Knowledge applied

In this biochemistry class, students get a head start on the art of diagnosis

It’s one thing to understand concepts in a textbook, but quite another to apply those concepts to real-world cases.

Biochemistry professor Caryn Outten wants her students to understand human biochemistry and metabolism well enough to diagnose diseases or anticipate outcomes in clinical case studies. That’s not an outlandish expectation given that many of her students plan to go into health-related fields. She wants them to be able to think on their feet.

“It flows from my teaching philosophy to use an active learning approach to better connect biochemical concepts with everyday life,” she says.

In her flipped classroom, Outten presents the basic material, the science, in prerecorded lectures that students watch before class. They are quizzed on the material to ensure they actually watch the video or read the slides and script for the day’s lesson.

In classroom discussion, the students use what they learned to address a related case study.

“With this approach they are getting the basic information on their own,” she says. “During class time, they are applying that knowledge to real-world situations.”

During the class, students are asked questions and use electronic clickers to record their answers. Outten can see immediately if the class is grasping a concept.

“Everyone answers, but they don’t feel bad if they got it wrong. They can see where they’re not understanding the material,” she says. “And, if you are continuously quizzing yourself, you really learn it.”

Outten came up with the idea for flipping the class and worked with the Center for Teaching Excellence to teach it that way for the first time in fall 2015. She has used clickers for about 10 years, including when she taught in the School of Medicine.

“Studies have shown for women and minorities, the clickers get them engaged in solving the problem in front of them.”

Outten also has students create a narrative for their cases. “Students work together to design a group wiki outlining a disease or disorder of their choice, complete with patient history, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Developing an engaging story for their patients lets them be creative.”

Outten comes from a long line of teachers — her mother was a college professor in Philadelphia, and her grandmother taught high school chemistry in Argentina. “I have always enjoyed helping people understand something,” she says.

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