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A&P rant, part 4: our exams express our values

November 28, 2019

It could be argued that I am making too big a deal of the comprehensive A&P exam offered by the Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS). After all, it is only one of many tests that our students could take, and no instructor is forced to use it.

These are totally valid points.  But, on the other hand, a test is a relatively pure and true readout of its creators’ values. What you leave out of the test, and what you put in, indicate a lot about your educational priorities.

My all-time favorite illustration of this is the Public Exam system devised by Ben Wiggins of the University of Washington. Ben wanted his exams to be better learning experiences for students — ones that clearly signaled his priorities, encouraged group discussion, minimized unnecessary stress, and offered challenging yet fair problems — so, over the course of several years, he devised a testing ritual that achieves all of these goals and more.

My own exams aren’t nearly as cool as Ben’s. They rarely rise beyond the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, for example. But I do my best to make them better than multiple-choice trivia-fests.  For example, I always include short-answer questions, despite the unpleasantness of grading such questions, because I want my students to be able to articulate their reasoning.  Interpretation of qualitative and quantitative figures is another theme. And all of my test questions are based on questions that we worked on in class or that were assigned as homework.  In the end, most of my students perceive my tests as fair reflections of the course themes, and as fair assessments of actual understanding rather than pure memorization.

So, back to the HAPS exam.  It is certainly a fair and valid assessment of what it purports to measure, thanks to the hard work of many contributors, and some instructors have found it very useful.  But based on my inspection of the 15 practice questions, I’d say that the way to do well on the exam is basically to memorize the facts outlined in the 73 pages of linked Learning Outcomes.

A test devoted almost entirely to factual details is relatively easy to create and relatively convenient to administer and score. Instructors can agree on what the questions should be, what the right answers are, etc.  But what are we sacrificing in exchange for this convenience and clarity?  Do we really mean to suggest — as this exam clearly does — that encyclopedic recall is the greatest virtue, and that everything else is secondary?

 

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A&P rant, part 3: are these Learning Outcomes prescriptive?

November 26, 2019

The Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS), the subject of my previous two posts, has an email listserv to which I posted links to those first two posts. There have been a few responses so far — all informative and civil, and some arguing that (A) some (many?) HAPS members already believe in and have implemented the various things I’m recommending, and/or that (B) the HAPS Learning Outcomes are not necessarily intended to be prescriptive, i.e., they aren’t telling people how to teach. In that context, I posted the following follow-up message to the listserv this evening….

* * * * * *

Thanks, everybody, for the additional comments! I’m delighted that my blowhardiness has not stopped people from gently providing me/us with additional context.

One clarification I want to make is that I do understand that lots of you, as individuals and/or as departments, have, like Meg, taken it upon yourselves to do the integration, skill-building, etc. that I am advocating. You don’t need me to lecture you about this stuff, do you? Still, I am very concerned about the implicit messages that are conveyed by the combination of the LOs and the HAPS exam.

Ric gave us some valuable history about how and why the LOs came to be. He says that as far as he knows, they were not intended to be prescriptive, and I have no reason to doubt him! BUT… If HAPS offers a single type of A&P exam, and charges money to use it, and does not allow instructors to cannibalize its parts or otherwise alter it, and commissions independent analysts to write white papers on the validity of said exam, and touts the various metrics indicating that the exam has a high level of validity… In short, when HAPS puts a lot of resources into one particular assessment, and encourages people to use that assessment, and when that assessment is based directly on a specific set of LOs…. Well, that IS a sort of prescription, whether people can admit it or not. And, as my blog posts explain, I don’t love the prescription that is implied.

To be clear, no HAPS member has ever directly told me “you’re doing it wrong!” or otherwise indicated that there is only one right way of doing things. You all are too smart, too sophisticated, too nice to make that blunder. But the way that the LOs are linked to the highly touted HAPS exam is a clear (if implicit) endorsement of approaches that will lead to success on that exam. And, by extension, arguably an indication of less interest in the types of learning that cannot be measured by that exam.

–Greg

* * * * * *

[Update, Nov. 28: this series continues (and concludes?) with Part 4.]

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A&P rant, part 2: solutions!

November 24, 2019

One reaction to my previous post might be, “OK, Dr. Crowther, you’ve explained what you’re against, but what are you FOR? Do you just want anatomy & physiology courses to be easier?”

Not exactly. I have three broad recommendations.

