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Episode 3 | Transcript
Pre-Testing For a Powerful Boost to Learning
Kevin Patton: Your lucky number today is 42. Why 42? Well, I’ll tell you in about 30 seconds.
Aileen: Welcome to the A&P Professor, a few minutes to focus on teaching human anatomy and physiology with host, Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton: What is this about the number 42? Well, in Douglas Adams’ book, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there was supposedly this big supercomputer named Deep Thought that calculated the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything over a period of about 7.5 million years of computation. The answer that came out was, yep, 42. The problem is, nobody knows what the question is. But, maybe today we’re going to find out that answer.
Kevin Patton: There’s a study that came out not too long ago that looked into how many proteins there are in the average cell. That’s an interesting question, and of course you can’t have a precise answer. Over the years that we’ve been studying it, we’ve found out that there are a lot of different ways to try to arrive at that answer. They’re not always the same processes. As with anything and measuring something in a cell, there’s all kinds of potential problems in the methodology and how we’re looking at it.
Kevin Patton: So a research group got together and decided to look at the data from 21 separate analyses in the protein number in a type of single-cell yeast that is used a lot as the lab mouse of cell biology. Putting together their analysis, it turns out that the average number in this type of cell is right around 42 million. That is 4.2 times 10 to the seventh power. So there’s your 42, 42 million proteins, average number of proteins in a cell.
Kevin Patton: What does this have to do with A&P? Well, we cover protein synthesis in A&P, right? I don’t know about you, but it comes up constantly throughout A&P 1 and throughout A&P 2. We keep coming back to that story about how hormones affect protein synthesis, about different cells having different kinds of proteins that are synthesized in different numbers. There’s just all kinds of reasons why it would come up.
Kevin Patton: I think it would be interesting to drop in this number and say, “Well, let’s have a quick discussion. How many proteins do you think are in a cell?” Of course, there’s going to be all kinds of wild and crazy answers because nobody truly knows. But you could throw out that, hey, there are some researchers that feel that 42 million is an average, but they acknowledge there are factors that are going to affect that within any individual cell, but also from one cell type to another in the body depending on the role of that cell and what’s going on in that particular moment and whatever.
Kevin Patton: You could have, I think, a pretty interesting discussion to throw out the number and say, “Okay, here’s the number. Isn’t that a huge number? Let’s talk about that for a minute,” but then go a little bit beyond that and say, “Well, why couldn’t this be the exactly right number for every cell?” This is in yeast. Does that tell us anything about what’s going on in a human? There’s all kinds of questions that can be explored. I think this gets students thinking about, number one, how science is done, but number two, how complex the human organism really is, even when we get down to the cell level. Just an idea. Number 42. If you use that number, 42, to buy a lottery ticket this week and it ends up being a winner, remember where you heard it, okay?
Kevin Patton: Well, here’s something pretty cool. The Anatomical Society over in the UK has put together this list of online resources. Their education committee has put up a website where, you first go into it, you see this list of various areas of the human body. I’m looking at it right now. The first one is abdomen and digestive system, next one’s embryology, next one’s lower limb, next one’s musculoskeletal system, neuroanatomy and goes on and on and on. When you click on each of those major topics, you get this huge list of all of these different websites you can go to to explore these different areas.
Kevin Patton: When you’re looking for teaching tools, you’re looking for things to recommend to students to study with and so on, this is a place that I’m going to be going to to look for resources and for study tools and so on. Just go to the show notes for this podcast or go to theapprofessor.org and go to this episode page while you’re there, and I’ll have a link to it. Go ahead and explore it yourself. Give yourself some time, though, because once you get into it you just keep going and going and going and you don’t want to stop. Anyway, have fun.
Kevin Patton: Okay, so here’s something interesting from the news. It’s flu season as I record this, and as a matter of fact, in our household we’re starting to get a little bit of a cold here. But something came out in the British Medical Journal case reports recently is just crazy as far as I’m concerned. It has to do with this guy, this 34-year-old guy, who had this idea that when you sneeze it’s spreading germs all over the place, and of course that’s an accurate idea, but the second part of his idea is where the weirdness comes in.
Kevin Patton: He felt like, well, therefore he should not sneeze into the atmosphere. So he would pinch his nose shut and close his mouth and he would give off a sneeze. Sneezes can blast air at more than 100 miles an hour. There’s a lot of pressure there. That pressure’s got to go somewhere. Well, where it went for him was right through the wall of his pharynx. He felt like something … He sneezed real hard, it was all closed up. He’d been doing this for decades, ever since he was a little kid, but this time he popped a hole in his pharynx.
Kevin Patton: As it turns out, it was a tiny little hole, but it was enough to get air to force into the retropharyngeal space and start moving around, where all the muscles and different kinds of things are in the neck. So he went to a physician and the physician said, “Well, it looks like your neck is swollen here.” He started palpating the guy’s neck and it starts bubbling and gurgling and cracking and stuff. They did some medical imaging and found out, yeah, he’s got all these little air bubbles all over the place. Luckily, it was a tiny enough hole and a small enough amount of air that they really didn’t have to do anything but watchful waiting and it eventually resolved itself. But the main thing they did, thank goodness, was teach this guy how to sneeze correctly.
