Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Women in Herpetology

Image result for What Are Little Boys Made Of?The nursery rhyme What Are Little Boys Made Of? from the 19th century, by an unknown author, is probably pretty familiar to most of us.

To me, this rhyme embodies the concept that men and women are often interested in very different things, and have been since childhood. Of course, this is often summarily untrue for any given person, but on average, are men more drawn to things that are considered dangerous, edgy, or “icky?”

More interesting to me, what are the repercussions for career choice of a sex difference in people’s attitudes? Studies have shown that from early childhood through adulthood, men tend to be more strongly drawn to careers in science than women, but how does sex influence specific interests within science? Within biology—the study of life—do men and women find different forms of life more appealing or interesting than others? Does the nursery rhyme play out in scientists’ choice of study organism—are those animals perceived as dangerous, edgy, or “icky” more attractive to male scientists than to females?

It certainly seems so. I am a female herpetologist who studies venomous snakes, and I have always been one of the few women in the room. I'm definitely not the first herpetologist to ponder this. In fact, the 2019 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists featured a symposium entitled "Professional Women in Herpetology: Lessons and Insights." This symposium was extremely well-attended, and the speakers tackled issues facing female herpetologists, from the past, today, and looking into the future.

Dr. Maureen Donnelly speaks to a big crowd in the 2019 JMIH Women in Herpetology Symposium.

At this symposium, I heard many stories from my fellow "Ladies Who Lizard" about discrimination, exclusion, sexual harassment, fighting back, joining forces, and more. I looked around me and thought "Ten years ago this symposium would not be as well attended or impactful." There were so many women conference attendees in 2019! Who are they all? Are they students or faculty? Are they doing herpetology research? Are they fulfilling the time-honored measurement of productivity in all scientific fields: publication of results?

I got to wondering whether we could actually quantify female participation in science by quantifying sex ratios in authorship according to study animal, to see if critters like snakes and crocodiles do in fact have more men working with them, and if so, to try to see whether this has been changing over the years.

I assembled an all-female team of HERpers (thanks eternally to Kirsten Hecht of University of Florida for coining this lovely term on Twitter in 2017) to tackle this project.

Some members of the Cal Poly Physiological Ecology of Reptiles Lab studying women in herpetology.
Katie Rock (center), junior Biology major and Women's and Gender Studies minor, is the project lead.

We presented these data in a poster at the 9th World Congress of Herpetology in Dunedin, New Zealand in January 2020. As usual, we had way too much data to put onto a poster, so we are reporting more of it here.

All the data presented here are preliminary, to be followed up by official analysis and publication later in 2020. Once the paper is out, we will update this blog post with a link to it so you can read about our official findings.

Below we present preliminary data, reflections, and ruminations about two main issues:

1. Sex ratios of authors on articles about amphibians and reptiles. Authoring papers is one of the ways that scientific beans are counted when we apply for jobs or go up for tenure or pay raises. So, quantifying authorship is essential to looking at the sex gap facing herpetology in the past and today.

2. Sex ratios of conference attendees. We might expect that the sex ratio of conference attendees to be roughly on par with the sex ratios of authors. But what about student attendees? Does their sex ratio hint at the authorship ratios of the future?

OK, let’s dig in.

Author Sex Ratios in Herpetology

We are going to be coy about our exact methods for now, but the basic idea is that we amassed data sets of all authors publishing on herps and coded each author's name by sex* using an enormous database of first names that allows us to assign a certainty value for coded sex to each author's name in our databases. Importantly, this allowed us to (1) amass a huge data set of hundreds of thousands of authors and (2) exclude authors whose names had a low certainty of being a particular sex. Because our data set is so large, any excluded or miscoded authors will not have an impact on the trends observed.

*An important disclaimer is that the reference names dataset uses binary sex and we therefore assigned sex as male or female, even though sex is a spectrum ranging from male to female. Furthermore, our dataset does not attempt to assign gender to any individuals. These are limitations of our methodology that reflect the historic and current binary assignment of sex. 

First, we quantified the total number of papers on each taxon published in the current decade (2000-19). Note that for many of our analyses, we break the order Squamata into the (not necessarily monophyletic) suborders Serpentes (snakes), Lacertilia (lizards), and Amphisbaenia (amphisbaenians), because as scientists studying squamates we are particularly interested in these groups of animals.

