Published: May 6, 2015

Low stakes assessments encourage students in Integrative Physiology Senior Instructor Ruth Heisler’s Human Anatomy class.  Heisler created the assessments through support from the ASSETT Teaching with Technology Seminar.  Watch her explain her tactic in her video below.

Human Anatomy is historically viewed as a memorization course that requires little in the way of critical thinking.  However, the repeating patterns and tissue organization of the body is actually very intuitive if one takes the time to ponder why our tissues are arranged the way they are. One of the biggest challenges I continue to encounter is moving students away from just memorization of the material, and instead developing their reasoning skill to help them deduce why a specific tissue type would be found associated with a particular organ.

Students who have generally managed to get through courses by memorizing and regurgitating information often have the most trouble in anatomy.  They become frustrated that their tried and true method of studying no longer works in a course with so much content.  We (myself and other instructors in the course) have tried multiple things to try and encourage students to move away from pure memorization.  Some of these approaches have included weekly homeworks with questions that promote integration of concepts; in class activities; surveys on their study habits; and starting each lecture with a study tip. I have had limited success.

The big problem is how to create a learning environment that promotes understanding rather than memorization ­­­­ in a large course.  Human Anatomy is full of terminology, organization of cells and tissues, and organ functions.  The general content that we cover has been well established by faculty in our department, and is pertinent to what students are expected to know in upper division classes. Assessments have been designed to reinforce the key concepts.  But the students who thrive in the course are those who recognize that memorization is not the best way to learn the material.  Convincing students that there is a more effective and efficient way to learn the material is my challenge.  I am looking for an intervention of study and learning habits.

My study skills intervention will involve low-­tech in-­class activities designed to engage students in a more interactive study approach that I want them to develop; combined with a slightly higher ­tech requirement that they must upload the final product of the activity to the course D2L page.

First, let me talk about what the activity will look like.  Once a week, at the start of lecture, I will ask the class to draw and label (to the best of their ability) an anatomical structure or tissue that was covered in the previous lecture.  For instance, I may ask them to draw and label a cross section of the integument.  I will give them 5­10 minutes to complete the task.  The students will then have 24 hours to upload that drawing to the Dropbox in D2L. If they choose, they can add to their image after lecture and before submitting. I estimate there will be 14 of these activities throughout the semester, and they can upload any 10 of their drawings.  My graduate TA will check the drawings and give a student 1 point if it is satisfactory.  They can earn up to 10 points over the course of the semester.

The point per uploaded activity is designed to give them low-­stakes encouragement to participate in the activities.  A satisfactory drawing will be one that has a minimum number structures labeled. The number will vary depending on the assignment, and will be announced with each activity.  The idea is to promote interactive studying and an understanding of how cells and tissues are put together; and hopefully create an “aha!” moment where they realize there are repeating patterns in the tissues and organs of our body.  Drawing ability will not be graded; nor will we be able to check every submission for accuracy. (Although I would love to provide feedback to each student, with one TA at 4 hours each week and 250 students I don’t think it is currently feasible.  If this proves to be a sticky point, I will try to address it in future semesters.)

The lecture period following each activity will begin with a submission that myself or the TA has deemed to be particularly well done, as a way to assist students who are unsure how to approach the activity.  The point of this demonstration will be to both encourage students to add detail and really engage in the activities.

The big problem I want to address is one of changing study habits in anatomy. More specifically, how to change the learning approach of students who rely on pure memorization.  The obvious indicator of success would be better comprehension of the material with less time allocated to studying. However, that is hard to gauge without knowing more about each individual learner.  However, I believe there are other indicators that I can use to determine if an approach is proving successful for students in the course as a whole.  Although mostly subjective, I believe observation of each of the following would be strong indications of success:

  1. Positive attitude shift:  I often hear from students how much time they spend studying anatomy to the detriment of their other courses. I believe that if they feel their studying is more effective and efficient, that the result will be a more positive view of the material and course as a whole.
  2. Decrease in performance anxiety: The amount of material covered in anatomy often creates anxiety even amongst students who know the material well. If students feel they can more intuitively approach and engage with the material, the overall result should be less anxiety during assessments.
  3. Increased engagement in lecture: Anatomy is very visual, and I rely on color coded graphics to present the majority of the material.  Additionally, in a large lecture it is easy for students tune out the barrage of color coded images once they start to feel lost.  I believe that if students had a better comprehension and greater comfort level with the material, that there would be a perceivable change in their engagement with the material.  Rather than just having the first 2 rows of students ask questions, I would see a greater range of inquiry from the room as a whole.
  4. Self confidence: My ultimate goal is to help students become confident in their ability to learn material, especially if they perceive that material as challenging.  With the students I work with one­on­one, a big change I see once the student has found a “better” way to study and learn, is a surge in their self confidence.  I would love to see this surge happen in the class as a whole.
  5. Higher scores: The ultimate indicator of success would be that students perform better in the class and leave with a stronger knowledge base to help them in their subsequent courses.

As a follow up at the end of the semester, I intend to send out a survey about study habits.  Dr. Leif Saul has already prepared a survey that we used last semester after the first lecture exam.  The survey was created using Google forms and administered via a Google doc link made available to the class.  This worked well and I will start with the existing survey and revise it to better address the use of weekly drawing activities in the lecture.  If he agrees, I would like Dr. Saul to administer the same survey to his class so we can have a comparison of attitudes from a course that used the weekly drawing activity and one that did not use it.  I believe this could be a very powerful indicator of how effective the activity is in changing attitudes and reducing anxiety.