FMHS Teacher Feature #5: Professor Ian Johnson

Ian teaches human anatomy and neuroscience in the Department of Biomedical Sciences.  He tells me that it is sometimes difficult to engage students because the content is “a little dry”.  To support student learning, Ian trialed a ’flipped classroom’ approach, putting the important conceptual information online as pre-reading.  With the use of images and interactive technology (ALP) during the lecture, Ian asked students to identify the part of the nervous system affected.  Students had to apply their knowledge to questions about the content from the pre-reading and overview. 

As we know from Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (left), the application of knowledge is a mid-level cognitive skill, more difficult than understanding but less difficult than evaluating. 

Toohey’s (1999) simple learning model (right) suggest that after students are introduced to a topic (pre-reading) and have had a chance to get to know more about it (overview/revision at the start of a lecture), students should be given an opportunity to ‘try it out’ or make use of their knowledge with learning activities such as application exercises.

Why is an active learning teaching approach recommended?

There are many reported benefits in the literature to student learning of interaction with peers, content, and teachers.  Students learn more easily when they are actively engaged in the learning process (Prince, 2004).  Active learning improves retention of ideas, motivating students to do further study and developing thinking skills compared to more traditional methods of teaching

Ian is adamant that you don’t have to use technology to make lectures interactive but argues technology can help to facilitate the interactive process. Interactive lectures can help reduce mind-wandering, make learning deeper and improves long-term retention. See this Macquarie video for an example of how ALP works (polling and multiple-choice questions; group discussion; image quiz (like Ian), numerical answers and other features).    With engagement, comes deeper learning and improved student outcomes.  Engagement can be derived through a number of strategies, whether they are high-tech or low-tech. 

How have you used ALP in your teaching?

Ian presented students with a clinical problem, such as ‘a crooked smile’ and asked students to identify the part of the nervous system that might be damaged in the ALP ‘image quiz activity’.  Students were shown an image (such as a brain) and asked to locate the spot roughly where they thought the problem was. 

Once the question closed Ian would show students the results of their application (i.e. where the hot spots cluster) and provide immediate feedback to students on where the correct response was and why that was the correct answer.  A digital whiteboard was also used to create simple diagrams summarising the logic behind the answers.

Getting the pulse of student understanding (feedback for the teacher) enables misconceptions to be corrected and students are provided immediate feedback on their progress.  Students providing correct responses are rewarded (by knowing that they understood the information or process correctly) and students who get the question wrong are supported by clarification and feedback on their misconception.  Ian argues that it is preferable for the teacher to clarify as he goes rather than waiting until the student struggles during an assessment task.

“Using ALP technology is a simple and effective way of checking the depth of understanding of a topic in the class. Lecturing at students is the least effective way of teaching a topic. As Dewey (1859-1952) told us, getting students to ‘do something’ is the most effective way of facilitating student learning. ALP technology facilitates this process.”

Ian Johnson

Dewey argued that rather than the child being a passive recipient of knowledge, children were better served if they took an active part in the process of their own learning.  Dewey explained that for education to be at its most effective, children should be given learning opportunities that enable them to link present content to previous experiences and knowledge (scaffolded learning).  Dewey believed that teachers should not be in the classroom to act simply as instructors, but should adopt the role of facilitator and guide, giving students the opportunities to discover for themselves and to develop as active and independent learners.

See this link for a collection of useful resources/articles on ALP .

  • Dewey, J. (2011) Democracy and Education. Milton Keynes: Simon and Brown.  Originally published in 1916.
  • Prince, M. (2004) Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research, Journal of Engineering Education, Vol 93, Issue 3, pp 223-231.
  • Toohey, S. (1999). Designing courses for Higher Education.  The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University, Great Britain.
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Posted by Lyn Collins

Senior Instructional Designer in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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