Among articles on amphibians and reptiles published 2010-19 (N = 201,237), the most popular study organisms are Anura (frogs, toads, and their relatives) and Squamates (lizards, snakes, and their relatives).

Next, we looked at the sex ratio of authors on these groups from 2010-19. Here, we quantify authorship as the total authorship events.

Male authors dominate total authorship events on amphibians and reptiles from 2010-19. Sample sizes of male and female authors are listed at the ends of bars, and percentages in the center. Among amphibians, the order with the highest percentage of male authors is Gymnophiona; among reptiles, it is Crocodylia.

Next, we wondered whether authorship by women is currently higher than is has been historically. It turns out that these data are not nearly as easy to get as those for the current decade. This is because of a quirk of indexing that has us shaking our fists mightily at the library/editorial/indexing conventions of the past, where until recently, only the initial of the first name is included in the citations of the paper. This obviously makes it difficult to assign author sex! Here are some data on authorship over the past 30 years on studies of lizards and snakes.

Female authorship events on studies of lizards and snakes have risen dramatically over the past 30 years. In the 90’s, there were 4 male authors for every female author, in the 00’s this dropped to 3, and currently there are 2 males per female author. 

Our data set has a lot more to work with. For example, we can analyze whether there is a sex difference in first authors, last authors, in the times papers are cited, whether women authors are more likely to publish papers with other women authors, and so much more. Stay tuned for that later in 2020.

Attendee Sex Ratios at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists

I started attending the annual meeting of our societies in 1997 as an undergraduate. Looking back, the sex ratio of the professionals back then was clearly male-skewed, as was the sex ratio of my science professors at UC Berkeley, and eventually Arizona State, where I got my PhD. But it seemed like the sex ratio of the students was much more balanced. Nowadays, that trend seems to hold, except that there seems to be at least a slightly higher proportion of women professionals than 20 years ago. I thought about it… could I get ahold of conference attendee data to actually quantify this?

Frankly, we were a bit shocked by our results above showing that the sex ratios in authorship on amphibians and reptiles are still so male-skewed. Could the sex ratio of students attending our annual conference tell us something about the future of herpetology?

So far I have only been able to get ahold of registration records for a few recent meetings. I am actively trying to get more data, but for now I can show you some data from one recent meeting.

The conference registration data sets proved even more challenging than the author data sets. That’s because registrants had the option of entering their position (many did not), and it was open-ended, so the answers were all over the place. For those who entered their position, we coded them as students or professionals, and then we also further divided the professionals into academic professors and “other professionals.” Also, these data include both herpetologists and ichthyologists because both attend this conference, and because registration records do not allow their delineation. Here's a link to my Tweet on what we found (while you're at it, follow me on Twitter!).

These data are eerily similar to the national trends we see in all areas of biology: Most biology undergraduate and graduate degrees are awarded to women, but as of 2017 women represented only 31% of Biology faculty, with even fewer in senior faculty positions.

I know that there have been a lot of studies on persistence of women in science that attempt to understand why we have more degrees awarded to female scientists but few of them end up in academic positions. I’m not going to go into those here, but suffice it to say that herpetology and ichthyology appear to be no different. We are itching to get our hands on data from earlier conferences so we can see if the sex ratios of students and professionals have changed! Fingers crossed.

I wanted to add in a quick, related note from a paper by Sardelis and Drew in PLoSOne in 2016 specifically regarding symposia at our annual herpetology conference. They found that (1) the number of female presenters in symposia has remained stagnant from 2005-2015, with male presenters outnumbering females about 4 to 1, and that (2) symposia with female organizers are more likely to include symposia with female presenters.

Sometimes it takes a unique point of view, or even just knowing that there is a problem, to do something about it.

We have been tweeting many of our preliminary results as we obtained them. The responses from the Twitterverse have been really interesting. Many people have been bemoaning the low representation of women in herpetology (“glass half empty”), while others have been applauding that the data show how rapidly things are changing (“glass half full”). While we think both responses are entirely appropriate, we’ll leave you with an anecdote that falls into the latter category.

At the 2017 Biology of the Snakes conference, we noticed that none of the invited speakers were women, and that a tiny fraction of the contributed oral presentations were by women. On the one hand, this reflects the demographics of studies on snakes: most of them are by men, and so naturally most speakers are men. On the other hand, as we have shown with our data above, women are not THAT poorly represented. Currently, about 30% of authors on snakes are women, so we would expect that about 30% of presenters would be women, too.

