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Episode 8 | Transcript
Supporting Returning Learners in the A&P Class
Kevin Patton: It’s not often that one encounters a quote from a highly regarded and widely known thought leader that includes the word liver, but here’s one I really like from Maya Angelou who once said, “Life loves the liver of it.”
Aileen: Welcome to the A&P Professor. A few minutes to focus on teaching anatomy and physiology with host Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton: In this episode, I discuss a type of neuron that you may not have heard of. I invite you to my daily newsletter and I discuss returning learners in the A&P class.
Kevin Patton: Let me get personal for a moment. Well more specifically, peripersonal. What in the world does that mean? Well that’s a new term for me too and that’s why I’m bringing it up. I’ve recently run across something called the peripersonal neuron. And if we break down the word it tells us exactly, or almost exactly, what it is. Peri, p-e-r-i, is a word part that means around or surrounding. And personal means relating to the person. So peripersonal means relating to what’s around our person, around our body. And peripersonal neurons are neurons whose job it is, is to monitor the area around our body.
Kevin Patton: Now many of you know that I’ve had a life long fascination with cats. As a matter of fact, right now one of my cats is just a few inches on the other side of the microphone and he’s often there as I’m doing these podcasts. He’s all curled up. He’s getting close to going to sleep. I think he likes to lay there for several reasons. One of which is, I believe he thinks I’m talking to him. And the longer I talk the sleepier he gets and he eventually naps there and lets me do my work. Oh, by the way, that’s one of the reasons why I like to keep these podcasts to a half hour or less because I know that my voice has that affect, so I’d like to push on here before it happens to you.
Kevin Patton: The reason I’m bring up my cat or any cat, is that, he’s a tuxedo cat, which means that he’s mostly black with some white markings and as I look at him right now I see that on his mostly black face that he’s got these very white whiskers sticking out. So the whiskers are very easy to see even in dim light. They’re not only coming out of his cheeks, but around and in his ears, in various locations, his forehead, various, chin, various locations around his face, but then as I look down the length of his body I see these guard hairs, these whisker like hairs, that are sticking out all over the place. Even though at a glance he looks to be completely black, when you take a moment to look closely you see these longer hairs whose job it is, is to help him monitor his surroundings.
Kevin Patton: This is why cats, when they’re moving around in their environment they tend to not bump into things too often. They tend to not knock things over unless they want to. And that’s another whole discussion that we could have sometime about cat attitudes, but when cats are focused on moving somewhere, on surviving and hunting their prey and so on, they have a very keen sense of exactly where everything is in their environment around them. They know where other animals are. They know where the plants, the trees, the ground, the rocks, whatever, are surrounding them. And we have that capability too. We are using multiple senses including possibly the hairs on our bodies, but also and mostly our visual sense and even auditory and olfactory and tactual and so on. It’s the peripersonal neurons whose job it is, is to keep track of that.
Kevin Patton: For several decades we’ve been studying peripersonal neurons in animals and now finally in humans for a while. One researcher describes these peripersonal neurons as sort of a bubble wrap neuron, part of the bubble wrap around our body. What he means by that is that each peripersonal neuron has the responsibility of monitoring one tiny little bubble of space around our body. Not just for one type of sensory information, one mode of our senses such as visual or tactual, but all of them. In other words, it’s job is not mode specific, sensory mode specific, but it’s job is location specific. Location in that peripersonal space, in that space surrounding us. If it’s on our arm, even if we move our arm, that neuron continues to follow that one location no matter where in space our arm is that particular moment.
Kevin Patton: So if you look at all of those peripersonal neurons in all of those bubbles that are being monitored at all times around our body, then we see that there is sort of a bubble wrap around our body. There is a sensory bubble wrap that is monitoring us. So when you walk through the door you tend not to bump into the door. When you’re in a crowd, maybe on a very crowded city sidewalk or during the change of classes at school and so on, when people are shoulder to shoulder you tend not to really knock into people very often or knock into their backpacks or knock into the wall or things like that. And the reason is, is that at some level your body is constantly monitoring that.
