Reflections on Disciplinary Identity

In our last GCP session, we used a Venn diagram to visualize intersections of our personal, academic and disciplinary identities. I found it immensely challenging for me to tease out the complex layers of my identity – especially when my “academic student” identity is highlighted by my immediate environment. I also had an ugly realization of self-delusion-in-action while engaging in this activity – the items that I committed to paper were how I WANT to perceive myself instead of the completely honest and unedited picture of my identity.

In making the bold assumption that (at least some) people would behave similarly to me – in having the tendency to paint a pretty picture about who they are – I realize that we need to actively put ourselves on the other side of the table and see from others’ perspectives, however uncomfortable and furstrating, whenever we encounter an identity conflict (and the ethical dilemma associated with it) and do our best in collaboratively finding an approach that is acceptable to the identities in conflict. While I recognize we may not always have this luxury, I believe it is something we should be increasingly mindful of whenever we notice our reaction of resistance towards these identity conflicts.

What lingered with me after the session was the topic of tolerance paradox – it may have something to do with my science background and my recent rediscovery of Karl Popper. I think our discussion really brought out the need for open discourse and acknowledgment of emotions, especially when there is an identity conflict in our interactions. These are important and productive conversations to have, should we ever want to learn about the many potential ethical implications in confronting these identity conflicts (as Joseph’s example demonstrated). I cannot wait for our continued discussion on disciplinary identity!

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…

Teaching Practicum Reflections – Biological Membranes

For a 90 minute lecture on biological membranes (for an introductory biochemistry course at Columbia College), I probably spent close to 8 hours making (only) 14 slides. I had a lot of fun creating the teaching material. The PowerPoint presentation was carefully animated – each concept inviting discussions and each slide building on the one previous. The process of designing the presentation allowed many opportunities for me to question the overall alignment between my learning activities and learning objectives, to strategize around how to best engage all of my students, and to think about specifically how each participatory activity may help my students learn (e.g., stages of the Kolb’s cycle).

I invited the students to collaboratively draw a typical biological membrane at the beginning of class and built on their previous knowledge as I introduce additional more in-depth concepts (e.g., chemical structure and molecular interactions). Throughout the lesson, I used many guided questions to help them make connections between concepts. At the end of the lesson, the students taught one another as they collectively filled out a compare and contrast worksheet on the projected whiteboard.Overall, I am happy about the lesson  – most of it unfolded as I had planned and anticipated. I feel confident that the students met the learning objectives by the end of the lesson.

The learning objectives for my lesson were – by the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  1. List and describe the interaction(s) between each major component of a typical biological membrane
  2. Compare and contrast characteristics of a membrane channel and a transporter
  3. Given the characteristics of a solute and the cellular environment, provide the most feasible passive and/or active transport mechanism across a semi-permeable and selective membrane barrier

From this teaching experience, I think one of my strengths is my ability to leverage technology in creating powerful teaching and learning aid. In animating the slides and in minimizing text, it created space for story-telling and helped to enhance student engagement. I also think that the learning activities were well-structured to provide a safe space for everyone to participate and were well-aligned with the learning objectives. I found it difficult to manage time (I only filled 75 of the 90 minutes in this lesson), not knowing how to best balance between amount, depth, and breadth of content and opportunities for students to engage with the material and to integrate knowledge. I recognize that finding this fine balance takes practice, experimentation and experience – but it is most definitely something I need to be conscious of whenever planning a lesson.

In my post-teaching discussion with the course instructor, he left me with some questions to ponder on – how could you further challenge your learners in this class? what kind of assessments could help you distinguish stellar students from good students?

Designing Transformative Learning Activities

How to best facilitate my learners’ processes in moving from a disciplinary novice to a practitioner? in shifting their default thought processes away from identifying context-specific information and more towards considering big picture principles/concepts at play whenever confronted with problems?

In our last GCP session on Disciplinary Transformation, we were invited to design participatory learning activities to help “transform” our learners from disciplinary novices to practitioners.

From my personal observation and learning experience, there is a tendency for disciplinary novices to be fixated on one macroscopic aspect of the disease, whether that is the pathogen or the most clinically affected organ system, thus often finding it difficult to explain the multifactorial process of pathogenesis and disease progression. The disciplinary problem I shared was: Explain the pathogenesis and disease progression of a given disease (e.g., atherosclerosis). The designed activities for each are as follow:

Notice Frame of Reference:
Large Group Brainstorm
1. What comes to mind when you hear the term, atherosclerosis?
2. What are some risk factors for atherosclerosis?

Learn Frame of Reference:
Expert Groups – assign each small group with a risk factor of said disease and ask them to explain how each risk factor contributes to the development of atherosclerosis.
1. high blood lipid content (hyperlipidemia)
2. endothelial damage
3. chronic inflammation (immune function and regulation)
4. thrombotic risk (coagulation and complement components)

Transform Point of View:
Creative individual assignment to integrate what they learned in the expert groups and to identify at least one other mechanism (with appropriate references/scientific evidence) that may contribute to the multifactorial processes of pathogenesis and disease progression of atherosclerosis (e.g., illustration of pathogenesis and disease progression with caption, review paper, or video)

Transform Habit:
Student led in-class group presentations and discussions on pathogenesis and disease progression of different diseases

I think this metacognitive process very useful in keeping my learner-centre focus when planning lessons and in aligning my teaching intention and actions. This is most definitely something I’d like to experiment and play more with!

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!