Taking virtual dissections to the next level

Many virtual dissection websites are available as study tools (see my Resources page) or as substitutes for the real thing, but Jack Choi’s TED talk describes a cool, high tech new tool for realistic cadaver labs without the actual cadavers. Probably not financially feasible for all institutions but very cool!


Salman Khan’s TED talk

Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, gave an inspiring TED talk about how the Khan Academy came to be, and the role he sees it playing in education. PIDP 3240 has given me the push I needed to start exploring ways to make my course more customizable for students’ individual needs and learning preferences, and I think that offering the option of watching videos as an alternative to reading the textbook for class preparation is a great start. Khan Academy videos are of a consistently high quality and are my first stop for finding useful tutorials for my students. Watch Sal Khan here:

Getting students to prepare for class

The “flipped classroom” model depends on students coming to class prepared – usually having watched an online lecture, but perhaps using other materials to get the equivalent of a lecture. In-class time can then be used for more interactive, “brains-on” and hands-on activities. Even in a more traditional model, students who have done the reading ahead of time will be better able to follow the lecture and participate in class. But getting students motivated to read is hard! The textbook is long, heavy and boring, and you’re going to cover the material in class anyway (maybe) – so why bother? One possibility is to get students to use other materials – videos or podcasts – to prepare – but the issue of motivating students to actually do the preparation exists no matter what media you use.

Cynthia Heiner, Amanda Banet and Carl Wieman published a paper discussing the use of pre-reading assignments and online quizzes in physics and biology classes. Students typically consider reading the textbook to be a relatively low-priority activity because they don’t think it will help their grade; one method to encourage reading is to administer a quiz that is directly related to the reading. An online quiz can be given with a deadline shortly before class starts; results of this quiz can help the instructor to figure out what concepts students find difficult, so that he or she can focus more on these concepts in class. However, even with a graded quiz, previous studies have found that the majority of students don’t read the textbook. Heiner et al. (2014) aimed to help students to see the value of doing the reading by creating a more targeted reading and quiz, rather than just asking students to read whole chapters of the textbook. This practice involves making sure that the reading is very closely linked to the material to be discussed in class, and that the quiz refers to specific page numbers and figures in the textbook – drawing students’ attention to the most important parts of the reading. At the end of the study, students reported that they found the pre-reading assignments helpful for their learning, and there was a correlation between how many of the assignments they completed and their performance on the final exam.

Heiner et al. (2014) suggest some best practices for pre-reading assignments:

  1. Keep the reading focused on what you plan to discuss in class
  2. Explain the purpose of pre-readings and how these benefit students
  3. Provide questions that students should think about while reading
  4. Omit unnecessary material
  5. Give a graded online quiz that is due before class; the quiz should be easy for students who have done the reading, and hard for students who have not.
  6. In class, refer to concepts from the pre-reading but do not re-teach them, or students will learn that they don’t really need to do the pre-reading.

I give a pre-reading quiz every class (in person, although I am increasingly tempted to move it online) and also find that it isn’t sufficient to motivate most students to actually do the reading. I normally assign the whole chapter, or large sections of it, so this article has motivated me to go through and select specific sections that are useful. I think that the biggest challenge for me will be to not re-teach concepts from the pre-reading, but I will try it out next term in my Biology 12 class and see how it goes.

Heiner, C.E., Banet, A.I., & Wieman, C. (2014). Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class. American Journal of Physics, 82 (10), 989-996.

Educational games vs. “gamification”

An article on Slate.com by Chris Berdik describes the distinction between using games to reward students for learning (“gamificaton”) and using games to capture the intrinsic fun of learning. An example of “gamification”  would be a math game that rewards correct answers to math drills with a short shooting-stuff video game, animations, or points. The problem with this model, according to the article, is that students learn that the subject matter (e.g. math) is a means to an end – that getting the boring math over with allows you to reach a fun reward. It doesn’t foster any love of the subject matter or inspire students.

Instead, the researchers of MIT’s Education Arcade believe that educational games can capture what is inherently fun or inspiring about the subject matter – for example, that math allows us to solve real-world problems – and put that into a game. They have produced a game called The Radix Endeavor that is aimed at middle- and high school students and covers topics in math and biology. The game is highly complex and large-scale, and involves both individual and cooperative tasks – and is freely available online. It is not designed to replace classroom instruction, but to supplement it by giving students a place to apply their knowledge.

This type of game is clearly a more ambitious undertaking than a simple drill-and-reward type game (which may still have a role as a review tool), but with really exciting implications. It’s sometimes hard to make students see applications for what they learn in an introductory course, when the real-world application may be years away – a game is of course not exactly “real world” but still provides some motivation and excitement about what is being taught in class. An inquiry-based game that gives students room to fail at some tasks without “failing” in a real sense, and to work through frustrating problems using their knowledge, has the potential to teach much more about how science works than anything I could say in front of the class.

More about The Radix Endeavor can be found around the web:

Next Gen Learning Blog

Boston.com State of Play

Games and Learning

Clickers in small classes

Michelle Smith, Caleb Trujillo and Tin Tin Su published an article in CBE – Life Sciences Education in 2011 discussing the use of clickers in small (25-student) biology courses. Clickers are in relatively common use in large lecture hall courses at UBC, where I started my teaching career, and at other institutions – but not everyone is convinced of their usefulness in smaller classes.