Kevin Patton: Now, he has the right idea. You don’t want to sneeze all over the place, especially now in flu season, so they recommended what most physicians recommend, that is, sneezing into the crook of your arm, that is, into your elbow joint area rather than into your hands or into the face of your A&P instructor, or even onto your A&P book. Or, oh, the worst thing of all, sneezing onto your A&P test right before you turn it in to your A&P teacher. I hate that. Those winter exams, they always come at that time, the cough and hack and wheeze and, “Here’s my exam. Have a good holiday.” I’m like, “Oh, no!” I feel like I should be wearing gloves and so on to collect and correct my exams.
Kevin Patton: But anyway, the reason I mention this is it’s just one of those crazy anatomical things that I think we can drop into our course. If we’re telling stories about the pharynx, let’s liven it up a little bit, or we’re talking about sneezing or we’re talking about pressures in the respiratory tract and so on. This is a crazy story, but that’s what gets students’ attention, right?
Kevin Patton: Might even be able to take it a little further and say, “Okay, now, where could that air have gone? What is in that retropharyngeal space? What other kinds of complications could pinching your nose and keeping your mouth shut during a forceful sneeze, what kind of injuries could that cause? A little bit of creative thinking and application of what we know about A&P. There you have it, for what it’s worth, and if you want to forget about it, fine. If you want to drop it into your course sometime, that’s good too.
Kevin Patton: Pre-tests. I think we all have run across that term before, pre-tests. I don’t know about you, but the majority of the experience I’ve had with pre-testing is that it’s a kind of test you have to do before you learn something, or before your students learn something, and then the post-test is what you do at the end to see if you’ve learned it or how much of it you’ve learned. Pre-test, post-test. We all know about that, right?
Kevin Patton: Well, I want to talk about the idea that pre-testing has actual learning effects that have nothing to do with the strict assessment part of it. So how does that work? I ran across this idea a long time ago. I ran across, I don’t know how or why, I was reading an article, it was a journal article about effective ways of testing in math courses. I must’ve landed there because I was doing some other kind of search, but it really intrigued me because what this article said was that if you give students pre-tests, just the act of giving them a pre-test is going to make them do better on their post-test, which is interesting in at least two ways.
Kevin Patton: One is, “Wow, if I do pre-tests, that can help my students learn, so that’s what I want to focus on right now,” but the other thing is also kind of interesting, and that is if we’re looking at pre-tests as simply the partner to post-tests, in order to do a valid assessment of learning that’s done in a course, is it really valid? Because by doing the pre-test, I am changing the situation and increasing the odds that my students are going to do better on the post-test.
Kevin Patton: So if I compare one class where I do pre-testing post-testing, in another class where I don’t do that at all, then I’m guessing that the students in the pre-test post-test class are going to do better than the students that never got the pre-test post-test. In other words, by doing assessment, our students are actually doing better. Oh, man. That’s a dangerous thought, isn’t it, that here’s a reason why we ought to be doing more assessment? Oh, gosh.
Kevin Patton: Anyway, let’s get back to the main idea I want to focus on right now, and that is that pre-tests are a good learning tool. That got me to thinking about this, and so I start looking around more and more at the literature and talking to people in various areas. I have a lot of friends that teach mathematics and I would occasionally bring that up with them and say, “Do pre-tests? Have you ever heard about this in math?” It wasn’t long before I found out that this wasn’t just a math phenomenon, and it also wasn’t surprising that a lot of the math people I talked to had never heard of this idea either. It’s just one of these things that was on the horizon at the time, and it’s much more widely known now, I believe. I tell you, one of my missions in life is to get everybody doing pre-tests.
Kevin Patton: Let me tell you about my story, and maybe there’s some part of it that you can use in your course or twist it around in your own mind and figure out a way that it’ll work best with your students. Here’s what I did. I was already doing online testing, and I’ve covered that already in a previous podcast, so you kind of know about that. In A&P 1, we did nine online tests, and then in class we would do a midterm and a final that was a traditional written face-to-face final.
Kevin Patton: In my online tests, I already had a big huge test bank that I had built, and it was generating three attempts at every test in order to make that happen. Test one, they’d get three attempts and the learning management system would record the highest grade and that would go into the grade book as a homework grade, but of course we didn’t call it that. We called it a test grade, online test grade, and then we’d go to the next one, next one, next one. Three attempts at each one.
Kevin Patton: I looked at the way I was doing things and I thought about this pre-testing and I thought, “You know what, this is not going to be hard to implement if I want to try it and see if it works in my courses, because I already have the test bank.” So I went in there and I just added a new test in front of each one of those existing tests, so the existing test became the post-test and this new test that I put in there became the pre-test, and I used the same test bank. So the test bank for test one was actually generating two different tests. It was generating a pre-test, which they only got one attempt at, and then what would open up later is a post-test and that would generate three different attempts.
