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Blended learning in physiology: merging new technologies with traditional approaches

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Blended learning in physiology: merging new technologies with traditional approaches

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Louise Robson, Department of Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield, UK


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 due to my blended learning approach to teaching, matching traditional teaching with digital technologies.

In this approach, lectures introduce calculations underpinning physiological mechanisms, with lectures recorded, 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, Fig. 1 (Nordmann et al., 2018). For me this 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.

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 (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

Nordmann E et al. (2018). Lecture capture: Practical recommendations for students and lecturers (pre-publication): 10.31234/osf.io/sd7u4

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