Faculty Club / Course Design / 6 Exercises to Help Students Tackle a Question with No Clear Answer

6 Exercises to Help Students Tackle a Question with No Clear Answer

Dr. Amy Worthington helps biology students synthesize baseline knowledge and new information so they can tackle any problem that comes their way.

Dr. Amy Worthington helps biology students synthesize baseline knowledge and new information so they can tackle any problem that comes their way.

Amy Worthington, PhD


Assistant Professor of Biology,
Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska

PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, MS and BS in Biology

Dr. Amy Worthington has learned something important over the years teaching courses such as Animal Physiology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska: Students know less—and more—than they think they do.

Many mistakenly believe that memorization is the key to academic success, she explains. But in some fields, such as medicine and dentistry (which many are pursuing), there is simply not enough time to memorize everything. “I think this is true of a lot of the upper-level science classes,” she says. “You can focus an entire career on physiology and still not know all the answers.”

What she wants her students to realize is that real achievement requires the development of higher-order critical-thinking skills along with a solid baseline of knowledge. “You have to understand the details of how things work, but you don’t have to memorize them,” she says. “For example, certain pulmonary diseases shift your ability to breathe. With some, you can’t breathe in a full breath, and with others, you can’t exhale. The effects of these things should be logical if you really train yourself to think through them.”

By learning how to take a general concept learned in class, pull in new information, synthesize it, and apply all of the knowledge to a new situation, students should be able to face any future challenge and come up with a viable answer. “The only way to do that is to lubricate your brain to be able to draw connections between seemingly disparate things and see how they might interact in new and interesting ways,” she says.

Below, Worthington details some activities that she uses in class to help students accomplish that goal.


“What I really want students to get—as their aha! moment—is that you don’t have to know everything. You can figure it out. It’s fun to watch students realize that they have the baseline knowledge to answer bigger questions.”
-Amy Worthington, PhD

Course: BIO 449 Animal Physiology

Course description: A study of the functions of animals from the cellular to the organ-systems level with emphasis on vertebrate systems physiology.

See materials

Worthington’s guide to deducing answers for difficult questions

Worthington encourages her students to apply what they learn—at whatever opportunity they get—to find answers for problems when no clear answer is apparent. She relies on active learning, team-based learning, self-assessments, and hands-on research. Some of her favorite strategies are detailed below.

Build baseline knowledge with broad questions and micro-learnings

Though Worthington’s ultimate goal is to develop students’ critical-thinking skills, she wants them to develop a baseline of knowledge that they can use as a starting point. Since she knows that life often does not allow for large blocks of time to study, she suggests that students use “micro-learning moments” to contemplate broad questions. So for each chapter of the course, she provides a list of broad questions on a study sheet—such as “Describe the flow of blood through the heart.” Worthington has students transcribe each of the broad questions onto a notecard, and tuck the cards into their backpacks.

“Then, when you’re walking from one class to the next, rather than being on your phone, read one of those questions, then contemplate it and try to answer it from memory the whole way across campus,” she suggests. “And when you get to where you’re going, you can sit down and pull out your notes real quick and see how you did. Did you hit all the highlights?”

Explain what you do when you do not know the answer

To show students how to use baseline information to tackle a new question, Worthington likes to demonstrate her own approach—in front of the class. “I get all sorts of questions from students that I don’t know the answers to, and so I show them my thought process,” she says. First, she reviews (out loud) the information that she does know, and then she says, “I imagine that, given these facts, this is how we get to the answer.”

Once she has demonstrated her hypothesis and rationale, the class collectively does an Internet search on the question, and they discuss the results that they come up with (discovering that sometimes research exists to answer the question, and sometimes it does not). Her message ultimately is: “If I can do it, you can too.” Additionally, she says, students learn that they will never know it all, but they can at least try to understand most of it.

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Encourage students to look for questions in everyday life

Many of Worthington’s activities revolve around different diseases or medications and how they work: their “mechanisms of actions.” She likes to help students realize that they know more than they think they do—and that they have the knowledge they need to figure out what they do not know. So when students ask her how to study, she replies, “Go and live your life.” When they encounter something that is relative to physiology, she suggests they look it up and try to figure out how it works. “If you’re watching Hulu and all these ads for prescriptions pop up, think about what’s happening. Think about why somebody has to take this medication, how the mechanism of the medication works, and see if you understand it,” she suggests. “Most of the time, students have what they need to fully understand those mechanisms.”

The more they practice this approach—taking what you know and figuring out the rest—the more intuitive it will become.

Ask for all the steps students took to get to an answer

To help students learn to dissect their own thought process and then improve upon it, Worthington asks students to fully explain their answer to even the simplest questions—always. “We practice this during class together, I challenge them to do this while studying, and I expect them to do it on exams,” she says. “A lot of times, when you ask a student a question, they’ll have the right answer because they memorized it,” says Worthington. “They can’t fully explain how they got from point A to point Z. So I make them explain every single, minute detail to get there.”

This activity has a future payoff, too. An ability to connect the dots is crucial for medical professionals, Worthington explains. “Someday they will need to explain complex mechanisms to someone with less knowledge than they have. They need to be able to make logical connections so that people without that background can understand what’s going on. The second you skip something, your patients are lost. And they’re not going to tell you that.”

Use breakout sessions to teach students how others think

While Worthington does use traditional lectures in her classes, she also schedules frequent “breakout sessions” during class time to make sure that, as foundational concepts are building, everyone is on the same page. She poses a challenging discussion question, gives each group three or four minutes to discuss it, then randomly calls on students to report to the class what they think. “That decreases student anxiety about speaking in front of the class, because they were able to come to a group consensus before speaking,” Worthington says. Just as important, these small-group discussions allow students to test and share their own knowledge, while alerting them to how differently people can approach the same problem.

“[When you’re working on a problem,] you can’t do it all in your own head,” she tells the class. “You need to talk it out. And you’ve got to hear other people’s opinions and thoughts. No matter what career you’re going into, you have to be able to work with other people.”

Finally, pose some questions with no right or wrong answers

Throughout the semester, Worthington provides students with the opportunity to exercise their critical-thinking muscles. To do this, she picks a novel topic, gives students some background information, and then adds more complexity so they can begin synthesizing the information.

Worthington uses prostaglandins as an example. “They’re hormone-like compounds, but they don’t act systemically in the body the way hormones do. They act at more local levels. And they control a variety of different things, including antagonistic actions, so they can cause vasoconstriction or vasodilation—depending on where they’re acting and how they’re acting. They’re complicated.”

Since doctors prescribe aspirin and ibuprofen to inhibit prostaglandins, she will ask her students to review a list of people suffering from different conditions and determine whether each person should be taking ibuprofen. “To do this, they have to bring in prior knowledge from the outside world and their own experiences, and they need to think about the information that they’ve been given,” she says. “Half the time there is competing information.” For example, in a pregnant woman, ibuprofen prevents the cervix from softening and the uterus from contracting, which could be interpreted as helping prevent premature labor. “That sounds great, but then students have to think of the downstream consequences of that,” she says. “Ibuprofen also thins the blood, so what happens if the woman goes into labor? If she’s taking ibuprofen, she may not be able to stem the bleeding as well.”

As in real life, there are no clear-cut answers—and the learning happens as her students weigh the pros and cons and discuss the alternatives and potential outcomes.

“What I really want students to get—as their aha! moment—is that you don’t have to know everything. You can figure it out,” says Worthington. “It’s fun to watch students realize that they have the baseline knowledge to answer bigger questions.”

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