Going for Gold

It continues to surprise me that a theme for a post will persist in presenting itself to me until I finally say, “OK! I’ll write about it!”  During the last few days, several situations have nudged me to reflect on the importance of the achievable challenge as a source of pleasure. Like billions of other people, I have been hooked on the London Olympics.  Every four years I watch amazing athletes do amazing things and find myself musing, “Yeah…I wanna try that!”  Of course, I couldn’t do any of it. But somehow seeing those beautiful young people swim, flip, cycle, row, run, and all the rest makes me think that maybe, just maybe, I could do something like that. Seeing the cyclists pedaling uphill at 27 mph inspires me, although I think I’m flying when I hit 13 mph.  I find myself cheering for sports that I never even consider: badminton, water polo, fencing, ping pong!  Bring it on!  The commercials alone are enough to fire us up:

Today in my Zumba exercise class, which is a much more realistic endeavor for my nonathletic self, a friend was struggling with a challenging dance step.  “That is too hard!” she laughed.  I reminded her that one of my sons’ best teachers forbade her students to use that phrase, requiring them to say “This is challenging” instead, a practice that I have endorsed in my own classes.  I also don’t allow “I can’t do this!”  My students have learned to amend that to “I can’t do this yet.”

That “yet” makes all the difference.  “Yet” insists that the challenge is achievable. “Yet” promises that success is right over the next hill.  “Yet” tells my students that I know that they can do what I have asked of them.  Sometimes, just for fun, I will spit out a tongue twister that includes terms they don’t know yet, like “ciliated pseudostratified columnar epithelium” or “acute poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis.”   Predictably, I hear “How can you say that?”  I assure them that they, too, will be spewing previously unpronounceable words in just a few days, and they will know what those words mean.  Sure enough, I soon have some very proud neo-anatomists whose friends and family are both impressed by and weary of their loved ones’ new vocabularies.

David McClelland’s theory of needs posits that those with a high need for achievement respond best to moderate challenges that have a reasonable probability of success.  If the risk is too low, the achievement seems to be of little value.  If the challenge is too risky, success seems to be more a matter of chance than a reward for effort.  If I want to motivate my students, I need to be aware of the strategies that motivate achievers, including praise and reward (amazing what students will do for a miniature candy bar) and deliberate invitation to recognize the pleasure of success.  We sometimes have “pat yourself on the back” moments to celebrate mastering challenging concepts, and I sometimes remind students midway through class that they know a lot more than when they walked in this morning.

What techniques or strategies motivate your students?  How do you recognize and celebrate success beyond simply assigning grades?



Nervous Laughter

Does your curriculum include a topic that makes students uncomfortable…a subject that intimidates because it’s difficult or disgusting or just something nice people don’t talk about? (Yes, there are still a few of those topics left in the world.)  Students quickly realize when other class members are uncomfortable and, even worse, when the instructor is hesitant to address that discomfort.  Humor is a handy tool to have in your box when confronting potentially awkward moments.

If, like me, you feel less than gifted in the humor department, you can always “borrow” something funny.  If it comes from an unfamiliar or unexpected source, so much the better.  In fact, scientists who study humor…yes, someone has figured out a way to get paid to do that…have found that surprise is a foundational aspect of humor and that it has evolutionary importance in helping us to learn.  Seriously.  Click here to read Alastair Clarke’s take on the subject at Science Daily.

In my anatomy & physiology classes, two topics regularly evoke palpable discomfort.  I thought I’d share a couple of videos that help us relax a bit.  As my students prepare to disassemble a Norway rat on the day of our first dissection, I usually hear a lot of discussion about fear of rats (technically “musophobia”), inability to tolerate the smell of preservative, etc. After I deliver some stern words about lab safety and have divided the students into groups, I show this video while I put the finishing touches on our lab setup:

The young adults in my class think that they are cool with talking about sex…until we actually reach the chapter on reproduction. I appeal to them never to tell my mother that I know all those reproductive words, much less say them in public, and we talk briefly about the many ways that reproductive biology impacts our society, our culture, and our own behaviors.  I enjoy foreign ads and think many of them are wittier than our own, so I often show this one:

Videos can also be a great way to insert a breather into a long and challenging stretch of material.  I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite “rest stops” in a later post.

Have you found a way to help students feel more comfortable with uncomfortable topics?  Do you have favorite videos you show as “relaxers” or “breathers”?  Please share!

Car Chalk

Students need to see the material they are learning in class in a way that they see the usefulness of learning it.  With technological advances that we have, there is so much that is competing with our classes and lectures for our students’ attention that we need to come up with new and creative ways to try to compete for that attention.  It would be nice if all of our students had an internal thirst for academic knowledge like most of us have, but the reality is that they don’t.

What I have found that students have is a competitive spirit.  If we are going to have to compete for their attention, maybe a good way to approach that is appeal to their sense of competition.  I like to use a variety of games and activities in my classes where the reward is bonus points.  I realize that a couple of points here or there isn’t going to make a tremendous difference in the students’ final grade, but they don’t see it that way.  If they can earn a couple of points here and there, they feel a sense of accomplishment.

