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Blueprints for Learning: Justin Shaffer on Structured A&P Course Design | TAPP 148

Blueprints for Learning: Justin Shaffer on Structured A&P Course Design

TAPP Radio Episode 148


Episode | Quick Take

In Episode 148, Justin Shaffer joins host Kevin Patton to discuss high structure course design. Justin shares his success in building a scaffold for learning by using a variety of course structures to improve student engagement and success, such as pre-class and post-class activities, micro-case studies and clicker questions, brief active learning practices, and much more.

00:00 | Introduction
00:46 | Introducing Justin Shaffer
02:49 | High Structure and Low Structure
20:47 | Badge Break
21:43 | Transparency, Expectations, & Flexibility
34:06 | Secret Code: TAA Conference in Nashville
36:04 | Baby Steps or Go All In?
50:16 | Staying Connected


Episode | Listen Now

Episode | Notes

To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time. (Leonard Bernstein)


Introducing Justin Shaffer

2 minutes

Host Kevin Patton briefly introduced our guest, Dr. Justin Shaffer. Justin is an experienced educator who provides professional development and advice on pedagogy for educators in anatomy and physiology and other disciplines. He is particularly well known for his advice on how to implement high structure course design.

★ Recombinant Education (Justin’s website) recombinanteducation.com/

★ Justin Shaffer (Justin’s LinkedIn profile) linkedin.com/in/justin-shaffer

★ How to Use High Structure Course Design to Heighten Learning (Justin’s conversation with host Bonni Stachowiak on the Teaching in Higher Education podcast) AandP.info/xlo

★ High Structure STEM Classes (Justin’s interview on the podcast, Tea for Teaching) AandP.info/75a

Blueprints for Learning: Justin Shaffer on Structured A&P Course Design Epjisode 148 

High Structure and Low Structure

18 minutes

Kevin Patton discusses with Justin Shaffer the concept of high-structure course design, which revolutionizes traditional teaching by providing a scaffolded learning process involving pre-class content acquisition, active in-class engagement, and post-class assessments. This method, inspired by the educational research of Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth, has been successfully applied across multiple disciplines, demonstrating its versatility and effectiveness in improving student learning outcomes and engagement.

★ Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology (report in Science mentioned in this segment) AandP.info/vqb

★ Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? (paper in CBE-Life Sciences Education by Kelly Hogan and Sarah Eddy mentioned in this segment) AandP.info/ktl

★ Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom (book by Kelley Hogan and Viji Sathy mentioned in this segment) geni.us/kkB4Fn

★ True Grit: Passion and persistence make an innovative course design work (paper in PLOS Biology by Casper, Eddy, and Freeman mentioned in this segment) AandP.info/h27

★ Student performance in and perceptions of a high structure undergraduate human anatomy course (Justin’s paper on high structure anatomy in ASE) AandP.info/lv1

★ High Structure Course Design for Chemical Engineering (Justin’s paper on high structure chemical engineering in CEE) AandP.info/djc

★ Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? (source of the quote used in this segment, “My wish for you is that each year you look back at your career and laugh with embarrassment about the way used to teach. If you do this, you will continue to learn and grow.”) geni.us/J9jdp


Badge Break

1 minute

Kevin reminds listeners that listening to this episode and reviewing the notes at this episode page can be documented with a professional development credential that can be shared in the form of a digital badge or certificate. It helps you keep track of your independent professional development activities and it provides evidence for your records or reports. Scroll down to the the link below to claim your digital credential. Or go to one of the links listed:

★  Education | Professional Development (all about TAPP digital credentials)

★ TAPP Education | Credentials | P Group (list of all the credentials related to this podcast)


Transparency, Expectations, & Flexibility

12.5 minutes

In this insightful exchange, Kevin Patton and Justin Shaffer explore the transformation of teaching strategies from low to high structure. Patton discusses the shift in student expectations due to more structured courses, and Shaffer explains how transparency and flexibility within this framework can significantly enhance student engagement and success. They discuss the importance of being adaptable while maintaining rigorous academic standards to mirror real-world responsibilities.

★ Some related resources from The A&P Professor

★ ★ The Case for Transparency | Episode 51

★ ★ Student Evaluations of Teaching II: Proactive, Active, and Reactive Strategies | TAPP 85 (discusses course debriefing sessions with feedback)

★ ★ Should We Extend Deadlines? | Models & Color Codes | TAPP 112

★ ★ The Inclusive Anatomy & Physiology Course | Part 2 | 8 More Tips to Include All | TAPP 109

★ ★ More Quizzing About Kevin’s Wacky Testing Scheme | Book Club | TAPP 100

★ ★ 49 Tricks for Retention & Success in Online Courses | Episode 21

★ ★ 49 MORE Tricks for Retention & Success in Online Courses | Episode 22

★ ★ EVEN MORE Tricks for Retention & Success in Online Courses | Episode 23

★ ★ Ungrading With Standards-Based Grading | A Chat With Staci Johnson | TAPP 106

★ ★ Taking Bold Steps in Teaching | Notetaking | Science Updates | TAPP 90

★  State of Student Success and Engagement in Higher Education (recent report from Instructure) AandP.info/ir9


Secret Code: TAA Conference in Nashville

2 minutes

We take a brief pause to talk about the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA) in which many A&P professors find helpful support and benefits. TAA meets the needs of those interested in creating textbooks, lab manuals, workbooks, and other learning resources, as well as those who focus on academic writing, such as journal articles, dissertations/theses, monographs, and scholarly or other nonfiction works.

Kevin explains that he has a secret code for a significant discount on the upcoming TAA Annual Conference. Contact him at podcast@theAPprofessor.org or the podcast hotline at 1.833.546.6336

★ TAA Annual Conference (Nashville TN, June 21-22—contact Kevin for the secret discount code) 2024taaconference.org/

Baby Steps or Go All In?

