February 21, 2007, by Teaching at Nottingham

Learning through labs and practical work

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Kate: “In a subject such as yours, what do you think are the main purposes of running practical classes for your students?”

Martin: “The main purpose in this case is to reinforce the material that we’ve dealt with in the lecture. The lectures are good for describing concepts and explaining principles, but in a physiological course we have to relate the descriptions of how things work with seeing how the animal is in real life.

“So the purpose of this particular practical was to show them dissections of chickens and illustrate the particular organs and features that we had spoken about in the more mechanistic, systems type approach in the lecture.”

“This practical is designed for you to understand what the tissues and structures look like that we have been talking about in the lecture series.

“We have concentrated on reproduction, egg production in particular and we have also seen that there are some other parts of the physiological system which we need to take account of like the bones and the digestive tract in order to understand how eggs are produced.

“So today we are going to dissect birds and look at those particular structures and you will have your notes with you, perhaps, so that you can relate the structures to what we have talked about. There are some focus lists, if you forget what you are looking at, you don’t know why you are here, just have a look at this and this will remind you.

“Divided into sections, we are going to look at the external bits of the bird, remind ourselves what the chicken looks like if we have forgotten. We are going to look at the gut, various parts of the gut, the reproductive tract and one or two other internal organs which we’ll talk about as we go through. So that’s your guide for the session.”

Julian: “I think it’s really hands on, visual appeal that’s the main attraction of the class. They have had lectures, they have had text books they have had all sorts of presentations, but it really is good, we think, to bring them in here, give them a scalpel and a pair of scissors and actually look and dissect out things for themselves. It’s perhaps the best way of learning about anatomy, rather than being given text books.

“Just to help them through, actually, because it’s their first time for many of them doing dissection work and this is often the case if you look at a book of anatomy you will see everything is laid out nice and neatly in a trail, a diagram.

“Whereas within the animal itself its all obviously contained within the abdominal cavity, it’s really quite difficult to tease things out, to know where they are, so its really putting the theory into practice and being able to trace through all the parts of the GI tract and the oviduct as well.”

Kate: “And when you’re helping your students learn in this environment, you’re acting as a demonstrator, a tutor, what’s your main role there?”

Martin: “Well, my main role is to make sure they’re getting sufficient information out of the session, but also to make sure they are making the connections between what we’ve dealt with in the lecture course and what they can see in front of them in the dissection.

“So my approach is to go and ask them questions: What’s this? What’s that? What does that do? And to try and engage them in an active process, not just get them to do the dissection, but to understand the processes that are represented by the tissues that they’re working with.”

Student: “Is the human pancreas that big?”

Martin: “It’s much bigger than that. In fact it’s wider and flatter in comparison with this.”

Student: “From the book it looks small.”

Student: Inaudible question.

Martin: “Yes, that’s just where it’s been plucked, it’s perfectly normal.”

Martin: “So we will pull the rest of this out now, this is the lower part of the gut, and then there are two sacs, can you see there is one here and one here and these are called caecae and that’s where the fermentation goes on, the hind gut fermenting goes on.

“And then those join up again and go down to the cloaca, down to the vent, but up here, let’s just cut through that a fraction more.”

Student:“So the yellow bit is all fat.”

Martin: “Yes, this is all fat. There is a large, can you feel that, a large solid structure there, very hard. That’s the gizzard, so you can dissect away some of the fat and that’s the gizzard. Do the same on this one. Pull some of that out, get your hands dirty, there is no substitute for it.”

Kate: “What do you think are the benefits of doing practical work?”

Student A: “You can just see everything.”
Student B: “It’s all very well looking at things in a diagram but you can actually identify something rather than it just being in black and white and labelling it, you can have a feel and see what it looks like and be able to…”
Student A: “You definitely remember things that you have actually done, rather than things you have just been told.”
Student B: “It helps you to memorise what you are learning it sort of reinforces what you have learnt in the lectures really more than anything.”

Kate: “And in terms of the teachers and the demonstrators what can they do to help you when you have got your hands inside the chicken.”

Student B: “They come around and explain what’s what and get you to identify it as well, they don’t just tell you what is going on they say ‘what do you think this is?'”
Student A: “They help you to pull it all out, and so you look further.”
Student B: “You don’t just sit there and watch them do it. They make you do it, which is a benefit definitely. Especially with most of us who want to be vets or animal scientists, it’s what everybody wants to do, much better than sitting in a class listening for an hour. We get our hands dirty. Did you find it?”

Martin: “You have to be prepared to think on your feet, you also have to be prepared to bring knowledge forward very easily. It would be hopeless to have to refer to a book or a diagram at each stage, so you have to have a certain amount of knowledge, but I find that over the years the more familiar I am with the practical then the better it goes. You get to know the sorts of things students are going to ask.”

Julian: “Did you explain what it does?”

Martin: “Yes we did that in the lecture this morning. So light gets in through here, plus the fact that it has got feathers and skin and the comb on top, still enough light gets through to affect the cells here, but also cells deeper in the cerebral hemisphere, on the diagram we looked at this morning.”

Martin: “I enjoy the contact with the students, the direct contact. I think giving a lecture is a different sort of contact, moving into the lab then takes us away from the formality into the more informal situation.

“By the time the students have got to the second year, I already know some of them as individuals and I begin to see which are the leaders in the class and which ones will hold back, the relationships going on between the different groups of students. And you can build on that to try to encourage them and to try to get people working.

“It’s an interesting process to see, so I suppose what I get out of it is the enjoyment of working with them as individuals rather than a sea of faces in front of the class.”

Authors: Martin Luck & Julian Wiseman (School of Biosciences).

Martin and Julian are teaching second year Biosciences students about reproductive physiology at Sutton Bonington.
This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Practicals and labsTeaching