Fast forward to the 2019 Biology of the Pitvipers conference, where the meeting organizers made darn sure that a full half of the invited speakers were women (including yours truly). Curiously, the contributed oral presentations shot up to ~ 30% women! Furthermore, there were dozens of women in attendance who were not presenting, and looking around the crowded venue it seemed that a good 30-40% of all attendees were women. Bravo to the organizers for facilitating a conference with speaker demographics that are representative of our field.

The female attendees of the 2019 Biology of the Pitvipers conference put on by the Chiricahua Desert Museum. Photo by Melissa Amarello.

So, the times they are indeed a'changing.

Thank you for reading, and please leave your comments and suggestions below!

"Strange Career," a 1947 comic about American herpetologist Grace Olive Wiley.
It is no longer quite so strange for women to be herpetologists.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Zombie Lizard and "Hearty" Snakes!

Yesterday my colleague Dr. Charley Knight posted a photo of a "zombie" lizard to Twitter, which I retweeted, then posted to Facebook, where it quickly went viral. The photo shows a short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) on Mt. Lemmon in Arizona that is missing the skin and muscles along one side of its back, such that its ribs and internal organs are exposed.

I initially assumed it was dead, but on further inspection of its posture (as well as Charley's post saying it was "scampering about") I realized it was actually alive. It had likely been captured by a predator, perhaps a bird, that ripped off its tissue but dropped it.

What is the prognosis for this lizard? Well, as many have conjectured online, it may have been alive when observed, but would likely be dead soon.

This got me thinking. Why do we assume that this lizard won't make it? The answer is that we inevitably think about what we happen if WE were subject to a predatory blow that removed our skin and muscle, exposing our organs. We would certainly die rapidly, if not from infection then from dehydration.

But a reptile? In my opinion, if it could survive the loss of water through the wound, it actually could potentially heal and survive such a gnarly injury. Why? Because reptiles have crazy immune systems that we are just beginning to understand.

The evidence I have for this comes from the many reptiles I have seen in the field who are alive despite having incredible scars or wounds that should have killed. Many people reported similar observations on the zombie lizard post on social media. Here are just a few examples of healed herps that I have seen.

This is Tripod, an adult male chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) that my Herpetology class has recaptured at least three different years in the Mojave National Preserve.

Three-legged chuckwalla captured and released by permit from National Parks. Photo by Jason Wallace.

Tripod likely lost his leg when he was young, healed up nicely, and appears to be a healthy, dominant male.

Now check out Ecto, a subadult Desert Kingsnake (Lampropeltis splendida) that my Herpetology class found hit by a car on Foothills Rd. near the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. The car had apparently clipped him such that his chest and pericardium opened, with his heart beating away on the outside of his body (the technical term for this is a cardiocoel). Now you see why the students named him Ecto (and yes, they gave him a Twitter account).

I planned to humanely euthanize Ecto, but the students begged me to try to save his life. We gave him water and after he lasted through the night, we slipped his heart back inside his body, gave him antibiotics, sewed him up, and we took him back to California.

Ecto lived with a student in the class for almost three years, eating well and growing into a nice adult, before eventually dying. His owner took him to a vet for a necropsy and the cause of death was hyper-calcification of his pericardium, with the area completely surrounded by scar tissue from the injury years before. What a tough little noodle. (By the way, his owner took him back to Arizona to bury him where he was collected. Awwww!)

Speaking of tough noodles, this one might be my favorite. Years ago, my lab was conducting a radio-telemetry study on local Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus helleri). We found one of our large males with a huge wound across his underside, again possible from a bird like a raptor. When we anesthetized him, we discovered that the skin and muscle were completely ripped open, with the wound occurring just over the heart.

We gave him antibiotics, sewed him up, and let him go. We also removed his radio-transmitter, so unfortunately I don't know how he fared, but he was a big healthy snake and very likely survived.

I hope I've convinced you that these animals are absolutely incredible!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Tinder (for Herps)

The creative projects that mark the end of my herpetology class each spring bring me a lot of joy. They are creative, informative, artistic, and everyone, me included, learns new things. Some of them make me laugh, too. This year's laugh award, which literally made my face hurt, goes to Paula, who created Tinder profiles for herps.

Of course, these contain lots of interesting info from class, especially of the- ahem- reproductive nature. They are all hilariously creative, too. Here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy!

