View Full Version : Challenges in undergraduate teaching

05-30-2011, 01:02 AM
I have a question that is about teaching anatomy to first year undergraduate students. I realise it is not directly related to biomechanics but in many places anatomy is a prerequisite for introductory biomechanics courses and since I teach both, I am hoping that colleagues might have some suggestions for me.

Let me give you the context of my anatomy teaching. I have previously taught anatomy in Canada and Hong Kong with some success. The students whom I taught in Hong Kong (2000-2001) had fairly good English language skills and they were in a Physiotherapy programme (the only one in HK) so they were academically quite strong owing to the fact that it was highly competitive to get into the course AND the fact that anatomy plays a vital role in their profession.

Currently, I am teaching a one-semester course called, Essentials of Human Anatomy and Physiology and the class size is around 30 students. This is to give students who are studying to become PE teachers (BEd) the absolute basics in anatomy. I feel that my course is less than ideal and the factors that are affecting the quality (besides my own skills as an educator) are:

The course is taught in English but the language skills of the students at my current institution are below that of my previous Hong Kong job. Anatomy is challenging even for native English speakers owing to the fact that many terms are based on Latin and are not common in everyday use but for speakers of Cantonese, it can be totally confusing to remember what these terms mean, much less hope to pronounce them properly.
The students rarely purchase textbooks because they are very expensive and many students are from middle- to low-income families. However, our Library is excellent and there are many textbooks on closed reserve.
Generally, first year students here (and even senior year students and Masters students) do not have a clear concept of plagiarism and the institution really does very little to educate them on this - in fact, the Institute policy on plagiarism is 'under review' so even students don't know where they stand. They naturally want to use sources directly when they have to give written answers on lab reports, essays etc. It could be argued that even in copying they are learning something because they had to read it to know if it is worthy of copying; however, the material is sometimes rather 'viral' in nature so I am unsure whom, if anyone, read it in the first place.
I make use of on-line learning tools, specifically Blackboard and Moodle, in my teaching, so there is some potential there.

In this version of my course, students are assessed with two term tests (one bell-ringer and one written test that includes some MCQs and short answer questions), four laboratory reports (short answers mostly) and a group project on an applied anatomy task related to sport. Starting next year, on the advice of our External Examiner, I will be replacing the project with a final examination.

My biggest concern is that my students are not leaving my class with sufficient usable knowledge in anatomy that they retain. When I see them again in their 4th year Sports Biomechanics course, they seem to have forgotten everything (I know, students always say they don't remember previous course material, but in this case I believe them).

I would like to employ more online learning, including self-quizzes, but unless I give them some credit for this, they are unlikely, especially in first year, to do them voluntarily. At the same time, if I do give even a small percentage for this, I will have no way of knowing if the person doing the test is the person getting the credit for it (a common dilemma I imagine).

Ideally, I'd like to be confident that my students are getting the grade they deserve based on what they actually have learned. Currently, I am unsure about what has been learned. If any readers have similar experience or have suggestions, please feel free to reply. I am very curious to hear what members have to say.

05-31-2011, 03:41 AM
Hi Drew
I believe your experience is more common than you think. Previously we also assessed the lab sessions through lab reports as you currently do, however, about 4 years ago we decided to assess them practically. A major part of this assessment is (working in pairs) to physically demonstrate surface anatomy, landmarks, muscles (with origins & insertions) to a lab tutor. Students are then marked in terms of being correct, being close or completely way off. We have found that since we started this students have worked much harder to consolidate their anatomical knowledge and that much of this is retained from year to year (well in most cases!!). These assessments are carried out in both the 1st and 2nd undergraduate years obviously with increasing task difficulty.
I look forward to see what other colleagues have done.


05-31-2011, 03:46 AM
Great suggestion! I will definitely consider this idea. Thank you.

05-31-2011, 12:54 PM
Dear Drew,
Have you tried some of the quiz functions in Blackboard? At Aberystwyth University we use the 'hotspot' type questions (where you click on part of a picture) to get students to identify different anatomical structures, and also 'fill in the blanks' type questions. You can also upload video and audio files and set questions on these. We generally set up practice quizzes to allow the students to self-test in their own time, and then run an online exam using a similar format.

