Ending on an Up Note: Farewell to Winter

We haven’t had as much dreary winter weather as our friends to the north, but many of us seem more eager than usual to move into spring.  By way of farewell to winter, we offer this video, an ad for FloraHearts:



Clever Clip: The Skin You’re In

Our anatomy and physiology text introduces each body system with a list of the functions of that system and an explanation of the system’s importance to the body as a whole.  This can be snooze-inducing if not handled skillfully.  YouTube can provide a welcome wake up call.  Since many students have a decided interest in seeing attractive naked people, I introduce the chapter on skin with this beguiling minute, courtesy of the folks who make Vaseline:

The ad was also produced in a slightly different British version and another with an American narration.  YouTube also offers a video about the making of the ad.

In only one minute, we’ve incorporated sensual pleasure and surprise into the class while helping to make learning the functions of the skin an achievable challenge. After showing Sea of Skin,  my biggest challenge is keeping the students’ engagement level as high throughout the class.

How Do You Remember All That?

curse of knowledge

curse of knowledge (Photo credit: Will Lion)

Sian Beilock wrote an interesting piece for Psychology Today a couple of years ago titled “The Curse of Expertise”…you can view it here.  (If you have ever struggled to operate a new cell phone or other piece of unfamiliar technology, you’ll feel vindicated when you read it.)  On March 6, we shared some thoughts after reading Annie Murphy Paul’s “Four Secrets to Lift the Curse of Expertise.”  It’s so easy to forget that we were not born knowing what we know, and even easier to forget the road we took to knowing it, especially  the challenges along that road.

My students often remind me of this when I spew forth some terminology or physiologic sequence  that I have know for more than half my life now.  “How do you remember all that?” they ask.  More often than not, the answer is a mnemonic.  Many students are unfamiliar with that term, and some might insist they don’t know any.  So I ask them, “How many days are in September?” and most reply, “Thirty” without hesitation.

Image to remember how many days a month has.

Image to remember how many days a month has. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“And how do you know that?”

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November,” they chirp…and these are not folks whose usual vocabulary includes “hath.”

“Which comes first…i or e?”

“When did Columbus discover America?”

Soon they realize that they do, in fact, know quite a few mnemonics.  At this point I typically go all Leonard Hoffstadter on them, and explain that Mnemosyne was the Greek goddess of memory (her daughter Mneme was the muse of memory), and so we call helpful memory devices “mnemonics.”  Harry Potter fans may remember Mnemone Radford, a witch who developed Memory Modifying Charms.

Anatomy, physiology, and healthcare have dozens and dozens of mnemonics, passed down from one generation of medical school students to the next. In years past, most medical students were young men with the usual interests of young men, so many of the time-honored mnemonics have a decidedly randy slant. The broad-minded reader can see many of these at www.medicalmnemonics.com.

On the day that we study the twelve cranial nerves, my bell ringer asks students to guess how many mnemonics Wikipedia lists for those nerves on that very day. I just checked, and today there are eighteen, although there have been as many as thirty-six.  See them here.

English: Cranial Nerves

English: Cranial Nerves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The best mnemonics are often generated by the students themselves, and innovators quickly realize that coming up with a good one earns the admiration and appreciation of their classmates.  As the students learned the functions of the different portions, or “horns” of the gray matter of the spinal cord, Jordie shared that the ventral horns are motor, because “motors go vroom!”  No one missed that one on the test.

Sometimes students create their own mnemonics by connecting the information to something they already know.  Students may not fully understand the term “dorsal” on the first day, but many already know where to find a shark’s dorsal fin….on the back or spine side of its body. They may not remember the difference between pronation and supination of the forearm until I ask them how they’d hold a bowl of soup…with their palm turned toward the ceiling.  To keep the relative charges of cations and anions straight, we notice that you can write the former as CA+ION.

Once students realize that I have a lifetime’s worth of these to share…and that I love hearing their newly minted ones…class becomes a lot more fun.  Students can hardly wait to share the ones they’ve discovered or invented, taking pride in achieving a challenge, being part of a group, often finding a little humor, and owning something of worth.  And that is just what we’re aiming for.