14 minutes

In this segment, we discuss the dilemma of adopting high-structure teaching methods with Justin Shaffer, focusing on the balance between workload and effectiveness. Shaffer recommends a phased approach to implementing new strategies in an established course, starting small and evaluating the impact before adding more elements. This method allows educators to manage their workload while still experimenting with innovative teaching practices that can significantly enhance student learning experiences and outcomes. For new courses, Justin suggests going all-in from the start, noting that while the initial setup may be labor-intensive, the long-term gains in student performance and instructional efficiency can justify the effort.

★ Recombinant Education (Justin’s website with a lot of resources related to high structure teaching) recombinanteducation.com/

★ Improving Exam Performance in Introductory Biology through the Use of Preclass Reading Guides (Justin’s paper on Reading Guides in CBE-Life Sciences) AandP.info/clu

★ Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide (book by Rich Felder and Rebecca Brent, both mentioned in this segment) geni.us/jP9tT



Production: Aileen Park (announcer),  Andrés Rodriguez (theme composer,  recording artist),  Karen Turner (Executive Editor), Kevin Patton (writer, editor, producer, host).

Not People

Robotic (AI) audio leveling/processing and transcription is done by Auphonic.com and the content, spelling, grammar, style, etc., of these episode notes are assisted by various bots, such as ChatGPT, Grammarly, and QuillBot.

Need help accessing resources locked behind a paywall?
Check out this advice from Episode 32 to get what you need!

Episode | Captioned Audiogram

Episode | Transcript

The A&P Professor podcast (TAPP radio) episodes are made for listening, not reading. This transcript is provided for your convenience, but hey, it’s just not possible to capture the emphasis and dramatic delivery of the audio version. Or the cool theme music.  Or laughs and snorts. And because it’s generated by a combo of AI robot and human transcription, it may not be exactly right. So I strongly recommend listening by clicking the audio player provided or the captioned audiogram.
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[0:00] Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein once famously said, to achieve great things, two things are needed, a plan and not quite enough time.

[0:14] Welcome to The A&P Professor, a few minutes to focus on teaching human anatomy and physiology with a veteran educator and teaching mentor, your host, Kevin Patton.

[0:28] This is episode 148, where Justin Shaffer joins us for a chat about high-structure course design.

[0:35] Music.

Introducing Justin Shaffer

[0:46] Hey, I’ve been looking forward to a chat with my friend Justin Shaffer, and today is the day. He’ll be joining us in a moment, but first, allow me to introduce him to you. Dr. Justin Shaffer is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and a teaching professor in chemical and biological engineering and in quantitative biosciences and engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. And right before I spoke to him, Justin was promoted to be the Ben L. Fryrear Chair for Innovation and Excellence. Justin has been a university STEM professor, discipline-based education researcher, and faculty and student mentor since 2012. Over the past 12 years or so, Justin has taught more than 8,000 students using evidence-based pedagogies at a variety of institutions in several disciplines and formats. And he has worked with faculty to add evidence-based practices to their courses by way of workshops and one-on-one consulting.

[1:59] Justin has this cool website called Recombinant Education, where you can learn about all the exciting things he’s doing to help us all be better teachers. Hey, one of those things is a book on high structure course design coming out later this year or early next year in the Macmillan Scientific Teaching Series. I can’t wait for that.

[2:26] Of course, of course, of course, I have links to all of this in the notes that are available where you’re listening right now and at the episode page at theAPprofessor.org slash 148. Well, hey, I’m ready for our chat. Let’s get to it.

High Structure and Low Structure

[2:48] Well, I’m here with Justin Shaffer. Justin, thanks for stopping by and chatting with us today. Absolutely, Kevin. Looking forward to hanging out for a bit and talking to you about all sorts of stuff.

[3:01] Well, I think we’re going to start with just this idea of high structure course design. And as we do so, I think it’d be a good idea to kind of think about how can I use high structure course design or at least elements of high structure course design in my own course, in my own A&P course. Or probably this applies to any course in any discipline, but, you know, what can we use it for, especially to help kind of fix some of the things that got broke during that big pandemic, COVID, lockdown adventure, or series of adventures that we’ve had recently. And, you know, teaching and learning is different now than it was before, and the experience of it and the kinds of things that that students are feeling and facing when they’re in a course.

[3:52] You’ve written extensively and talked about how high-structure course design can kind of help with that. So to start off, when you say high-structure course design. What do you mean by that?

[4:07] Yeah, a lot of great questions in there and happy to unpack this as we go for sure. So first off, not my term, not my idea. I kind of wish I could claim that, but I can’t. So I always give initial props and shout outs to Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth. That’s at the University of Washington in biology. Mary Pat’s big in A&P. She goes to HAPS a bunch too. But they started publishing on high structure, the idea of it in the mid 2000s. So 2005, 2007, things like that. And Scott had a paper. It was around 2010, 2011 in Science.

[4:42] Actually, yeah, *that* Science. They published stuff on education from time to time. But that really showed the benefits of this model. So I’ve just kind of taken the torch with it and apply it to lots of different situations, as you mentioned. It’s definitely discipline agnostic. So I do it in intro Bio, A&P. I also do it in chemical engineering because I’m in that discipline too. That’s my background. I teach introductory thermodynamics, material and energy balances, which is our sophomore level Chem-E classes. And then I also teach introduction to biomedical engineering. And it works across the board. So discipline doesn’t matter. It works. But what is it, right? So the idea with it is that we can help students with their learning by scaffolding them through the learning process. So we’re helping students move up through their learning via pre-class, in-class, and after class. And again, we think of this idea as scaffolding because we’re giving them more supports as they move through the process. So first, starting with before class, we can do some kind of content acquisition, whether it’s reading, watching videos, a little bit of both, and then some kind of pre-class formative assessment.

[5:46] Some kind of maybe online quiz, lots of chances, maybe even unlimited attempts, which is I kind of moved to that model recently where just keep trying until you get it. But it’s lower stuff, you know, it’s more introductory material, basic concepts, lower Bloom’s levels, if you will. But then in class, we can build on that, right? So we’ve moved some of that basic content to before class. So now in class, we can focus on applying it and practicing it and doing group work and doing active learning and numerical problem solving, if that’s in your discipline. All these other skills you want to develop, you can really use that time now in class to practice. And it’s a little more fun that way too. And then after class, another round of review and more practice. Now we got maybe an online homework, weekly quiz online, something like that, but more practice opportunities. And then you follow that up with your more frequent summative assessments. So, you know, personally, I don’t do midterms anymore.

