Friday, February 18, 2011

Not enough bars and a teachable moment

One of the thought processes running continuously in the back of my mind lately is how to develop critical thinking. As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently participated in a stimulating meeting about teaching strategies and assessments. Slowly I am introducing more and more active elements in my classes, and feel its positive impact as students take charge of solving problems instead of simply sitting and receiving information.
On a side note: I realize that times have a-changed. In the "old days," information was available only during class time (or from the text book), so students had no other choice that come to class and take notes. However, as information becomes more easily available by oneself  (if I put my lectures up as podcasts, theoretically the students don't really have to listen to it twice) or others, there is a higher bar set for educators. Which is, in my mind, a good thing. These days, I see more and more students glancing under the table while I lecture, which is the obvious sign that they are checking their phones. In classes where they use laptops, I know that they are reading emails etc. Do I get upset with them? I cannot really, as I do the same when I am in conferences...and I recall my college days when I would be reading under my desk. The only way I would stop is when there was something to think about, which would make me fully engaged.
So I have this physiology class where finals are approaching, and we are supposed to have a review session. With a written report due that day, I am facing students buried in their laptops or books, absolutely uninterested in discussing any topics they don't understand.
The issue of course is that they don't know that they don't understand. It is my job to provide them with problems to solve, so they can actually test their knowledge. So in a moment of inspiration I run to make copies of a case study related to the nervous system. The exam coming up is on nervous  and it goes from the basics of signaling (action potentials etc), through parts and functions of CNS and PNS, to nervous system pathologies lite. In summary, lots of material. The case study in question can be built up effectively from the chemical basics of neuron signaling to how nerves function, so I thought that would be a good way to go over the main concepts.
One of the first questions that come up is about Novocaine, a local anesthetic. I look at my students and decide to let them play. "Get your smartphones and laptops," I say. "What is the mechanism of action of Novocaine?" Some minutes pass and students are still gazing at their gadgets. "Come on, this cannot be that difficult," I comment. One of the girls looks up in clear frustration. "There is only one bar inside the room," she says. "It is too slow."
The golden opportunity appears in front of my eyes and I grab it. "All right," I answer. "Let's pretend we are in a part of the world where there is no internet. Let's think. How could a local anesthetic work?"
Students slowly inch their way through the thinking process. It is about pain, so it is a sensory pathway. A sensory receptor picks up the signal, which passes the threshold and provokes an action potential. An action potential starts with depolarization. Depolarization is provoked by opening of sodium channels. If you block the sodium channels, there is no action potential, hence, no pain signal. Novocaine is a sodium channel blocker.
It was great. I could hear the whirring of the wheels inside students' brain as they were using the concepts to explain something from real life. Along the way we covered other related concepts, made some comparisons, there were questions and answers. Most students were engaged. And I was stoked.
The second part of the course is starting in two weeks, and I am finishing preparing the syllabus with the assignments. I know that there will be more activities like that, and I know that I have to figure that out during this long weekend. It will be busy...
Enjoy the long weekend if you are in the US! And happy weekend everyone. As for me, I think I'll go for a run to clear my RAM :)

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