Dissections and Following Directions

Most biology classes will have at least one dissection in the year, though specimens can range from the commonly used frog, to the less expensive grasshopper.  No matter what you choose to dissect, the biggest challenge most teachers face is getting students to follow directions.  Based on the talk I hear in the teacher’s lounge, this challenge is not limited to science classes alone.  The trick I’ve found to get kids to follow directions should work well in just about any class, and so simple that anyone can utilize it.    My amazing trick, is simply (drumroll) the SQUARE.   I first encountered this trick years ago at a workshop, and back then word processors and computers were still not widely used by teachers.  The presenter suggested a series of characters that could be typed on a typewriter that would resemble a checkbox, like this:   |_|

The checkbox is then used by students to mark where they are in the directions.  It is so simple that you might even be skeptical that it even works.   Obviously, some of your students will not be swayed by the checkbox, but you will see a major improvement in students following a dissection guide.   I’m not sure of the exact psychology behind the technique, but it has worked for me.  You can even see that many of my labs and dissection guides have squares (now made with a word processor) for students to check as they complete each step.   If you have a student that gets off task, and raises his hand to ask that common lab question “what do I do next”, you can then redirect his eyes to the paper and the checkboxes and ask him what step he is on.  Employing this technique from the very beginning of the year also goes a long way toward training students to read and follow directions rather than waiting on the teacher to personally walk them through each step.   Now, there are going to be times that you do need to give students individualized attention and guidance, but if you’re like me in a class of 30 students, the more of them you can get to self-direct, the better off you are.

You can see the SQUARE |_| in action on many of my dissection guides, check out the  crayfish dissection or the frog dissection.

Just yesterday, my freshman started the frog dissection.  Most of them are reading the directions, doing what it says, such as “remove the eye” and checking the box as they go.   Then there’s Joe, who immediately chops off the frogs arms and legs and sits there with his dismembered frog before finally raising his hand to call me over.  I sigh when I see what he has done and already suspect what he’s going to ask……   “What am I supposed to do?”    I sit down next to him and point to the directions and say.  “Well, Joe…. in step one here you were supposed to have found the tympanic membrane.  Did you find it?”.   He shakes his head slowly and I show him on the picture where the structure is and have him point with his probe where it is on the actual frog.   When he nods his head in understanding, I then point to the square on his dissection guide.  “Check the box, Joe, and then move onto number two.”  He complies and gets down to the business of actually dissecting (not dismembering) his frog.  Fifteen minutes later I go back to check on him and he’s doing fine.   Joe was a transfer student, otherwise he might have already been familiar with following directions using the SQUARE technique, but now that he knows the routine, I’m confident that future dissections will result in less dismemberment and more actually learning.