Kevin Patton: And you have these peripersonal neurons throughout the brain. They are located, they form a network widely spread throughout many regions of the brain. They’re not all focused on one particular area. They’re monitoring us outside of what we are normally, consciously aware of, what we’re consciously thinking of right now. So even though I’m trying to stay focused on what I’m talking about, I see some things in my environment and I feel some things in my environment, but until they get threatening or unusual, I’m not really gonna pay attention to them. And I don’t need to. Why? Because my peripersonal neurons are forming this bubble around my body that is monitoring what is going on. I have a system of surveillance, a sensory surveillance going on all the time around my body and I’ll be alerted when I need to be alerted. I can consciously decide to focus on it when I need to focus on it. If I trying to very gingerly to step around a, let’s say a fragile object or something like that, but I’m very close, then I will pay attention to that. So, new type of neuron that we can put in our quiver and start thinking about.
Kevin Patton: Oh, one last thing that I discovered about peripersonal neurons when I was doing some reading on this, is that they can operate even when we’re not fully conscious. Some of that very early work that was done in this area was actually done on anesthetized monkeys. And you would think that when you’re under anesthesia that your brain isn’t really aware of objects coming close to you like that scalpel or other surgical instruments and so on, but your brain is aware of that stuff going on.
Kevin Patton: Oh, another thing that I ran across that’s really fascinating is that when the lights go out those little peripersonal neurons, they’re still monitoring that bubble and they’re still remembering what was in that space the last time they got some sensory information. So, if I’m here with my cat and the lights go out, actually we’re in the middle of a little snow storm and the lights were flickering a little bit so maybe they’ll go out. Let’s say that I was pitched into total blackness here my body would still be aware of where my cat is sitting. Now, my cat will probably go check out and see what’s going on and so he’s gonna get up a and jump down. And actually the other cat’s coming to join him right now. I hope they don’t make too much noise here that gets picked up by my microphone ’cause they might start wrestling at any moment. But that might happen and if it’s pitch blackness unless I hear something, I’m going to be thinking that my cat is still where he was before the lights went out. So when the lights come back on those peripersonal neurons, they readjust themselves and they’re like wow, what happened to the cat? Well, okay, blank space now. And their part of our surrounding around our body.
Kevin Patton: Some of this research has led down the road of understanding the concept of personal space around us. We’ve normally thought of that as a social concept, and it certainly is, but it’s also has a lot to do with our ability to survive as an organism in our environment because it’s giving us an awareness of our environment that is very helpful in avoiding predation of ourselves. It helps us in preying upon any prey that we want to get or food or clothing or whatever. And even help us navigate through the savanna or city streets or wherever it is we find ourselves living and be, even on a subconscious level, aware of our surroundings.
Kevin Patton: So I have a couple little links in the show notes and on the episode page at the approfessor.com. One of them is a link to a new book out by one of these researchers, Michael Graziano, has written a book and it’s intended for the general public even though it does contain neuron science information. It’s called The Spaces Between Us, a story of neuro science, evolution and human nature. It also kind of walks us through how science works so that’s helpful as well. There’s an interview that I heard recently on another podcast called The Brain Science Podcast with host Ginger Campbell and I’m going to put a link to that episode where you hear a conversation between Dr. Campbell and Dr. Graziano about this book and also summarizes this whole notion of peripersonal neurons. I think this is an interesting concept that we might be able to throw into various discussions that we have about how the brain works and how there are neurons that are specialized for a particular kinds of functions, which not only mirror neurons, which you may already be dropping into your discussion occasionally, but now we have another one, peripersonal neurons.