Recently I tried a couple new assignments to try to get the students to put in some extra effort outside of the class (otherwise known as studying).  We were covering the Interest Rate formulas in college algebra.  I’ve always used the example of buying a car in the past to great success.  The students all will plan to finance a car at some point and are usually interested in participating in these calculations.  This time, I gave them an assignment to be my financial planner.  In class, we agreed on a rather nice car that I would try to buy and I told them that their assignment for the next class was to be the one to come up with the best monthly payments.  That student would receive full credit and the rest would receive a grade based on how close they came to the lowest value.  I told them that I would have a set of criteria in mind that I was willing to spend, but they would have to contact me via email with questions to help them set up their plan.  I was over-whelmed with their desire to get the lowest payment, their creativity in their questions, and their enthusiasm for the assignment.  Nearly every student in the class emailed me multiple times during the assignment (less than one day’s time span as the class met daily).  It felt that I was constantly emailing students all day long.  However, I didn’t really mind.  The sense of competition spurred an enthusiasm for the assignment (and hence the material that I was trying to teach) and by that it energized me as a teacher.  I was really proud of the effort that they expended.

On a final note, there is a fringe benefit to trying out new things in your classes.  If a teacher continues to use the same old lecture, same old delivery, same old stuff, then they will never improve on their material.  I can’t count the number of times that I’ve tried something new and  it led to something even better!  Many of the ideas that are working really well to stimulate the students’ interest and critical thinking come from ideas that I had in class.  Many times the original ideas have long since been forgotten, but the imprint that they left continues to this day.  As a result of this recent activity with the car purchasing, I am already thinking of other new ways to offer the students a sense of competition built in to their assignments.

Good luck!    —Pat

Walking with the Dolphins

St. Johns River, Astor, FL

St. Johns River, Astor, FL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The beginning of fall term approaches, and I will be heading home to Kentucky from my Florida vacation home tomorrow.  After considering which of our walking routes to take this last morning at the beach, Julep and I headed off down the sandy jungle trail that leads through the tropical forest to the long dock bordering the lagoon of St. John’s River at the back of our community.  We always enjoy checking out the tracks of the creatures with whom we share the island: the zig-zags left by snakes, the “hands” of the opossums and raccoons, the paw prints of rabbits, the distinctive tail drags of the tortoises. I envy Julep’s corgi nose that allows her to process messages indecipherable to me. We usually see herons, egrets, and pelicans along the edges of the lagoon, and occasionally the manatees are lolling about in the water among the buoys that mark the crab pots.

While we often see dolphins out in the ocean or gliding along in the river, I had never encountered them along the dock. As Julep and I approached the long stretch of weathered boards today, 2 dorsal fins appeared side by side not 10 feet from where we stood. 

When we heard the distinctive whoosh of air that accompanies breaching, I worried that Julep would bark and frighten them, but she seemed as mesmerized as I was.  For several minutes we watched them glide together, their movements perfectly synchronized, around the lagoon.  I felt that I had received a gift…a sacred gift.

I was reminded of Andy Goodman’s talk at New Horizons 2012 and his counsel that people are not moved by graphs and statistics but rather by stories.  Those few precious minutes with the dolphins were a more persuasive and convincing argument for habitat conservation than any book or program could ever be.  When it’s personal, it matters.  As I head up I-75 in the predawn darkness tomorrow morning, I will be wondering where those dolphins are and what they’re up to.  I imagine that when I climb the stairs of the Ed Center at Fort Campbell in February, I will think of them and hope they are still together, still swimming happily.

I believe our students need dolphin-spotting experiences, first to help them learn the material that we present, but also to care about what they are learning.  It needs to be personal. As I teach anatomy & physiology, I try to show pictures and videos and tell stories that show my students why what they are learning is important to real people.  Lysosomes are just another cellular organelle to memorize until I show a picture of a child with Hurler’s Syndrome.  The retina is just part of the eyeball until they see a video of a young women with retinitis pigmentosa.  Cheating on an exam may not seem to be much of a crime until I tell them stories illustrating the consequences of  falsifying  medical records or taking shortcuts in care that had tragic results.  It needs to be personal.

Cover of "Avatar (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Co...

Cover via Amazon

Personal is a two-way street. The moment that I remember most from the movie Avatar is not one of its many dazzling effects but rather 3 short words: “I see you.”  The best of humanity, and perhaps all of art and literature, can be summed up as “I see you.”  There are many ways that we can tell our students that we “see” them.  Sometimes it is in simply knowing their names, as Pat has said so well in an earlier entry in this blog.  Sometimes it takes the form of making an exception to a policy; other times it may be holding a student accountable.  “I see you” may mean “I know you can do better” or “I realize that you are struggling and need some help.”  “I see you” may mean “I know that your husband just left for Afghanistan and you are overwhelmed with your responsibilities” or “I know that your husband just returned and you are overwhelmed with the readjustment.”  In my classroom and lab, “I see you” must always mean “I see you trying to learn this difficult subject and I understand your struggle because I struggled, too.”

