Contributed by Assistant Professor Chen Zhong, Natural Sciences & Science Education Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Singapore, for SingTeach Issue 64.
Have you ever struggled to explain to your students an abstract concept or complex subject such as “humanizing” pig organs to prevent auto-immune response? For students without prior knowledge in the subject of discussion, our explanation would probably appear like encrypted codes to them. How do we then overcome this Expert-Novice gap in the classroom?
Mental Model Theoretical Framework
Mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1989; Seel, 1991) are ad-hoc mental constructions that people use to provide plausible explanation based on limited information.
For novice students, their clean slate of mind as compared to the teacher (the expert), means possible divergence in mental models of the subject taught, and thus conceivable confusion in learning.
Visualization to Bridging the Expert-Novice Gap in Mental Models
Moving back to the subject of humanizing organs, the traditional explanation for “humanizing” involves concepts from immunology, genetic engineering and more. Take for example this explanation “one method of humanizing pig organs is the insertion of altered human stem cells, where it’s major histocompatibility complex on cell surface are removed, into pig foetus which when transplanted, will not cause an immune response.” That is a lot to digest.
Compare it to a visualized counterpart with a very short accompanying explanation:
Major histocompatibility complex is something like a passport that white blood cell uses to identify foreign cells.
Blended Learning and Whiteboard Animation
Drawing out such schematics repeatedly every class is unrealistic. With the advent of blended learning and other technological advances, whiteboard animation will allow students to visualize the ideas behind the narration or content while appealing to students artistically and thereby capturing their attention at the same time.
To this end, Asst Prof Chen Zhong partnered with a local academic-focused whiteboard animation studio, VedicLink. Together, they created 12 clips of whiteboard animation, covering 10 popular topics in biotechnology. These videos are used in teaching AAB40A Molecular Biotechnology at NIE.
Let’s see what students say:
“I like the animation videos. It helps to summarize the topics that were taught during the lectures. The animations in the video reinforced the concepts and help me to understand and remember it better. Together with the storyline, it makes the concept more relevant and easier to remember.”
“I think that it is a good way of teaching biology (or any other subjects) as students learn differently. Some may learn better with the traditional way of teaching but some learn better through other modes (e.g., visual, audio, kinestatic). Hence, by using animations in lessons, it will cater to a wider range of learning styles.”
“The biotechnology videos had aided me greatly in my exam preparation. In breaking down the technology into the steps, the animation had helped to give a better understanding of the process involved. For example, the microarray concept was harder to imagine when described on paper. But with the animation by showing the DNA probes and the well plate, it was not only easy to understand how it was done but to also know why it was done. The narration in the background was clear and engaging. Thus, when I was studying for the exams, I paused the video and wrote down the narration and drew out the images in the video. This helped me to remember the process a lot better.”
“The animations were very helpful because it supplemented the lecture notes and acted like an introduction to the topic. It also helps audio visual learners to remember the points. Take the analogy of watching a movie. I have watched my favourite movie more than a dozen times and I can remember every line in it. For the sake of remembering the information, if I were to watch the video several times, I will be able to remember the contents in the video, in turn, facts about the topic.”
Screenshots from the whiteboard animation video
Future Research and Application to Schools
We will be studying the pedagogy behind the various design elements of whiteboard animation and how best to use it in class. We would like to expand the research and pedagogy adoption across different subjects, age groups and student capabilities. Hence, we are calling out to any teacher or school interested in our research. Please contact us and help us make class more enjoyable for you and your students.
Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1989). Mental models. In M. I. Posner (Ed.), Foundations of cognitive science (pp. 469–499). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Seel, N. M. (1991). Weltwissen und mentale Modelle. Göttingen: Hogrefe.