Kevin Patton: Let me tell you about a daily newsletter that I have that collects the headlines from that day that are of interest to A&P professors and I’ll send them out to you. Sometimes with a little comment from me, but it’s an easy way to sort of not have to scan every single tweet or email message that comes across your desk. I’m kind of doing that for you and pulling out the ones that I think will be most interesting to you. So how do you sign up for that newsletter? Well, just go to the approfessor.org, scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see a button that says Subscribe to Kevin’s Newsletters. Once you’re there, go all the way down to the bottom and make sure the one that is for the Nuzzel Newsletter is checked and once you fill in your email address and anything else that is asked for on that form just click submit and we’re off to the races. You’ll get a daily newsletter, which you can unsubscribe from any time you’d like, but I think if you stick with it for a little while you’ll find that there’s gonna be at least one thing every day that you’ll be glad that you saw.
Kevin Patton: Returning learners in the A&P class. What do I mean by returning learners? Let’s define that first.
Kevin Patton: For the sake of our discussion, we’ll say that returning learners are those that have been out of school for at least two years. Now, that’s in contrast to the so called traditional student whose been sort of on a continuum of schooling that started in grade school or kindergarten and they’ve not really had any significant stopping out and now here they are in our A&P class. The returning learners, they’re the ones that have not only been out a couple of yours. A lot of them have been out maybe a couple of decades. They’ve been focusing on job responsibilities, family responsibilities, maybe they’ve had some kind of illness to deal with, maybe they’ve been in the service, military service or any of a variety of things. And for whatever reason, they might have even had a another career. Maybe they did go to school, go to college or some kind of training and had another career and they’ve been laid off or they decided to make a career change or who knows what, but here they are back in our A&P class after having been out of school for maybe a long time.
Kevin Patton: After having worked with returning learners, hundreds and hundreds of returning learners over decades, I think on average they come in with a higher level of anxiety about their A&P class than the traditional students, and of a particular kind of anxiety. I think those traditional students would have a level of anxiety. That’s based on the fact that they’ve heard scary things about their A&P class, but it’s gonna be hard. It’s like drinking from the fire hose, but it’s not always easy information to deal with. That it’s the foundation of all of their later schooling or professional courses and so on and that can be scary and produce a level of anxiety.
Kevin Patton: But I think the returning learners, their level of anxiety includes those things, but layered on top of that is their worry that they’ve been out of the rhythm of being a student for so long that it’s going to be difficult, maybe even impossible for them to get back into that rhythm. Not just because they’ve been away for a long time, although that’s a big factor, but also because they’ve heard that the way classes are taught have changed in the recent past, and that’s true. Not just in the recent past, but continuously over time things have changed. And so maybe things are so different now it’s gonna be hard for them to really grasp how to be a student.
Kevin Patton: But not only that, there’s this idea in our culture that the older you get the less competent in terms of learning you get. I think that, that is actually the opposite of the truth. I think that we get better learning especially the deeper kind of learning that involves connections between ideas and applications and so on. And I think that’s because we have more practices, we’re older, with those kinds of things even in just living in ordinary life we practice those skills. Not only that, our brains are a lot more mature than they are when we’re fresh out of high school. So I think that there are actually some advantages, but I don’t think in our culture we accept or acknowledge or value those advantages of having an older brain. And so, that creates some anxiety as well.
Kevin Patton: Another kind of anxiety that I think returning learners deal with is they think they’re going to be the only returning learner. Now, at our community college nothing could be further from the truth. We have a significant population of returning learners and that’s been true ever since our college started back in the late 1980’s. And I think that’s generally true of community colleges, probably less so in bigger universities and so on, but the trend is that we’re seeing more and more returning learners everywhere no matter where you teach. I think knowing that they have this level of anxiety and being prepared to help them through that is going to be very useful for us as A&P teachers because reducing that anxiety and getting them to see the advantages they have I think is going to help them be more successful.
Kevin Patton: I’m going to tell a really short story here of something that happened at our community college a number of years ago related to this idea of returning learners and the advantages they’re coming in with.