(1) Make the workload of each course consistent with its number of credits. This is, fundamentally, an issue of equitable access and fairness. If you teach a 5-credit course in such a way that students’ weekly workload is 40-plus hours, that effectively excludes people with complicated lives — for example, those who have to do a lot of childcare, who have to work lots of hours of paid employment, or who have a disability that slows them down. If you really want your students to do 10 credits’ worth of work, consider options like breaking your course into two 5-credit courses.

(2) Approach the material as elaborations of and variations on a small number of unifying core concepts. Students’ only real hope of retaining anything “permanently” is to revisit that thing repeatedly.  So … let’s help them repeatedly revisit the most important things — the “big ideas” or “core concepts.”  For physiology, at least, there is plenty of support for this — a recent book by Joel Michael et al. has defined the core concepts of physiology, and a small organization (the Physiology Majors Interest Group, or P-MIG) is exploring how our teaching can be re-centered around the core concepts.

(3) Focus on competencies (skills) as well as content (facts). It is telling that both Vision & Change (for teaching college biology) and the Next Generation Science Standards (for teaching K-12 science) not only outline what information should be covered, but also define what students should be able to do with that information. Thus, alongside five core concepts, Vision & Change lists six competencies: the ability to apply the process of science, the ability to use quantitative reasoning, the ability to use modeling and simulation, the ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science, the ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines, and the ability to understand relationships between science and society. Similarly, the NGSS include eight science and engineering practices alongside their disciplinary core ideas. We must give students the opportunity to practice these skills, even if less content gets covered as a result.

[Update, Nov. 26: why yes, this series now has a third part!]

Core_Concepts

Above: four of the core concepts of anatomy & physiology, as illustrated in Human Anatomy & Physiology by Erin Amerman (2016).

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My shadow A&P exam

November 23, 2019

A few years ago, the Shadow CV was a hot topic in academia.  The basic idea was that regular CVs, like resumes, often present an illusion of effortless brilliance or uninterrupted success.  To offer more realistic perspectives, professors started posting “shadow CVs” in which they detailed their most crushing setbacks: rejected grant proposals, never-cited papers, dismal student evaluations, expulsions from professional societies, etc.  Scores and scores of newly minted and future faculty were presumably comforted and reassured by these frank admissions of imperfection.

Today I want to make a somewhat similar admission.

I currently teach Anatomy & Physiology (A&P) to college sophomores, most of whom hope to become nurses someday.  The teaching of preclinical A&P throughout North America is heavily influenced by the Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS), which publishes a consensus list of learning outcomes (LOs) and a comprehensive exam aligned to these LOs.  The exam is not publicly available, but a list of 15 similar sample questions is.

I recently attempted those 15 questions. I only got 10 right!

Some colleagues might react to this by asking whether I’m qualified to teach this material at the college level. It’s a valid question, but the answer is: yes, I am.  And perhaps you are as well, dear reader, even if you haven’t memorized all of the details that populate modern A&P textbooks.

Let me illustrate with an example about muscles, the tissue I studied during my now-distant Ph.D. research.

The HAPS LOs include 35 devoted to the Muscular System. One of the 35 is as follows: “Describe the arrangement and composition of the following components of a sarcomere: A-band, I-band, H-zone, Z-disc (line), and M-line.”

For those who are not intimately familiar with sarcomere anatomy, here is a figure from a representative textbook (Martini et al., Human Anatomy, 2018).
figure_09_04_labeled

Chew on that for a moment. This intricate multi-paneled figure represents something like one thirty-fifth of what undergraduate students should supposedly know about muscles, in a course where muscles constitute one out of twenty or so modules.

Could I be misinterpreting the LOs?  Are students really meant to memorize information to that level of detail?  Well, here is the sample exam question:

5. Which of the following occurs during concentric isotonic contraction of skeletal muscle?
A. A-bands shorten
B. I-bands shorten
C. Sarcomeres lengthen
D. Thick (myosin) myofilaments lengthen
E. Thin (actin) myofilaments shorten

For those playing along, the correct answer is B. So yes, keeping one’s A-bands and I-bands straight has been judged important, even though the names do not indicate practical information like protein names, but instead reflect varied responses (Anisotropism and Isotropism, respectively) to an arcane technique (polarized light microscopy) that none of us ever uses.

Being a muscle guy, I got this one right.  But if a student of mine can’t quite remember which band corresponds to myosin and which band corresponds to actin in the absence of myosin – and, likewise, struggles to recall which of the six extraocular muscles is innervated by cranial nerve IV (one twelfth of one of the 103 LOs for Module H: The Nervous System), and so on – well, I can certainly relate.  I got the cranial nerve question wrong too.

