The skeletal system’s connected to the muscular system. The muscular system’s connected ...

Individual differences among students in undergraduate physiology courses may impact understanding of body system integration.

 Project title 
Supporting Undergraduate Students’ Construction of an Integrated Understanding of Anatomy and Physiology

 Grant effective dates 
September 1, 2018June 30, 2019

 Principal investigator(s) 
Carla Firetto

 Originating sponsor 
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College

The challenge

Undergraduates in college human anatomy and physiology courses learn about the 11 physiological systems of the human body and how they function. On completion of these courses students are also expected to have an integrated understanding across the different systems and a robust understanding of how the systems interact with each other to maintain homeostasis in the body. In essence, undergraduate biology students must not only acquire knowledge pertaining to structures and functions of each system, but they must also understand how these systems influence, and are influenced by, one another. However, with limited time in a semester, instructors may focus on ensuring students have a basic knowledge of each system at the cost of integration. There are few empirical studies examining methods specifically targeting biology students’ integration of the 11 systems, and evidence suggests that certain individual differences moderate or mediate the impact of various methods on students’ understanding and integration.

The approach

This study by Assistant Professor Carla Firetto and co-principal investigators from ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts proposes the refinement of a previously developed task to promote understanding of integration across physiological systems. The project will: 1) identify profiles of participants with similar patterns of individual differences, examining whether these profiles predict performance on integration scores, and 2) iteratively refine a task targeting students’ construction of an integrated understanding of anatomy and physiology systems, and analyze pretest to posttest changes in integration scores with respect to students’ profiles. Research will be conducted using introductory anatomy and physiology courses, involving an estimated 480 students. In phase 1, students will complete the individual difference measures via a Qualtrics survey. Latent profile analysis will identify profiles of participants who performed similarly on the measures and the degree to which the profiles can predict posttest integration outcomes. Phase 2 will refine Firetto’s previously developed integration task to fit the course, and examine its efficacy for individuals with different profiles to suggest improvements for future iterations.

Findings & impact

The research team expects the project to yield two independent publications associated with the phases of the project. Each phase was methodologically designed to address different key questions that will independently advance the field while also building on the findings of former research. The study will position the researchers to submit a grant proposal for the National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Education and Human Resources program. Because the project is a collaboration with practicing biology experts teaching introductory human anatomy and physiology courses, it will yield an integration task with greater potential for widespread adoption. The project will commence with data collection for phase 1 in September 2018. Phase 2 will begin in January 2019, and completion of the project, including manuscripts, NSF proposal development and a final report, is scheduled for May and June, 2019.