[6:40] Great call from my colleagues to suggest that. I’m glad I don’t do it. We instead do weekly quizzes in almost all my classes. So we kind of chunk our material into weeks now. So you get that pre-class, in-class, after-class, and then a weekly quiz assessment to modularize the course. But we keep building all the way throughout it, of course, usually accumulating in the cumulative final, especially in A&P. That’s super important to show the connections between the different body systems. So you kind of summarize that again. It’s this, you’re helping students navigate the learning process via kind of three buckets, before class, in-class, after class, and providing those scaffolds and supports along the way.

[7:17] All right. There’s a lot in there.

[7:20] Sure.

[7:21] So correct me if I’m wrong here, but what I’m hearing is that the high structure part is referring to the fact that the instructor has built an intentional and pretty extensive structure into the course.

[7:40] Yesterday, I was thinking about talking to you today and was getting pretty excited about it. And I was thinking back to my undergraduate years, and I was thinking, you know, things were way different back then. We would maybe be given a syllabus, or sometimes we just had to guess as to what the professor wanted us to learn. And then we, you know, attended lectures and labs if that was involved, and we weren’t really given much in the way of homework. Now, in lab, of course, there were sometimes, you know, problems to solve and report on and things like that. But, or things, you know, observations to write up and different things like that. But in the lecture part of the course, especially, we just attended lecture. And, you know, yeah, there was an assigned textbook and we better be reading it, but we didn’t know which sections. There were no quizzes or anything like that. In a lot of courses, we just had a midterm and a final. And that was the only kind of assessment or any kind of interaction as an individual with the teacher at all. Oh, occasionally there’d be like a report, like, oh yeah, you have to do a report and it’s got to follow this style. And that’s the end, you know, and then you get a grade on it. And so nowadays, you know, that’s pretty atypical. Back then it was very typical.

[9:00] So I guess I would call that a “no structure” or “low structure” course that I was usually taking back then. And so what you’re doing is adding structure to it. like, “no don’t… you’re not on your own—I’ll help you. We’re going to do these things, and then those things, and then and then we’ll see where you’re at.” Does that sound… am I hearing that right?

[9:22] You’re picking it up completely right, Kevin. Yeah, and I mean I’m a bit younger than you but even when I was in college in a 01 to 05 at Penn State—uh, similar styles of teaching, similar classes. You know, clickers were just coming on the scene but I didn’t have them in many of my classes then, so I can relate to that truly.

[9:40] And your definition there of low structure is actually what’s in the literature, right? So if you look at a paper by Kelly Hogan and Sarah Eddy published in 2014 in CBE, they define kind of the three levels of structure, low, moderate, or middle, and then high. And it’s just basically about how many buckets are you filling up you know pre-class in class and after class how much active learning are you doing in class they have different demarcations of to reach low middle and high structure and you know and Kelly you know she was my mentor at North Carolina— I wouldn’t be here without her—and you know she wrote the recent book with Viji Sathy on inclusive teaching and they talk all about structure there too so you know what kind of whatever terminology you want to use structure definitely helps you know even though Some days when I got so much going on with a class on Canvas, in class, clickers, all these other tools, I kind of pine for the chalkboard old days sometimes.

[10:30] But I can’t because we know this works. There’s so much evidence now, my own research included, and many others showing that you add that structure, you add that frequent assessment, frequent quizzing, it improves student outcomes, it improves student feelings of belonging, it reduces achievement gaps. So, you know, the evidence is there. And I would hope that all of us here as, you know, A&P practitioners mostly listening. There might be the rogue ecologists listening or the rogue economists. That’s okay. You’re welcome to, right? But, you know, we like to base our decisions on evidence as scientists, engineers, and the evidence just keeps mounting that, you know, this kind of system works for student success. However, I always like to tell folks when I work with them, especially when I do professional development work with faculty, is that you have to tailor things to your specific situation, right?

[11:19] There’s not one single one-size-fits-all approach that you can clone in class to class to class. I mentioned off the top, I teach five different disciplinary courses with high structure. They all look a little different, but they have the same kind of model, that pre-class, in-class, after-class. So you really have to take the evidence, take the practices, and then apply them to your own situation, your own students, because you’re going to know them way better than I ever would. So you’ll have to kind of feel it out and see. And there was even a great paper by Ann Casper in Michigan with Scott Freeman as well called True Grit. It was about the grit involved with trying and then fixing and trying again and modifying again and trying again to get it to work. because it took them a few tries to get the high-structure model to work for their specific institution. So, again, that just highlights the need to tailor these approaches. It’s not like a kit from Thermo Fisher for PCR. You just pop it in and add your agents, you know, and go, push, go. There’s a little bit more.

[12:22] If only we could do that.

[12:26] Yeah, even though there, though, I guess there is some manipulation with, you know, melting temperatures and number cycles and things like that. But yeah, but point being, again, customize this approach. Get inspired by this approach, but then stay alert for your own needs.

[12:41] Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because in my podcast over the years, I have, and the reason I got into this was, I was approaching the end of my teaching career. And that part is pretty much finally done now in terms of teaching A&P in the classroom. I was thinking, man, you know, I’ve learned a lot over the years. Things are way different in my classroom than they were when I first started teaching.

[13:08] And looking back, I noticed that they just kept changing over and over. So what you get at the beginning and you get at the end are very, very different things in terms of how my course was delivered, how it was designed, how I interacted with students, how the students interacted with each other. And so, you know, I’ve adopted some of the things that you just mentioned, some of of those things because I would become aware of them somehow, probably mostly through like workshops and interactions with HAPS or my colleagues in HAPS or talking to people in other disciplines and, you know, hearing what they’re doing and like, ooh, there’s this new thing in math courses we’re doing, like, oh, I could use that in A&P. And, you know, just picking up things all over the place and probably a whole lot of what you just mentioned, and I think that’s the secret sauce in this, is taking those things that you hear or read or see in a journal or whatever, and then making it work for your own students in your own class and the way that you’re already doing things.

