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Physiology laboratory incorporates cooperative learning

April 5, 2010

As students in BMS 302 gather around their laboratory tables, they may not realize that the study in which they are engaged has roots that stretch back to at least 420 B.C. and the time of Hippocrates. Human physiology, the science of the functioning of living systems, is an ancient discipline that has evolved over the centuries.

Conceptually and mentally demanding course

Assistant Professor Connie Vader-Lindholm helps students during a physiology laboratory.

How to effectively teach to modern students a body of knowledge always in transformation is the challenge that Assistant Professor Connie Vader-Lindholm faces each year.

“Our student population comes from undergraduates majoring in dietetics, nutrition and fitness, nutrition science, and other science-based majors in applied human sciences as well as our own undergraduate Biomedical Sciences majors,” said Vader-Lindholm, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, and coordinator for the Laboratory in Principles of Physiology.

The question is how to take a diverse group of students and help each of them succeed in a course of scientific study that can be conceptually and mentally demanding.”

Approach honed over 30 years

Vader-Lindholm began coordinating the physiology laboratory in 1981 and has honed her approach to classroom and laboratory teaching during the past 30 years. (She received her M.S. in physiology in 1979 from Colorado State University and then worked as a research associate in biochemistry prior to being hired to coordinate the Physiology Teaching Laboratory; she received her Ph.D. in physiology in 1987.)

With 160 students each semester, including students in the Biomedical Sciences major and a large number of students in health and exercise science, she has had to develop a system where students can have hands-on experience in the laboratory, quality lecture material, and a chance to participate in in-depth discussions with peers and instructors. With the help each semester of a teaching assistant, she has embraced the idea of cooperative learning as not only practical for the classroom, but
reflective of how the real world functions, whether in the workplace or socially.

Cooperative learning reflective of real world experience

The physiology laboratory offers four course sections each semester. The students have either taken or are taking Principles of Human Physiology (BMS 300 for nonmajors) or Fundamentals of Physiology (BMS 360 for Biomedical Sciences majors). The students are split into groups of 80 for a one-hour morning lecture, then groups of 40 for three-hour laboratories. The groups of 40 are further split into eight groups of five students each, sharing laboratory duties including conducting experiments, recording data, discussion, writing group lab reports, and doing peer evaluations.

One major concern of cooperative learning is that some in the group may carry a heavier load than others. Vader-Lindholm has addressed this potential landmine to group dynamics by instituting a peer evaluation at midterm.

Students anonymously evaluated by all group members

Vader-Lindholm began coordinating the physiology laboratory in 1981 and has honed her approach to classroom and laboratory teaching during the past 30 years.

“In all the years I’ve taught this class, I can only recall one or two cases where a group really was not functioning well,” said Vader-Lindholm.

“Students know they will be evaluated by all the members of their group and this evaluation may affect their grade. They want to do well. If I see a red flag after reviewing the peer evaluations, particularly a concern about one student raised by most of the group, I’m able to work one-on-one with that student and their group to address any particular worries. Because the evaluations are done online and anonymously, students can be honest without fear of repercussions from any particular group member.”

A critical component of making Vader-Lindholm’s physiology course successful is the contribution of capable teaching assistants, usually BMS graduate students. All BMS Ph.D. students are required to have teaching experience before they graduate. The teaching assistant is responsible for a pre-laboratory, 15- to 20-minute lecture, as well as running the laboratory, with assistance from Vader-Lindholm.

Team approach works well

The TA is provided with a grading key for lab reports, and Vader-Lindholm manages examinations with the TA conducting exam reviews before each exam. The team approach works well, said Vader-Lindholm, as the teaching assistant can experience the teaching process without being overwhelmed, and students have the benefit of an experienced teacher along with the hands-on assistance of a TA. The team approach also allows Vader-Lindholm to teach a physiology honors class in the spring, a smaller class with 20 students that incorporates case studies and more in-depth presentations.

“It’s fun to have somebody to work with,” said Vader-Lindholm, who's current TA, Katherine Dunne, returned to assist with spring semester this year. “It’s a partnership built on giving our students the highest quality, personal learning experience in physiology, within the physical and time limitations of a larger class size. I think we have been able to do that well and I know that our students feel positive about their experiences in physiology.”

Originally published in Biomedical Science Update, Spring 2010.