I want my students to fail. Of course I don't want them to fail the course, but I do want to give them a lot of opportunities to get things wrong as they learn new facts, apply new knowledge, and build their conceptual frameworks. Learning scientists ...

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Why You Want Your A&P Students to Fail

I want my students to fail. Of course I don't want them to fail the course, but I do want to give them a lot of opportunities to get things wrong as they learn new facts, apply new knowledge, and build their conceptual frameworks.

Learning scientists have plenty of research that shows that failing to get things right at first, then correcting one's thinking by relearning forgotten facts and applying knowledge in better ways, strengthens mastery. And it reinforces long-term memory of facts—and long-term memory of how to solve problems.

So I give my A&P students a lot of opportunities to fail. So that they can stop failing and be more consistent in succeeding.

One way I do that is by using clickers—a student response system—during lectures, labs, and discussion. I do assign "participation points" for answering questions using this system in class, but I do not assign points based on whether the answers were correct or incorrect. I want them take risks—to fail sometimes.

By failing to get something right on a "clicker question," they wake up to where their deficiencies in learning are. Then we work together to correct their knowledge. It's more likely that when they encounter a similar challenge later on in my course, they'll be in a better position to succeed.

I also give my students a lot of opportunity to fail in taking online tests. In my courses, I give a lot of online tests that act primarily as formative assessments. That is tests that help them gain knowledge at the beginning of their learning and tell them how they are doing—not tests that primarily evaluate if they've succeeded at the end of their learning process (summative testing). Most of my summative testing is instead done in written exams.

My frequent online tests do have grade points associated with them, but because multiple attempts are allowed, they have a built-in formative component. Because the questions are randomly drawn from question sets containing many items, each test attempt has different items—but is testing the same set of learning objectives. Students fail, then fail again, then succeed in such tests.

Because those online tests are cumulative—testing over all prior concepts—they get continuous practice in retrieving and applying concepts. And ongoing opportunities to fail—then succeed. By the time we get to their midterm and final exams, they are ready to succeed.

But wait! There's more.

I also require my student to take pretests before they begin their online testing. The pretests come before any learning activity in a new unit. Thus, they have an initial opportunity to fail—and fail miserably—by taking a test on a new set of topics that they may have never seen before. Learning research—and my own experience—shows that such pretests really prime student learning. Maybe a miserable failure at the start gets our brains into a mode that helps us really figure out how to avoid such failure again!

I realize that it may seem counterintuitive for either teachers or learners to embrace failure as desirable. But considering how we really learn—by falling, then getting up and trying again—it makes a lot of sense. And the science of learning backs up this approach.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • Consider adding opportunities for students to fail early in their learning by using low-stakes or zero-stakes tests and quizzes.

  • Consider using clickers or mobile-based student response systems to embed questions in lectures, labs, group activities, and discussions.

  • Consider embedding quiz items in your pre-class "flipped" course materials.

  • Encourage students to test each other outside of class to give additional opportunities for failure. Flash cards, concept maps, and similar study activities also provide failure opportunities that enhance learning.

Want to know more?

Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning
  • James M. Lang, John Wiley & Sons, Feb 16, 2016 
  • Book that summarizes many different ideas about how to apply learning science to your courses, it gives practical advice and a lot of examples of how to do "small" things in your course to promote the kinds of failure that promote learning.
  • my-ap.us/2l1lfEr

Failure is an Option: Helping Students Learn from Mistakes
  • John Orlando, PhD, Faculty Focus, 
    May 16, 2011
  • Brief column on the value of failure as a teaching tool. And mentions the idea that even the toughest teacher can have a class full of "A students" when we let them fail, then succeed.
  • my-ap.us/2twYZCW

What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?
  • Carnegie Mellon University (Eberly Center | Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation), accessed June 15, 2017
  • Brief webpage contrasting formative and summative assessment.
  • my-ap.us/2twHnqD

Testing as a Learning Tool | UPDATE
  • Kevin Patton, The A&P Professor blog, May 19, 2015
  • My most recent post that further explains the testing methods mentioned above. With links to additional resources.
  • http://my-ap.us/1R7Tjpgmy-ap.us/1R7Tjpg

Cumulative Testing Enhances Learning
  • Kevin Patton, The A&P Professor blog, September 5, 2016
  • Briefly explains my use of cumulative testing in A&P courses. With links to additional resources.
  • my-ap.us/2kydGBW

Student Response Systems: Trying Clickers in Your Course
  • Kevin Patton, The A&P Professor website, accessed June 16, 2017
  • My weminar on using clickers in the A&P course. With links to additional resources.
  • my-ap.us/2twZIDM
Top photo: Sigurd Decroos
Middle photo: ilker

Reboot of The A&P Professor Website

Next time you head over to the companion website for this blog at theAPprofessor.org, you'll see a whole new website. Literally. The old website is enjoying a well-deserved rest on the beach of a sea of electrons, and a whole new—completely rebuilt—website has taken its place.

