Grasping Tough Concepts Takes More than Memorization

Allison Dunbar and Caroline Stark
Allison Dunbar and Caroline Stark, who more easily recall anatomy and physiology structures due to new teaching methods by Lecturer Michelle Hunt, analyze anatomy models in the Student Resource Center.

By Karen Angelo

Studying anatomy and physiology is not for the faint of heart. Muscles, bones, nerves, cells, organs – and how these are all connected – are difficult concepts to master and retain. One way to learn the material is through memorization. But Michelle Hunt has other ideas. 

“When students memorize for a test, they quickly forget the information,” says Hunt, who teaches human anatomy and physiology in the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences. “Once our students become nurses, physical therapists, dietitians or exercise physiologists, they will need to understand and remember these concepts to treat their patients.” 

Hunt is one of five Faculty Teaching Circle Fellows in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences. Dean Shortie McKinney established the group, which is in its second year, to encourage faculty to develop and share innovative teaching methods that help students succeed. The fellows, who applied for the post, attend conferences such as the Teaching Professor Conference and Lilly Conference Series, read books including “Learner-Centered Teaching” by Maryellen Weimer and meet each month to discuss best practices and exchange ideas. 

“Our goal is to foster teaching excellence for the success of our students,” says McKinney. “The fellows are excited and eager to share best practices with other faculty to encourage the use of new approaches that help students absorb the material in a meaningful way.” 

Students Think Through Concepts to Understand, Not Memorize 

Hunt made a big shift in her teaching that relies less on memorization and more on students understanding how structures work. For students, it’s the difference between knowing what the femur bone is and understanding why it’s built the way it is. While it may sound like a subtle shift, Caroline Stark, a doctoral student in the physical therapy program, says that this new approach made a big impact. For instance, after many weeks, she can recall structures and how they work. 

“Whenever I’m trying to remember a specific muscle or structure, what it looks like or where it attaches, I think about its overall purpose or clinical significance that Dr. Hunt taught us,” says Stark. 

When teaching the thickness of walls in the chambers of the heart, Hunt engaged the students in a series of questions that helped them think through how the heart functions. 

“Dr. Hunt asked us to think it through,” says Allison Dunbar, also a student in the physical therapy doctoral program. “We, the students, came to the answer ourselves. The walls of the heart are thinner or thicker depending on how far they have to pump the blood. Being able to come to the conclusions ourselves helped us retain the information, rather than just trying to memorize what we were told.” 

Mock Simulations Stimulate Learning 

While teaching clinical setting and nutrition courses, Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences used mock simulations in class with each student filling roles such as phlebotomist, clinician and community leader. Noel’s new teaching methods made such a big impression on Arianna Neal ’18 that the clinical lab sciences major is thinking of switching careers to become a researcher. 

“I learned skills such as engaging effectively with community partners, distinguishing ethical conduct in a research setting and using adaptive strategies for lab environments and their adverse events,” she says. 

Online Competitions Engage Students 

Michele Fox, a lecturer in the Physical Therapy Department, used a free game-based learning platform called Kahoot! to engage her students. She posted questions for review, and students logged in during class and competed to submit the correct answers. The students embraced the platform. 

“I created a quick survey online about the syllabus and a lecture, and the students not only had fun and remembered the information, they used Kahoot! in class when they presented to the class,” says Fox. 

Faculty Share Methods and Results with Colleagues 

Rebecca Foco, lecturer in the Public Health Department, says the fellows are sharing ideas with colleagues to improve teaching across the college. 

“My role as a fellow is to equip my colleagues to become better teachers as I learn and improve my own teaching,” Foco says. “I believe we are starting to have a significant impact on the college, particularly with new faculty. If I can help others become stronger in their teaching, then I can have an influence on students across the college, and that’s gratifying.” 

The Faculty Teaching Circle Fellows group, led by Assoc. Dean Deirdra Murphy, also includes Senior Lecturer Ramraj Gautam of the Solomont School of Nursing. Assoc. Prof. Nancy Goodyear of the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences participated the first year.