Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Great Courses ~ Understanding the Human Body: An Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology (A Review)

A while back, we got a random catalog from a company called The Great Courses. We had just begun homeschooling with a preschooler, so while we weren't really "ready" for anything that was taught by a college professor, I was really interested for myself.  The Great Courses prides itself on supporting lifetime learning, because they believe (and I firmly agree) that learning shouldn't stop at the classroom door.  They provide college-caliber courses without the stress of tests and homework, plus the ability to take them with you just about anywhere in an audio and/or video format.  When we started homeschooling the big boys at the high school level, we came back and revisited these, wondering if they would fill a gap in our homeschool.  We decided to give them a try about a year ago. Matthew thoroughly enjoyed the courses on Greek and Roman architecture and engineering.  Last summer, he excitedly explained to me what he learned about the architecture of the Roman Pantheon, and shared with me how the Illinois Monument at Vicksburg had the same elements.  As he spoke, a Park Ranger halted his discussion with other tourists to listen, and commented how he learned something new.  If you can teach a Park Ranger, I'd say you've definitely learned something!

When we were asked if we'd like to review a course, Luke was just choosing his senior courses.  Most of his classes were either continuations of other programs, or the new level of a past program.  However, for science, we were at a loss.  Science is an elective for high school seniors here, so there was no "just take the next class."  I handed him the Science course list, and said "Choose something!"  It took some serious winnowing to choose ONE course out of the 150 science courses offered.  Ultimately, since he would like a career in the health sciences, he decided he wanted to take an anatomy/physiology class, and chose Understanding the Human Body: An Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology. We opted for the video download option (it's also available as a DVD set or subscription streaming format).

The course consists of 32 sessions that are each 45 minutes in length.  Keeping in mind that this is a college-level presentation, and the sessions would equate to a full semester of a class that met three times weekly.  Second, these classes are 45 minutes of non-stop information, from the opening "Welcome back!" to the last-second "See you next lesson!"  There's not a moment wasted.  Finally, there is an accompanying guidebook with study questions and suggested reading if you want to explore a concept further.

The course admits it is laid out a bit differently from most anatomy classes.  It starts with the heart, followed by the lungs.  Dr. Goodman points out while the modern definition of life and death includes brain activity, the traditional concept of what separated the living from a death certificate was a heartbeat.  The first FOUR sessions are on the heart alone -- 3 full hours!

I want to touch a bit on the instructor, Dr. Goodman. Instructors of The Great Courses' offerings are all highly esteemed professors in their own right.  For example, Dr. Goodman's CV would lead you to believe he's a highly qualified physician:

  • undergraduate degree, Harvard College (Harvard University)
  • medical degree, Cornell University School of Medicine
  • surgical residency, University of Michigan
  • Chief of Residents, Harvard Surgical Services 
  • 20 years general surgery
  • Fellow, American College of Surgeons
  • Diplomate, National Board of Medical Examiners and American Board of Surgery 
  • Founder, Broward Surgical Society
  • Professor, Montana State University, University of Washington School of Medicine, Christchurch (New Zealand) Clinical School of Medicine.

If I were in need of a surgeon, I would certainly feel he's well qualified.  However, what we needed was a teacher.

The Great Courses chooses their instructors not just on their credentials but also on their abilities as a teacher.  Have you ever had a class that you just loved the content of, but dreaded the professor who felt like he was just phoning it in?  Or one that was so full of his credentials that in his mind, he belonged in the Pantheon?  That doesn't happen here!   Only the top instructors in their fields are chosen to be part of the faculty at The Great Courses.  Not the top experts in their fields, but the top instructors.  They are experts, providing high quality instruction, but they are also amazing teachers.  Of all the courses we have used so far, including this one, the professors are intelligent, witty, and teach a subject they not only know but are passionate about, and it shines through.

The course divides each organ system into first an "anatomy" class, followed by physiology, rather than trying to mesh the ideas.  Even something as "simple" in structure as the heart (as compared to the muscular system that makes an entire body move) has so much detail that trying to ping-pong back and forth would be overwhelming.  When Luke started an episode, he knew exactly what he was focusing on - structure or function, along him to be able to follow along with the trajectory of the episode.   He really liked the progression of this course because the body systems made sense to him in terms of function.

