Why Learning Catalytics was the tool that really made me flip

D.J. Hennager

Associate Professor, Science Kirkwood Community College

I teach Anatomy and Physiology I and II. In the past, class time was primarily discussion; now, it is primarily Learning Catalytics. Before class, students read their textbook, studied a Prezi demonstration, or watched a podcast to get the background information. In class, we do Learning Catalytics (LC). Applying their foundational knowledge during class while using LC helps them prepare for the summative assessment on exams.

I have used podcasts to accompany my lecture for some time, but I wanted a truly meaningful exercise before I "flipped." LC was the tool that really made me flip. My initial interest in clickers led me to follow Eric Mazur, a thought leader in peer instruction and one of the co-founders of Learning Catalytics. When LC was purchased by Pearson, it became an easier tool to adopt, given my use of MasteringA&P.

A&P is a tough course that often frustrates students. So, when I reduce that frustration by finding efficiencies in teaching, I get to use that "frustration capital" to teach more difficult material. LC has allowed me to teach much more application or pathological-based information. I often write questions in the spirit of a nursing board exam question. The students appreciate seeing how they will be assessed in the future and that the assessment is more application based—in short, they are more motivated and engaged.

I follow the strategy of peer instruction by asking questions that I expect only 30-70% of the students will answer correctly. The students use a team-based approach, the smart devices in their hands (along with digital literacy) and critical thinking to unpack the board exam style question to reach that "aha" moment. It really is somewhat magical to see only 30% of a class answer a question correctly only to have that number go to 90% after given some time to put their heads together and answer the question again. There are a lot of "aha" moments in the class. And for me, every time I see a class average of 30% going to 90% it is a memorable moment.

As LC allows collaboration, digital literacy, and more critical thinking, I can ask much more difficult and applied questions. Plus, when the questions are more relevant to the student’s future, they are more motivated. Application questions = relevance; relevance = motivation.

I like questions that introduce the student to later topics or to clinical treatments in a context where the student does not need to have deep knowledge of the topic to be able to answer the question. In the example to the right, the student only needs to know that the communication system of cells is membrane receptors. But, the question also launches a discussion on why some viruses are airborne (as they can bind to receptors in cells of the respiratory system). Also, I can discuss the nature of science and genetics noting that 10% of northern Europeans are immune to HIV infection due to being descendants of those who survived black plaque (or perhaps small pox) because they lack the receptor that these pathogens need to infect.

A further example would be to point out to students that a common strategy with cancer therapy is to bombard cancer cells with tiny "bullets" like electrons when using radiation. I then ask what other "bullets" would be available. If the student realizes that electrons are one of the three subatomic particles, they will then think of the other subatomic particles: neutrons and protons. The student is then given the option of protons, protons and neutrons, neutrons. The student might look this up or they might realize from other knowledge on radioisotopes that neutrons are used to destroy tumors as radioactive iodine is used to treat cancer of the thyroid. The student might also look up proton radiation and see that a new form of treatment is to direct protons at tumors. Thus, the base knowledge of the question is simply testing whether the student knows the subatomic particles as electrons, protons and neutrons. But, with a little research or thought, they can tie together subatomic particles with medical treatments. I think the best questions are those that answer the question "why do I need to know this." The student realizes that the instructor is not simply asking questions to set up roadblocks but rather that the instructor is building a foundation for understanding later applications.

Every now and again in teaching, multiple factors come together to create a bit of magic, a paradigm shift where you just feel that your teaching has made a leap. Using LC, the factors are collaboration, research using digital literacy, and critical thinking. LC allows me to teach at a higher level utilizing more applied and relevant questions. My students see the magic too. They see that I am really trying to prepare them for success with the next hurdle in their education.