[14:14] I wanted to just stop and really emphasize that because I’ve mentioned a few things in the podcast where I’ve said, hey, I tried this and it sounds crazy, but it really works.

[14:28] And then I’ll have people come back to me, you know, individually, and they’ll say, okay, you know, I’m frustrated with what’s going on in my course, or I just want to freshen things up. And I want to try that. I’m intrigued by that. And sometimes they’ll ask me for like, well, how did you do this part? How did you do that part? Because there’s always practical matters. You know, you can say weekly quizzes, but what does that mean? Is that at the end of the week, at the beginning of the week? Is that a long quiz, short quiz, you know, all those questions. So they would ask me those kinds of questions. And then sometimes, you know, they’d circle back to me and say, okay, I did that last semester and my grades got worse, not better. So what’s going on? You know, my answer is, I don’t know.

[15:14] You know, I guess you just have to keep looking. But the thing is, is that what I’m doing in my course is in a certain context that’s different in that other person’s course. And not only that, there are possibly some things that didn’t come up in our conversation that are different in my course than their course in terms of implementing that particular, whatever strategy it was. You know, maybe I forgot to tell them something I do, or some change I had to make to make that work better, or whatever. And it might turn out that whatever that strategy is, it’s not going to work in their course. Or it could be that it has to be adapted in a much different way, rather than taking it exactly the way I did it, maybe they need to mush it around a little bit and combine it with a different strategy. Or what I’ve found a lot of times is, if I dive right into a new strategy, sometimes I need to back off of that and say, no, this is… This is too different. You know, I’m not, you know, even if it’s just too different for me, that’s why it’s not working. Then I back off of it a little bit and just kind of dip my toe in and try a little bit of this. Like, let’s say frequency of quizzes.

[16:29] Let’s say I give no quizzes and then all of a sudden I’m giving two quizzes a week. That’s a big change. Maybe I should give one quiz every other week at first and see how that goes.

[16:38] Yep.

[16:39] So I like that you brought up, you know, the fact that we adapt these strategies to our own situation. And there’s lots out there now, as you mentioned. So one could, if somebody wants to adopt every strategy that’s been proven to be effective, some of them are going to counteract each other.

[16:59] Oh, they do.

[17:00] You know, and not only that, some of them just aren’t going to work in your course.

[17:05] Totally true. Totally true. Yeah. And I love that. You told your brief story there about how your class before is a lot different than it is now, right? That idea of self-change is really important with teaching, right? And reflecting on how things go and kind of growing. And I actually keep this quote on my little notes here on my MacBook. So I’m going to read it verbatim. It’s from Chris Tovani. It says,
“my wish for you is that each year you look back at your career and laugh with embarrassment about the way you used to teach. If you do this, you will continue to learn and grow.”
And I think that’s true. I look back at my early courses. My first class was at North Carolina A&T and Greensboro, North Carolina, intro bio. And on my last day of class, I had a little survey. And I asked the student, what was the most important thing you learned? And it was intro bio, bio one. So a lot of the students were talking about energy and molecules and photosynthesis. But then one student, and I’ll never forget this, they wrote on the page, they wrote, “the most important thing I learned in this class was to never take another class with you again.”

[18:05] So, you know, which, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, right? Don’t get me wrong. But I learned from that because I look back now, you know, that was 2012. And wow, how was that class? It was high structure, but not, in my opinion, well designed at that point, because I was, you know, still postdoc at Carolina and figuring things out, you know, but, you know, kind of grown as I’ve moved We’ve gone, and even recently for me now, I’ve definitely played with, like you mentioned, frequency of assignments and other types of evidence-based teaching strategies. But I’ve been trying to add on what the folks in the literature call authentic assessments, right? So trying to add more authenticity to our courses to give students an opportunity to apply their knowledge in a way that they might actually do in the real world, right?

[18:48] So as an example of that, in A&P last fall, we did a health and wellness project where students had to propose an intervention they would do during the semester with the goal of improving some aspect of their health and wellness. So I had students, you know, add chin-ups every day to their workout routine. I had students who tried to go to sleep an hour earlier.

[19:09] Some actually did cold plunges every day in our clear creek here near Golden, near campus, and, you know, in the frigid water and try to see if cold plunges would help any aspect of their immunity.

[19:20] And then they had to, you know, send a little report halfway through and at the end make a make a flyer or write a brief two-page paper on what they learned about them themselves and what measurements they made and whether it worked or not. And it was really cool to see some of them you know especially one student that did the chin-ups they you know started they couldn’t do any on the first day you know but then by the end they were doing six in a row so that was really cool documentation that they could actually add an exercise routine but then they had to talk about the a and p concepts behind that right about what happened in that case among muscle strength gain. So adding something like that authentic to the course right now, my students are finishing up writing the NSF GRFP two-page research proposal for my intro to biomedical engineering course. And that’s a literal thing they could submit if they wanted to, right? To try to get graduate school funding. So I’ve been playing with that more recently as I’m getting older, trying to make, you know, because sometimes classes can be artificial, right? With our sub-structures of assessment and outcomes. And again they don’t really mimic the real world so adding that authenticity um I think can be really beneficial and really powerful if done in the right way but again well even with that you got to figure out is this am I implementing it the right way am I doing it the right frequency with how many check-ins on their drafts how am I getting feedback you know there’s so many variables with teaching and and learning and it does take just iteration to figure that out.

[20:42] We’ll be back in a moment.

Badge Break

[20:46] You’re listening to episode 148 of The A&P Professor podcast for Anatomy and Physiology faculty. We’ll get right back to our chat with Justin Shaffer about high-structure course design in a moment. But first, let me remind you that listening to this episode and reviewing the notes at the episode page can be documented with a professional development credential that can be shared in the form of a digital badge or certificate. It helps you keep track of your independent professional development activities and it provides evidence for your records or reports. Just go to theAPprofessor.org slash 148 and click on the link to claim your digital credential. Okay, let’s get back to our conversation.