In all of the lectures, visual supports enhance the quality of the lecture.

Captioned vocabulary help to clarify what is being said, and provide visual support of key phrases for note takers.

Clear, detailed diagrams help the student visualize what the instructor is talking about.  This graphic includes where oxygenated perfusion vs carbon dioxide excretion occur in the cardio-respiratory system.

3-D models help show the organs and tissues in situ, providing reference points for location in the body and how location affects normal and/or pathological functions.

Included with the program is a 216-page PDF that contains a course syllabus/transcripts, charts and graphs, suggested readings, and end-of-lesson discussion questions.  For the average person who is just taking this course "for fun," you may not need to even open this.  Even if you are taking it just for personal knowledge, I highly recommend using it along with the videos.  It provides a written backup of what is being said, along with having key words italicized.  The questions at the end are simple, yet if you are able to answer them (at least mentally, if you're not writing the answers to get a grade), then you will be certain you've absorbed the content of the lecture.

As the company says, there are no tests, and no homework.  This is a little bit of a drawback when you're looking to assign a grade for a transcript.  Even if Luke really didn't want homework and tests, colleges do like grades on transcripts.  I also like to give as many opportunities to do well as I can, and not have an entire grade ride on one test. We found the course guidebook to be a good resource for grading.  There are review questions after each video/chapter in the course guidebook that functioned as a "homework" grade. However, for us, it was perfect for being able to create quizzes and exams.   We also added in some work in the "suggested reading" anatomy text,  Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 14th ed.  This is an optional text, and one that was a bit superfluous in terms of being able to understand the course.  If you are intrigued by anatomy and physiology, I do recommend it, because it is able to explain particular functions in a more medical viewpoint.  (Dr. Goodman does not shy away from technical medical terms, but the language is not prohibitively technical, either.)    However, the chapter questions in the book functioned as quizzes also help me to ascertain how much of the lecture Luke had absorbed as he went along, so it is a good resource if you're in need of tangible methods to find a grade.

Luke regularly has tidbits of "Did you know?" information to share with us at dinner.  One of these was "Did you know you have as many nerves in your rear end as your face?" Nope, can't say I did. I'm not a medical professional, but after 17 years of special needs kids, and more specialists than I have fingers and toes,  I'm impressed that even I still learned new things.  He really liked the progression of this course because the body systems made sense to him in terms of function.  Another "fun fact" he shared -- if you turn your head sideways, your eyes will naturally float up to the top of the socket to maintain the horizon.  Interesting fact, if a bit creepy in demonstration.

However, in my opinion, the greatest measure of learning is not "Can you regurgitate information on a test?" but "Can you discuss the topic intelligently?"  During this time, Luke has also had several doctors' appointments.  He actually had a very detailed conversation about how the brain works with his neurologist.  She suggested a particular activity, and they had almost a peer-level discussion about the mechanics and effect on the brain and other body parts. I like to think I'm an intelligent person, but I just sat and colored with Damien.  They were discussing brain structures that I could simply nod at and pretend to know (and then go home and search about online!).  He's also been able to have discussions with our family practitioner and his physical therapist, leaving them impressed with his grasp of anatomy and physiology.  The course is clear that it's intent is to inform and ignite excitement, not train pseudo-physicians, but when you can hold your own in a conversation with physicians who are reknowned in their own fields, that's proof you've learned well.

We absolutely love The Great Courses.  I think that while they are wonderful for their intended goal to encourage lifelong learning, they are also perfect for a high school student.  This program, Understanding the Human Body: An Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology, introduced Luke to the rapid pace of a college lecture, giving him practice in note-taking and determining main ideas and crucial content, with the ability to check his understanding with the questions in the guidebook.  It gave him a solid command of the basics of human anatomy and physiology and the ability to discuss them well.  We are looking forward to more programs from The Great Courses!

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