Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

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A&P rant, part 5!

May 20, 2022

In 2019, I gave you the following:

This week the HAPS listserv set me off again. Below is my latest message to that group.

* * * * *

Hello Shobnom — 

Your question seems to be about managing students’ perception that there’s too much material to cover, and many of the responses you have gotten so far are about how to help students get on board. To round out the range of viewpoints expressed, here’s mine. Please note that (A) I am speaking only for myself and (B) I am addressing what I see as general trends in the teaching of A&P, without meaning to throw shade on any particular person or group. 

I claim that when A&P students say that we’re asking them to learn too many things, they often are RIGHT! 

In biology and K-16 science education as a whole, there has been a strong movement toward emphasizing greater depth of understanding and worrying much less about breadth of content coverage. For example:  

Vision & Change

Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

the core concepts of physiology

classifying biology questions with Bloom’s taxonomy

* etc.

Nonetheless, many A&P folks continue to cling to their mile-long lists of terms and learning objectives, stating or implying that the length of the lists indicates the rigor of the course, and/or that this is simply how it has to be because their textbook/course chair/department/HAPS says so.

My own advice would be, if your students consistently tell you that there’s way too much to learn — that, by the time they get to learning the digestive system, they’ve forgotten all of the musculoskeletal stuff because there’s no time to review — that, faced with thousands of names to memorize, they have no time or energy for critical thinking or integration — you should consider listening to them!

Think really hard about what you really want your students to be able to do, say 1-2 years after completing the course. What would that long-term retention and success really look like? Is your primary goal that, in 1-2 years, they’ll still be able to name all those bones and muscles and nerves, or do you have other aspirations for them? 

Consider what others have identified as overarching course themes; compile your own list of what you really really really want your students to be able to (still) do in 1-2 years; run it by your local experts/authority figures; and then plan your teaching accordingly. 

Good luck,

Greg

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Work-life balance: progress report #4

September 17, 2020

Work-wise, my summer is over at last. I start fall-quarter teaching on Monday. Related: I just revised my 46th and final chapter of PowerPoint slides, thus (barely) meeting my main summer goal of completing those revisions before the fall. I just have one more small step, which is to post the slides to the course website, thereby locking them down (i.e., preventing myself from tampering with them further).

I feel good, overall, about these versions of the slides. I created a bunch of good new Test Question Templates and improved some of my previous ones. I also organized each slideset into 3-5 logical subsections, which should reduce student confusion and should help me chunk my video lectures into shorter segments.

I can almost imagine declaring these slides good enough to reuse as is next quarter.

But first we will find out whether starting the quarter with finished slides makes my quarter a healthier experience, or just enables obsessive over-revision of other aspects of my teaching.

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Work-life balance: progress report #3

July 31, 2020

I’ve made some tangible progress since my last report.

Perhaps the biggest initial problem with my summer plans was that I had a million different “important” things that I “needed” to work on. OK, maybe not a million, but at least six: online labs (both for Human Anatomy and for Human Physiology), online lectures (for both courses), biology teaching songs, not-yet-written manuscripts (two or three), further development and dissemination of Test Question Templates (TQTs), and old/ongoing email.

When faced with a list like this one, I’m generally likely to either (A) focus on my favorite item (unlikely to be the most important one) while neglecting everything else, or (B) bounce back and forth between several items without making much progress on any of them.

To avoid such outcomes, I needed a clearer prioritization of tasks and some simple-yet-useful metrics of progress. I decided that my #1 priority for the summer would be editing my slides, in part because that was compatible with a simple-yet-useful metric: if I did six chapters’ worth of slides every week, all of the slides would be done by the start of the fall quarter.

During the first week of the six-chapters-per-week regimen (July 20-24), I managed to complete six chapters. However, it took most of the working hours that I had not previously committed to other meetings and deadline-sensitive tasks.

During the second week (July 27-31), I again completed six chapters. By cramming in some extra work in the evenings, I was able to devote one full weekday to a family hike.

If I can keep this up for six more weeks, I’ll be in great shape slide-wise.

But don’t ask me about my email inbox. Or my manuscripts. Or my labs…

slide_example_2

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“Hamilton” as a parable about work-life balance

July 13, 2020

It probably doesn’t need to be said that Alexander Hamilton and I have little in common. In watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece on Disney Plus, though, I couldn’t help but notice certain parallels.