Transparency, Expectations, & Flexibility

[21:42] I love that quote, you know, about looking back, you know, at our early teaching and being embarrassed. And, you know, I can certainly relate to that. And it’s funny, too, how I’ve had former students and colleagues and so on make, in just an ordinary, you know, out in the hall conversation, make reference to, like, the strategies, you know, Kevin uses in his class. And they’re based on something 10 years ago. And it’s like, oh, shoot, I stopped that a long time ago. I don’t do anything like that. You’re right. That’s not the best way to do it. So that’s kind of funny. But something else, too, that really struck me, and I’d like your opinion on this, when I’ve added structure to my class, because I think it’s going to help students.

[22:31] For example, in my regular A&P lecture class, I had a lot of fairly low-stakes online tests that students did on their own time. And it was open book, open internet, open everything, although those were the days not so long ago when we didn’t have artificial intelligence.

[22:52] Oh, gosh.

[22:53] But even then, I’m not sure it would help them on all their test questions. But the rumor was, oh, take Patton’s class because it’s all open book. Well, number one, it’s not all open book. There’s a lot of open book. And, you know, it’s not like…

[23:07] Opening the book and copying the answers out of the book. A lot of these questions were application questions that you would not find in the book in that form. You would find all the information you would need to answer that question, but you wouldn’t find the answer to that question. You have to do some processing too. So, you know, that part was left out. So all these people expecting this easy class, and they found out that actually it wasn’t, my A&P class wasn’t that hard because Because we were doing all this structured stuff, and so we were actually learning. But what was troublesome to them was they were used to showing up for class Monday, Wednesday, Friday, now we’re going to have a test. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, now we have another test. That is their involvement in the course. They don’t do anything else. And so when I add the structure of like, no, you have these online tests you have to get done. And there were some other things they had to do, too.

[24:05] You know, again, you know, the before, during, and after class thing it gets back to. So they would kind of, at first at least, they would rebel against that. You know, tell me, wow, this is the hardest class ever because there’s just so much stuff to do. How does anybody keep up? And so what, I mean, I assume that you run into that kind of a reaction, especially for students that haven’t had a high structure course before. Yep. So how do you manage that? How do you coach students through that?

[24:36] Yeah, so those expectations for workload and productivity and just getting these assignments done is really important to be clear on that. And earlier you were talking about how you had to kind of guess what your professors wanted. So I’m a big believer in transparency when it comes to teaching and high structure allows for that transparency because you can be very clear with all this process. And it even starts with backward design and writing your learning objectives and aligning everything to that because you can design your assessments and your assignments and activities and your readings to always be tied into what you want students to be able to do. So I always tell my students, I want to know what you know, not what you think I want you to know. And I also tell them, though, that, yeah, there are these assignments before class. We’re going to be active and doing stuff in class. You’re going to have weekly homeworks online or something. And I’m not doing this just to give you busy work. But again, the evidence from the literature shows this is beneficial. So I show them the data, you know, on the first day of class, like I have a couple of graphs I show them from a couple of different papers showing the benefits of active learning, the benefits of high structure. And I always reinforce it as we go, you know, here’s why we’re doing this. So, you know, being clear with your students about the why of your course design and always inviting them to talk to you about the course design and getting frequent feedback as well. wow, that’s so important for this.

[25:58] Asking them at least at the midpoint of the semester, if not even more frequent, doing a mid-course survey about what’s working for the class, what’s not working. But then also asking them, what are you doing that’s working? What can you do to improve? So kind of a four-question sequence there takes five, 10 minutes tops, and it can be really powerful for both you as the instructor to get feedback on the course design and the students to reflect on their own progress through the course. But all that being said, how do you kind of promote the work and getting it done? So, You’ve got to have those expectations, I think, and hold them because, again, we know this works and we know this helps. Again, I have my own data. Other people have lots of data on various aspects of this course design model that shows the benefits of doing it. At the same time, you’ve got to be flexible too, though, because I was just at BYU recently doing a workshop for their life science faculty. And my colleague there, Jamie Jensen, said she has a “life happens” policy, which I do too. I just don’t call it that, but I told Jamie I’m going to steal her title there.

[27:01] And basically you allow for drops, right? You allow for uh make made up assignments if you need to however you want to do it I’m a big fan of the drop model so if we have you know 15 pre-class assignments one a week you get to drop three just no questions asked right so if you’re busy that week a family something work what does it matter just laid on it didn’t want to do it who cares just don’t even tell me you just get to drop it you know you can still do it whenever you want it just you know won’t affect your grade in any way shape or form so you know being flexible with these things. But also kind of going back to our conversation about tailoring the style. So when I was at UC Irvine teaching human anatomy there, these are students who were either in nursing programs or on their way to medical school or dental school, PT, whatever. And they were so gung-ho to learn anatomy, which was great. So it was really kind of easy in a way to have these many assignments, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, pre-class every day, right? We’d have a pre-class assignment, reading the book and doing a pre-class assignment on their online courseware.

[28:04] But when I came to Mines, I’m teaching intro bio here, reading A&P as an elective. And most of my students are engineers, chemical engineers, for example, and they’re not as into it. So also they have five other, four other technical courses at the same time with a huge workload. So I’ve moved to a weekly model. So now for A&P here, every Wednesday, we have a pre-class reading guide and a pre-class assignment do. And that just helps them be much more predictable. You know, every Wednesday, there’s this one thing to do before class, and that sets you up for the next couple of days of the class. And it helps with the workload management. So I think as long as you’re clear in communicating the value of the assignments, and again, it’s not just busy work, it’s not just me being a cantankerous person and giving you extra work to do. It’s rather, whether this is going to benefit you, but be flexible with how you allow the assignment to be turned in and graded and drops and things like that. And then also, again, tailor that frequency of these to your students and your population and be aware of, oh, crap, it’s OCHEM 2 midterm week. Maybe we, you know, take this one a little bit lighter, right? So if you can, things like that.

[29:15] Okay. So one thing that occurred to me as you were going through your list of ways to react and what’s going on in your course. It occurred to me that when you, like your drop policy, your “life happens.” I love that. It’s going to be out there now. So it’s not just you that heard that and can steal that phrase. But, you know, the “life happens” part.