To be clear, HAPS is a great organization, full of smart and friendly people who work hard to support each other. Its LOs and exam have been painstakingly created and revised by unpaid volunteers who simply want to help their fellow instructors.  But when I look at the LOs and the sample questions, I see an implicit message that undergraduates should be assessed primarily on their ability to memorize literally thousands of facts.

I claim that this is not an ideal way of deciding who gets to advance to nursing school and who doesn’t.

And if such mind-boggling feats of memorization are neither necessary nor sufficient for our students, maybe it’s OK for us faculty to also be “deficient” in this way.

[Update, Nov. 24: I have now written a follow-up post.]

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The mentor gratitude project

August 28, 2019

In a recent post, I expressed regret at having failed to directly and fully thank my primary Ph.D. adviser while he was alive.

This regret has been useful in motivating me to identify and (when possible) thank others who have been unusually helpful and influential in my professional development. I’ve previously discussed a couple of them on this blog: George Kosaly (a former research collaborator) and John Peterson (a high school social studies teacher). Here’s the rest of my (imperfect, incomplete) list:

  • Pete Farwell. My college running coach, who was great running-wise but also encouraged my creative endeavors (poems and songs) for team gatherings.
  • Dan Lynch. My undergraduate research mentor, who demystified the enterprise of laboratory research for me.
  • Mary Lidstrom and Wes Van Voorhis. My postdoctoral research supervisors. Very different styles, but both excellent scientists who also found ways to support my interest in teaching.
  • Doug Meyer. My junior high school vocal music teacher, who gave me an excellent grounding in ear training and music theory.
  • Do Peterson. A friend who, in addition to introducing me to my now-wife, has been a musical mentor to me ever since we recorded Take Me to the Liver in 1996.
  • My parents. My dad especially for informing my development as a writer, and my mom especially for being my first teacher role model.
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A chip off the old block?

August 20, 2019

SCHOOL RULES AT HOME
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald
October 21, 1990

Living with an elementary school teacher means:

Being asked, out of the blue, questions like, “Do we have any green cardboard?” or, “Where can I find a picture of a wheat field?” Questions cooked up overnight or hatched during housework, when her mind was still in school. Questions like, “What’s that stuff from whales that’s used in perfume — amber what?”

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to know the names and quirks of 15 or 20 children whom you have never met, including several with the same names.

It means differentiating between the two Chads and among Sara, Sara, and Sarah using only context clues. Obviously, Chad-who-never-finishes could not be the same Chad who wrote the wonderful seven-page story about his pet duck.

Obviously.

Living with an elementary school teacher means learning a dictionary of educational terms, all of which have different meanings than those encountered in normal conversation. Terms like “chapter.” For example:
Q. “What does she teach?”
A. “Chapter.”
Q. “What?”
A. “She’s the chapter teacher.”
Q. “What chapter does she teach, and what book are we talking about?”
A. “No, no. She’s the teacher for the Chapter I program. You know that.”

Of course.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to understand, without reference to an interpreter or glossary, terms like: Title I, basal, whole language, conference (as a verb), in-service (as an adjective), heterogeneous groups, self-contained classroom and cooperative learning.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being asked to color in 17 mimeographed turkeys while watching your favorite television program. This is impossible to do, but don’t expect sympathy. She would do it herself but she’s coloring 17 Pilgrims.

Living with a teacher means finding folders, boxes and stacks of learning materials all over the house. It means posters and charts suspended from hangers in closets.

It means learning that every scrap of paper worth saving is worth laminating to protect it from flood, smudge, slush, tearing, fraying and wrinkling. It means learning that a teacher’s greatest joy in life is in pulling out from a household cranny a fully prepared unit on dinosaurs.

Living with an elementary school teacher means appreciating the many kinds of meetings that one profession can generate. There are team meetings, faculty meetings and staffings, all different. There are parent conferences, district-wide meetings, curriculum meetings, committee meetings and level meetings.

If you wonder why the teacher in your family is not promptly home at the end of a school day, she is probably in a meeting. Missing at breakfast? It must be a before-school meeting. Gone after supper? A night meeting.

Living with an elementary school teacher means seeing her off to an endless progression of workshops and courses. They represent an ongoing quest to surround and contain the world of learning, not just what to teach but when and how to teach it.

Living with an elementary school teacher means literary discussions based on leading books of the day; books like “Bridge to Terabithia” or “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Forget the New York Times best seller list. It’s not relevant to grade school.