By Paula Eberle

Nice move, Paula. Nice move.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

How the Plethodont Got His Tongue

It's the end of spring quarter here at Cal Poly, which means that my herpetology students have turned in their projects. Instead of term papers that no one wants to write or read, my students do creative projects that they share with the rest of the class.

This quarter, as always, I taught the students how plethodontid salamanders lost their lungs over evolutionary time, and the how space in the chest is filled with an elaborate musculo-skeletal structure allowing them to project their tongues to capture prey, sometimes great distances. (read more about this here)

A plethodontid salamander projects its tongue to capture prey. Image

Wren's project blew me away. She wrote a Just-So story in the style of Rudyard Kipling on how the plethodontid salamander got its tongue. It is witty and lovely, and I am pleased to share Wren's work here as a guest blog. Enjoy!

How the Plethodont Got His Tongue

By Wren Thompson

Not long after the High and Far-Off times when the world began, O’ Best Beloved, the Plethodont did not have a Long Tongue. He had only a small little pad, a ‘scule little tongue that would wag to and would wag fro but never—never, Best Beloved—both to and fro.

It was not long after the world began that a new Plethodont made friends: the Chameleon and the Tree Frog, both Agile and Formidable Predators. The three friends could oft be found hunting on the shores of some-such grey-green pond or some-another chuckling brook, hunting for Agile Prey. The friends would blend with their speckle-spotted hides and quiet toes among the mosses and branches and ferns, hunting the Fly, the Moth; the Cricket, the Grasshopper, all from their most various perches and hides.

To carry this tale any further, however, I must first describe to you just how the Chameleon and Frog were such Wondrous Hunters with Long Tongues of Agile Prey:

Chameleon had been given—back in the High and Far-Off times when the world began, but that is a tale for another time—a tongue to be envied, a great muscly contraption with twists and turns and folds and flaps, all with her sticky tongue pad at the tip, poised to snatch Agile Prey from branch, stone, air, and leaf.

Tree Frog in his turn had a far less impressive arsenal, yet when tempted with the fattest and tastiest Cricket could flip-flap-flop forward his tongue in his jump, catching the most rollicking Cricket with both tongue and tooth. The insects hardly knew where to jump, for wherever they turned was the threat of Unenviable Digestion.

While they hunted on the springy moss and winding branches, Chameleon and Tree Frog often tried to help the new Plethodont to become yet another Formidable Predator. Every which way an ant would gallop, the Plethodont’s ‘scule little tongue could never reach, leaving him Hungry and Grumbly. His friends looked on, hinting and hoping for the little Plethodont to learn Formidable Predator skills.

“Perhaps if you were to jump a little further, or a little faster?” Tree Frog would say, as his lean legs launched him towards his next prey.

“Or perhaps if you blended with branches, and kept an eye out for slower prey?” Chameleon would follow, her odd eyes darting to watch a wayward wasp.

The new Plethodont was not encouraged, and his thin skin—remember that skin, Best Beloved! — itched and scratched and rankled and wriggled with their suggestions. It simply wasn’t fair that he had such ‘scule little tongue, that his legs were too short and his eyes pointed only one way. With every hint and hope his friends handed to him, the Plethodont fumed more; for he was not a Calm and Tranquil animal, nor was he one of Infinite Wisdom and Veracity. The Plethodont steamed and grumbled all the way home, his stomach full only of hunger and resentment.

The new Plethodont then had an idea: He could not hear their stinging hints and hopes if the only words he could hear were his own! He would fill the air around him with Meaningless Chatter that would stop the hints and the hopes, and his friends would have to realize that he simply would never be a Formidable Predator.

The next day as the friends went a’hunting beside some-another chuckling creek, the new Plethodont brought along his Shining Idea. All afternoon, the Shining Idea bobbed behind his long tail like a wayward balloon, forever glimmering and tempting the new Plethodont. After failing to catch yet another acrimonious ant, Chameleon and Tree Frog stepped and hopped over to help their friend find a meal.

“Perhaps this time you could—”, started Chameleon.

As soon as the words were off her impressive tongue, the new Plethodont unleashed a torrent of words. His Shining Idea was released, and from his ‘scule little mouth spilled forth Meaningless Chatter. He chattered and chittered; babbled and burbled; proselytized and preached; ranted and raved; and he shouted words of origins both High and Low, in the Old Tongue and in spite for his friends’ Long Tongues.

