Student for a day (Part 3): operation dissection

This is the third and final post about going back to the classroom: you can find the first post here and the second one here.

We rushed from the lecture hall to the basement of the main teaching complex on campus. I walked down the hall towards the lab, that old familiar smell was in the air: it was the “face-muscle dissection day” in Comparative Anatomy. This took me immediately back to my undergraduate days at the University of Guelph.  There were just over a dozen students in the lab, and the ‘specimens’ (I shall NOT mention what they were!) were sitting on stainless steel lab tables, with the dissection gear at the ready. Scalpel? CHECK. Forceps? CHECK. Scissors? CHECK. It was operation: dissection. I was nervous…. then I was handed rubber gloves and a labcoat. I was WAY out of my element…

The instructor started with an extremely detailed 45 minute lecture, providing an excellent overview of the game-plan for the dissections: the expectations of the students was exceedingly clear, and the instructor’s own deep expertise was obvious.

Checking the notes before the dissection commences...

Checking the notes before the dissection commences…

And then the music went on (yes, music! One of the TAs always picks a lovely selection to work to) and the clang of forceps, scalpels scissors started: the students were off, peeling skin and searching for ever-elusive face muscles. It was hard and tedious work: after 30+ minutes our team had only just begun to expose the first layer of muscles. The students expressed how tough the class was, and how it took an incredible amount of time to study their notes after labs. In addition to their own notes, the textbook, and the laboratory notes, my team was taking photos with their smartphones, and taking some videos to use as future study aids. They have a test coming up soon, and were working hard to remember the content and link the ‘thing’ to the ‘name’. I asked the students why they were taking such a challenging course… surely it was required for their program? It turns out that the course wasn’t required, and the students were taking it because they wanted to. It was one of their favourite classes because it involved ‘doing’ things and involved experiential learning on a topic they were deeply interested in (animal biology). The act of dissecting was how they were learning, and the act of dissecting allowed them to really understand how animals work: from the shape and size of salivary glands, to why certain muscles were more developed than others, or how whiskers are embedded deep under the skin surface.

At one point I looked at the clock and was amazed that a full hour had already passed. I looked up from our specimen (and yes, my lab partners had given it a name…) and did a scan of the laboratory: everyone was hunched over, smiling, and now and then you heard ‘COOL’ and ‘WOW’. They were learning together, learning by doing, and loving it. They loved the challenge of the class and they weren’t watching the clock.

I had to leave and get back to my office, and the instructor came up afterwards to say thanks. I was told that never before had another instructor or Prof stepped into the classroom to see what they were doing. That’s a shame.

With my lab partners.

With my lab partners.

I come away from my “student for a day” experience with some vivid memories, new perspectives, and the following take-home messages:

  • There’s a lot of material! Wow, there was a lot of material! The students are learning a very high volume of content, and this happens day after day after day. No wonder they are sometimes stressed and fall behind. As Profs, we need to perhaps better recognize and respect work loads.
  • Different teaching styles are valuable: from lectures to discussions to hands-on laboratories, the variation was much appreciated. It would be tough sitting through six straight hours of lecture, but varying it between different formats works very well. Education is not, and should not *ever* be uniform. One shoe doesn’t fit all, and there is incredible value to ensuring our students get the variation in educational styles.
  • Spaces are important, perhaps more so than I appreciated before: the physical space itself had a great influence on my time as a student, from the angle of the screen to the placement of the door. The little things matter and the space is a key partner in learning. Variation in available spaces must match variation in different types of courses and instructors. We need big and small lecture halls, well-equipped laboratories, and collaborative learning spaces.
  • Students are bright, motivated, serious, and have high expectations: this is good to recognize. I already felt this about students on my campus, but seeing this first hand in three different classes confirmed my suspicions. We should maintain rigor and approach each course with an expectation that the audience is ready to learn and ready to be engaged.
  • Instructors always rush around from class to class and meeting to meeting, but we sometimes forget that students need to rush around too! There isn’t always time in their schedule to eat, line up for the washroom, or physically get from one classroom to another. This is a reminder for me to end class when it’s supposed to end, and be a little more forgiving when students come in a little bit late.

In sum, I will do this again, and would urge my colleagues to do the same. It’s important to see what students see, learn about different approaches to the classroom, and be sensitive to a full timetable and to the high workload that students experience.

A very special thanks to the students who allowed me to tag along: you were patient, kind, and made the experience extra-special.


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  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 03/04/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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