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Adapting to immunology: The innate power of open assignments

Rama Sundari Akondy

Tests and examinations can be stressful to students and do not necessarily result in deeper learning. In this article, Rama Akondy, an Associate Professor of Biology from Ashoka University describes an open assignment that stimulated creativity and motivation to learn the subject among her students. 

Akondy immuno course Title image
Project by Rushil Natarajan and Sanchitha Kuthethoor

Immunology, with its specialized (and expanding!) terminology and complex cellular interactions, is often an intimidating subject for students. Traditional teaching methods are essential for providing a foundation, but I discovered that including a creative, open assignment fostered genuine enthusiasm and motivated learners to delve deeper into a question of their interest.

I teach an introductory immunology course at Ashoka University to undergraduate, postgraduate, PhD, and diploma students, where the learning outcomes are centred on identifying key components of the immune system, some fundamental concepts, and the cellular dynamics involved in an immune response. 

Traditional tests and assignments, while informative, can sometimes be stressful for students and prevent long-term retention of concepts. So, in my course, I based a part of the assessment on a unique assignment format where the only instruction given to students was to creatively represent a chosen immunological concept or research idea in their medium of choice. 

Project by Sanjna Kartik and Akshara Kulkarni

I wanted students to explore a specific immunology theme that interested them and to use their imagination to represent it. I provided the students with a list of topics they could choose from and emphasized that I could be consulted in the choice as well as its execution. The format was open-ended. Participants could opt for presentations, hand-crafted posters, models, songs, or poetry, or any other medium they found engaging or challenging. Students had the choice to partner with a classmate for a joint assignment. I also allowed the repurposing of assignments from other courses if they were even remotely related to immunology. Furthermore, I encouraged those interested to submit a story for a science fiction contest, as long as it incorporated at least one immunology-related term. 

Initially, there was considerable apprehension among the students, likely because an assignment without a rigid structure and having the freedom to explore what interested them was new to them. Students were particularly hesitant about hand-crafted posters, expressing concerns over perceived inadequacies in their handwriting. The time needed to do the assignment was another concern that I addressed by informing the students of the assignment at the beginning of the course with a deadline towards the end of the course. However, post-submission, a significant number of students indicated that this had been an interesting and enjoyable assignment.

Project by Krishnapriya Vinod, Amrita Bhattacharya, and Paing Oo.

Over two editions of this course, the assignment has resulted in a talk, a model, a computer code on random selection (a reused’ assignment), handmade posters, a science fiction story submitted to the India Science Festival 2022 – 23 (titled My Light in the Darkness by Subha Saraswaty Nedungadi, a parody of a Boney‑M song, and an original rap composition (themed on T‑cell selection, as the student perceived it). Some of the topics covered were generation of antibody diversity, antigen presentation, antibody structure and types of rejection. Among the suggested topics, antigen presentation and diversity generation stood out as particularly complex. However, the assignments on these topics explained the concepts in a simplified and stepwise manner in attractive packaging. Students were able to create something that they understood and was aligned with their other interests, such as art or music. Working in twos or threes enabled peer learning, where students share views, reflect on them, and gain a clear understanding of the chosen concept in a stress-free manner.

By including an open format as one of the assessments, students could tailor their learning style, whether it be auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. In addition to promoting active learning, the assignment provided students with an opportunity to make the learning journey more personal and memorable. Moreover, it possibly provided an avenue to lighten the end-of-semester stress from exams and assignments. In addition to the diverse submissions, the most rewarding aspect was discovering the students’ talents and interests outside of science. This approach to assignments inspired a colleague to adopt a similar format for their course in the following semester.

Project by Sona J, Kiran, and Anudarsh S

One possible drawback of this approach is that it may be best suited for elective courses with small class sizes, and might not be as effective for larger, mandatory classes. One of the challenges I anticipated was the potential variance in the effort – with some students possibly opting for simpler presentations. To address this, I emphasized the importance of depth, original design, creativity, and a clear depiction of the chosen concept. Equitable grading was a challenge, so I incorporated a short oral exam asking the students about their work and some related immunology questions. Some assignments were not up to the mark (one chart was heavily inspired by a drug information pamphlet provided by a company, and another exhibited a poor understanding of basic concepts in the oral exam) but these were exceptions. 

Immunology is complex and so offers room for innovative teaching methods. Open assignments, by providing students with the freedom to explore and express, not only enrich the learning experience but also nurture a culture of creativity and collaboration. Many students, particularly those in the sciences, tend to ignore creative pursuits during their college years. The purpose of this assignment was to encourage them to blend their academic studies with their creative interests.