In terms of retaining information from previous classes, our institution has started to allow students to access archived copies of Blackboard content so that they can revise previous work (documents and powerpoint slides or more interactive content). Within Blackboard you can then force students to review certain material before releasing new content to them. A number of lecture capture packages integrate with Blackboard so that you can record your voice and your slides or whatever else is on your computer screen, and then let the students listen again later.

05-31-2011, 09:33 PM
Thanks, Sam. These are good suggestions. I think that our institution is moving to Moodle, which is open source, but I am sure that similar features to that of Blackboard may be found here as well.

06-01-2011, 12:39 PM
Maybe there is too much time between your first year and fourth year courses, Drew? Unless there are other applications which use or build on what you teach in Year 1, you've got to expect a larger loss of information than if the two courses were in adjacent terms. Blackboard would allow you to host review/booster sessions that would be prerequisite for the fourth year course.

Jim Furmato

06-01-2011, 09:43 PM

Your point is a valid one for sure. After the Anatomy course (Year 1) the students also have a course on Exercise Physiology (Year 2) that draws on the Year 1 course knowledge.

I think my real issue is one of alignment between assessment and course intended learning outcomes. I think that if the students left the Anatomy class with a more solid (and confirmed) body of anatomical knowledge, most would be able to utilise this later on. So, I need to tighten up this alignment in ways that minimise the negative effects of language and students' work ethic (or lack thereof).

06-03-2011, 05:38 AM
Hi Drew
We have found a very similar story with English speaking undergraduates who seem to fail to learn the basic anatomy, so becomes quite difficult to teach biomechanics at a later stage in the course when they have forgotten the locations and functions of the basic bones/joints/muscles. It is a more interesting challenge when the students lack basic language skills, as they are in effect learning another language again (Latin!) on top of learning English. Some of the ideas we have tried to help them to learn this information follow. A group practical session where students are asked to label an actual skeleton with bone names and muscle origin and insertion points helps. If they can link the name with the location on either an actual person or skeleton, it seems to help the brain to remember the location, as they find it often difficult to learn from the rather abstract pictures in books. I agree that if you test them on something, they are more likely to consolidate the information, so we tell them the test (or end of year exam) will ask them to draw and label a diagram of a section of the body (such as a basic sagittal section of the lower limb), they then work to revise the information they will need to draw this accurately. It helps if they can also practice the drawing in practical lab sessions, which can be difficult if you have large groups. I think definitely your thoughts about matching the assessments to the learning outcomes will help as students these days are very efficient in what they revise, so they only learn the information you tell them they will need for the assessments, and often never touch information if you tell them it is not needed for the exam. Our department has argued to keep end of module exams for their major assessment for this reason, as a lot of Universities (at least in the UK) are going down the route of coursework only modules. There are obviously many disadvantages of end of year exams, but at least the students have to revise and learn something that might have been taught at the very start of the academic year so they more effectively retain it into the second year.
An interesting thread I think especially at this time of year when we are reflecting on how the year has gone and perhaps considering how we call improve things for the next academic year (that will with us all too quickly). Thanks, Tanya

06-04-2011, 12:37 AM
Thanks for your perspective, Tanya. You've given me something to think about.

We have historically had 3hr teaching blocks here, which, starting next academic year, I will be modifying into a 2 + 1 hr format. I plan to have a 1-hr lecture and a 2-hr practical/laboratory session. The lecture will include two different groups: BEd students in PE (n<30) and BScEd students in Sports Science (projected at n~60-80), The 2-hr block will be repeat sessions for one PE group and 3 SS groups. I can see the latter teaching time being used to (a) learn surface anatomy; (b) explore physical models (skeletons, etc.) and (c) practical assessments (probably on a rotating basis, randomly selected). I will put students in pairs or possibly groups of 3 for the entire semester.

I agree that final examinations may not be the ideal way to assess students but as you have pointed out so astutely, this may be the only way to guarantee that students will revise the material one feels that they absolutely need to know.