In the Smith et al. (2011) study, students in an upper-division seminar course in Embryology were given two types of clicker questions: multiple-choice, fact-based quiz questions based on the pre-reading, and questions that asked the students to apply their knowledge following a presentation. The pre-reading quiz questions were done without discussion, and the post-presentation questions were answered individually first, then discussed with peers, then answered again. The researchers then interviewed students to get their reactions. Students commented that the questions motivated them to do the reading, pay attention in class (the questions were distributed throughout the lecture), think through the questions being asked rather than waiting for the most outspoken students to answer, and engage with their peers over the more challenging application questions.

This article was of particular interest to me because I teach small classes and have used clicker-type questions during my lectures, but without any technology – I just post the question and ask students to work out the answer and vote, or sometimes use a think-pair-share model for harder questions. I’ve been considering the use of a clicker-replacement app such as eclicker or Polls Everywhere to make it a little more fun and anonymous to encourage everyone to participate, and this article gives me a little push to act on that next term. It also made me realize that I could administer my pre-reading quizzes using this technology, which would save me some marking time and show me instantly how students did on each question.

Smith, M.K., Trujillo, C., & Siu, T.T. (2011) The benefits of using clickers in small-enrollment seminar-style biology courses. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 10, 14-17.


I know what you’re thinking… and yes, I had a lovely glass of Therapy Vineyards‘ wonderful 2009 Merlot last night – but I promise I’ll avoid a big tangent about how much I love Naramata wines and stick with educational technology.

MERLOT is a California State University System program, and it is AMAZING. It includes an incredible catalogue of open textbooks; learning materials including powerpoints, worksheets, quizzes,  simulations, videos; pedagogical information; a peer-reviewed journal (Journal of Online Learning and Teaching), and a list of “virtual guest speakers” who are available to speak to classes. There is such a huge amount of information available that I haven’t even scratched the surface of the biology offerings (never mind all the other subjects available) but I will certainly be using this in my lesson planning. This resource is mentioned in our course textbook but I didn’t realize just how extensive it was going to be, and I encourage everyone to check it out to see what’s available for your subject area.

I explored the various biology resources and found some great resources such as Cells Alive – a site with videos, pictures and animations of types of cells, their components, and the process of cell division. Some of the background information is just in text form, but it’s written in clear, simple language that I think my students will find a little more straightforward than their textbook. There are also PowerPoint slides, worksheets and quizzes for various topics.

Another great one for my Biology 12 class is a resource called DNA from the Beginning. I love this because it shows how our various experiments helped scientists come to our modern understanding of genetics. There is a sequence of 75 (!!) experiments explained, each with text, animation, and a problem. Each scientist has a detailed bio and some have video interviews.This site really aligns with a key idea I try to impart in my classes: that science is not just a collection of facts, but a process for understanding the world that involves lots of hard work by many people, and that science is constantly growing. The problems are at varying levels, so teachers will have to pick through to find ones that are right for their classes.

Anyhow.. that’s just two of the huge number of resources available on MERLOT – I will be spending lots of time exploring it!

Posting slides online

I recently started a discussion on the PIDP 3240 forum about posting slides online. I post my lecture slides on Moodle the week before – sometimes a slightly condensed version if I’m doing multiple-slides-animations, and always with my quiz slides deleted – but otherwise complete. I post them as a PDF so that the file will be smaller and accessible from most devices.

I haven’t had any student complaints about having my slides online, and I would say that about 80% of my students come to class with either a printout or an electronic version of the slides. I use a pre-reading quiz at the beginning of each class to encourage students to read the textbook (ideally) or at least look at the slides before they come to class.

Some of my colleagues are against the posting of slides online. The types of comments I’ve heard (with my responses in italics):

  • “if students don’t have to take notes in class, they’re not actively learning” – but is copying off of your slides really “active learning”? Some colleagues post just an outline of their slides, with some words omitted so that they’re fill-in-the-blank style instead of having all the words, but I prefer to give students all the information. I’m not sure which approach is actually best here.
  • “if you post everything online, where’s the incentive for students to come to class?” – ouch! I like to think my explanations and examples (and answers to students’ questions) illuminate the subject matter beyond what I have on my slides… Also, our department has required attendance (students get dropped from the course if they miss 3 days in a row without telling us what’s up) so technically this isn’t an issue for me. I also really like that my students learn not to ask “Did I miss anything?” when they do miss a class, because my answer is ALWAYS, “Yes – go look on Moodle.”
  • “if students are following along on their phones/iPads they’re not paying attention to what you’re saying anyhow” – some students use their devices to take notes right on the slides, which is a great and paperless way to take notes… on the other hand some students seem to just flip through the slides along with me and I’m not totally sure what the point of that is!
  • “it’s too much work to post everything online” – it does force me to have my lectures organized a little earlier than if I didn’t post them in advance, but either way I’d still have to put my lectures together. Converting the files to PDF and posting to Moodle only takes me an extra few minutes. 

One additional concern I have is that having all the slides posted lets me go through the material a little too quickly. I have to watch myself on this because sometimes I get excited and just start speed-talking… what can I say, I really love biology and sometimes I just get too into it! I’ve subbed for an instructor who doesn’t post slides online, and I found the pace really, really slow as I had to wait a long time for students to copy down every word from the slides before moving on. I couldn’t really fill that time with additional examples or stories that I would normally get to use in my own class, either, because students were focused on writing and not listening. So I think on the balance, I’m happier posting slides.

Here’s an article from Psychology Today that discusses the subject and suggests an alternative – using a notes Wiki: To Post or Not To Post – although the author has a teaching assistant (sigh) to develop the Wiki. Oh to have a teaching assistant!