As he pronounced and denounced so loudly and incessantly, all the flies and crickets and worms and ants went away, hoping to escape the lambasted litany. As he prattled and rattled on, Chameleon’s odd eyes met those of Tree Frog’s wet head, and they exchanged The Look—Best Beloved, you know the kind—that said all things while no things were said on their parts. And in the moments after The Look, Chameleon and Frog parted ways from the Plethodont, heading up, up into the trees where the breeze whispered away the Plethodont’s words.

Through all this the new Plethodont followed his Shining Idea, vocalizing and verbalizing, his ‘scule little tongue wagging now both to and fro. His ‘scule little tongue grew and grew the more he used it, swelling out of his mouth so that it was no longer ‘scule or even miniscule, and pressing back down his throat so it was no longer little, past his heart that so boiled with envy for Chameleon’s tongue, down to his little legs that Tree Frog had so wished he would use well.

With triumph, the new Plethodont pressed on with his oration to show his friends—now long gone, little to his knowledge—just how fine his new tongue could be. He pressed and pressed until finally— with a small pop and an even smaller wheeze—he could press no more.

Despite his now eloquent, elegant tongue that attached down to his pelvis, he had no lungs to murmur, let alone shout. His great tongue—so long hoped-for by the Plethodont—had destroyed his lungs, taking forever his power of speech.

Over and over the new Plethodont tried to call to his friends up in the trees for help, help that he had long shunned and rankled over, but they could not hear his breathless cries up, up in the trees with the whispering breeze that drowned out his tirade so well.

He squeezed and pushed his Long Tongue that so quickly felt cursed, and it shot from his body to the one ant left beside the chuckling creek. The new Plethodont pulled the ant closer to hear his whispered calls, but his Long Tongue shot back into his body so quick that the little ant was gone before it knew. After such long resistance and repugnance, the Plethodont had become a Formidable Predator…

But his friends were nowhere near to see.

The new Plethodont sat beside the babbling, rollicking, chuckling creek, and breeze tickled his Thin Skin—did you remember that skin, O’ Best Beloved? — that had taken his friends from him. The tiniest breath of air filled the new Plethodont’s body through that Thin Skin, and in that moment the Plethodont was filled with another flood of eloquence of love for his friends. The Plethodont pushed, wishing this time to unleash a soaking monsoon of apology…but could only manage a single quiet word that the chuckling creek erased from the World’s Memory.

And this, Best Beloved, is why the Plethodont has such a very long tongue and must live beside chuckling creeks for company, breathing through the Thin Skin that doomed him to be without Chameleon and Tree Frog and words. He is most certainly a Formidable Predator, and his Long Tongue will keep him alive for eons to come.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Herp Haikus

Every time I teach Herpetology, I ask the students to make a haiku on their final exam that encompasses something they've learned. It needs to include both reptiles and amphibians, and follow haiku rules (3 lines only, with first and last having 5 syllables and second having 7). I thought it was time to start immortalizing these gems. Here, in no particular order, are the haikus of the fabulous and talented herpers of the Cal Poly class of summer 2016!

Frog’s feet greatly webbed
Draco’s skin flap opens wide
They glide in the sky

Snake is a noodle
Salamander is slimy
Slimy noodle fun!

Garter in water
The bullfrog fails its escape
Vengeance of locals

Treefrogs have toe pads
Snakes’ ventral scales overlap
They have better grip

Vipers have venom
Newts can carry a toxin
Let’s leave them alone

Some Caudata swim
Some cool snakes can also swim
Lat. undulation

Order Squamata
Order Gymnophiona
Know taxonomy

Snakes do a tongue flick
But salamanders shoot it

Aves soar high up
Caecilians burrow deep
Herps rule the world

Treefrogs are so small
Crocodilians are huge
What a crazy range

Rattlesnakes rattle
Amphibians have short ribs
Herping is so fun

Ensatina swim
Aspidoscelis are fast
They are hard to catch

Snake’s prehensile tail
Anura’s permeable skin
Pollution in bad

Bullfrogs are spreading
And so are red-eared sliders
Causing extinctions

Golden toads are dead
Tuataras are alive
Humans are evil

Snake strikes naïve mouse
Mama python warms her babies
Golden frog waves bye

And last but not least, my favorite!
Images from

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Snakebite in Dogs

Snakebite happens. Our inquisitive canine friends love to run through thick grass and stick their noses down holes in search of squirrels and other delights.   

