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Talk About Teaching and Learning
January 19, 2010, Volume 56, No. 18

Engaging Every Neuron in the Large Lecture Class

Connie Scanga

I have been teaching undergraduate Human Anatomy & Physiology (A&P) for nearly 20 years, the last eight at Penn. Human A&P is a required course in nursing and allied health curricula, and across the country is recognized as one of the most challenging courses in nursing curricula. In part, the difficulty derives from the fact that A&P is often a student’s first encounter with an undergraduate life science course. More importantly, however, is the fact that the course is foundational, geared toward preparing students not only for advanced courses in nursing or biomedical science but also for clinical practice and decision-making. The challenges I face as I try to engage students in the process of learning are not unique to A&P, but rather are challenges confronted by many faculty, teaching foundational courses in varied disciplines. 

Here at Penn, A&P is a two-semester course that includes both lecture and lab components, providing ample opportunity for me to interact with students in different learning environments. In this essay I will describe two teaching strategies I’ve employed to enhance student learning and success in the lecture portion of the course. 

Study Guides: The tried-and-true approach to learning A&P

There are four hours of A&P lecture weekly. According to students, I talk rapidly. Thus, after each lecture students have a large amount of information to organize, memorize and synthesize. I regularly advise students to “study A&P every day,” yet many students cannot determine where to focus their daily (and their most intense) study efforts. Most students are aware of the term “active learning,” but they typically do not understand how to incorporate active learning strategies into their A&P study. In my early years of teaching I realized that students felt that they “knew” the information when they had memorized lecture notes and bold-faced terminology in their textbooks. This level of “knowing” was not adequate to ensure success on examinations nor to facilitate retention in long-term, working memory where it will enhance analysis and decision-making in subsequent clinical settings. 

To help address these problems, I have developed a series of study guides that parallel my lecture content and provide structure for student study efforts. The study guides contain question sequences that are carefully designed to help students effectively organize course information, gain an appreciation for the relationship between structure and function within the body, and take an active approach to synthesizing lecture content. Questions range from general (Describe the process of excitation-contraction coupling, beginning with the arrival of an action potential at an axonal terminal of a motor neuron.) to specific (What causes myosin to detach from actin after the power stroke is completed?). I encourage students to produce (as soon as possible after a lecture) flashcards with the study guide questions and their answers, and to then focus their study on a shuffled pack of flashcards. Not only does this strategy create a disciplined routine that many students find helpful, it also provides a structure for my discussions with students who are having difficulty with course content. I receive many questions from students saying, for example, “I don’t understand excitation-contraction coupling. Can you explain it to me?” The student approach to this problem is most often to pull out their lecture notes. I have found it to be much more helpful if we refer to the relevant study guide questions so that the student can communicate in a systematic way what it is they know and identify specifically which questions are unclear.

Interactive Learning Interludes During Lectures: The Result of a Recent Brainstorm

For several years I have been struggling to become fluent in a second language. To this end, I have enrolled in several Spanish courses at Penn that have fostered an increase in my Spanish conversational skills. Taking these classes has also given me the opportunity to observe teaching and learning in a discipline other than the life sciences. One common teaching strategy in the languages is to pair class members for brief sessions of conversation about a specific topic. After a short period of dialogue, group members report their conclusions or observations to the larger class. It’s hard to escape conversing under the circumstances and, fortunately, concerns about the potential public embarrassment of reporting to the class are minimized by the opportunity to rehearse with a classmate. 

Last year I decided to modify this teaching strategy for use in my A&P lectures. As any teacher knows, student minds are most likely to wander precisely when you are talking about difficult material. To counteract this tendency during my lectures, I decided to make time for student conversations about the difficult topic, followed by reports to the larger class. For example, after lecturing about excitation-contraction coupling, I directed the students to quickly choose a nearby partner for two minutes of review, with one person talking and the other correcting (when necessary) what was said. Students were enlivened as they engaged with their partner about the complex physiological mechanism, referring to their notes, correcting the use of terminology and pronunciation of new terms, and gaining confidence as they worked together to synthesize difficult concepts. At the end of these paired conversations, I select students at random to report to the class, step by step, the mechanism or process that they have just reviewed with a partner. This interactive learning technique has been very successful at helping students to integrate difficult course concepts and is a notable energizer for the class, especially for students whose concentration may be faltering. An unanticipated benefit has been increased student comfort when talking about physiological mechanisms, many of which involve terminology that seems to students to be a type of foreign language.

In spite of the challenges they present, lecture classes provide an avenue for a well-versed instructor to convey a broad base of information to large numbers of students. I have not yet found a way to significantly modify the lecture format of my A&P courses without sacrificing coverage of essential information. However, it can be extremely fruitful for those of us teaching large lectures to meld the traditional lecture framework with approaches—including study guides, interactive interludes, and other creative strategies—that actively engage students in learning.

Connie Scanga is a practice assistant professor of physiology in the School of Nursing;
the 2006 recipient of The Dean’s Award for Undergraduate Teaching, and
a recipient of the 2009 Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence by Non-Standing Faculty.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - January 19, 2010, Volume 56, No. 18