Perceived vs. actual class challenges & study resources between lower- and upper-division anatomy courses: a mini-study

During the 2018-2019 school year, I took part in a project that was intended to look at the effects of implementing active learning strategies in STEM classes. The idea was to compare a single SLO (student learning outcome) using “traditional” teaching methods in a class taught in the fall semester, to one taught using active learning exercises in the spring semester.

My study took a different tack. And I found something unexpected and kind of interesting that I presented at a poster session at UCSD last week.

I teach two Anatomy classes: 1) Human Anatomy & Physiology (A&P) which is a lower-division class designed for students aiming to become EMT’s (emergency medical technicians) or LVN’s (licensed vocational nurses), and 2) Human Anatomy (HA), an upper-division class for students going for RN (registered nurse), pharmaceutical, or similar allied health degrees.

The two classes both have pretty high withdrawal rates, compared to other STEM classes: A&P about 70-80%, and HA about 40-50%. These are both widely considered among the toughest classes a student will take in their programs — dare I call them “weeder classes”? The higher drop-out rate in A&P is most likely due to the fact that there are no prerequisites, where the HA class requires having taken at least one college-level biology course.

I conducted two surveys in each class: one early in the semester and a second toward the end of the semester using Plickers, so student answers were anonymous. The questions in each survey were meant to get a feel for which parts of the class students were struggling with or enjoying the most. But they also included two self-assessments that ended up revealing some interesting trends.

The first assessment (early-semester / late-semester versions): “The thing I’m worried most about in this class is…” / “The thing I found hardest in this class was…”

The second assessment (early-semester / late-semester versions): “The thing I think will help me most in this class is…” / “The thing that helped me most in class was…”

And here’s how it played out:

In the lower-division A&P class, students’ early-semester, perceived, challenges were mainly about not knowing what to expect on exams and their time constraints for studying. HA students, on the other hand, thought that the speed of the material being taught was going to be a problem and, like A&P students, time constraints came in second as a perceived challenge.

At the end of the semester, students in both classes had similar self-assessments about what were actually the biggest challenges: not enough time to study and the pace of the class.

That the classes presented constraints in studying time was not, in itself, unexpected — these are both difficult classes that require a lot of studying and the pace is, indeed, very ummm… “unrelenting”.

What I found interesting about this part was that A&P students seemed to be, at first, primarily concerned about the unknown (even though both classes were provided with study guides about the exam material), compared to HA students who appeared to be more “realistic” about the challenges of the class, both early and late in the semester.

For the second self-assessment about useful studying resources, the results “flipped”.

Both the A&P and HA classes perceived, early in the semester, that the textbook was going to be their best resource in studying. Other resources, like YouTube videos, open lab, and office hours with yours truly had mixed, but lower, expected value in doing well in class.

The actual (late-semester) data showed that A&P students had completely abandoned their textbooks as the most valuable resource, instead finding that office hours were far-and-away the most useful. HA students, in comparison, reported that outside resources were most helpful, followed by the textbook, with office hours dwindling way behind.

Comparing the results of this self-assessment to the previous, apparently neither class had a good bearing on what was going to help them most in class. And, importantly, both classes found that the most valuable resources were completely different!

So what does this all mean?

First off, I want to emphasize that this is just a “mini-study” (a term that I’m pretty sure isn’t officially recognized within the scientific lexicon); the sample size is basically two (because of pseudoreplication) and I’ve use the statistical “n”, seen in the graphs, very, very loosely.

That said, my gut tells me that, if repeated in multiple classes, the results would probably keep backing up this pattern. Because, in some ways, it’s kind of a no-brainer: lower-division students need more one-on-one attention (through office hours) to succeed in a challenging class like anatomy, compared to upper-division students, who may have already figured out how to study independently (and, ergo, primarily use out-of-class resources).

It’s worth restating that BOTH lower- and upper-division students were a bit misguided starting out in the study materials that they thought would be most useful. And that they diverged significantly (again, non-statistically speaking). So, when it comes to teaching these classes, I’ll use these data to (hopefully) steer students, early in the semester, to the resources that they will likely find most helpful in learning the material and doing well in class.

As the California Community College System has stated a goal for data-driven decision making with respect to student success, this “mini-study” could also point to a need for funding additional office hours for part-time faculty who teach lower-division STEM classes, such as A&P, and/or funding further research in this area.

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