Like rookie professors who replace veteran A&P professors, it still has a lot to learn. So I'm actively seeking your input on the kinds of things you'd like me to add or subtract from the website. Either comment on this blog post, or use the CONTACT form on the website.

This new version of The A&P Professor retains a few of the design elements of the old one, like the Hip Logo. However, the website design is now "responsive" to allow resizing and rearrangement of page elements for easy viewing on any device—from desktop to pad to phone.

I did a lot of pruning during the rebuild of The A&P Professor . I removed dated topics and book reviews, and the curated lists of websites and images. The latter just got out of hand for one guy with several "real" jobs, plus tending to a bunch of websites and blogs and a daily newsletter. When I started curating those collections, it was hard to find what we needed to teach A&P successfully—but now it's now much easier to find what you want on your own.

The new website is now closely linked to another of my websites, the Lion Den. The Lion Den has also recently been rebuilt to focus entirely on the teaching and learning of human anatomy and physiology.

So check out the Lion Den offerings as you explore the new The A&P Professor website! As always, I continue to appreciate your support!


Huge Breakthrough in Human Anatomy & Physiology!

This trend in misleading "click bait" headlines among science news outlets continues to spiral into infinity. Okay, "infinity" is an exaggeration, but apparently that's what it takes these days to get us reading the actual content of science articles. And a growing phenomenon is that the articles themselves include exaggerations within their content. That's the topic of my rant, er, post today.

I've been thinking about this for a long while. I often discuss it in class with my students. Yesterday, I ran across a recent (January 2017) example of the perennial "scientists discover that the appendix has a function" headline: Your Appendix Might Serve an Important Biological Function After All 

That example actually has a pretty good article about a study analyzing the evolutionary appearances and reappearances of the appendix in mammals and what that may tell us about this organ's function. But we already know enough about the functions of the vermiform appendix in humans that it's hardly true that its functions are completely unknown. The article clearly acknowledges that fact within the content, despite that attention-grabbing headline.

Megakaryocyte producing platelets
Another recent example was the round of excited shares on social media regarding the "discovery" that hematopoiesis (blood development) occurs in lung tissue. There were a lot of "wow, who knew?" tweets that week. Even from highly trained experts in A&P. But my Anatomy & Physiology textbook (p. 624) already has this information—and it surely cannot be the only textbook to do so.

The journal article that prompted this wave of tweets and posts described some research in mice that expands our knowledge about this phenomenon—turns out that more is going in the lungs than we thought. The lungs may be the primary site for thrombopoiesis (platelet development), if human lungs work like mice lungs. But the fact that the lungs are sites of hematopoiesis—specifically platelet formation—is not new.

I've shared these and other posts with exaggerated headlines myself—mostly on Twitter, Facebook, or my new daily newsletter from Nuzzel.

However, I think it's way to easy to succumb to the excitement of a potential "new discovery" that turns out to be not new, or even a discovery, at all. As a blogger I know full well that exaggerated headlines get more "engagement", which leads to more "followers," which leads to better "brand recognition" and thus, more future "engagement." Who wants to spend time researching and writing when nobody is reading?

But in science, maybe the public perception of how science works is better served by a more toned-down approach that recognizes what we already think we know, why we think we know it, and what any new studies can do to clarify, correct, or extend what we know.

I know that none of us individuals can stop the tide of exaggerated science news headlines. I'm just using a platform I have to express my concern that we may be making a mistake by doing so. If everything is a "breakthrough" or even a "huge breakthrough," then maybe casual observers will miss those truly game-changing ideas when they come along.

At least is something to keep in the back our minds and we do our daily scan of science new headlines.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • Consider challenging your student to find the first new "science discovers the function of the appendix" article or post of the semester. (or spleen or gallbladder or any organ).

  • Find some posts or articles that have exciting "new discovery" headlines and analyze them as a class. The may help us all learn better the critical analysis needed when reading science content.

  • Have a class discussion regarding the balance between the excitement of discovery that drives science and the exaggerations of discovery that may mislead.

  • Consider making sure that your students know that the appendix has functions (and that the lungs make platelets). Just in case they become science journalists.

