.  And then talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each answer.  Maybe do this 3 or 4 times throughout the semester.

I did this early in the semester when we were working on evolutionary trees/clades and I found many blank stares, as I would ask them to help me recreate certain clades on the chalkboard.  In groups of 2, I asked them to create a vertebrate clade that depicted the major characteristics that defined each group.   This was a major goal in the course, and I found this exercise to be very helpful for me and them.  I discovered rather quickly who had the grasp of what a clade was, who had a grasp of what characteristics defined these groups, and who understood the major classifications (amniotes vs anamniotes, etc).  We spent time going through the results, and clarifying many misconceptions as well as revisiting key pieces of information.   Several of the students commented on how helpful it was to do this.


#3.  The preclass survey is a definite starting point for my class. I need to find the baseline. How much developmental biology do they know? Are the terms ectoderm, endoderm, mesoderm familiar to them—> and do they understand the developmental importance of these layers? What are they hoping to learn from this class? What do they think this class is about?

        What is your major?

        Why are you taking this class?

        What do you think this class is about?

Do you know the 3 primary germ layers that form in an embryo?  If so, can you list them and describe the importance of each?

What defines a vertebrate?

What knowledge base do you hope to walk away with at the end of the semester?

Of the following topics, rank them in order of what you are most interested in (1) to least interested in (5):

                _____   Evolutionary changes in body design (ie how has the respiratory system  design                                      evolved from the fishes to the mammals)

                _____  Purpose of each anatomical system

                _____  Parts and pieces (organization) of each anatomical system

                _____  Common cells and tissue types of animals

                _____  The evolutionary relationship among all vertebrates

        The preclass survey was very information, but not necessarily that useful.   I discovered that the background of the students varied considerably, and the target group we had hoped to attract to this course was the minority.  The majority of the students had taken Human Anatomy,  and the focus of this course was as an alternative course for Human Anatomy----so for these students there was overlap.  I couldn’t avoid the overlap because the goals of this course had already been set, and I had to be sure to provide the basic anatomy for the students who had NOT taken Human Anatomy.  However, knowing this information ahead of time allowed me to stress the comparative anatomy a little more as a way increase the interest for those who had a stronger anatomy background. 

#4  I have a major luxury in this course of only having 10 students enrolled.  This presents me with an opportunity to give almost instantaneous feedback in the form of asking them to pre-grade each others quizzes and talk through what was right and wrong. This would most easily be implemented in lab where most of the questions are purely ID.

I changed this up a little.  I realized that the quizzes/exams where too lengthy to deal with in class, and the grading too subjective if left to the students.  However, I found the instant feedback possible after each lab exam.  At the conclusion of the lab exam, we went around to each of the 50 questions and the students answered each one.  If there was disagreement as to what the structure was, I usually let them work it out amongst themselves, and the results were very positive.  Students were able to visualize which questions they got wrong, and the peer learning aspect was helpful.  After each lab practical, I usually have students questioning my grade of a particular structure which is difficult because by the time they get their exams back the question can longer be viewed.  However, this semester, I NEVER had a student come to me with their graded lab exam and question why they got something wrong.

#5. On days when I feel the class is particularly lost or looking distracted, asking them to submit a 1 minute paper on what concepts they found confusing or what it is they are struggling with.

        See #1 above.

#6.  I want to encourage their curiosity, and use the knowledge base gained during the semester to satisfy their curiosity. I will have the last week of the semester for them to present on their research into one adaptation found in a living vertebrate. What is the adaptation, and how did it come to be? What anatomical features allow for it?  The question is how to make this a rewarding and exciting experience.  Make it just a presentation---no paper.  

This worked really well.  Most of the students were very invested in choosing a “cool” topic, and the results were mostly very good.  They seemed to appreciate that they were teaching ME something.  I gave them a handout mid-way through the semester on what I expected to see in each presentation, and we talked about what they liked about powerpoints in their classes, and what they disliked about powerpoints.  We talked about how to animate a slide, how to cut down on too much text, and the importance of visuals.  I inadvertently learned something as well.  When asked if there was any extra credit, I decided to allow them to turn in a paper on their topic for which they could earn up to 5 EC points.  Half the students took me up on this----and these were the best presentations by far.  It may be that these were the more motivated students to begin with, or perhaps writing the paper forced them to better focus their thoughts----or a combination of the above. 

I also requested that they turn in 2 well thought out exam questions with the incentive that they might appear on the exam.  Answers had to be included.  I was surprised at how poorly written most of these questions were.  I think there may be room here to use writing questions as a way to explore their knowledge of a topic.

#7.  Eliminating Cognitive Overload.  This is something that I have looked at and tried to deal with in my Human Anatomy course.  Most anatomical figures are over-labeled, and students can’t focus on the one or two things being discussed.  So, as much as possible, I have removed extraneous information to help students focus.  My powerpoint slides are all animated so that the structure label or idea that I am discussing only appears when I am ready to discuss it.  I have found that this helps students to recognize the important topics of the day. 

I have found that this has become inherent in how I create my powerpoints---something I was pleased to discover.  My biggest challenge was FINDING images that I could use.  The textbook I used provided images for powerpoint, but they did not have editable labels.  I typically cropped out the labels because they were overpowering, and added my own back.  I typically spend 15 hours on researching, reading, and creating each 1 hr 15 min lecture.

I also was forced to include more text on slides because the room I was in did NOT provide an extra place to write as I spoke.  I found keeping the text to small snippets, as well as animating the slides helped to decrease the cognitive overload.  On the down side, because it was on the slide, I found students did not take many notes.  I don’t know if this hurt them----the class as a whole did very well even though I felt the material was adequately challenging. 






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