Do you have favorite mnemonics in your area of expertise?  Please share!  We would love to start a collection here!

Tech Tuesday: Search Operator – “site:”

Each Tuesday, pleasureinlearning brings you Tech Tuesday.  Come back each week for more ways to become efficient and effective in your use of technology. 


The Internet is large, very large and that is not even counting the portions of the web that cannot be indexed for searching, called the Deep Web.  In order to find any proverbial needle in such a large haystack, one needs to have good searching skills.

Here is your quick searching tip for the day.  You can use the search box on most web pages to search the website, but sometimes the search functionality is very basic and you can’t find what you need.  I recently encountered this when looking for the campus map on our college website.  Watch this short demo to see how I used the site operator to look for the campus map.

While I can’t provide you a large tutorial on becoming a good searcher, here are some excellent tutorials to add to your stack of lunchtime reading.  All of them are from Google, the leader of the search industry.


The Gentleman and the Navigator

Brian Coatney continues his series on memorable teachers who made learning a pleasure for him.

(L-R) Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable

Naval ROTC was a great scholarship for the son of a single parent, elementary school teacher raising four children. Military subjects might not be scintillating to a liberal arts type, but they have their highlights. Two instructors stand out in my memory.

The first is LT Gard (same as an army captain). I can’t say that I remember much from classes under him on naval history and strategies of famous battles at sea. After all, it’s not like we were watching film all the time like Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander or Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in Run Silent Run Deep. Lessons were text book oriented with diagrams as vivid as Xs and Os on a basketball coach’s dry erase board during game preparation.

What always amazed me was LT Gard’s gentlemanly manner. He stood upright with perfect posture, not like one at attention, but never casual. Yet he was not rigid as a person, just picture perfect in deportment that looked more than necessary, but didn’t make one nervous to observe class after class. He seemed perfectly human but impeccably the most regal LT that a LT could be.

Cover of "Master and Commander - The Far ...

What made me know he was human right away was a story that he told about being in country in Vietnam during the war. With food selection being limited for long durations, he said it was common to have a recurring food dream. His was orange juice. When he told the story, I could picture  a clear glass of bright orange and terribly refreshing orange juice and how much he thirsted for it. It was a literary moment in a military context, and I knew he was ok and to be trusted.


The navigator was quite different, LCDR Fisher (an army major). He combined intellect; an easy manner like a shoe, though we knew not to fraternize; and a maverick spirit barely contained, which can mean not being promoted too high. He was an aviator, and rumor had it that he had flown a plane under a bridge, which was not viewed favorably by command.

But he was a masterful teacher and loved for his enthusiasm for navigation. Not a drop of water was around, but he led us into the world of charts as if we were on the water, and we learned to use compasses, numerical tables, and sextant readings from the stars, sun, and moon.

English: Naval ROTC at Ohio State University

LCDR Fisher was the wondrous mix of the free spirit and precision plotting using empirical information from every element of nature available to compute tables and predictions from. Now that I think of it, he reminds me of pop physics shows on television where leading physicists talk about the universe in a way that lets the viewer know that there’s passion for both the math and for the beauty of the math. Truth and beauty share a platform, and neither is submerged or trumped by the other.

The military isn’t a place normally thought of as a haven of beauty. But beauty appears in unpredictable ways amidst what is rugged—and woeful at times. It takes a certain pair of eyes to see it, and my university provided some classic military instructors for that.

C’mon, Sheldon! (Ending on an Up Note)

Each Friday we post something to help tired community college teachers recharge for the coming week.

