Developing a Community of Practice in an A&P Course

This blog is about striving to create a Community of Practice (CoP) to engage students in Situated/Social Learning by using Team-based activities and assessments along with the web-based social learning annotation platform, Perusall.

We have all experienced those “Aha” moments when something we were struggling with suddenly becomes clear.  Think back to a time when you experienced real/durable learning.  When I did that, three things popped into my mind:  a hallway discussion in graduate school with classmates in my neurophysiology class about the Goldman-Hodgkin-Katz equation; American Physiological Society – Institute of Teaching and Learning (APS-ITL) conferences/interaction with Physiology Educators Community of Practice (PECOP); and the Community of Practice at HCC via the Instructional Development Center (IDC) which organizes and facilitates Best Practices and Faculty Academy.  And what this made me realize was that I learned best in a social setting with peers rather than isolated in my room/office tackling a topic by myself.  Although this was new to me, Lave and Wenger realized this long ago.

Lave and Wenger put forth the social learning theory of situated learning and communities of practice (CoP) in the early 90s.  Core ideas of their theory are that learning is identity formation through social participation and that communities of practice are groups of people (communities), brought together by a need for shared learning (domain) for something they do together (practice) and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). And I believe, in a classroom setting, this should be framed within a significant learning environment. See Fink (2003) for explicit steps that can be taken to create an environment conducive to learning.

While a CoP is often discussed relative to professional societies, I believe that a CoP can develop within an A&P course and bring about durable learning through social interaction.  In this case, then, the domain includes the students who are in the course to learn A&P – shared learning needs; the community includes the class as well as the community within student groups/teams; and the practice includes interactions and participation in evidence-based teaching best practices from the resources those produce.

The following infographic is a summary of best practices in evidence-based teaching (Petty, 2006) which Michaelson and Sweet (2011) suggest can be met by and are a part of Team-based Learning (TBL). These include Visual presentation and graphic organizers which are met in my classes by team projects; feedback and assessment for learning; cooperative learning; reciprocal teaching e.g., peer instruction; whole-class interactive teaching; requiring concept-driven decisions e.g., concept questions and higher-order thinking levels for summative assessments.  This provides a very strong rationale for using TBL.  And TBL, by its very nature, promotes social learning.

Michaelsen and Richards (2005) identified the four key components of TBL: group formation; meaningful team assignments; routine feedback; and accountability.  The following infographic includes the components of TBL and summarizes some of the ways they are addressed in my courses.  I will go into more detail on some of these throughout the blog.

Formation of diverse teams is very important for the successful use of team-based learning.  In the physical classroom, I used a ‘show of hands’ to questions asked on the first day of class and had the students line up, then I counted them off into the appropriate number of groups. Questions used were: “How many have ……had me as an instructor before?; had medical terminology?; a college degree or certificate?; been born outside of IL?” etc.  This provides transparency in how the teams are formed and lets students know what things the instructor thinks are important to include in each team.

For the virtual, online-synchronous classroom, I use the web-based platform, CATME Smarter Teamwork, Team-maker tool.  Team-maker tool page can be found at this link.  The Team-maker tool simplifies the team-assignment process, for the virtual classroom, and creates diverse teams.  Instructors decide which criteria will be used to form teams/student groups.  For example, it is helpful for team members to have similar work schedules to facilitate group work.  It is also helpful for team members to have dissimilar GPAs.  Instructors can also write custom questions and criteria to add to the Team Maker Tool survey.  CATME Smarter Teamwork platform is a product of and administered by Purdue University.  General information about the CATME Smarter Teamwork platform can be found at this link.

In addition to properly forming teams, teams must be properly managed. Team members should receive feedback regarding their effectiveness in the team early and often.  I use Peer Evaluation (PE) Surveys administered by the CATME Smarter Teamwork platform to help teams and team members become more effective.  The TBL community uses the phrase “forming, storming, and norming,” to describe phases teams go through during the semester.  PE surveys helps teams to progress to the norming phase more quickly.  Team members are evaluated in 5 areas: contributing to the team’s work, interacting with teammates, keeping the team on track, expecting quality, and having relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Three PE surveys are administered over the course of the semester.  The first two PE surveys (week 5 and week 10) were formative and the third one (week 15) was summative.  Students’ PE score is based on how well they evaluate their teammates and how well their teammates evaluate them.  I used the ‘additional questions’ option for each PE survey.  They provide information on team dynamics and effectiveness which is very helpful to identify teams that are struggling which might require instructor intervention. Survey results can be viewed and then released to the students.  Students receive anonymous information on how their teammates evaluated them compared with how students evaluated themselves and this provides encouragement when they have rated themselves lower than their peers and praises students whose teammates have rated them highly. It is important to emphasize that students are evaluating, not judging, their teammates.  The CATME Smarter Teamwork website has a plethora of resources for instructors and students to help improve team effectiveness.

In addition to the CATME Smarter Teamwork PE surveys the Peer Evaluation form obtained from the University of Buffalo Case Study Workshop I attended is used to evaluate teammate participation in the team projects.  This evaluation produces a score that is used as a multiplier to the grade on the team project which helps to improve student accountability.

To promote learning, team development, and provide timely and frequent feedback, I use Just-in-time-teaching, combined with Peer Instruction (PI) and Concept Questions that are assessed using a classroom response system (Learning Catalytics) in a manner described by Mazur (1991).  Students are to complete pre-class reading assignments followed by a pre-quiz in the Learning Management System (LMS).  The pre-quizzes check for knowledge comprehension as well as identify confusing topics which are the focus of the concept questions used in the ensuing class meeting.  Each concept question has an individual round followed by a team round.  Students answer the individual questions on their own from memory.  Once students have answered the individual questions, they are instructed to discuss it with their teammates, using all available resources before the question is asked again.  These activities provide formative feedback to students and the instructor alike and provides practice for team-based summative assessments which focus on the conceptual application of material and strive for more authentic assessments with questions situated in a clinical scenario.  Learning Catalytics, the classroom response system used in my classes, has a variety of question types that can be used to write questions that require lower-order or higher-order thinking skills.