[29:39] And we all need to give Jamie credit.

[29:41] Yeah. Yeah, right, right. So kudos to Jamie. But the thing that occurred to me when you were bringing that up is I’ve had some of those kinds of policies in my course as well. And I believe in them. And I think that that helps learning rather than harms learning. But I had to kind of come around to that because that’s not what I was used to in my own experience as a student and in my early career as an instructor. And then, you know, when I float that idea out to other educators, the reaction isn’t always a good one, or at least it wasn’t. I think it’s a different environment now than when I first start playing around with them. But, you know, I got pushback, like, oh my gosh, they’re not going to learn how to be responsible. You know, if they’re a nurse in a hospital, they can’t just not show up three days out of their month or whatever. So therefore, you’re harming your students. That’s not helping them at all. Well, so do you see any issue with doing that or do you think the benefits outweigh any harm that can be done or even is there any harm in doing that?

[30:50] Yeah, I think, you know, I agree with that point of view on some things, right? You know, so you can’t be overly permissive with this. You know, you can’t allow unlimited makeups on everything or unlimited attempts.

[31:05] I think that’s doing your students a disservice in a way because there are limits, I think, to expectations. And that does not map into the real world, like you mentioned with the nursing example. Now, I know a lot of people are moving towards mastery-based grading or the overall term people use is ungrading. And I do use elements of that in my courses that I mentioned, like on the pre-class, right? Super low stakes, basic content acquisition, maybe worth 5% of the total course grade. I don’t really care if you take unlimited attempts on that because I want you to know the baseline to get the class. Then we can start applying that, building on that, as I mentioned earlier. However, when it comes to a higher stakes assessment, whether it’s just a weekly quiz or the final exam or a project, you do have to have some level of, at least in my opinion, some level of rigor there and expectations to have a little leeway. So in my introductory thermodynamics class, for example, we typically have 17 quizzes.

[32:07] You get to drop two or three because everyone has a bad day, right? No big deal, but you still got to do really well on 15 of them. So even though, yeah, someone might argue, oh, you’re giving them a way out. I’m like, well, yeah, but they still got to do awesome on 15 to earn a good grade in the course. And I do mean that students earn the grade in the course, right? So I think that’s important to consider on that line of thinking there with the kind of expectations for dropping and things.

[32:37] Also, the reason drops are great is from kind of a management perspective from us as instructors. So, right, if I have a class of 440 students, which I used to teach at Irvine, I’d do that for intro bio, and I’d actually have two of them back to back. So I was at, you know, pushing 900 students or more every fall quarter. If I didn’t have drop policies you imagine how many makeup requests I get how many extended apps extended you know assignment policy

[33:07] Yes I can imagine that!

[33:09] Right, right. So it’s really a kind of a management thing that helps on our end too so yeah we’re giving the students a little bit of slack with having a bad day and don’t worry about it, life happens, but for me too it’s going going to be a benefit so um so I think that way even clickers right I’m sure many of you listening use some kind of pull response system in class for me you know if we have 30 days in the semester we’ll use clickers you get to drop three and I don’t care why you get to drop those three, the batteries died, your phone died, you just didn’t show up right otherwise I don’t want students coming up to me with a piece of paper with their clicker answers written on it say here’s my grade for the day you know here’s my clickers for the day give me the points especially when it’s 400. So all these little things like that, it’s more of a, it’s a management issue to help with keeping yourself sane when it comes to these especially large classes.

[34:02] We’ll be right back.

Secret Code: TAA Conference in Nashville

[34:06] In episode 147, I told you about the Textbook and Academic Authors Association, TAA. I said that if you or your students write as part of your professional activity, whether it’s a thesis or dissertation, scholarly articles and research reports, teaching materials and lab manuals, or in textbooks and digital content. It all involves skills, nuances, workflow management, getting started and getting unstuck, support from others, and even legal questions that need to be answered. Well, then TAA is the best place to get help or to simply sit back and absorb the energizing vibes. TAA has a two-day conference coming up in late June in Nashville, and that’s a great opportunity to get a taste of those TAA vibes.

[35:12] I’ve been peeking in on the planning, and the conference team is all about making it as fun as it is useful and uplifting. And I also got a peek at a secret discount code that you can use when you register for the conference. To register, go to taaonline.net and click the Events tab, or look at the link in the show notes. That’ll get you there too. But before you do that, you need to get that secret code. And to get that, you have to contact me directly. Just email me at podcast at theAPprofessor.org and I’ll make sure you get that code. Now, let’s get back to the conversation with Justin Shaffer.

Baby Steps or Go All In?

[36:04] That actually, in turn, brings up another issue that I know I’ve had over the years when I’ve learned about a new strategy, maybe a high-structure strategy that I could adopt for my course.

[36:18] Something that sort of pops its head early in that thought process in my head is, oh my gosh, that’s more work for me. So when you talked about drops being a good way to sort of get around the work of makeup, which sometimes is just impossible, like in those courses you were talking about where you’re approaching 1,000 students, I mean, doing makeup tests just cannot work. It’s just no matter who you are or what your schedule looks like, that’s just impossible. So you have to come up with some kind of alternative. Anytime you adopt a new strategy, first of all, there’s a lot of work at the beginning to learn more about that strategy, the time and effort it takes to figure out how to integrate that into your course design, and then the angst and the lost sleep over thinking about, you know, all semester long, is this working or isn’t it working? Should I pull the plug on it or not pull the plug? What should I do here? So there’s all of that initial work. And so that’s something that pops itself up when I’m thinking about adopting a new thing. Like, do I have time this semester to try something new? So let’s say the answer is yes, or I’ll try to make it work. And I’m on to the next step of actually doing it.

[37:38] Probably whatever it is I’m doing, since I’m adding it to my course, now I might substitute it for something else, but let’s say I’m adding it to of my course. Now that course, it’s a bigger workload for me than it ever was. And at some level, it’s probably going to continue semester after semester after semester. And then you add one more little thing and then one more little thing and so on. And it can get to be a pretty big chore. It can really increase your workload. Are there some thoughts you have on that or maybe some advice you have on that for how to deal with it? Or do you find that that really isn’t true, that it doesn’t end up being more work than a more traditional or classical approach?

