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Q&A: How an Anatomy Professor Dissected the Problem of Hasty Lab Work

Dr. Lance Forshee used his background in science education to identify obstacles that were dropping students’ work by a whole letter grade.

Educator

Lance Forshee, PhD

Assistant Professor of Biology, Southern Utah University in Cedar City

PhD in Integrated Biology, BS in Biology

You can learn a lot from cadavers: Just ask any anatomy and physiology professor. But according to Dr. Lance Forshee, who teaches the subject at Southern Utah University, cadavers alone were not helping his students internalize the information they needed to know. As a discipline-based education researcher (DBER) focused primarily on biology education, Forshee naturally wanted to know why.

“I’m a person who, when I see a problem in the classroom, I try to see what others have done,” he says. “And if I’m not seeing much about it, then I figure out a way that I think is most appropriate to fix it. And then I assess it to make sure that it’s actually appropriate.”

To troubleshoot his cadaver labs, Forshee enlisted the help of undergraduate students (doing research with them is part of his university appointment). “What we gathered from our research was that every time a student leaves the lab early, even for five minutes, they automatically are dropping their grade by about a letter grade.”

Below, in an interview with Course Hero, Dr. Forshee shared a bit of the thought process he used to find a solution that is shockingly simple—and already proven (by his students) to be effective.

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Context

“What we gathered from our research was that every time a student leaves the lab early, even for five minutes, they automatically are dropping their grade by about a letter grade.”

— Lance Forshee, PhD

Course: BIOL 2325 Human Anatomy Lab

Course description: Lab to accompany BIOL 2320: The study of the structure of the human body with emphasis on surface, regional, and systemic anatomy of all body systems. One two-hour meeting per week.

Forshee on getting students to stay in cadaver labs

In an interview with Course Hero, Dr. Forshee elaborated on the research and student input that have led to a solution to an age-old problem: how to keep students in class and engaged long enough to really learn.

Course Hero: In some labs, attendance is required. Why was it an option for students to leave early?

Lance Forshee, PhD: Our labs here are “open laboratory.” So if I’m a student enrolled in a Tuesday section, I can go to a lab on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and so on.

I don’t take attendance, nor do I penalize the students for leaving early. The only thing they have to do on a lab day is take a quiz at the beginning [of the period]. Then they’re free to follow along with the lab that we’re to be doing for the day.

But my first-semester students would take the quiz, and they would just leave. They’d say, “Oh well, I’m going to go to the library.”

We’re a cadaver-based anatomy course, and for lack of a better way to say it, there’s only one place on campus where you can legally see dead bodies. And that’s in our lab! What is it that you find going to the library that’s better? Why are you leaving labs so early?

What did you hypothesize was at the root of this problem?

My thought was that this is an engagement issue: that students aren’t connecting with what they’re doing in lab, and they’re not seeing a benefit in staying.

Any time I’d bring it up to them—“Hey, you’re not doing great; what’s happening?”—they would always come up with some other reason: “Oh, this is just a really hard class,” et cetera. But none of them ever sat down and said, “You know what? Maybe it’s because I’m not staying the whole time in lab.”

How did you test whether your hypothesis was correct?

We needed to find a way to see why students were leaving early and what that did to students’ learning and grades. So we basically surveyed students. For the last three or four semesters, we have been literally sitting down at the end of every single week and asking students: “Did you leave the lab early? And if so, why?”

We also wanted know: What are they doing during the week? Are they going to extra resources that are available, like review sessions, TA-led review sessions, or office hours? We noticed students weren’t using a lot of the extra resources that were available either.

Teach Students to Drive Their Own Learning

One of Forshee’s goals is to encourage his students to think—in the classroom and then throughout their lives—about what they do not already know and how they might gain that knowledge. He described for Course Hero one way that he encourages that mindset in the lecture part of his Human Anatomy course.

Lance Forshee, PhD: On every test, I have a drawing section. I pick something from our content that we draw: I practice it in the classroom with them, and then they draw it on the exam.

For example, if I’m teaching the heart, I hand out these little student-size dry-erase boards. And I’ll say, “Everybody, draw me what a heart looks like.” Inevitably we get the Valentine’s Day heart, right? So I explain why that isn’t a good model, and I say, “OK, what do you think a heart really looks like?” Students start to hypothesize, themselves and with the people next to them. After five minutes pass, we come together and students will provide various views of what it could look like. The point I try to make with them is that you don’t have to be a good artist to represent what you see in your head. Which means you don’t have to know every detail to make a good, informed decision.

Course Hero: How could another professor replicate this?

Essentially, they would have to look at their curriculum and say, “What is it that I do that could very easily be some kind of drawing?” And it could be stick figures. Then they really have two options.

One, they can cover the material and then have the students draw it afterwards. Or they can have the students hypothesize ahead of time what something would look like and then use that as a teachable moment to help the students shape their mental model from the Valentine’s Day heart to an actual human heart.

This inquiry-style learning helps students get a better and broader picture of what the content is that they’re trying to learn, and how to communicate that content to others. Instead of learning one specific instance, it helps them learn that they can drive their own learning, and they can use the questions that they ask to gather more information, thus answering their own questions.

How do you get students to be honest in these surveys?

I’ve built rapport with the students in such a way that they’re honest with me. And the way that I couch my pitch to them is: “See this as an opportunity for you to help me figure out what I can do to make the labs better so that you don’t hate them, if in fact you do.”

What did you learn from the surveys about student lab work?

Essentially, what we gathered was that every time a student leaves the lab, even for five minutes, they automatically are dropping their [overall semester] grade about a letter grade. On average, students in our anatomy labs make about an 84, and those are the students who never leave. If they leave early, even for five minutes, they’re already setting themselves up for about a 74 in the class.

How did you help entice students to stay in labs longer?

On the research that we performed as to why they were leaving early, a lot of students indicated that they were “finished” with the lab. But in an hour and 50 minutes, it’s absolutely impossible to learn everything they need to. You’re crazy if you think you’re finished with the lab.

So, very simply, we instituted a checklist—this is a list of things that, if the student is truly finished with the lab, then they should have done these things. Now, at the beginning of every class I say, “OK, guys, if you complete these things by the end of lab, then you are prepared.”

Is the checklist the same for every student and every lab?

Yes! The checklist is very simple. It shows students what a successful day in lab should look like. For example, I always start the checklist with “1. Do the lab.” It might seem odd, but many students in our labs were walking in, taking the quiz, and not going through the lab manual to work through the assigned lab for the day.

Since instituting the checklist, what results have you seen?

So far, I’ve lowered the average time students miss lab or leave lab early from about 180 minutes on average per student per semester to about 30 minutes. And I’ve seen a slight upward movement in grades, but it is not statistically significant—yet.

Leave a reply

Have you tried this in any classes you teach? Would you like to try it? Share your questions, critiques, comments, and insights below.

  1. Great work, Dr. Forshee! This curriculum is so challenging for our students, and so important for their future career goals, it is important to help them identify anything that will help them be more successful.

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