Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 19, 2013

School daze: Tuning in students who tune out

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Back in the early 1800s, an isolated Kentucky family began producing blue-tinged children in Appalachia.

The medical mystery of the “blue people” stretched over six generations and ultimately was traced to a French orphan, intermarriage, and a problem enzyme that reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.

The case study is a favorite of Nick Roster, a Northwestern Michigan College instructor, who often uses unique medical conundrums to teach human biology and anatomy and physiology. Brandy Bray, entering her senior year at Grand Valley State University, remembers the lesson well.

“We learned a lot with that one,” she said. “Not only about the blood disorder; we also did a family tree and saw how it was passed along with a recessive gene.”

Roster, who prefers case studies to lectures, uses a blend of technology, problem solving and teamwork. Students respond to “story telling” more than facts, he said.

Roster lectures around the country, ironically, about the drawbacks of lectures. NMC teachers sometimes visit his class to watch his new approach. He recently described his teaching philosophy to the community college’s Board of Trustees, and showed how Harvard medical students’ brain activity while sitting in a lecture fell lower than measured brain activity during TV-watching and sleeping.

“Really that tells you students just aren’t engaged in lectures,” he said. “These were Harvard medical students and the lectures at Harvard are good.”

Roster’s path away from the lecture model began nine years ago, inspired by a faculty adviser at Oklahoma State University. With his guidance, Roster wrote a doctoral thesis on biology and education. But applying theory to classroom, he admitted, has been an “incredibly difficult transition.”

“It’s very comfortable to teach the way we were taught, and we all think we have really cool things to say,” he said.

Roster’s students must still master foundational knowledge — such as identifying muscle groups — but he offers technology tools to make the task easier. Students can use a class iPad, for example, loaded with different anatomy apps that allows a student to peel away the body’s arteries, bones, organs and muscles to see how they connect.

Students must also tackle assigned reading and watch his podcasts — mini-lectures — before arriving to class.

Once in class, they’re quizzed on the material. They take the quiz a second time, but with a pod of fellow students.

After quiz time, Roster asks for questions about his podcast lecture, then presents a case study that the student pods discuss together.

This kind of class structure — watching online lectures at home followed by an active interchange in the classroom — is called a “flipped classroom” and is gaining traction nationally.

Not all the students liked Roster’s style, Bray said, but they learned to appreciate it by semester’s end. She said she retained a lot more information and honed her problem solving skills she’ll someday need as a physician’s assistant.

Bray said she’s disappointed that it’s back to memorizing the textbook’s “bold words” at Grand Valley State.

“One of my education class instructors brought up the learning pyramid that shows you retain only 3 percent of what you hear in lectures and 7 to 10 percent of readings,” she said. “So the teachers know this, the data is out there, and, yep, they’re teaching the same way they’ve done it for the last 1,000 years.”


Teaching trends

- Students learn in different ways, such as hearing, reading, watching a video, and experiential, so material is best presented in several ways. "Some people just have to grab the electric fence to experience it for themselves," Roster said.

- Grades tend to go up when students work together or teach each other.

- If you want students to retain more, test more.

- Studies show spacing out studies of a particular topic is better than cramming in the content all at once.

- Because students respond to peer pressure, they are more likely to prepare for a group study.