[38:23] Sure, yeah. That’s a great question, Kevin. And I feel like you were leading me into that very nicely. I was thinking about this this whole time, the advice given for how to adopt some of these high-structure practices. So, yeah, what I think I tell folks, because you look at it on the face, you might think, oh, that’s a lot of work. where I never do any pre-class reading guides or reading assignments. I never design clicker questions or activities. I never have homework, but I bet a lot of people have homework on the back end. So yeah, it can be daunting. It can seem a little challenging and be a lot of work involved. But I do that. I see the exact same thing you just mentioned is that, you know, kind of add a little bit at a time, right? So let’s say this semester in the fall, you’re teaching A&P 1, you want to add some piece of high structure to your course. Maybe you choose active learning and you want to do brief little activities. Maybe it’s just talk to your neighbor and report out. Maybe it’s a quick drawing activity. Draw some histology, some tissues. There was a nice paper I saw years ago that showed that benefits of actually drawing different types of epithelium, for example, can help with learning and retention. So maybe you want to do some things like that. Then maybe you teach it again in the spring. Okay, now you want to add clickers. Add some technology to the classroom. The next fall, you’re going to add the pre-class. So you had little bits at a time to make it manageable.

[39:43] It also lets you evaluate as you go because you have comparison points to the previous semester. We didn’t have these things. Does it work? And you said those sleepless nights, which I’ve definitely had. I still get night, night before the final, I guess still get butterflies in the tummy, weird dreams.

[39:57] I had a dream once where I was intro bio final exam, you know, 400 students or 800 eyeballs, I think of it as, and you know, just the exam wasn’t there. I didn’t have it, right? Every instructor’s nightmare. Like you show up, you open your backpack, there’s nothing in there and I’m starting to freak out I don’t know what I’m going to do it’s the final and then I don’t know why but Snoop Dogg walked in with the exam and saved the day! So, only in dreams right? Only that can happen but um uh but right, you can evaluate then compare this semester to past semesters of when you’re adding these pieces on so adding little bits at a time and even when it comes to active learning I’m a really short-active learning guy I like 30 seconds the two minute type activities, because you can take what you already have, right? And I know a lot of you listening to already have really great lessons and case studies and things you do in class, but you want to pop in a quick think-pair-share, pop in a quick drawing activity. You can do that without revamping. You don’t need a 45-minute activity, right? So, you know, little brief things you can do. So now I have a caveat to all this advice, though, which is if you’re designing a course for the first time from scratch, go all in, right? Do it all from the get-go. because again, we know the literature and high structure, we know it works, we know it’s beneficial. You’re going to tailor it to your own needs, but do it from scratch, do it from the beginning because then you have all the pieces there.

[41:19] And yeah, it’s going to be a busy semester. Don’t get me wrong. It’s going to be busy to add all these pieces in. But if you add in with the structured pre-class work, the in-class active learning, structured after-class work, the frequent assessment, you’ll have it then and you can tweak that as you go too. So I’m always the advocate of start from what we know works. And then if you need to pare back or tailor it a little bit more as you go, that’s great. But doing that versus the other way of starting at the lower structure, as we talked about earlier, the inertia sometimes it takes to add stuff on, especially big chunks can be a little daunting. So that’s why you got to do it a little pieces at a time. But again, if you’re doing a new prep, go all in, go whole hog and design the high structure from the beginning.

[42:02] You’ve brought up a couple of times clickers, the use of clickers, and I am a big fan of using clickers in class. I think there are a lot of advantages, but something I learned with using clickers is there are effective ways of using them and not effective ways. And maybe not only not effective, but sort of a harm learning or at least harm what’s going on in the classroom. And I think there are probably a lot of strategies that are like that. There’s best practices. And so I used a variety of techniques, I guess, to figure out, you know, if I’m going to use clickers, I want to use them right. And so who can I talk to? And those were actually in the early days of clickers. And so there was even some choices in technology that aren’t available anymore because certain technologies just don’t work that well in a the classroom with clickers, like the old infrared ones and so on, you got to point it just right, you know?

[43:03] Exactly.

[43:04] Yeah. And so there were those kinds of choices, but also pedagogically, what choices you make and every five minutes you’re going to have a clicker question. Well, no, that doesn’t work. That’s probably doing more harm than good. And what kinds of questions do you ask? And there are a variety of different kinds, but what’s your goal in using the clickers? You you know, which kinds of questions meet that, you know, that goal.

[43:28] So anyway, I don’t want to get off into clickers. I mean, that could be another whole conversation, which maybe we’ll do that sometime because I love, love, love clickers. But the thing is, is that…

[43:40] You know, I kind of was flailing around at first on where do I find information? You know, how do I know whether I’m doing it right? How do I know whether the idea I have for using them is a good idea? I don’t have a ton of time to do lots of research. So I think nowadays there’s a lot more available. But what would, you know, if someone comes to you and says, especially someone who’s an early career teacher or maybe is very new to some of these evidence-based techniques, they’re coming to this and saying, wow, that all sounds really good, but I don’t even know what some of that stuff is that he’s talking about. What advice would you give him for like how to get started in that and learn more about some of these things?

[44:24] Yeah. Yeah. First off, yeah, sign me up for that four hour podcast on clickers. We’ll break it all down.

[44:30] Anytime, Kevin, anytime. I’m a clicker guy for my whole career, you know, 12 years now at higher ed and I’ve been using them from day one. And yeah, I do workshops specifically on clickers and try to promote what I call the bells and whistles, right? These modern clicker technologies have all sorts of different question types. So think beyond multiple choice. How do you do all the other cool ones? And even on LinkedIn recently, I’ve been posting what I call a clicker question of the week series. So I’ve been kind of showing some authentic clicker questions. I use my classes and give a little explainer for how to use them and different systems, things like that. Yeah. But that aside, right? Yeah. Your, your bigger point of, you know, how do you get started when you don’t have the time? Right. So you think about your brand new professor, you, maybe your tenure tracks, you have all the grant pressure on you and the paper pressure on you. But even if you’re not tenure track, you’re still just navigating the new job and you don’t have a lot of time. You’re right. So.

