by Britney Kitamata-Wong, Integrative Biology (Home Department: Optometry)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015
Teaching students to appreciate the practical applications of a course is a challenge faced by instructors in all fields of study. During my first semester teaching Integrative Biology 131L, I encountered a student who changed my perspective of how students perceive this general anatomy lab course. In a final reflection essay this student wrote, “The course was just as I expected, dull memorizing and mostly unpractical knowledge. I see no point in just memorizing the names arbitrarily made up by random people. I wanted actually to learn more of and be tested on the functionality.”
I had always viewed anatomy as the most inspiring class of my undergraduate studies, mainly due to my background working in a clinical optometry setting. While many students showed strong interest, there were no doubt some students who struggled beyond the point of passing the class. I had no idea that some students felt so disconnected from the material. I felt like I had failed to teach my students the value of anatomy and to provide them with the integrative skills necessary to succeed in their future careers. When I was appointed to teach anatomy again in Fall 2014 I was determined to improve my pedagogical approach.
I approached my teaching this second time around from a more clinical perspective, pulling from my patient-care experiences in my optometry clinical rotations. At the start of the semester I polled the class to gauge their interests and confirmed that many of the students were interested in pursuing careers in a medical or health-related field. I structured each of my lectures in a case presentation format starting with patient information, initial signs and symptoms, and applicable visuals. Other than the topic of the lecture, the students were initially given no information about the condition. I then prompted the class to think about what tissues and organ systems may be affected in this disease process. This kept students engaged (and awake) during the lecture portion of the lab. At the end of the lecture, I reviewed differential diagnoses, the final diagnosis, and treatment based on restoring normal anatomy.
At first I was unsure if students were fully grasping the concept of case-based lectures. However, as the semester progressed the students became more involved in generating differentials and identifying affected tissues. We covered various cases from connective tissue disorders to retinal vascular occlusions. Many students approached me after class about various conditions they have heard about, opening the floor to more discussion of anatomy and the relevant pathophysiology. Since the UGSIs also seemed very engaged in the cases, I offered them the opportunity to present a case study to the class that they had researched on their own. They did an outstanding job, and I was impressed by their enthusiasm and analytical ability. Compared to the first time I taught the course, the students seemed much more motivated to learn. Even students who initially struggled were able to improve their performance with some support. When final grades were distributed, all my students earned passing marks for the class. Months after the class ended, a student shared with me her experience shadowing at an ophthalmology clinic over winter break. She described a patient with a bulging eye and was able to come up with several differentials. “I was so excited because I was able to identify the problem,” she reports. “And that is because of your cases! Thanks for making lab more interesting!”
Understanding disease all stems from identifying alterations of normal anatomy. By learning each week with a clinical example in mind, students had better motivation and interest in the subject matter. Furthermore teaching students to think more from a clinical perspective strengthened my own clinical skills and understanding of pathophysiology. I have no doubt that my students will succeed in their health careers and will one day be amazing colleagues.