500 Words

Pipe cleaners, pick’n’mix and colouring in – active learning goes back to basics!

Author: Andrew Doherty

School/ Centre: Centre for Applied Anatomy, University of Bristol

Andrew Doherty discusses his use of unusual teaching tools in his anatomy undergraduate classes and their impact on learning.

There’s a phrase from the media that comes to mind while wandering around the campus … young people are ‘buried in their phones all the time’. This may well be true – students do spend a lot of time on their phones. I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing half the time, but the modern digitally native student seems to be lost without one. Mobile phones are after all a font of all knowledge – an information centre with an endless library of books, articles, lecture notes, videos … and that’s before we get to the social media sites with Facechat and Snapbook …. I think!

This has given rise to the notion that students of today prefer to use digital media for their learning and that as long as we can provide our learning materials via the web, all will be well because they can all learn digitally. I’m not convinced that this is true and, while I am very interested in providing engaging and interesting digital resources for our students, I also take the view that hands-on, practical activities can sometimes provide the best tool for deep learning of complex information. The interaction between hands and brain is as crucial for learning now as it has ever been.

So, when myself and a colleague, Dr Jo Howarth, were given the job of re-designing the first year curriculum for the Neuroscience programme, the chance was there to re-think what we teach – and more importantly, how we teach it. We have introduced a raft of new hands-on workshops ranging from making pictures from pick’n’mix sweets, building models with pipe cleaners, drawing pathway diagrams with coloured pens – and yes, even using those ubiquitous smartphones to make stop-motion animations to illustrate network dynamics. After all – why shouldn’t learning be fun? We try to engage students in the process of making things themselves to help them synthesise their own knowledge and to encourage them to learn for themselves. Students seem to like what we are doing and, more importantly, are learning the information we want them to learn.

All the activities we have introduced also have an element of personal research to help students gain skills in selecting relevant and appropriate information from the ocean of stuff that sits out there in the big wide world – and the evaluations we have carried out have led to some surprising results. For instance, in providing students with a range of digital resources to learn about aspect of spinal cord anatomy, ranging from you tube videos to manipulatable 3D computer models, what resource did they choose? The good old text book – that’s right – the paper one that sits on the bookshelf!

So, are our students ready for the digital world? In their social space, indeed they are – but when it comes to learning materials, the hands-on approach still has a long way to go before it runs out of steam – pipe cleaner makers, be warned!

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Figure 1. Examples of activities used in the re-design of the 1st year neuroscience curriculum. A range of hands-on activities have been used in the revised teaching on the neuroscience programme. These range from (A) using pick’n’mix sweets to make an image, (B) using pipe cleaners to create models, (C) drawing pathway diagrams with coloured pens. Each image has been created by students studying on the neuroscience programme.

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