Living with a teacher also means learning that, for many reasons, some children will not fulfill the bright promise of youth. But it also means celebrating small triumphs just often enough to nourish optimism. It means rediscovering weekly and monthly and yearly a child’s capacity for growth.

Finally, living with a teacher means a vicarious enjoyment, tinged with envy, of school vacations. It means a chance, several times a year, to witness enormous relief, tempered by the knowledge that school, like the seasons, will come again.

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…And my other Ph.D. adviser, Martin J. Kushmerick

July 14, 2019

MJKPhoto

image taken from http://depts.washington.edu/tcmi/

In my haste to note the passing of Kevin Conley, my primary graduate school adviser, I failed to mention a sad coincidence, which is that my OTHER graduate school adviser had just died eight days earlier.

Marty Kushmerick was, in a word, brilliant.  He knew a lot about a lot of things; breadth and depth coexisted happily in his brain.  Though his field was muscle biology, he taught himself way more thermodynamics, mathematical modeling, and nuclear physics than the average muscle biologist (e.g., me) could ever dream of. This allowed him to ask all sorts of scientific questions and collaborate with all sorts of people, who found his brilliance both charming and useful.

Kevin was one such person.

Two of Kevin’s greatest studies (Conley et al. 1997 and 1998) dismantled the prevailing model of the control of glycolysis in skeletal muscle. These studies were based on the fact that glycolysis produces lactic acid, which lowers the pH, which can be measured with 31P NMR spectroscopy, our lab’s primary technique at the time. However, it’s awfully hard to calculate precise RATES of glycolysis, as Kevin needed to do. I don’t think Kevin could have navigated the arcane details of proton stoichiometry on his own; fortunately, he had Marty to do the math (Kushmerick 1997) and thus provide the foundation for his own work.

While Kevin and Marty had distinct strengths and personalities, they shared a sincere and profound enthusiasm for the day-to-day work of scientific research. This was obvious to all who knew them.  They were visibly excited when they found an insightful paper in the literature or thought of a new experiment to try. It was fun to be in their lab in the late ’90s and early ’00s in part because THEY were having fun.

Fifteen-plus years later, it’s hard for me to conjure up that atmosphere, to remember what it felt like. This song helps, though. (Marty makes a cameo at 2:33.)

 

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My Ph.D. adviser, Kevin E. Conley

July 1, 2019

Last night I received the news that my Ph.D. adviser had just died of cancer.

For me, this was one of those moments of asking myself, “Did I ever thank this person adequately for what they did for me?”

Kevin and I had a complicated relationship. As a scientist and as a mentor, he had his share of blind spots, and as a graduate student, I had numerous deficiencies of my own.  What is indisputable is that he took his advising role very seriously, and gave it his full attention, and did everything he could to help me along my path, which he accepted as different from his own.  He treated me, above all else, with kindness and generosity.

Technically, I had two graduate advisers: Kevin and Marty Kushmerick. Kevin did almost all of the actual advising, but he knew that it was useful for me to be associated with Marty, a more senior and more famous scientist. Thus, at conferences and such, I would always say, “I work with Kevin and Marty.” Kevin never objected to this, though he surely deserved more credit than that.

In the winter and spring of 2000, my work was not going well, and Kevin and I were finding it hard to have productive discussions. I suggested that I spend the summer at a high-altitude training study that had accepted me as a research subject. A greedier adviser would have stopped me from going — shouldn’t I be in the lab, generating more data for him? But Kevin, to his great credit, let me go.  I had an experience that was useful scientifically (I got to see first-hand how complex human studies are conducted), and that also helped reset our relationship. When I returned, we were able to communicate with less frustration.

A final act of selflessness on Kevin’s part came when I was wrapping up my dissertation. There was one chapter that he found unconvincing (for reasons that I never really understood). He was not willing to have the paper published with his name on it; however, he did let me publish it. If this seems like a no-brainer, it wasn’t; research leaders are often VERY conservative and controlling about the papers that come out of their labs.

The above examples stick out in my mind, yet they fail to capture what might have been most important of all, which was simply that Kevin allowed me to barge into his office and ask for help whenever I wanted. This wasn’t necessarily an efficient arrangement for getting work done or helping me become more resourceful and independent, but it certainly indicated the extent of Kevin’s commitment to me.

