by Julie Wesp, Anthropology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014
As a GSI for an introductory skeletal biology class I was initially surprised by how eager the students were to ask questions, since promoting student participation can often be challenging. After the first section, however, I realized that the same students repeated the same questions, each time wanting me to confirm the facts they were trying to remember. “Is this the head of the femur?” can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” “Yes” certainly would have been easier for me and probably preferred by the student, but this kind of lower-order memorization of details is temporary and superficial, not to mention difficult with the 206-piece puzzle that is the human skeleton. Instead, I wanted to create an environment that would stimulate higher-order learning and instill a deeper understanding and organization of the information. Answering the kind of questions the students were asking did not help them to piece together the parts into a whole; it only insinuated that repetitive memorization was the key to success. In an effort to break this cycle, during the next section I simply stopped answering them. This may seem counter-intuitive in a laboratory-based class where four hours a week were dedicated to the students examining bones and asking questions about the skeletal features that were covered in the lecture. This time to look at the bone casts in person is important for understanding these features, and questions always arise, but instead of giving an answer I would turn to the student and say, “Why do you think that is the head of the femur?” The first time I asked this question I was met with a look of surprise and then confusion. The students were used to the simple yes/no answer. They expected the simple yes/no answer. I refused to give them the simple yes/no answer. Many students would then ask, “What do you mean?” I would then clarify that they must have had a good reason for believing that this part of the bone is the head of the femur and could you please explain why you thought that. “Well, um, because this part of the femur is round like a ball.” I would again intently listen to their response without indicating yes or no. Looking at the other bones on the table, the student would eventually continue, “And it connects with the os coxae bone at the hip, like this. Oh, and that means it has to be from the right side of the body!” I would then smile and, as I moved to the next table, say, “Let me know if you have any other questions.” To my surprise, they always did have more questions and would ask me, even though they began to realize that I would never answer them directly. Instead the question and answer session became a kind of guided, vocal trail of logic. This understanding could then be applied to assemble the bones into a fully articulated body, a goal that various students attempted without reference books and accomplished in the last section meeting.
Evaluation of this method took many forms. Overall high test scores rather than a normal bell curve on both the midterm and the final showed that the higher order learning skills practiced in the lab sections created deeper understanding with successful results in stressful situations. Both tests were made up of timed stations where the students have two minutes to identify the bone, the side of the body it is from, what feature the arrow is pointing to, and what other bones it articulates with. Since it is designed to test for understanding and application of knowledge, simple memorization would not have been enough. Throughout the semester, student questions increased and as a vocal dialogue many different students participated together in the trail of logic. However, I think the comments from the student evaluations best illustrate the success of this methodology. One student commented that the dialogue format “encourages you to explore the material and ask questions.” Another student aptly wrote, “She helps us figure out how to find the answers for ourselves instead of just telling us yes or no.” Next time a student asks a question, try offering a smile and ask: “Why do you think that is?”