Ghost got a painful and potentially life-threatening bite to the snout from a Northern Pacific rattlesnake. He was treated with two vials of antivenom and made a full recovery. Photo: Ashley Ventimiglia

I’m giving a presentation on local rattlesnakes to SLO Search & Rescue today, so I thought I’d look up some info on snakebite in dogs. I found four relevant and recent (within the past five years) scientific publications on snakebite prevention and treatment. I found some of the information really interesting, so I am posting to share.

1. Most dogs survive snakebite, but most of these dogs treated were with antivenom.
A retrospective study (4) on 272 rattlesnake envenomations in the Phoenix, Arizona area found that 97% of envenomated dogs survived the bite, but most had been treated with antivenom, so it is hard to determine how much the antivenom improves outcomes. Younger dogs were more likely to survive, and few dogs had allergic reactions to antivenom. Another study (3) found that antivenom stabilized or terminated the effects of the venom.

2. There is little evidence that the “rattlesnake vaccine” works.
A vaccine made against Western Diamondback rattlesnake venom can be obtained from a veterinarian. Although the manufacturer states that it has evidence that the vaccine works, no experimental studies on its efficacy in dogs have been performed. One study (4) found no difference in outcome in dogs who had the vaccines and those that did not. Another study (2) vaccinated mice with the vaccine and found some protection against venom from Western Diamondbacks but little protection against venoms from Northern and Southern Pacific rattlesnakes.

3. No data are available on the efficacy of rattlesnake avoidance training.
Given how efficacious dog training can be, it seems that rattlesnake avoidance training could work very well. However, dogs could still be bitten accidentally (e.g., when running through tall grass), even if they have been trained to avoid the scent and/or warning defensive behavior of a rattlesnake. There have not been any studies on this (admittedly, this would be very logistically difficult). One paper mentions that this training is “overall unreliable and may provide a false security for snakebite prevention but may be efficacious in a well-trained dog. The only preventative measures are leash walking and avoiding possible snake habitats that have poor visibility” (1).  

Summary: Outcomes for envenomated dogs are good if dogs are brought to the veterinarian for antivenom treatment right away. If possible, try to prevent your dog from exercising, which could speed up dispersal of venom through the body. Vaccines may work against Western Diamondback bites, but we do not have any data on this. Rattlesnake avoidance training could help, but keeping dogs on leash is the best way to prevent bites.

Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian. Always seek medical advice from your veterinarian.


(1) Armentano and Schaer. 2011. Overview and controversies in the medical management of pit viper envenomation in the dog. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care 21:461-470.

(2) Cates et al. 2015. Comparison of the protective effect of a commercially available western diamondback rattlesnake toxoid vaccine for dogs against envenomation of mice with western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), and southern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) venom. American Journal of Veterinary Research 76:272-279.

(3) Peterson et al. 2011. A randomized multicenter trial of Crotalidae polyvalent immune Fab antivenom for the treatment of rattlesnake envenomation in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care 21:335-345.

(4) Witsil et al. 2015. 272 cases of rattlesnake envenomation in dogs: Demographics and treatment including safety of F(ab’)2 antivenom use in 236 patients. Toxicon 105:19-26.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Keep Your Students Engaged in a Large Lecture

Good morning, educators. Who among you has worked for hours to create a stimulating and informative lecture, and halfway through delivering said lecture has looked up to see this?

Students get easily bored in a one-way lecture, when nothing is asked of them.

Wouldn't you rather see something more like this?

Students working together to solve problems stay engaged and enjoy better learning outcomes.
Image from

Me, too. As my class sizes get larger and larger, it gets more and more challenging to engage students in their own learning. However, the days of one-way flow of information from a "sage-on-stage" to students are over. Active learning increases student performance, and plain and simple, as educators we should be promoting pedagogy that allows students to thrive. Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur founded Learning Catalytics due to his belief that research into the effects of teaching styles on student learning shows that it is "unethical to lecture exclusively."

Lest you get your hackles up, Mazur does not have a problem with lecturing. He has a problem with only lecturing

Enter Learning Catalytics, an in-class response system that will keep your students' attention and help them achieve their learning outcomes.

I had used clickers since their inception. But when Pearson bought Learning Catalytics in 2014, I got on board. As a Pearson textbook author, I attend an annual conference where I was able to see Learning Catalytics in action, and I was blown away.

So what is this Learning Catalytics I speak of? The quick answer is that it is a sophisticated program that allows students to use their own web-enabled devices to answer questions during your lecture.