  • Consider throwing out science journalism or science writing as career options. They already have an interest in human biology—and they may soon discover they don't like the career path they first chose, after all.

Want to know more?

Your Appendix Might Serve an Important Biological Function After All

  • BEC CREW Science Alert 10 JAN 2017
  • Article about an evolution study of the appendix in many organisms and how that may relate to the organ's function.
  • my-ap.us/2pDQofu

An Unexpected New Lung Function Has Been Found - They Make Blood

  • This article, with the subtitle Things just got complicated, outlines the recent work done in mice to show that most platelets (not just some platelets) may form in lungs. 
  • BEC CREW Science Alert 24 MAR 2017
  • my-ap.us/2p5JUdl
Megakaryocyte image: A. Rad


How Dietary Fiber Prevents Disease

So why, exactly, is it that we should consume a lot of fiber in our diet to remain healthy? Are refined fiber supplements just as good as, say, an "apple a day?"

Recently, an article in the journal Cell answer seems to verify some of the answers for us.

As the paper cited below indicates, research seems to confirm that dietary fiber provides nutrients for the inhabitants of our intestinal microbiome.  When dietary fiber is missing, then the microbes undergo a shift in populations and start consuming our GI mucus as an alternate source of nutrition.  That, as you might guess, reduces the thickness of the protective mucus—hus increasing the likelihood that pathogens can more easily attack the intestinal lining. Ouch.

Apparently, refined prebiotic fibers don't fix the problem.

Here are some highlights of the research article (quoted from their online preview):

  • Characterized synthetic bacterial communities enable functional insights in vivo
  • Low-fiber diet promotes expansion and activity of colonic mucus-degrading bacteria
  • Purified prebiotic fibers do not alleviate degradation of the mucus layer
  • Fiber-deprived gut microbiota promotes aggressive colitis by an enteric pathogen

Image for unlabelled figure

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • When asked by students about dietary fiber, you have more information from which to draw an answer.
  • When discussing any of these topics, you'll now have a bit more to add to your story:
    • nutrition
    • function of mucus
    • the human microbial system (or specifically, the GI microbiome)
    • how pathogens cause disease (or specifically, GI disorders)

Want to know more?

Veggies and Intact Grains a Day Keep the Pathogens Away

  • Francesca S. Gazzaniga. Dennis L. Kasper. Cell. Available online 17 November 2016
  • Brief preview of the M. Desai article cited below.
  • my-ap.us/2lijkbE

A Dietary Fiber-Deprived Gut Microbiota Degrades the Colonic Mucus Barrier and Enhances Pathogen Susceptibility

  • Mahesh S. Desai et al. Cell, Volume 167, Issue 5, 17 November 2016, Pages 1339-1353.e21
  • The detailed research article.
  • my-ap.us/2lijz6w

Microbiome articles

  • Kevin Patton. The A&P Professor. Various dates.
  • Collection of previous posts on this topic from this blog.
  • my-ap.us/2liCrSP

Photos: Youssef KH (top) Cell (bottom)

Pre-Tests as Student Success Tools

I always thought of pre-testing as something you do before working on a unit of content, later followed up with a post-test. Comparing pre-test results with post-test results can then be used as part of the course assessment to find out what, if any, learning has happened. But that's no longer my first thought when I hear the term "pre-test."

Several years ago, I ran across a news item that referred to a piece of learning science research that described another use for pre-testing. It showed that students who took a pre-test did better than students who did not take a pre-test. It showed, I think, that just the process of pre-testing primes student learning in a way that has a demonstrable and significant effect on student success.

As with any new way of doing things that I discover, I had to let it percolate in the back of mind for a while. First, do I really believe it? Further research showed me that this was not a one-off experiment—it's been tested in both the lab and in the field with similar outcomes. Next, will it work in my courses? If so, how would I implement it? And the all-important question: would I have time to implement it? Would it then add extra effort and time to my workload every semester, in perpetuity?

Well, I finally jumped in and tried it. I figured it could do no harm. And I found a way to do it without much effort—either in initially wedging it into my course or in maintaining it across all future courses.

I'd already been using frequent online tests, each allowing multiple attempts, as a way for my students to prepare for their written exams. Each online test has a test bank of many more items than appear on any one attempt. Each test item is pulled from a group of items relating to the same learning outcome, so tests end up being different in every attempt. By using just a handful of items in each group, the odds quickly become astronomical that a student will get the same test twice—or get the same test as any other student in the course. Sort of like the classic type of slot machine.

