Monthly Archives: February 2019

Blended learning in physiology – merging new technologies with traditional approaches

By Louise Robson, @LouisescicommDepartment of Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

Learning and teaching in physiology has undergone something of a revolution over the last 30 years, and as someone who had their very first teaching experience back in 1989 (running tutorials as a PhD student) I speak from experience! One of the biggest changes has been around digital technologies, bringing benefits and challenges to both students and staff. However, while there are challenges (e.g. information overload), for me the benefits far outweigh any challenges digital technologies generate.

I teach ion channel physiology, and aim for students to not only understand the ideas and concepts in this area, but also be able to apply these to novel experimental data. For this reason, I use data handling and interpretation exercises in my modules, i.e. students utilise mathematical approaches, interpret their data and draw on data from other sources. One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is that students struggle with mathematics, and I suspect I am not the only academic to observe a sea of white faces when I have equations on my slides!  However, my modules are very popular, despite the complex mathematics. The reason for this is my blended learning approach to teaching, matching traditional teaching with digital technologies.

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Figure 1:  Top tips for students on using lecture capture. Click here for more details: https://osf.io/edmzf/ (E, Nordmann et al, 2018).

In this approach, recorded lectures introduce calculations underpinning physiological mechanisms,  so that students can revisit to help their understanding. I have been using lecture capture for several years, and my experience is that it enhances learning. I have observed an increase in academic performance in my final year modules, and the types of questions students ask are more insightful. They utilise the captures to get to grips with the lecture content and their higher level questions are then often about the published literature. Of course if you are providing captures it is really important that students understand how to use these. Work by a cross-institutional group of academics, of which I am a member, has recently provided top tips for students and staff on using lecture capture, also presenting these in a student-friendly infographic format, Figure 1 (E, Nordmann et al 2018). his work highlights an important but often forgotten aspect of learning and teaching, share your ideas and experiences and collaborate with others.  

The best way to learn is to do, and my students complete formative data handling workbooks that reinforce lectures and provide additional guidance. This allows students to develop skills in a low risk environment, and feed-forward and improve for the assessments. Problem solving classes require students to apply their knowledge and skills, providing an opportunity for personal feedback. I also provide dynamic maths videos for them to view. Using a variety of approaches allows students to work in the way they find most beneficial (one size does not fit all in education). The final module session tests knowledge and understanding using the interactive Lecture Tools platform, allowing students to test knowledge and understanding. This blended approach provides an enhanced learning experience for the students, and is clearly appreciated by them, as they have voted me best Biomedical Science Lecturer at Sheffield several years in a row.  

Many of you reading this article may be in the early years of your academic careers, and while there is lots of advice on developing your research profile, there is often less structured support on developing learning and teaching. So here are my top tips:

  1. Get experience early on.  I started as a PhD student and continued to gain experience as a postdoctoral researcher.  
  2. Seek advice from experienced individuals.
  3. Identify the key developments in learning and teaching, and give them a go.
  4. Evaluate what you do.  Some things will work (but not everything).  Don’t forget ethical approval if you want to publish.
  5. Document innovation as you go.  In research, outputs are easy to define.  In learning and teaching, it’s not so easy!
  6. Always think about what is best for your students (note, it’s not always what they want).
  7. Share your ideas and collaborate as much as possible.  

I hope you have found this article useful, and that you have been able to identify some ideas for your learning and teaching development (if you want more information, just ask)!    

References

E, Nordmann, CE, Kuepper-Tetzel, L, Robson, S, Phillipson, GI, Lipan, P, McGeorge (2018). Lecture capture: Practical recommendations for students and lecturers (pre-publication): 10.31234/osf.io/sd7u4

Learning a research career is within my reach: Undergraduate Summer Studentship Scheme

By Sara Rayhan, University of Southampton

I received a Summer Studentship in 2017 for a project at the University of Southampton, under the supervision of Felino Cagampang. My project examined the effects of maternal obesity in pregnancy on the placenta, an organ that supplies the foetus with oxygen and nutrients, in mice. More specifically, we measured placental expression of two growth-related genes in obese pregnant mice. One gene is responsible for blood vessel formation (VGEF) and the other (RAPTOR) for the response to nutrient and insulin levels.

Both have been linked to cardiovascular disease. We also examined the effect of maternal metformin treatment in obese pregnancy on the expression levels of these genes in the placenta. Metformin is a drug used to treat gestational diabetes but its effect on the placenta and the developing foetus is unknown. Maternal high fat diet (HFD) during pregnancy reduced VEGF mRNA expression in the placenta depending on MET treatment, while placental RAPTOR expression increases with maternal HFD. These changes in gene expression could alter placental function and foetal development, and have long-term consequences on cardiometabolic health of the offspring. It further suggests that metformin should be prescribed with caution to pregnant women.

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Due to the great deal of guidance given, the project was far less daunting and the workload was more than manageable. I learnt that research is coordinated within a specific lab group, with individual each conducting their own research projects, and feeding back to the team to provide a more holistic understanding. Also, numerous different departments liaise with each other and I had the privilege of being able to attend to these meetings along with conferences held within the hospital. This showed me how a research environment is very much interdisciplinary and relies on understanding how the work presented by others may impact your own research.

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This studentship has given me the opportunity to experience what it means to be a part of a research group and the fundamental impact your work could have and this is something that has very much resonated with me. It’s allowed me to be challenged, but also to gain a greater insight and grow in confidence in my laboratory techniques. Because of this, I now realise that a research-intensive career is not beyond my reach and that it is far less intimidating than I perceived it to be. I am now in the process of considering pursuing a Masters in Biomedical Sciences, and would very much like to pursue a technical laboratory focused career, perhaps in a hospital setting.

(This article was originally published in Physiology News 110, page 43.)