Thanks to Pat, my husband and I have become avid fans of CBS’s Big Bang Theory. In an earlier post, I included a clip of the lovably clueless yet arrogant Dr. Sheldon Cooper folding his laundry. In the same scene, Sheldon fires a nasty verbal shot at Penny, who frets about having lied to her boyfriend Leonard about being a community college graduate.  Here’s the exchange:

Penny: I get it! Leonard has no business being involved with a waitress-slash-actress who felt so insecure that she lied to him about finishing community college.
Sheldon Cooper: Why would you lie about that?
Penny: Well, he was going on and on about this college and that grad school – and I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of stupid loser.
Sheldon Cooper: You thought the opposite of stupid loser was community-college graduate?
Penny: You know, there are a lot of successful people who graduated from community college.
Sheldon Cooper: Yet you are neither.

Here’s what happened between Penny and Leonard later in the same episode:

When we community college teachers tell new acquaintances where we teach, we sometimes encounter responses only slightly more polite than Sheldon’s.  A few people may even feel compelled to share their negative assumptions about the value of our work or the quality of  our students.  That seems a little strange to me.  In the medical world I once inhabited, the doctors who accept and treat the highest-risk patients are admired, even if their efforts on those patients’ behalf don’t always lead to a perfect result.

I am proud of what I do, and I admire the students I serve. Many are military or members of military families, and they juggle school, job, and family responsibilities with an energy and determination that amaze me.  Not all are successful, but many are. Virtually none of them have taken the straightest or easiest path to the goals they hope to attain. From where I sit, Sheldon, community-college graduate is absolutely the opposite of stupid loser.

Patton and the Peeps

George S. Patton signed photo by U.S. Army

George S. Patton signed photo by U.S. Army (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best bits of teaching advice I’ve ever received came from a surprising source: General George S. Patton.  His opinion:

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Time after time, I have learned…usually the hard way…that George was right.  When I tell my students what I want them to do, and then allow them the freedom to devise the best way, the most personal way, the most creative way, the most original way to do it, I am indeed often surprised by their ingenuity.

As a rigidly “left-brained,” literal, think-inside-the-box kinda gal….you know the type: loved diagramming sentences, adores putting things in neat little boxes with labels, arranges items alphabetically, never met an outline she didn’t like…I am always inclined to give too much direction.  If a student asks “How do you want us to do this?” my inclination is always to grasp the marker and SHOW HOW TO DO IT!!  After all, isn’t that what teaching is?  Showing people how to do stuff?

Well, not really.  Or at least, not totally. Or even primarily. Teaching is helping people learn how to think. As in “for themselves.”

This is not to suggest that students should be left without direction, only that the directions should be flexible enough to allow some creativity, and maybe even some real learning, to occur.  As soon as I tell students exactly how to do something, they begin to think just like Karen, with all her limitations and blind spots.  A scary thought, that.

Case in point: I ask my students to make charts to organize big, complicated topics, like the array of hormones and structures in the endocrine system.  I tell them that their charts should include the hormones that we have studied with emphasis on their point of origin and their functions.  There are a million ways to make this chart.  My own would look like a boring outline with a lot of arrows.   Very Sheldon Cooper.  Which is why I refuse to put it on the board.  I don’t need to see a bunch of Karen outlines from people who aren’t Karen.

A number of the chart types supported in the C...

A number of the chart types supported in the Chart control. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I get are all kinds of charts: cloud charts, fold-out charts, charts with color, charts with movable parts, and a few (God-love-’em) kindred spirits with computer table, outline, black-and-white charts just like the ones I would have made.  The best part comes when students complain about how many attempts it took and how many abandoned charts are in the trash…because I know how much they learned through every miserable failure.  And now they know their hormones.

A great (and seasonal) illustration of this phenomenon can be found in The Washington Post‘s annual Peeps Diorama contest.  Entrants are asked to construct a diorama using Peeps, and the results are whimsical, colorful, and magical.  You can see them at:


You can see a home video of the 2009 Peeps Diorama Contest by clicking here.

I particularly liked “Peepius Maximus”

peepius maximus

Amazing, isn’t it?

And if you’re really into Peep-lore, here’s some great bell ringer material, courtesy of Mental Floss:

And if , like me, you need to expand your charting repertoire,  check out A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

To see more Peep Shows: