Tips on Teaching

A Creative Teaching Tip that Doesn’t Involve Reinventing the Wheel

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Elizabeth Gockel-Blessing, Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedical Laboratory Science

PROLOGUE: Setting the Stage

For over 20 years, I taught a medical laboratory science course that contained an interactive case study unit.  The cases consist of a short introduction of the patient under investigation, the patient’s symptoms, and initial laboratory tests and results that not only need interpretation, but often require the determination of next steps.  Some of the cases require students to predict the outcome of performing such next steps along with justification for their use.  My original goal for this unit was to create and present a series of “no frills” interactive cases.  I paid no attention to consistency, details, and connections between and among them.   As I am sure many readers can relate, I was only a unit or so ahead of the class in preparation and thus time was of the essence.  It did not take long at all before realizing how boring these traditional case studies were for not only me as the teacher but also for the students.  I was in the process of slowly converting my courses from traditional formats to using creative strategies whenever possible.  The time had come to transform the interactive case study unit.  My next challenge was how to do so without reinventing the wheel.

ACT ONE: Getting the Wheel in Motion

After significant “incubation” time during which I pondered this challenge and possible creative solutions, the light bulb went off!  What if I were to integrate a theme into these cases so they all were connected?  This could work if I selected a theme that spoke to the audience.  One of my first thoughts was to build a theme around one of my favorite shows in college, Dallas. I say this in part because, like so many of us, we know where we were when we found out who shot J.R.!  Just for the record, I was in the common living room area of my College dorm where the only television was located. I will never forget Sue Ellen’s famous line:  “It was YOU, Kristen who shot J.R.!” Sadly, when I had the opportunity to ask the students the question as to whether they knew who shot J.R. on the television show Dallas, to my disappointment, I received a resounding response of “Who is J.R.?”  Ouch!  I am getting older!

Another thought regarding a theme that crossed my mind would be to select a current television show. The only shows that I even knew something about were the medical and CSI shows of the day.  I was already using them creatively in a different course that these same students would eventually take.  Sadly, I did not (and still do not) know enough about other modern day shows to effectively use them.  So needless-to-say, none of these shows was not an option for an appropriate theme.

It was critical for me as the teacher that the students relate to the theme selected.  Upon further reflection, I remembered earlier non-course related conversations with the students that, thanks to Nickelodeon and other like television channels, they were familiar with some of the shows from “yesteryear” (a.k.a. my growing up years).  I marveled at the fact that these students actually knew about Gomer Pyle, Gillligan’s Island, and The Munsters!  After careful consideration, I settled on The Andy Griffith Show.  While I might have been able to do so with other shows of the day, I liked this one as it allowed me to create a “world” relatively easily, in this case the fictional town of Mayberry, in which the characters lived, worked, and played.  Finally, I was on to a theme that just might work!

ACT TWO:  The Wheel Goes Round and Round

I systematically and thoughtfully reviewed each interactive case study to determine which Andy Griffith show character best fit as the “person of interest” (that is, the patient).  I tweaked each case study just enough to assign it the appropriate character name, connect it to the other cases in the unit, and contribute to the “world” of Mayberry.

The original interactive case study unit had an “overview” section that was in writing.  To introduce the students to this unit of instruction, I verbally went through the overview section in class.  I made the necessary revisions to both the written overview & the pertinent section of the corresponding introduction to the unit lecture.  I tweaked the remaining content in this unit and wove the Andy Griffith Show theme thread throughout the class sessions that accompanied the case study unit.  It was great because the course content was already in place. All I had to do was change the fictitious patient names and incorporate aspects of the show into the sessions as appropriate.  Furthermore, I had the students assume the role of laboratorian in the Mayberry hospital laboratory responsible for the testing and analysis of laboratory samples on these patients.

By the end of the unit, students were very familiar and became engaged with Mayberry and all of the key characters, whether they knew much about the show before or not. As new details regarding the characters’ medical conditions were revealed, the students began to not only put the medical puzzle pieces together, but also that of the deep connection between these fictional characters and themselves.   To my great delight, the students overwhelmingly enjoyed this themed unit of study.  In fact, I continued the theme into the corresponding exam.  I particularly remember how I conducted a mini-observation study by watching the body language of the students taking this exam.  The smiles, smirks and subtle grins “sealed the deal” for me moving forward!


What I described here is just one of the many creative strategies I implemented into my teaching over the years.  What a difference some tweaking to an established unit of study can make not only for the students but also for me as the teacher.  Students repeatedly told me that they love the fact that these strategies are non-traditional and as such they look forward to upcoming classes in the course because they don’t know what will happen next.  I love the potential element of surprise and suspense, not to mention the challenge that goes along with keeping class sessions new and fresh!  Students particularly seemed to gravitate and relate to the fact the fictitious characters turned fictitious patients were all connected both in the show and in the unit of study.  I found the unit to be a refreshing change of pace.  The class sessions and case studies were connected by the fictitious town of Mayberry and its patient citizens.  The students participated as laboratorians in the Mayberry hospital laboratory.  I was able to incorporate content consistency and provide details under the auspices of the themed unit of study.  Seeing the students’ reactions and engagement transformed the once boring case study unit into one with creatively presented content, rigor, and humor.

I am eager to take this concept further by more emphasis on the students’ role in such units of study.  I can see how many related aspects to laboratory medicine such as ethical considerations and managerial responsibilities could be incorporated into such units of study. So, here’s my challenge to you:  What teaching adjustments will you make that don’t reinvent the wheel?