Years after I left the lab, I wrote an odd little parody of the classic Bob Dylan song Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.  The lyrics were, most directly, about the frustrations of doing research. But the subtext of “Knockin’ On Kevin’s Door” was that, as an often-rudderless graduate student, I was very fortunate to have an adviser who was always, always, always willing to make time for me.

I should have told him this more directly, with more explicit gratitude.

I hope he got the message anyway.

Kevin_Conley_1

[image from UW Dept. of Radiology website]

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Thud!

June 5, 2019

So, on the one hand, life is great. My wife is great… The kids are great… I have a great job that allows me to pursue my passion of forever reinventing the wheel (where the wheel, in this case, is the undergraduate anatomy & physiology curriculum).

On the other hand, work has been all-consuming. I’ve been sleeping way too little and not exercising at all.

This morning, while running to catch the bus, I tripped and fell, scraping my left elbow and right knee, and ripping a giant hole in my pants.

Running used to be something that I did a lot of on a daily basis for fitness and for pleasure. Now, if I break into a run for 50 yards, I injure myself and destroy my clothing.

I’ve got to get back on track.

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Happy 50th Anniversary, Mom & Dad!

May 30, 2019

As of tomorrow, my parents will have been married for 50 years! I hesitate to say “celebrating” 50 years because, at the moment, they’re mostly working hard on moving from their current home to a new place across town. But, anyway … 50 years! In recognition of this milestone, I am posting a relevant column — one of my all-time favorites — by my dad.

******

THE MARITAL SHIP SAILS ON
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald, April 1, 1984

Contemplating the approach of our 15th wedding anniversary, my wife observed, “I think it’s pewter.” A pause. “I don’t like pewter. You can’t put it in the dishwasher.”

Such is the state of our marriage after a decade and a half. Sentiment hamstrung by convenience, tradition clobbered by practicality, symbolism outlawed by appliance manuals. Yet it survives.

In fact, the 15th anniversary isn’t pewter at all. It’s watches. But watches don’t go in the dishwasher either, so the point still applies. If it’s not dishwasher-safe, she has no use for it. I count myself and the children as exceptions to this standard, though a “dishwasher safe” label might improve our standing.

How to summarize those 15 years and the preceding courtship? Certain cycles have repeated themselves, as they do in the dishwasher. The quiet purposefulness of the fill cycle, the turbulence of the scrubbing, the fresh prospects of the rinse and the warm glow of the drying. It’s all there.

We met in the summer of 1967 at a public sailing club in Boston. They taught sailing and let out boats not far from the band shell on the Charles River. After you learned to sail, you taught the beginners. This offered a good opportunity for a chap to impress a young lady by showing off the arcane skills and colorful language of the skipper.

“Belay that purse,” I’d say with the authority of one who had battled wind and wave from Cape Horn to the Sea of Okhotsk.

My wife wasn’t the only female companion to sail with me on the Charles. Another possible romance had foundered when the boat had capsized. In some waters, tipping over might be as much fun as sailing, but not on the Charles. It’s too much of a working river, carries too much Bay State waste to be a swimmer’s place. An unplanned dunking was more taint than treat for my crew, and I never saw the girl again.

But I fared better with my future bride. We kept upright and avoided the treacherous Storrow Memorial Embankment.  Out of gratitude for her survival or interest, or both, she invited me over for stew.

The rest is history, though largely unrecorded until now.

I was new to the ways of love and underwent the usual bizarre changes in behavior. I made a cake and shared it with her. An ingenuous little pastry, it was yellow, one layer high and without frosting. But she loved me for it.

Well, at least she didn’t laugh.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly in front of me.

Another time, I made dinner, served wine, and put on a tablecloth. Photographic evidence proves she was still smiling after the meal. She believes that I made spaghetti with store-bought sauce. That I could have pulled off such a culinary feat stretches credulity, but she’s not one to exaggerate.

Our courtship had its ups and downs. I moved to Vermont. On weekends she’d come up or I’d go down to Boston. Once we broke up for a couple of weeks. It was my doing, but I must not have liked it much. I broke down and called her up. After that things settled down a bit.

These things tend to reach a point of decision, and they did with us. I proposed. She accepted. Our parents accepted. Her church accepted. The Chicago city clerk accepted.

On a late spring day in 1969, the awesome ship of matrimony slid down the ways in a Chicago suburb and set its course, cheered by a waving throng and tacitly admonished as well: beware the conjugal straits; tempt not the storms of estrangement.

The crew of two somehow thought they could handle it. Why, they’d sailed the Charles River, hadn’t they?