My existing online tests were already cumulative. They included test item groups from previous tests, so that students have continuing practice with concepts introduced throughout the course, as explained in my recent article, Cumulative Testing Enhances Learning

What I did to make the pretests is simply go into my online test editor (Respondus) and make a copy of each online test. Then I removed the cumulative item groups from each test, leaving only the item groups that pertain to that particular unit of study. An easy and quick job in the test editor. Then I saved those as pre-tests and uploaded them to my learning management system (LMS). And set them up for ONE attempt only (not the usual three possible attempts).

What?! Using the same test items as their "real" test? Isn't that just like handing them a list of answers? Glad you asked! Remember, the odds of anyone ever getting "the same test" again (or as anyone else gets) is astronomically low. What they get in the pre-test is a "version" of the real test, but not the actual test that individual will end up taking later.

I then set up my LMS so that each pre-test opens about halfway through the preceding unit. Students can go into the LMS before their next unit to take the pre-test for the upcoming unit. I also set things up so that students do not have access to the course resources they need to get through the unit until after they submit the pre-test. For example, I use online Previews as part of my sorta-flipped format (I called it a half-flip with a quarter turn). If they don't take the pre-test first, then neither the Previews, nor anything else, will open up for them.

Because the "locks" that unlock the other course resources give students incentive to do the pretests, I didn't need to assign grade points or deduct grade points if they didn't do it. My pre-tests do not impact the grade directly—only indirectly by enhancing student learning.

I have been amazed at the results of that simple step. I noticed that class performance increased right away—and there has been no downward trend since then. So I guess I shoulda believed the research data when I first saw it, eh? 

I think there are several things going on. For one, pre-tests give students an overview of what they'll be expected to solve at the end of the unit. And they'll get a chance to use what they know already to predict what might be a correct answer—with immediate feedback on where they predicted incorrectly. This prediction exercise can be a powerful learning strategy.

Also, as they then struggle through the unit, they have in mind what they need to master if they're going to have a chance of passing the test. 

Along the same lines, they gain some familiarity with the upcoming material. They'll have "seen this all before" even if they don't fully understand it. As we go through it all after the pre-test, students will have already walked through that neighborhood, so it's not so unfamiliar to them.

I think pre-testing also shakes loose some prior learning. That is, students will recognize some basic principles and some patterns that they've seen before. I suggest that this stimulates their awareness of how things connect and thus gets them better prepared for their new learning.

One last thing I want to mention: I now have another assessment tool that I can use to compare before-after data and get a sense of what my students have accomplished. Even better, I suppose, is that I added a column to their LMS gradebook that calculates their "gain" by providing the percentage by which they improved between the pre-test and the real test (post test). Individuals seeing that they learned a lot in each unit is a real motivator for continued hard work in the course.

As with anything, there are potential pitfalls. The one that I didn't anticipate, but should have, is that the super-high-achievers will NOT want a "bad grade" anywhere in their gradebook. Even though students are EXPECTED TO FAIL the pre-test—and it isn't part of the course grade calculation. It's a mindset—it doesn't have to make sense.

So I would have these high-achievers in my office the day after they took their pre-test and want me to go over every item with them. I'll bet their blood pressure wasn't normal that day, either—probably even worse the night before. The solution I found, which is not 100% effective, is to repeatedly remind students that they are expected to do poorly on the pre-tests. And that they should not struggle with it—just think a moment, then give your best guess and move on.

Like any unfamiliar teaching strategy, pre-testing works best if you tell students how they will benefit.

If any of you have experiences with pre-testing that you'd like to share, please comment at the blog site, in the form below this article.

Want to know more?

Testing in A&P Courses
  • Kevin Patton. The A&P Professor. Collection (various dates).
  • An assortment of brief articles on methods and issues regarding testing in the undergraduate A&P course.
  • http://my-ap.us/2kyiffC

Cumulative Testing Enhances Learning
  • Kevin Patton. The A&P Professor. 5 Sep 2016.
  • Article on how cumulative testing can be used to promote long-term learning in A&P courses.
  • http://my-ap.us/2kydGBW

The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning?
  • Richland, Lindsey E.; Kornell, Nate; Kao, Liche Sean. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol 15(3), Sep 2009, 243-257. 
  • Research article describing experiments in pre-testing.
  • http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0016496

Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning

  • James M. Lang. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 2016.
  • If you don't read anything else on teaching-learning this year, at least read this. Lang's clear writing, chunked into small chapters, reviews some of the major contemporary insights with practical "small" things you can do in your class to improve learning. Part I, Chapter 2, discusses pretesting.
  • http://my-ap.us/2knofdh


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