Published: April 8, 2013

Fiber tracts

Image of Fiber Tracts from Heisler's PowerPoint slides

“A lot of students come in thinking that anatomy is all about memorization,” says CU Professor Ruth Heisler as she clicks through a series of animated slides that illustrate the structure of the brain with gradually increasing detail. “But it doesn’t have to be. If you go about it in the right way, you can see patterns in what you’re learning. A lot of what I do is to help students see and understand those patterns.”

Ruth Heisler has been teaching Basic Anatomy since 1996. While many seasoned professors rely on the same presentations year-after-year, Heisler still spends five to six hours preparing for every lecture, obsessively tweaking the wording of a homework assignment or the layout of a slide to better facilitate learning. And her hard work has clearly made an impact on her students: Heisler is one of twelve talented CU educators to win a 2013 ASSETT Outstanding Teaching Award.

“Professor Heisler is one of the best teachers I’ve had in all my education ever,” said one enthusiastic student. “[She] brought fantastic animations and videos to support her lectures, and made all lecture, pre-homework, and sample questions easily downloadable.” The student praised Heisler’s creative class assignments, her generosity, and her willingness to help students outside of the classroom.

To be clear, Heisler describes herself as “a moderate” who doesn’t always adopt the latest technology trends. She chooses her tools carefully, basing her decisions on the specific needs of her students, and her most successful innovations are often the least complicated. PowerPoint isn’t exactly a new educational tool, but Heisler’s subtly animated slides help her students to digest material step-by-step, focusing on systems within the body instead of overwhelming the students with too many unfamiliar terms all at once.

Fiber tracts in the human brain

Image of Fiber Tracts from Heisler's PowerPoint slides

“My goal is to reduce cognitive overload,” says Heisler, explaining that she uses technology not in an attention-grabbing way, but rather to communicate ideas as clearly as possible. Heisler uses the anatomy texbook program Mastering Anatomy and Physiology to assign interactive homework assignments. She also incorporates videos that she finds on the internet to engage students who are visual learners. Heisler designs her lectures and assignments to simplify concepts and to help her students focus. “I’m continually making changes to my lectures,” she says. “And thinking through the best way to do it based on what worked and what didn’t work in previous years.”

In addition to her lecture classes, Heisler is also working with Human Anatomy Lab coordinator Stephen Hobbs to restructure the lab experience. “The students get to work with real cadavers,” says Heisler. “Which is really great. But most students have very little time in the lab.” In order to help maximize their ability to focus on the dissections during lab time, Heisler has developed a series of online preparatory assignments and quizes.

These assignments are designed so that students can test themselves on the material remotely before coming to class. That way, instead of grappling with brand new information, students can spend their lab time teaching each other and interacting with the physical body. “We’re flipping the lab, really,” says Heisler. “This is our first semester testing the program, and we’ve had a good response from our students already. We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without digital communication.”

If Heisler’s method teaches us a lesson, it is that using student feedback to continuously improve teaching is more important than using the most cutting-edge technological tools. “You need to really find out what works for your students, fine tuning things as you go. I’ve been surprised by things that have worked and things that haven’t worked,” she says. “Students all have different learning styles. For example, I really encourage them to take hand-written notes, but that doesn’t work for everyone. I think it helps with information retention, but the digital learning materials are important too. The students who do best are the ones who take advantage of the digital materials and who take notes.”

Heisler applies the same philosophy of balance to her own teaching. She uses iClickers sparingly and only when they can facilitate discussion. She keeps her presentations simple and creates slides using PowerPoint, but incorporates animation and video to make presentations more visually engaging. She encourages hands-on interaction in the lab, but supplements that experience with digital preparatory assignments.

In the end, it’s the little things that matter most. With sixteen years of teaching experience, Heisler knows that even a small revision to the structure of a slide or the wording of an assignment can make the difference in whether or not a student understands a system, and she isn’t afraid to try something new if she thinks it may help her students learn. Just as the human body has to be continuously assessed, cared for, and exercised in order to remain in top form, so does an educator's teaching approach.

Article by: Ashley E Williams