Additionally, the PI and team interaction help students negotiate their identity in the group and facilitates new learning, which are earmarks of social learning in a community of practice.  Of course, all of this is dependent upon students coming to class prepared.

Much to my dismay, even though pre-quizzes are given to hold students accountable, rather than read the assignment, they tend to ‘hunt and peck’ in the textbook or search Google for answers which are out of context and don’t really answer the question.  Funnily enough, pre-class reading assignments and pre-quizzes didn’t even hold Harvard physics students accountable to complete the reading assignments.  So, Eric Mazur and his team developed the social annotation platform Perusall.  Information about the platform can be found at this link.

Perusall allows for/encourages social interaction ‘outside’ of class and uses programs like those used in social media. Students annotate pre-class reading assignments and can comment on classmates’ annotations, “like” comments, and ask and answer questions; they are not reading/processing material alone. Students can interact with classmates in the entire class, rather than only with their teammates, which expands the community for social learning.  By clicking on an annotation in a pre-reading assignment a current conversation window opens, and the thread of conversation shows who made comments and when they were made.  This shows the asynchronous social interaction taking place in Perusall, and documents social learning taking place outside of class.  It lets the students know they are not alone in their struggle to understand a topic and offers opportunities for students to offer explanations and suggestions to help classmates learn.

Using Perusall helps students to become better prepared for in-class activities.  Following the adoption of Perusall, 88% of students annotated 80-100% of the pre-class reading assignments throughout a semester. Whereas only 69% of students completed 80-100% of the pre-quizzes associated with the pre-class reading assignment before using Perusall.  Completing the pre-quiz, as mentioned above does not necessarily indicate that students read the assignment.  They may have just Googled the answers.

So far, I have talked about Perusall as a social annotation platform that encourages students to thoughtfully annotate reading assignments as a way to promote social learning and a sense of community which is one of the main reasons I use Perusall and why I believe Perusall helps to build a CoP in my courses.  However, I think it is important to point out that the adoption implementation of Perusall is very easy and offers valuable features without adding to the instructional load.  Once the course is set up, which does not take long, there is little to no extra work for the instructor.  The quality of the annotations is graded automatically using a machine algorithm to assess intellectual content.  Also, with a click of a tab, instructors receive a ‘confusion report’ listing the top three points of confusion with the top three annotations articulating the confusion and other analytic reports. Perusall also automatically sends emails to students who have missed reading assignments.  For anyone interested in viewing a course in Perusall a demo course has been set up – course code = CHAPMAN-GJZQV.  To access the course, follow this link and click the ‘register’ link provided on the page.  Once the registration is complete there will be an option to enroll in a course, click on that tab and enter the course code listed above.  Or just jump into the deep end of the pool and register as an instructor just to see how easy and intuitive the platform is to use.

By putting students into diverse, permanent/fixed student groups the sense of community can grow. During group work and the social annotation of reading assignments throughout the semester, students negotiate their identity in the group, negotiate new learning, and work together to learn anatomy and physiology. The following photo is of a team on the last day of the semester.  The “CEO” of the team made the t-shirts using team members’ identities negotiated throughout the semester and gave them to all teammates near the end of the semester.

When it works properly a Community of Practice can develop.  I have witnessed tremendous learning in my classroom which is the result of helping my students create a community of practice within the framework of efforts to create a significant learning environment and allowing students to socially interact via team-based activities/assessments and social interaction while annotating pre-class reading assignments.


Fink, L.D. (2003) Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Lave, J. Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., and Fink, L. D. (2004) Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Sterling, Va.: Stylus.

Michaelsen, L. K., Parmelee, D. X., McMahon, K. K., and Levine, R. E. (eds.). (2008) Team-Based Learning for Health Professions Education: A Guide to Using Small Groups for Improving Learning. Sterling, Va.: Stylus.

Michaelsen, L., & Richards, B. (2005). Commentary: drawing conclusions from the team-learning literature in health sciences education: a commentary. Teaching and learning in medicine, 17(1), 85-88.

Michaelson, L.K., and Sweet, M.  Team-based Learning.  (2011) New Directions for Teaching and Learning.  no. 128. Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library. DOI:10.1002/tl.467.

Petty, G. (2006) Evidence-Based Teaching. Gloucestershire, U.K.: Nelson-Thornes, 2006.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Ca

After a post-doctoral fellowship at Washington University School of Medicine, Jane began her academic teaching career at Benedictine University in the graduate programs in exercise physiology.  After that Jane taught in the Physician Assistant Programs at Rosalind Franklin University and the University of Kentucky. For the past 18 years Jane taught Anatomy and Physiology at Heartland Community College in Normal, IL, where innovative, student-centered instruction is encouraged. For the last decade, Jane employed Just-in-Time Teaching with Peer Instruction and concept questions assessed with a classroom response system.  Recently, permanent, fixed teams were used in her classes, along with team-based summative assessments, as well as with in-class and post-class forced retrieval activities. Jane is a Professor Emerita of Biology and had served as the Anatomy and Physiology course coordinator.

Jane received her B.S. from Eastern Illinois University, her M.S. from Illinois State University, and her Ph.D. from Marquette University.

mbridge University Press.