Utilizing a Unifying Experiment to Enhance Conceptual Integration

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jason Ng, Vision Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

When I began preparations to teach a Visual Perception laboratory for a second time, I knew that I wanted to strengthen the students’ understanding of the lab material and provide greater clinical relevance. In teaching the same laboratory a year ago, I recognized that students were unable to integrate the knowledge gained from one lab to the next. The students seemed to treat each lab in isolation without making conceptual links between the labs. This lack of integration impaired their learning of the course material, and this was ultimately reflected in their responses to short answer exam questions that often required the simultaneous application of multiple concepts. I also felt that the students would be more motivated to really understand and connect the labs if the labs were more clinically relevant. The students who take the course are training to become eye doctors and they tend to be much more interested in actual patient testing issues than basic science issues. Therefore the challenges were to find a way to tie the labs together over the entire semester, and to focus on creating a more direct link between the basic science experiments in the labs and actual clinical patient testing.

My idea was to use an actual clinical test used in patient testing and incorporate it into the labs. I was able to obtain the use of a clinical contrast test from a professor in the department who had run several experiments with it. The contrast test was ideal to show to students in the laboratory, not only because it was a clinical test actually used in the optometry clinic, but more importantly because nearly every concept in the labs (e.g. spatial-temporal resolution and summation, psychophysical methodology, and contrast sensitivity) could be related to the design and function of this single contrast test. (For the one lab that was not directly related to the contrast test, I obtained the instructor’s approval to write an extensive supplement to the lab that expanded its basic science content and improved its clinical relevance.) Providing this one test and using it to provide a single framework for the laboratory experiments made much more apparent the purpose of exploring the concepts in each lab and how they relate to each other.

I began each laboratory section with a discussion of the contrast test. I reviewed the aspects of the test that we had discussed in previous labs and then ran the test again to lead into a discussion about the current lab’s concept. We then explored the contrast test together by running it several times, and then I related it to how the lab equipment would be used to explore the same concept in an even more in-depth way. By starting each section with the test, I was able to continually capture student’s interest because it was an actual test used in our clinic. The repetition also provided the students a familiar starting point for each lab so that each lab did not feel like an isolated and random occurrence of concepts. The clinical test allowed me to build upon and integrate each lab concept, furthering our analysis of the design and operation of the test with each lab.

I assessed my efforts by constant conversations with the students in my section and other sections, with an informal midterm evaluation, and with a final section in which I specifically devoted time to discussing the utility of the laboratory and the contrast test with the students. All of these interactions validated the effectiveness of using the contrast test. Some students reported that the lab was the first one to actually help with their understanding of the lecture material. Others expressed their appreciation of my efforts to relate the lab to actual patient testing. The students showed more motivation during the labs, asked more conceptually meaningful questions, and referred to the activities from the labs during office hours much more than the previous time I had taught the lab. Ultimately, I noticed that their answers to exam questions as a whole showed more comprehensive understanding and a greater ability to consider several concepts simultaneously. The contrast test brought more meaning and continuity to the labs as a whole and motivated the students to make more conceptual connections that improved their application of course material.