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One teaching technique that made a difference in my class…”

Sarita Kumar & Sushama Yermal

Sushama Yermal (left), Sarita Kumar (right)
Sushama Yermal (left), Sarita Kumar (right)   (Photo: Sushama Yermal, Reeteka Sud)

An Innovative Tool for teaching-learning Zoology

In the process of developing an online Wiki for Zoology practicals, Sarita Kumar (Acharya Narendra Dev College, Delhi) encouraged students to become active participants in their learning; instead of passively observing preserved specimens and making drawing from the books.

How students understand core concepts and how they relate to their learning at the beginning of college years has, I believe, long-term impacts on their achievements, skills and confidence levels. Being a Zoology teacher, it  is my responsibility to think of innovations and alternates to  familiarize the students to biodiversity of animals around them and make it an enriching experience for them to study this course. Zoology, or science in general, should not be confined to textbook or class-time. I felt I had to turn their attention, their interest, outward. Thus started the idea of developing an online repository of biological specimens, which could replace the classical laboratory and augment the quality of teaching-learning.

Constrained with a limited window or scope for long discussions or huge prior preparations; the parameters and concepts for the repository were  immediately defined - simple language, correctness of information, no copyright infringement to ensure the quick cataloguing and digitizing available information. An online repository using Wiki platform was thus created without any technical or financial support. Students loved the idea, and volunteered to help put it together.

In order to improve and enhance the quality and content, I started a different experiment each academic year. During classes, I assign students tasks — take pictures of any organisms in nature (in campus as well as around their houses), collate the information and upload in the same online repository. The resource is being supplemented and complemented by students with the sketches of specimens drawn by them depicting the morphological details of the species. We have also uploaded videos recorded by students, describing the morphology, physiology and behaviour. We are in the process of adding more learning tools - quizzes, short answers questions, Multiple Choice Questions, animations, etc.

Our experience of implementing  this digital resource for students has been very rewarding. All students have welcomed the concept wholeheartedly. Using this resource, and helping develop it further, has added creativity in implementing the syllabus; which otherwise can become quite monotonous. Instead of just watching the preserved specimens and making drawing from the books; they observe organisms in nature with their detailed morphology and behaviour. They look thrilled observing organisms in the fields and clicking their pictures. Learning with joy not only gives them clarity on key concepts but also inculcates a sense of team-spirit.  Further, students were excited as the digital resources helped them to do away with the burden of purchasing/carrying heavy books on their shoulders.

Teachers elsewhere in India, we hope will join in and adapt this resource in teaching Zoology labs.  Users are free to re-use, and supplement the information.


Approaches to teaching-learning and evaluation of Physiology lessons

Challenged by students’ disinterest in Physiology, Sushama Yermal came up with ways to involve students in their learning by linking course topics to actual life examples, & changing the style of test questions.

As a new Assistant Professor at Centre for Basic Sciences (Mumbai), I was asked to teach a module on Physiology to first year undergraduates. By training, I am a Developmental Biologist and a Geneticist; so even though I find Physiology interesting, it is not my forte. But I was willing to give this a try. The students came from diverse academic backgrounds, about half the class of 26 students having gladly dropped biology at the Plus 2 level because of ‘a bias towards Maths and Physics’.  On top of that, many don’t favour Physiology particularly, and consider it strictly as “full of names” — of metabolites, jargon representing reactions, etc.

 The outline provided as part of the first ‘General Biology’ course had two sets of topics:

1. Cell physiology: Cellular metabolism, energy metabolism, respiration, photosynthesis

2. Human body physiology: Functional organisation of the human body; control of the “internal environment” in digestive system, circulatory system, nervous system, respiratory system, excretory system, & reproductive system.

 I tried to facilitate the students learning in the following ways:

a) Taught the whole content from the homeostasis perspective. Instead of taking each system in isolation and looking at the molecular pathways, I tried connecting to tangible experiences of students themselves as much as possible. For example, I asked the class to think aloud about a) why do we get goosebumps in cold breeze? b) what happens to fingertips in cold climates? Because of this, they felt curious enough to think of the mechanisms. Thus, we came to connect the circulatory and nervous systems to thermal regulation.

 b) Asked the class whether some of them would like to explain one of systems from the prescribed syllabus, to their peers in short, 10-minute seminars. The students who did choose to present, did a really good job and I filled in the details where required. As a result, those who knew the details didn’t get bored during class; the rest paid attention to the content because it was being taught by one of them.

 c) Questions were prepared by posing a situation, providing required technical terms/ values and asking them to arrive at a logical conclusion. Often, multiple choices of results were given and the students were asked to explain their choice. Here is one example of such a question, that requires them to understand the logic behind any given physiologic response;, while at the same time, minimises the need to memorise numerical values and terminology:

 Q) Fingers exposed to cold climate turn blue or pale and later swell up. The reasons are:

a) deoxygenated blood is preferentially transported to cooler organs resulting in blueness and swelling

b) the blood vessels initially constrict to limit loss of warmth from blood

c) control of fluid circulation in limbs is independent of the thermoregulatory centre

d) when the finger becomes cold and pale, oxygenated blood is supplied in excess

It was satisfying to see that they vociferously approved of this kind of test, where their understanding was being tested, not memory.

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We are also currently seeking new entries for future segments of this series. This can include a way to make lectures interactive, or trying any pedagogical method apart from traditional lecturing. Interested in sharing your experience? Drop a line to hello@indiabioscience.org