Enhancing Student Engagement to Promote Deep Learning

Project Synthesis and Rationale

            I added a new assessment piece to my Human Anatomy and Histology course, called Intellectual Engagement Activities (IEA) to enhance student engagement with the material. In the past, students have waited too long to study for the anatomy exams (the first one is week 6 of the semester) and then are unsuccessful. To motivate students to prepare sooner and to help them self-assess, I planned to use Socrative, IEAs for lecture material, and dissection activities for lab material. Socrative is a tool that makes it possible to ask MC questions during lecture to assess student comprehension. IEAs were designed to promote collaboration between students as they puzzled out the response to higher level, problem solving questions. Dissection activities guided students during lab and encouraged them to work as a team.

            In addition to the IEA component, I also added a digital tool called Virtual Microscope. Each Friday, we study slides to learn histology. We will use the microscopes in lab and also a digital tool: VM. The digital tool is a learning tool. Students can use this to review slides without being in lab. They can also create their own quizzes to prepare for lab exams. This is another tool that will motivate students to self-assess prior to the formative assessment.

            Note: As a result of COVID-19, I modified my original project. I dropped Socrative, but maintained the IEAs for lecture and lab material, and we are still using Virtual Microscope for histology. I added a virtual lab dissection experience whereby I show students structures that I have dissected and then quiz them on those. I also added an online resource, virtual dissection software, for the students. And, I added chalk talks, recorded lecture discussions for students to view prior to virtual class meetings.

Project Results

Elevating student learning

            The IEA assignments were successful on two major fronts: student engagement and community building. Students were probing the material and asking deep, thoughtful questions. I noticed that they (at least some of the students) were migrating away from surface learning or memorizing material. I noticed that students were asking higher level questions about the material for which they had completed an IEA. Students, themselves, commented on how the dissection activities prepared them to better understand lab material. For example, students were directed to draw a diagram of the branches of the celiac artery (there are three main branches and then several more from those vessels). Students reported that creating the diagram made it easier to understand the branching pattern we studied on the donor in our virtual lab experience. Likewise with the kidney assignment.

            An unexpected, but added bonus, is that encouraging students to work together in pairs and lab teams created a solid learning community. These relationships between the students have benefitted them in the transition to remote learning.

Digital Literacy Tools

            Use of Socrative and VM helped students to build skills in metacognition and life-long learning and collaborative communication. The metacognition piece is key to developing an ability to assess one’s knowledge and skills. This has been a valuable skills with the move to remote learning.

            As students answer questions or compete with digital games during class, they are using a digital tool to make learning fun and more memorable while assessing their knowledge. Students have responded positively by asking more in depth questions in the future in preparation for exams.

            Learning to use VM for studying and beyond (they can explore pathology in addition to normal tissue study) helped students develop skills using digital resources in new ways that promote learning. Having developed a comfort level with online resources facilitated use of the new virtual dissection tool for some students. Likewise, using Socrative and VM, students became familiar with these digital tools and learned how to use them for studying. Students worked in teams for VM, thus, they developed collaborative communication skills as they learned to use the technology together.

Resources for success

            To facilitate student success with the digital tools, I provided written instructions and also “walked” students through use of each tool upon introduction. For example, Socrative was introduced the second day of class using simple questions about the syllabus and student goals for the course. We tried a couple of variations of questioning format as well (e.g. competitive by individual vs. teams). The Virtual Microscope application, Biolucida, is a tool students learned to use the second time we met for histology. I created written directions and posted them to Moodle and then we used the program together during class time. Likewise, when I introduced the virtual dissection software, I walked students through a specific example, as we met virtually. This was supplemented with written instructions and a practice activity for skill building that related directly to content we were learning in lab.

Assessment plan

            My original assessment plan included a combination of tools. To measure student engagement, I planned on using Peer Review, student self-assessment, and a dissection rubric. Once we entered remote teaching mode, I modified my assessment plan. To assess student engagement, I am meeting with my two teaching assistants 2-3 times per week. Generally, the sense is that the IEAs are well received and definitely helping students learn the material. I offered to not have any more IEAs for the last two weeks, but students requested that we keep this piece of the course. Other methods I am using to measure student engagement include the virtual lab presentations and quizzing sessions. I assign each student a number and quiz them during virtual lab. Most of the students are quick to identify structures and thus, seem to be engaged in learning the material despite not being able to be physically present in lab. I was pleasantly surprised to note that students performed as well on exam II and lab practical II (online version) as they did on the first exam and lab practical (non-remote).

Implementation period

            The addition of intellectual engagement activities for lecture and lab and digital tools for dissection and the study of histology, occurred in the Spring semester of 2020. The project started in January, the first week of class and will end at the end of the semester.

Conclusion and Next steps

            Addition of the intellectual engagement activities for lecture and lab were very successful in elevating student learning. These pieces encouraged students to go past surface learning and explore the material more deeply. Key to this, it gave students some structure and/or ideas about how to learn more deeply. And, to build this skill out for future use, we talked about general strategies that would enhance the usefulness of this technique for any subject matter.

            I plan to continue using IEAs with a specific focus on how they can be combined with digital tools such as the virtual cadaver dissection and virtual microscope tool. Teaching students how to assess their own learning and how to probe a topic more deeply to enhance understanding is a very useful skill, for any course. Many of my students have been successful with the transition to remote learning because we were already practicing self-learning and metacognition skills and had developed a strong learning community.

(1) Comment

  1. Susan Ashley

    Deb,
    When I read this blog, I think of a few phrases. Phrases like student engagement, student learning, course objectives, technology tool review, student feedback, and teaching flexibility come to mind. It is evident that these things are important components of your teaching. This student centered approach elevates learning in your classroom, whether face to face or online. Your content delivery methods are pedagogically aligned. It is exciting to hear the results of the assessment scores during the second half of the semester. Learning the tech tools is time consuming, I know, but the benefits have certainly been obvious.
    Student interaction and community are so very important, if you were to have taught this solely online, without the benefit of the face to face relationship building that you had earlier this semester, what other activities would you incorporate in the remote setting to build community?

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