Kevin Patton: Now, learning management systems have a lot of little settings that you can fiddle with, and so I went in there and I set it so that the pre-test came before we started studying that particular topic in the course. So I looked at our schedule and made sure it was open during a brief time frame before we started that. Then, they only got one attempt, as I said. Once they did it, no matter what score they got, then it would unlock the rest of the material they needed to be able to access in the course, so any learning modules, the post-test itself. None of that could be opened up by a student unless they have taken the pre-test.
Kevin Patton: Now, there’s a little caveat there. I found out that some students would go in and answer one question, and that would unlock everything and they’d just skip the rest of the pre-test. So, ha ha ha ha, I’m smarter than they are sometimes, at least that day I was, and so I went in and I set a minimum. I can’t remember what my minimum’s at anymore. It’s been so long since I’ve set it, but something like 25% or something like that. I didn’t tell the students what it was, but they now know that if they get too low it’s not going to work. I can always reset it if they tried to game the system and it didn’t work and they only had that one attempt, then I can go in and reset it and say, “Okay, now this time really do the whole pre-test.” It’s only that first one where I really have a problem. Little tip on the side there.
Kevin Patton: Getting back to the main idea here, though, what happened was amazing. It was amazing. That first semester I tried it, and it happened the second semester too, my average exam scores went up almost one whole letter grade by just doing that one thing of adding in pre-tests. What it does is, and a lot of the learning scientists are arguing about exactly what mechanisms are going on when we do pre-test, but basically what’s happening, we think, is that the students are getting a peek at what they’re going to be expected to do by the end.
Kevin Patton: If they get a peek at what they’re expected to do by the end, then they kind of know how to work on it. They know how they’re going to be tested in the future. Remember, these are randomized so they’re not going to get that exact same test again. They’re just going to get a test like it later on. But it gives them an idea of the kinds of questions I’m going to ask, the kinds of concepts I’m going to focus on, what the overarching themes that I’m drawing out of that particular learning module are, and so that’s one help of it.
Kevin Patton: I think another help is it aids in that practice. Learning scientists tell us it jump starts their thinking, gets them like, “Oh, I need to sharpen some of my logic skills and some of my problem solving skills, because my tests include little mini case studies and things like that, so it kind of gives them some more practice on that, like, ooh, these are the kind of cases I’m going to be facing. By the time I get to the end, I’m not going to worry too much about it now. I’m probably just going to guess, but that’s going to be stuck in the back of my mind as I go through, maybe if you’ve practiced a little bit. Then I’m going to get feedback right away. I’m going to know which ones are wrong, because I don’t want the wrong answer stuck in my head, so I’m going to make sure I review those.
Kevin Patton: Once we start that learning module, the students are a step ahead because they’ve already seen what they got wrong. They’ve already seen the kinds of things I’m going to ask, and so now they know what to listen for. They know when they’re working on a case study in class or some other project. They know the kinds of things they need to be getting out of that. So it jump starts that whole thinking and learning process. At least, that’s what we think happens.
Kevin Patton: Another side benefit of this is that it does set me up for some assessment, right? I can look in there and see, at least in a general way, I can compare the pre-tests and post-tests and see … You have days like this, don’t you? I have days where like, “Am I doing any good as a teacher? Are they gaining anything from all this effort I’m putting in to trying to help them learn?
Kevin Patton: Then I look at the results and I say, “Oh, yeah. Look at that jump in scores from between the pre-test and the post-test. They certainly do know what’s going on. It’s not just those handful of students who probably knew all this already before they took my course. What are they even doing in here? That’s how I get at least some students that are bright and shining stars.” No, it’s really happening with all the students. Of course, with our new modern learning management systems, we can go in there and really dive pretty deeply into the statistics and get even more assessment data out of that than I’ve been getting, just because I haven’t bothered to do that.
Kevin Patton: Another aspect of it is, something I did for the students, I put an extra entry in their online grade book that showed them the percent improvement between their pre-test and their final grade or their regular test, their post-test, and labeled it as percent of new learning, percentage new learning. They increased their learning by 50%, 75%, 25%, whatever it is, and that became a motivation for them. At least a lot of them gave me that feedback, that, wow, that’s really cool, that I really feel good. Okay, I didn’t get the high A that I wanted to get, but that high B was a huge improvement of what I started with. That’s going to help a little bit. Next time I’m going to work even harder and try to get them both up, not only the grade itself, but the percentage of learning, see if I can get that up if it’s possible.
Kevin Patton: That kind of ties into another concept in learning science that there’s a lot of talk about these days that’s called gamification. That’s where students get tokens or coins or prizes or special sound effects when they reach a certain level of performance, and that’s kind of a way of doing that. It really is self motivating when that happens. We’ll talk more about gamification in another podcast, but right now I just want to talk about the fact that, in fact, just giving pre-tests, and pre-tests can be done online, even if you’re doing the other tests offline, that is, in class, you can either make your own test bank the way I did it or use either the test bank from your textbook publisher or one of the adaptive learning tools that most publishers and other third party vendors have available and try this pre-test thing and see if it doesn’t help your own students.
Aileen: The A&P Professor is hosted by Kevin Patton, professor, blogger, and textbook author in human anatomy and physiology. We use only fresh, grade-A ingredients in this podcast.
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