Kevin Patton: We were seeing over a period of that a number of students in our A&P courses were just having a hard time being successful in A&P. Our gut feeling was that it had something to do with our prerequisites for A&P. At the time the prerequisite was high school biology or it’s equivalent within the last five years. We, some of us in the department thought that well, maybe it’s which high school they had their high school biology course at. Maybe some schools have a stronger program than others and that explains the difference between these students coming in. Some people in our department felt like, well maybe high school biology isn’t enough that maybe those that had, you know, it was more than five years so they had to take a general bio before coming in to A&P. Maybe those students were doing better.
Kevin Patton: We were wondering about the prerequisites. So we handed this question over to our institutional research folks and they were excited to get it. They like this sort of thing. They start looking at the prerequisites that our various students had and compared that to the grades they were getting in our courses. But while they were doing that they wanted to rule out other factors that maybe we didn’t think of. So they went back in and looked at demographic information. They looked at ACT scores. They look at, oh my gosh, all kinds of stuff. It was crazy. I mean there was everything except, you know, whether they liked ketchup on their french fries or not. Well, maybe that was in there too, their ketchup preference. It was crazy.
Kevin Patton: When we saw all the information it was scary that our administration had all that information available about all our students, but when they came back the correlations showed that they weren’t any significant correlations except for one factor and one factor alone. Didn’t matter what prerequisite they had. Didn’t matter what their ACT score was. It didn’t matter whether they like ketchup on their fries or they like their fries plain. What mattered was what their chronological age was. In other words, the older they were the more likely it was that they would succeed in class. And the way I recalled it we did a unison head slap. We all just slapped our heads and said, “Well of course that’s true because we all know our returning learners, once they get over their initial anxiety eventually do really well.”
Kevin Patton: So, what can we do to help our returning learners see that they’re in a position of doing well, get over that anxiety and channel the energy they’re putting into their anxiety into energy for succeeding in A&P? Assuming that many of them are worried about their ability and preparedness then I think we can do a couple things.
Kevin Patton: One is, I always tell that story and I think that alleviates the anxiety for some of them. And then the first few weeks of class I get, and this is always true. First few weeks of class I will get returning learners coming to my office and saying, “Hey, I’m a returning learner and I’m not like these other people. They all seemed to really be on top of things. They don’t seem to be overwhelmed by stuff. I just don’t know if I can do this.” And I just kind of chuckle and say, “Well, okay, you’re the third person this morning that has come in with the same comment. So, no, they’re not all finding this all to be easy. They’re kind of overwhelmed by that initial experience of A&P as well. And not only that, being a returning learner, you have all kinds of life experience. You have all kinds of experience in solving problems and making connections and applying concepts that your typical student, your so called traditional student just doesn’t have. So take what you have there and move on and I’m here the help you.”
Kevin Patton: So I do what I can to alleviate their anxiety. Now, so I think that reassurance is very powerful and the let them know that we’re right there behind them. We’re not going to let them stumble. We’re going to help them. If they need any kind of resources or advice or anything like that. If we don’t have it, we can find the resources. We can find someone that can give that to them.
Kevin Patton: Something that I think that really helps is to support them with some time management skills and study skills because they’re very open to it. Not all the traditional age students are very open to that sort of thing. They kind of figure they got this school thing licked and whatever they were doing all along is going to work for them now. Of course, that’s not always the case, but the returning learners, they’re very open to this. And they’re certainly going to have some time management issues because they probably do continue to have perhaps some job responsibilities or family responsibilities or just being an adult responsibilities that some of the younger students don’t have and so time management may be a bigger issue for them or at least a significant issue for them, so anything we can do to support that aspect.