[45:20] I think trying to make resources is one thing I’m working on and share those with people, you know, specifically through my website. I have a ton of free materials on there if anyone wants to take a look. Also, you know, with my business and my professional development, I try to package things for folks that are in a way that are practical and usable, whether it’s a workshop, whether it’s, again, these course materials online. Or… and I have a book coming out later this year or early 2025 on high structured course design which is going to be very hands-on a lot of templates uh you’re going to not not really read the book but rather work through the book to kind of develop some materials for your classes so kind of highlighting those again those evidence-based practices that work but then adopting them for your own situation using some guides and templates again to help kind of take Take some of that activation energy down, remove that barrier to help people get going. If you have the time, then I’d say, though, to dig a little deeper on your own, looking at the literature, looking at CBE-LSE, looking at the HAPS Educator, looking at ASE, other journals that publish on these things. HAPS has their courses and trainings on
these areas, too.

[46:31] There’s a lot of things out there that you can take the time to get into. But sometimes you have to kind of get poked a little bit to get inspired to do it. When I was a postdoc at Carolina, I had a workshop from Rich Felder and Rebecca Brent, who are wonderful, wonderful people in this space. And Rich is a chemical engineer like me, so I really look up to him as someone I want to aspire to be like in terms of helping faculty adopt these types of principles. But, you know, as a postdoc, then I, they opened my eyes to some of these evidence-based practices, you know, gave me ideas just to run with and start going on my own.

[47:07] The only problem with that of kind of doing a one-time workshop, which, you know, it’s temporal, right? You come in, you do an hour, you do four hours, you do seven hours, whatever it might be. But then you go back to your daily life and there’s so many other fires to put out. So having those follow-up resources, having those guides, having that kind of packaged materials to help people keep going, or even doing follow-up consulting or faculty learning communities, checking in frequently, all those things can help promote the adoption. There’s some literature from Diane Ebert-May and others showing that those one-time workshops are great for an initial kind of energy boost, but you need that follow-up. And that’s what I’m trying to build into my own offerings is these follow-ups, check-ins and services to make sure folks are having someone to talk to and can talk to each other on their campus to see how they’re applying these principles. That’s when things really stick is when you do those longer-term follow-ups and check-in.

[48:06] Justin, you know, you just mentioned a future four-hour episode on Clickers. And we had been joking about, you know, the time it takes to really explore any topic and the fun it is exploring topics. And it sure was. I mean, we didn’t get anywhere near four hours, but I’m ready for that. So I’m putting that in my notes. That’s on the schedule. We’re going to do that. And I appreciate so much you being with us to chat about high structure course design and either get us started or keep us moving, depending on where we’re at with that and our own teaching career and our own teaching arc.

[48:48] There’s going to be a lot of resources. But number one, Justin just mentioned that he does a thing in LinkedIn. So follow him on LinkedIn. I’ll have the link for you to get there if you’re a member of LinkedIn, and we’ll do that. But again, thanks so much, Justin.

[49:04] Yeah, Kevin, this was fantastic. I love sharing this with you. And I just realized we didn’t really touch on that whole pandemic disruption, but I hope that as people were listening, you could see how adding this structure, adding these scaffolds can be really beneficial to students now who may have had some learning loss, may have had some disruption in their learning strategies and development in high school or even in college. So you’re giving them those hooks, you’re giving them those opportunities to build off of as you move through the learning process. And I think that’s going to be even more impactful as we start to replicate some of these studies now, post-pandemic, to see if it’s even more of a benefit. But I believe it’s going to be when we find that. And maybe that will be some data coming down the pike for myself, for others down the road. But yeah, I think all this will be hopefully useful to the listeners. Again, thanks to all of you listening and following along today. Feel free to reach out to me if you wanted to chat about this. And yeah, I’m looking forward to that. Maybe we’ll make it five hours, Kevin. Let’s make it longer.

[50:04] Maybe a whole series. I don’t know. A whole new podcast. There you go.

[50:08] Oh, no.

[50:09] Okay, well, never mind then. All right. Well, thanks again.

Staying Connected

[50:15] As we wind down episode 148 here and think about what we just heard in this conversation with Justin Shaffer, I think we can better see the value in a high structure approach to our anatomy and physiology course. As Justin just emphasized, there’s plenty of research out there that shows that adding appropriate structure, such as frequent assessments, frequent quizzing,…

[50:45] brief active learning encounters, using clickers, and other structured strategies really does work better than that low structure type of course that most of us think of as standard practice. There’s no doubt that adding structure improves student outcomes, it improves student feelings of belonging, and it reduces achievement gaps. The trick is figuring out what structures work best in our course and what form they’ll take and how to keep it all running smoothly. But that’s what we do as educators, isn’t it? Take all that learning science and see what it tells us and what works best and then practice the art of teaching by applying our knowledge and experience to designing and tweaking and improving our courses. We help each other do that as a community of teaching artists.

[51:55] That’s why we listen to this podcast, to people like Justin Schaffer, who share their experiences in applying learning science.

[52:07] You probably know one or two other A&P faculty who may not regularly listen to this podcast. I bet you know three or four or five who hardly ever or maybe never listen to this podcast. So why not share this episode with them? Simply tell them to search wherever they listen to audio or go to the episode page at theAPprofessor.org slash 148. There are a lot of links shared in most podcast players and at that episode page. So be sure to check out those links too. And while you’re exploring links, you can claim your digital credential for listening to this episode. And you’re always encouraged to call in with your questions, comments, and ideas at the podcast hotline. That’s 1-833-LION-DEN, or 1-833-546-6336. Or send a recording or written message to podcast@theAPprofessor.org. And I’ll see you down the road.

[53:21] The A&P Professor is hosted by Dr. Kevin Patton, an award-winning professor and textbook author in human anatomy and biology.

Do not agitate or invert this podcast while listening to it.

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