Hamilton, as portrayed by Miranda (and by his primary source, a biography by Ron Chernow), is a workaholic who “write[s] like [he’s] running out of time” and who devotes considerable (possibly excessive) thought to his legacy. When George Washington sings to Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you,” it seems like an unnecessary warning. I almost expected Hamilton to fire back, “Well of COURSE it does!”

As I continue to struggle with work-life balance, one of the recurring themes is that certain tasks take way longer than they need to, simply because I want them to come out extra-well. My revision of my slides is a fine example.  Nobody is insisting that I make five hours’ worth of changes to these slides. Nobody is even recommending it. In fact, everybody is recommending against it. Yet away I go again into my PowerPoint time warp. Why?

Gaining a better understanding of my perfectionism is one major goal of my therapy. Where does it come from? What dials it up or down?

Here is a first draft of an answer. For some (often writing-related) tasks, I hold myself to certain high standards as a way of convincing myself that I am important and deserving of attention and praise.

That’s pretty self-centered, isn’t it?  Yes, but most people are self-centered.  My advantage is that I am relatively conscious of my selfish tendencies, and can compensate accordingly.

With that decently developed self-awareness, I can admit a personal desire to, in the words of Hamilton, “not throw away my shot.” Part of me wants to become famous, even if that fame is limited, say, to my own campus, or to fellow singing science instructors.

Obviously, it’s OK — admirable, even — to try to do certain things well enough that others might be impressed, and might remember what I did. But if I continue to define huge chunks of my life as “my shot” — always important enough to consume all of the hours I have available — then the work will never be under control, and I will never have a shot at a normal life.

 

crowther

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Work-life balance: progress report #2

July 9, 2020

Today I forced myself to buckle down and revise some specific course materials for the fall. I chose to revise some PowerPoint slides corresponding to Chapter 2 of our physiology textbook.

The good news?  I did it! I kept my nose to the proverbial grindstone and made a bunch of useful revisions. The slideset is now clearer and better organized, and it gives the students more and better opportunities to take notes and do practice problems.

The bad news?  Revising this one file — a file that was already in decent shape — took me FIVE HOURS.

This is, more or less, the fundamental issue that I encounter over and over again. I like revising course materials; I like making them more student-friendly. (I’m only half-kidding when I tell people that my pedagogical specialty is reinventing the wheel.) But taking five hours to revise one chapter’s worth of slides makes me the poster child of unsustainable behavior.  I must be able to work more efficiently than that… Right?

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Work-life balance: (lack-of-)progress report #1

July 8, 2020

As I’ve mentioned, work-life balance remains elusive for me.

This summer I’m approaching the problem with a two-part plan: (A) psychotherapy and (B) a vacation from paid teaching so that I can get a good jump on preparations for fall.

I didn’t turn in spring-quarter grades until June 23, and then I had to play inbox-catchup for a while, so I’ve been slow to admit that part (B) is not going well. But it isn’t.

Today — thanks to the continuing blessing of a live-in mother-in-law who cares for our two young boys — I had many hours in which to work. 8:10am to 4:30pm, to be precise.

Many people would LOVE to have that kind of a workday.  So what did I do with this wonderful gift of abundant work time?

Well, I worked on a presentation for this Friday (~1.5 hours), worked on a COVID song-in-progress (~1.5 hours), read and wrote emails (mostly work-related; ~2 hours), went for a bike ride (~1 hour), ate (~0.5 hour), hung out with my 13-year-old (~0.5 hour) … and I’m not sure where the rest of the time went.

Conspicuously absent from all of this, of course, was any specific progress on fall teaching.

I didn’t feel as though I was being grossly irresponsible, and yet I made zero progress on the long-term goal that is my best ticket to a healthy fall quarter.

I think the next step has to be something like requiring myself to spend at least three hours a day, every day, to specific fall curriculum issues (revisions of PowerPoint slides, revisions of lab exercises, etc.). And fit in the email, music, etc. around that, rather than vice versa.

If I need to sacrifice some summer fun in order to have a sane, not-completely-exhausting fall, I will.

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Blogging about mental health

April 30, 2020

Here is a small contribution from yours truly, posted this morning to the Dynamic Ecology blog run by my friend Jeremy Fox:
What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?

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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 as cool as Ben’s. Mine don’t rise as consistently to the upper 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).