A lot to think about…thanks, Dolphins….see you next summer.           —-Karen            Kentucky

Super Site of the Week: HowStuffWorks

Maybe we should call this “Super Disney-World-for-the-Brain Site.”  I first found How Stuff Works while looking for some good overviews of complex topics to assist some students who were lost in the weeds of physiology.  The How Your Kidneys Work article has become a favorite for my classes…it doesn’t tell them everything they need to know for the class, but it does provide a sort of mental site map.

For my psychology pal Anne, there are countless topics on why we do what we do.  I just checked out “Personality Disorder Quiz,” one of the “Get Smart Challenge” quizzes the site offers. (It did not diagnose any of my disorders, but it did equip me to make a guess about other people’s!) The featured article for the day under the mental health tab was “10 Addictions You Might Not Know You Have.”  Hmm….how many cups of coffee have I had this morning?  And how long have I been at this keyboard?

For my buddy Pat, aka “Stats Stud,” there is an article on today’s main page detailing how to beat the odds in a plane crash.  I also found a neat bit on “How are Fibonacci numbers expressed in nature?”  (This one has a bonus picture of cute bunnies…real rabbits, not the other kind.)


Fibonacci (Photo credit: cloud_hopper)

A dedicated web surfer (see addiction story referenced above) could spend days wandering around in HSW.  Any of us in the explaining profession should find some really great ideas for assignments.  Once our students find the site, they may decide that we are not really needed after all.


Teachers Watch TV, Too!

Quite often our students seem to forget that we who are the faculty are also real people.  Sad to say, I’ve seen some faculty who don’t do much to fight this belief.  While one of the things that makes a good teacher is a knowledge and passion for their subject material, it doesn’t do much good if that can’t be transferred to the students.

In my classes, I am always looking for pop culture, current events, or other timely references that I can make to the material.  I’ve found that when I can relate to the students, they are more likely to remain alert and pay attention…which is needed for better comprehension.  The popularity of YouTube makes this very easy.  One of the areas I like to connect with students is with the shows they are watching (or have watched) on TV.

I’ve been able to use clips from “The Big Bang Theory” to explain concepts from statistics (the normal curve) and college algebra (falling objects).

The popular TV show “Pawn Stars”can be used when covering the concept of C-14 dating.  I could just give them a generic problem based on abstract numbers or simply a bone, but when you turn it into a possible historical artifact and turn it into a potential episode of “Pawn Stars” then we can safely side-track into talking about the show instead of just the course material.

Pawn Stars

Pawn Stars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This deviation allows for instilling some freshness into the class while not sacrificing covering the material.

I’ve also based a series of assignments in my college algebra class around the classic Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.  Since many of the cartoons involve Wile E. Coyote using a variety of methods (mostly using projectiles and roller-coaster style vehicles through the mountains), I have created a series of assignments where I make the students “possible story-writers” for cartoons.  They have to design their own cartoons and appropriately have them mathematically accurate for the producers to choose from.  I’ve found that since the theme of the assignment is writing a cartoon, the students have more of an interest in doing the work.

Whatever your field, I encourage you to pay attention to the “fun” things that you like to do when you are not strictly teaching.  You’d be surprised to find out how many things you will encounter in these activities that can relate to your field.  The students might look at you as a little goofy for thinking “academically” while you are supposed to be having fun, but they will appreciate the attempt at trying to relate to them outside of the dry traditional lecture format.



Cool Tool of the Week: Animoto

One of the coolest things we saw at the 2012 New Horizons conference in May (and there were LOTS of cool things!) was a session provided by Allison McGullion, Coordinator of Business Administration at West Kentucky Community and Technical College.  She introduced us to Animoto, a web-based tool that can turn anyone into a music video producer almost instantly.  Here’s the deal:

  • The free plan allows you to make 30-second videos featuring video and text.
  • Animoto offers several different theme “flavors.” Changing the theme of your production results in a dramatically different look.
  • Animoto has a vast music library, or you can use your own MP3 files.  I had planned to use my own music, but sampling the huge list of songs ready to plug and play helped me find some I really liked.  Again, changing the tune changes the video in surprising ways.
  • I elected to pay an annual fee of $25 that allows me to make videos up to 3 minutes long.  I can also download these to my computer or DVD.

Here’s an Animoto I plan to play on the first day of my Anatomy & Physiology I class in August:

First Day of 137.

The images are almost all from my textbook, Human Anatomy and Physiology, 9th edition. (Marieb, published by Pearson Education.)  I added a few screen shots from videos I use and a photograph or 2 of my own.  Took only a few minutes to make….once I finished audio-browsing.

If you think you want to awaken your latent music video producer, surf over to Animoto and get started.  Makes a wonderful surprise for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and new babies, too.


We’re still hoping to snag Allison as a guest blogger.  She did such a marvelous job explaining how she uses Animoto in her classes.  If you know Allison, give her a nudge.  If you make an Animoto of your own, invite us all to view it.