Learning Catalytics has many question types, not just multiple choice. Image from

Here is a quick summary of why Learning Catalytics is my choice for engaging my students in the large lecture.
1. Because they use their own phones or laptops, students always come to class prepared. (When I used to use clickers, students would constantly forget them, or they would break or run out of batteries.)
2. Learning Catalytics has many question types, not just multiple choice. I can do everything from asking anatomy students to identify a specific bone by clicking it on an image, to collecting data from hundreds of students conducting an in-class experiment. You can choose from thousands of pre-loaded questions from Pearson products, or you can create your own.
3. Learning Catalytics is very economical. It is free with Pearson book packages, or costs $12 per semester or $20 per year.
4. Learning Catalytics makes my life easier by its flexibility. I use a simple toggle bar to choose the point values of modules (e.g., a class meeting) based on participation and performance. Scores can be uploaded directly into a course management system (Moodle, Blackboard, etc.). I can easily review all aspects of performance, by the entire class or by individual student.

Basically, Learning Catalytics allows me to customize how I use active learning in my course, makes it high-tech, and reduces my workload substantially.

Learning Catalytics has a high-tech yet user friendly interface that students enjoy and faculty can easily employ.
Image from

When I discuss Learning Catalytics with other educators, they express reluctance to try it based on three main issues:
1. Concern about wireless capacity. Students need to be online to use Learning Catalytics, and if your campus's wireless capacity is insufficient, then you will have a problem. Talk to your IT Department before adopting the technology. (Hint: I advise students to use their smartphones instead of computers so that they log in using their data in the event the wireless is overloaded. Learning Catalytics uses very little data).
2. Concern that not all students have a web-enabled device. I have taught thousands of students using Learning Catalytics and I have not had a single student who did not own a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. This will vary by student population. If a large proportion of your students do not have devices, then Learning Catalytics is not for you. (Hint: If you are concerned that some of your students lack devices, talk to your university's media center about a tablet rental or borrow program).
3. Concern about allowing (in fact requiring) computer and phone use in the classroom. Many educators are worried that this will cause distraction and negatively impact student learning. This is valid considering study after study showing that note-taking with electronic devices reduces learning and performance compared to handwriting notes. However, I find that a short and frank discussion at the beginning of the class solves this. I tell students that handwritten notes are best, and obviously using social media during lecture will impact their learning and performance. Many students take this to heart and use their devices solely to answer questions. Also, many students successfully take high-tech, high quality notes on their devices. The fact is that we are in the electronic age, and students are using devices more and more, and in my personal opinion, banning electronic note-taking is out-of-date and out-of-touch. Finally, if students are on social media during a significant portion of lecture, then I would take responsibility for this as an instructor. If you keep them engaged, they will not have time to snapchat.

With proper pedagogy, students can stay engaged in lecture even when they use computers. Image:

Here are some best practices for using Learning Catalytics based on my experience. All classes are different, so your style will be, too.
1. Give some points for performance, not just participation. Students try harder and take the exercises more seriously when their points depend on getting the answer correct. On the other hand, scores based entirely on performance can discourage students who get many answers wrong. I use 50-50 participation and performance.
2. Make the point values significant enough that they can affect students' grades. This encourages attendance and effort, and rewards students for trying very hard (which will hopefully improve their learning and exam performance, too). Points in my classes are worth 5-10% of the final course grade.
3. Deploy many questions during a lecture. If you only ask a couple of questions, you might as well be giving a one-way, traditional lecture. This also helps maintain students' attention span. I try to ask at least 10 questions in a 80-minute lecture.
4. Deploy meaningful questions that ask students to apply their knowledge. I once attended a lecture where the instructor taught a concept then asked students to vomit that concept right back using clickers. I sat in the back and watched as comatose students barely roused their index fingers to answer these questions. This is not effective pedagogy. Instead, ask students questions that involve applying their knowledge to new situations. Tell them to think about it, talk to their neighbor, and then answer. In my opinion, this is the key to helping students learn the material and develop as critical thinkers.

One more thing- Learning Catalytics has an awesome Team-Based Learning mode that I use for certain classes. Click here to learn more about this 100% active learning mode of instruction.

How do you get started? Go to the Learning Catalytics website and register for an account. For more information and technical assistance, contact your Pearson representative.

This blog post was stimulated by my participation in a Reinventing the Large Lecture learning community organized by the Cal Poly Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.