Kevin Patton: And sort of related to that is something I always encourage my students to do, if they have these other responsibilities, and they have other people in their lives that they’re, they have some responsibility to whether it’s a social responsibility or a family responsibility or whatever, to sit down with those significant others whether they’re friends or family or whatever and say, “Look, I’m back in school. I’m not going to be able to hang out with you the way I was hanging out with you before. At least I can’t give the same amount of time or maybe the same schedule of time as I was before. Some of the time I’m spending with you I’m going to have to also be focusing on my studies too. And what I’d like from you, my significant others, is to support me in that. And that support is going to mean to try not to complain about me not paying as much attention to you at least for a little while, while I’m in school or at least while I’m in A&P class. Maybe you can help me. Here’s some things you can do to help. Maybe if there are responsibilities that can be divvied up a different way, like family responsibilities or something like that, that can be divvied up.”
Kevin Patton: As a matter of fact if you go to the show notes I have a link to a post that’s directed to students where I suggest that they actually have an agreement that they post on their refrigerator or some other place in their household where they’ve all agreed that mom or dad is not always going to be available for this or that or the other thing. And that so and so in the family is now going to take over this thing that used to be mom’s responsibility or that thing that used to be dad’s responsibility or older brother’s responsibility or whatever and have this agreement so that there’s … It doesn’t have to come to a head later where there’s arguments and resentments and so on, that everybody know ahead of time that things are going to change. They don’t just change and people wonder why. Little children especially get very puzzled by that, but if they know ahead of time what’s coming most children, it’s very easy to get them on board and they actually get excited about the fact that they’re helping mom go back to school or they’re helping dad or older brother or sister go back to school.
Kevin Patton: Another thing that I found very helpful in working with returning learners, and this is true of any learner of course, but I think it’s especially true that we need to be conscious of this with returning learners, is to continue to give them encouragement and praise when they do things well that is to really acknowledge when they’re sticking to it and when they’re using good management skills and so on. Just a few times. That’s all it takes to really leverage that motivation.
Kevin Patton: And speaking of motivation, I think that, that’s one thing that the returning learners have that not all of the traditional students that are coming in have. That is they know why they’re in school. A returning learners know why they’re in school and to them it’s a lot more meaningful because they have a particular, specific goal they have in their life that the younger students, some of the may still be somewhat uncertain as to what they’re going to do in life. They may not have had the experience of having to make their own living or have their own job responsibilities and so on. They’re not looking at things the same way the older students are, the ones that have had that experience. So to encourage them to leverage that motivation, I think, is very important.
Kevin Patton: One last thing, a bit of advice that I find very useful in working with returning learners is really encouraging them, pushing them to interact with the younger students because at first they’re unsure about it. But I found that the younger students really appreciate these older more mature learners coming in and be mentors to them. And the older students benefit by getting some help with those technical things they may not be so used to, but also they can kind of give and take between each other in ways that if the older students just hang out with the older students and the younger students just hang out with the younger students the richness is lost. The interaction. The ability to help one another is not as strong. So when I say encourage or push students to do that what I mean by that is not only tell them about it and say, “Hey, why don’t you try to look for an older or younger student to hang out with.”
Kevin Patton: But not just that, when you’re forming small groups or you’re class activities and discussions and things or lab groups in the lab class, try to make sure that young and old, young and old, that there’s a mix. Other kinds of diversity is very useful as well. Rather than let them just lump together with the person they always gone to school with or their best buddy or whatever, but try to get them to mix it up at least a little bit. I mean, you want to have some comfort level, but try to get them to mix it up a little bit.
Kevin Patton: So there’s some things to think about with returning learners. I should would love to hear about some of things you found successful with returning learners. So go to the approfessor.org and find the numbers you can call in to the podcast line or email to the podcast and we can share some of those things. Or if you have a question that maybe somebody can help us answer about working with returning learners or a story you have about working with returning learners, that would be welcomed as well.
Aileen: The A&P Professor is hosted by Kevin Patton, professor, blogger and textbook author in human anatomy and physiology.
Kevin Patton: Natural preservatives have been added to this episode to reduce spoilage.
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