Presentation to Soc. Exp. Biology, Exeter 2000, similar to :- Exp.Biol. Online 5:S88 (2000)

Stimulating understanding - a three pronged approach

A.R. Gardner-Medwin, Dept. Physiology, University College London, London WC1E 6BT

We all want our students to understand things, rather than adopting an approach of rote learning and repetition. At UCL, in the context particularly of teaching quantitative methods (including basic maths and physics for physiology and pharmacology students), we have introduced several new teaching methods designed to achieve this.

Firstly, we ask for confidence judgements as part of computer-based self-directed learning. Students must learn to judge when they are guessing, or when their basis for answering a question is tenuous. Confident wrong answers are far worse than unlucky guesses. Accordingly, they are asked to rate their confidence in an expressed answer 3, 2 or 1; this is the number of marks they get if the answer is correct. If the answer is wrong, they get -6, -2 or 0 marks at the different confidence levels. The students understand and appreciate this scheme, and it encourages checks and reflection while considering the confidence level, and serious attention to explanations in the wake of a confident error.

Secondly, and particularly important for numeracy, we encourage repetitive practice at calculations by requiring, as part of in-course assessment, that students reach an adequate standard on exercises that they are allowed to repeat any number of times with different randomized numbers or variations of question format. Some students work on these well beyond the point when they have achieved a perfect score.

The third approach encourages visual intuition about mathematical concepts like logarithms and statistical sampling, and physical concepts like conductance and current flow. We use Labview (National Instruments) to generate dynamically controlled graphs and visual images in a class setting, with question and answer exercises carried out on paper.

Much of this software is accessible from the web site www.ucl.ac.uk/~cusplap