Well, Isn’t That Humerus? Biological and Cognitive Changes through Making Learning Meaningful
by Julie Wesp, Anthropology
Recipient of the Teagle Foundation Award for Excellence in Enhancing Student Learning, 2014
Related Teaching Effectiveness Award essay: The Hip Bone is Connected to the Thigh Bone: Fostering Higher-Order Learning by Not Answering Students’ Questions
In a laboratory-based section of the introductory Skeletal Biology class, students have time to interact with a plastic cast collection of bone material in an empirical, practical setting. In the section I taught, I found that students only focused on memorizing bones and specific features on these bones that had been introduced during the lecture portion of the class. As I outlined in my Teaching Effectiveness Award essay, within the first two section meetings I stopped answering student questions and instead asked my students to explain, for example, the logic of why or how we could know if a given bone was the femur. This change helped my students to more effectively identify bones and apply a broader knowledge of the skeleton on the tests. The overall improvement that I saw throughout the semester is supported by research on how students learn that shows both biological and cognitive transformations.
At first, students were uncomfortable with my questions and did not know how to answer. By asking my students to change the way they studied, I was actually triggering a physical difference in the kind and amount of neural connectivity being created in the brain (Anderson 2000). Simple memorization takes place only in the hippocampus region of the brain, whereas activities that involve evaluation, analysis, and application of knowledge, require more complex neurological networks across numerous regions of the brain (Anderson 2000). Other biological research has shown that moderate amounts of stress, which can be measured in the amount of the hormone cortisol improves performance and learning (Tokuhama-Espinosa 2011). Asking a student to articulate his or her trail of logic can be nerve-wracking, especially when information is new, but because there is no real consequence in answering incorrectly during section, I created an environment of moderate stress in which understanding could be formulated and reinforced through changes in how the brain worked.
While I was unaware of these biological changes that were happening as a result of changing my teaching style, I did notice a fundamental cognitive difference in the way students related to the material. Extensive lists of anatomical features have no inherent meaning, but by making each individual feature meaningful — for example, understanding that the head of the femur has a particular shape because it connects at the hip in a ball and socket joint — my students could begin to solve the human skeletal puzzle (Anderson 1986; Najjar 1996). This also creates a kind of metacognitive exercise in which each student analyzes his or her own critical thinking skills as they speak and tweaks them when necessary (Ottenhoff 2011). Rather than imposing my own meaningful logic, my role is to make sure that each student creates his or her own meaning while staying on the right track. Ultimately, and most importantly, this change shifts the focus onto learning rather than telling, a topic exemplified in Finkel’s aptly titled book Teaching with Your Mouth Shut (2000).
While I believe this methodology really worked, there are some ways to improve it. First, the logical discussions were largely based on student-initiated interactions. Designating a specific portion of the class to verbally test student knowledge would ensure that all learners are included and receive the positive benefits of preliminary testing in a moderate-stress environment (Roediger and Karpicke 2006). I could also use online “mystery bone” discussion forums, where students who are reticent in class might feel more comfortable participating. Lastly, I could help make skeletal features more meaningful with activities geared towards real-world application of knowledge — something that all students could benefit from whether or not they continue studying skeletal biology.
Since I focus on making learning meaningful, feedback from students is an important way of assessing this methodology, but it can also be problematic since research has shown that students sometimes say they dislike methods that actually help improve learning (Kyndt et al. 2011). I think that contextualizing student feedback in relation to other assessments like tests would help overcome this problem. Next time I teach I will use exam wrappers (Angelo and Cross 1993), which serve as a more formal metacognitive practice in which students are asked directly after receiving the graded test to assess the grade in relation to the new study methods that were encouraged during laboratory time. This kind of contextualized assessment identifies areas for improvement for both the student and the instructor. Finally, the beauty of this method is that it can be constantly adjusted for different material as well as for different students, making each class a meaningful learning experience.
Anderson, John R. 1983. The Architecture of Cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Anderson, John R. 2000. Learning and Memory: An Integrated Approach. 2nd ed. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. 1993. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Finkel, Donald L. 2000. Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
Kyndt, Eva, Filip Dochy, Katrien Stuyven, and Eduardo Cascallar. 2011. “The Direct and Indirect Effect of Motivation for Learning on Students’ Approaches to Learning through the Perceptions of Workload and Task Complexity.” Higher Education Research & Development 30(2):135–150.
Najjar, Lawrence J. 1996. The Effects of Multimedia and Elaborative Encoding on Learning. Atlanta: Georgia Institute of Technology.
Ottenhoff, John. 2011. “Metacognition in Liberal Education.” Liberal Education no. 97 (3/4): 28–33.
Roediger, Henry L., and Jeffrey D. Karpicke. 2006. “The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice.” Perspectives on Psychological Science no. 1 (3): 181–210.
Tokuhama-Espinosa, Tracey. 2011. Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching. New York: W.W. Norton.