Teaching Practicum Reflections – Urea Cycle

The classroom was alarmingly unpopulated when the clock struck noon, despite the quiz scheduled at the beginning of class; only half of the students were present. As I frantically adapted my planned learning activities for the lesson, the importance of clearly communicating the instructor’s high expectation on attendance and participation throughout the course hit home for me. How could one establish a safe, inclusive, and challenging environment that fosters empowerment, meaningful learning, and accountability?

The topic of the lesson was on the biochemical pathway of urea cycle. The learning objectives were – By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:
1.Describe the enzymatic conversion of ammonia to urea, with close attention to the compartment of these steps
2.Compare and contrast short- and long-term regulations of urea cycle
3.Identify and discuss the advantage of interconnection between the citric acid cycle and urea cycle

I thought that my animated PowerPoint presentation was a powerful teaching tool – it helped me to manage my pace and prevented overloading students with excessive contents. Given the nature of the topic, I found myself using guiding question and repetition to engage my learners as I explained the enzymatic reactions. I noticed that in allowing silences and additional time for the learners to answer my questions, they would turn to one another to discuss and arrive at an answer/consensus amongst themselves – perhaps I could include more structured peer discussions throughout my lesson, both as opportunities for the students to process the materials and as an formative assessments. However, I discovered that managing each student’s air-time was surprisingly challenging with this Q&A teaching technique. While using eye contact and open body language to encourage quiet students to contribute to the discussion proved somewhat effective, I think I could have invite different individuals to participate by posing specific questions to them or by acknowledging the active students’ contribution and requesting them to allow others an opportunity to speak.

With the small number of students, I invited them to join me at the whiteboard to add enzymes responsible for each step of the urea cycle as a detailed review, as a discussion platform for the energetic cost of nitrogen metabolism, as an aid for the brief discussion on relevant pathology mechanisms. While I thought the activity was engaging, challenging, and well-aligned with my learning objectives, I felt that the lesson fell flat for me as an instructor – I question whether the students would remember anything from this lesson after their exam in a few weeks. I’ll teach biochemical pathways to fulfill curriculum requirements and to prepare students for other advanced courses, but I wonder whether we could steer away from basic recall assessments and how might we make these contents to be more meaningful for the learners beyond the bounds of a classroom or an examination…

Observation: Two-Stage Exam

A two-stage exam is when students individually complete a test and then immediately complete the same, or very similar, test in groups (usually with the individual test weighted more heavily, e.g., 80%+, for the final test score).

I have had personal experience with this testing format as an undergraduate – I distinctly remember the energetic debates and thoughtful arguments we had about various concepts as we tried to reach consensus for the group answer. I’d like to think that I learned better with this two-stage summative assessment (while I don’t have any personal evidence, Gilley and Clarkson’s SoTL research supports the effectiveness of two-stage exam in enhancing student performance), because I deeply appreciated the immediate feedback and enjoyed the peer-teaching aspect of the examination. It is an assessment method that I would love to integrate into my teaching practice – I needed the know-how in administering a two-stage exam.

I visited Psych 101 again. When I walked into the classroom 5 minutes to noon, it was already filled with students. The atmosphere felt tense and almost anxious. The four TA’s were running up and down the aisles to direct and accommodate the students still filing into the class. On their desks, alternating coloured exam booklets (a total of 4 versions) on top their scantrons. On the projector, written instructions on stowing their belongings, on filling the bubbles for their respective exam code on scantrons. The instructor repeated these written instructions and promptly gave permission to begin their individual test.  For the next 30 minutes, the teaching team took a head count, accounted for empty booklets, and invigilated the exam.

The transition seemed chaotic from the individual to the group exam. Silence vanished within seconds and was immediately replaced by movement and chatter as soon as the teaching team begin to collect the individual tests. Students were already shifting into their small groups (of four to six) before all of the individual tests were collected. The group exams were almost simultaneously handed out and the students dived right into their discussions.

The buzz and energy generated from these conversations were electrifying. I was amazed at the level of engagement and motivation each student demonstrated as I walked around the room – polling for group consensus, challenging their peers’ reasoning, explaining their own rationale. While ensuring the academic integrity of this examination, the instructor was mindful of time and of possible midterm in students’ next class. Students rushing to their next exam were asked to line up at the door once their group exams were collected, while others were instructed to remain seated.

It was surprising how structured and timely the two-stage exam was executed.  Clear instructions, both verbal and written, are key to its successful execution. Effective communication between members of the teaching team was also paramount to maximize resources, ensure academic integrity, and to minimize chaos. I think it is necessary for me to cultivate some comfort around organized chaos – it is a small cost for the potential benefit of enhanced learning, student engagement, and sense of camaraderie!