A Heart to Heart with New A&P Author Liz Co

Picture of Liz Co in office hours across from student
Anatomy and PhysiologyBiology

Article Summary

  • Liz reflects on what challenges and areas of focus A&P professors should hone in on moving forward in their teaching, including critical thinking, diversity and impacting society.
  • In addition to teaching the content of the course, her textbook focuses on the science of learning and metacognition to help students become reflective learners.
  • She emphasizes the importance of Diversity and Inclusion and giving minority students a space to develop their identities as scientists.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Get to know Liz Co, the new Cengage 2-semester Anatomy and Physiology author of Anatomy & Physiology coming in Spring 2022, and find out what drives her passion for teaching and learning.


How is teaching A&P affected by what’s happening in the world today?

When I am asked about what Anatomy & Physiology instructors have been thinking about in the last year, the first thing that comes to mind is survival. Like all teachers from kindergarten on up through medical school, we have been scrambling to try to reach our students across computer screens and make our content [come] alive for them. This is made more difficult by cats walking across our keyboards, our toddlers having tantrums in the next room, our children asking for snacks again, or whatever challenges exist just outside the frame of our Zoom cameras.

But we have reinvented our curriculum (sometimes multiple times) over the last year. As we head back into our classrooms this fall, it will be a time of incredible renewal.  Of the components we invented for Zoom teaching, what do we keep and what do we reclaim that we couldn’t use for the last year?  This is a time when we have more tools within our grasp than ever before. We’ve survived teaching in conditions none of us thought possible. We can rise, like a phoenix from the ashes, and go back into the classroom anew.

So, as I’ve been meeting with instructors in workshops and online conferences, I think a lot of us are wondering who will we be as instructors when we return? The answer to that is obviously different for each of us, but three themes often emerge.

1. Teaching Critical Thinking

During the shutdown we had to stray from a comfortable place of asking straightforward memorization questions on our assessments. This is because cheating was irresistible for so many students when they were at home with no one around. So, instructors were forced to do something they’d often wanted to do for a long time—reinvent assessment with a focus on critical thinking. No matter your discipline, that is a hard task, but in A&P!? It’s VERY challenging.

As I’ve been writing and talking about designing a textbook, I’ve thought about this challenge and reflected on how we craft a product that helps give students the practice that they need to grow critical thinking skills in A&P. It’s also important to provide instructors with as many tools as we can. In this text we begin with a chapter for the students on the science behind learning. The intention is to increase their metacognition and recruit them as partners in the effort to grow critical thinking skills.


2. Inclusivity and Diversity

As the year progressed we observed the unrest and responses to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Many of us began engaging in conversations of diversity and inclusion on our campuses in new ways. We ask ourselves the question: what role can I play as an educator? A 2016 study showed that half of white medical students had false beliefs. These included misconceptions such as black people having thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people. As A&P instructors, we are often the gateway to future providers’ understanding of the body and can play a fundamental role in teaching accurate and antiracist information at the foundation of their careers.


3. Impact on Society

There is another current moment taking shape that affects us too. We’re seeing a resistance to wearing masks and vaccination throughout the United States. Because of this, many of us are considering the role of health education as an act of civic contribution. During this time of reinvention, a critical question lurks in the background: how can we contribute to building the society that we want to live in?

Over the last year A&P educators have been repeatedly struck with the critical importance of our jobs. Our students leave our classrooms and head off to various destinations. We are preparing them to face critical decisions of what behaviors to adopt to keep themselves safe and how to understand the daily plethora of information about the pandemic. Some of our students will become the superhero scientists who develop vaccines and test the efficacy of different mask fabrics. Others will become healthcare professionals and advocates who will be called upon to make life-or-death decisions. They’ll also have to educate their patients about health. In each of these roles our students must be able to do more than recite a definition of endothelium or point to the location of the deltoid.

They need to be able to critically analyze the information in front of them. And so, as we consider trends in A&P education, the pandemic has starkly highlighted for us the importance of critical thinking and emphasized our role in helping our students to build these skills.


What was a pivotal moment you’ve experienced teaching A&P students?

To answer this question, I will take us back to an “Aha!” moment I had in 2015. I had just begun using a new assessment tool that allowed me to tag my questions with Bloom’s levels. I could then view reports on how my students were performing on their exams. The results from the first exam told me that the students were doing a stellar job on memorization questions. However, their performance on application and analysis-level questions was pretty dismal. I felt a little frustrated at these results because I had demonstrated data analysis and critical thinking for my students.

But the data indicated to me that they didn’t have these skills, so I tried harder to teach them. As the same data came back on midterm exams 2 and 3, it finally struck me. The students can’t gain critical thinking skills by watching me demonstrate them any more than I can become a great tennis player by watching Serena Williams. To gain skills, you must practice them, get feedback, and then practice them again. Skills are entirely different than knowledge.

I changed my teaching practices that day, literally. With only a few weeks left in the semester, I reinvented the course to focus on critical thinking skills practice. We did a lot of work on graphic literacy, application, and data analysis. By the final exam, the students had demonstrated statistically significant gains in higher-order cognitive skills.

To gain skills, you must practice them, get feedback, and then practice them again.


Can you speak to how you’re incorporating these learnings into your writing?

For this textbook, we are taking the same approach I learned above. In the first chapter we lay the groundwork for how to learn. We present some of the science behind learning to improve student metacognition and prepare the students for the rest of the chapters.

In each chapter we provide orientation to the learners that tie together some of the metacognitive pieces to the content. We’ve included assessment questions that span the range of Bloom’s taxonomy to give students plenty of that feedback-rich skills practice.

One thing that’s been so successful in my classrooms is peer-to-peer learning. This approach is especially helpful for students who have more room to grow in terms of study skills. I wanted to bring that into the book as well, so throughout each chapter we have included study tips authored by actual students who have been recently successful in A&P. I am excited about those student-authored study tips because, as I often tell students who come to me for studying advice, I haven’t been a student for quite a few years! (Although I am happy to offer my perspective.)


What measures are you taking to incorporate student diversity and inclusivity into your book?

As I consider each chapter in the text, I am thinking more and more about how we make the content approachable and relevant to all learners. The intention is to draw in learners who may not have had all the advantages throughout their lives to prepare them as scientists and help build their skills along the way. I also think about how we present our information to diverse audiences. Key literature in the DEI education field indicates that students of color have a harder time building their scientist identities. That identity and a sense of classroom community are more important to URM (underrepresented minority) students than majority students. I think about this a lot in my own teaching. Creating community and fostering scientist identity are two of my most important outcomes in a course.

In the text, I think about this too.  How can we foster a sense of community through the page and reach our learners who need it most? I also aimed to consider a variety of ways in which connections could be drawn between the study of Anatomy & Physiology and various aspects of human culture, ranging from history to religion to gender to biological sex to ethnicity and many others. These connections can invoke a sense of wonder and intrigue in student and faculty readers while also promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in their classroom and institutional environments.

Research in the field of DEI has shown that diversity is essential to excellence among student and workforce populations. Diversity increases their productivity, creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. I hope that the diverse and inclusive contexts of this textbook will encourage others’ continuous professional growth in their own cultural humility and lifelong learning.


What drove you to get involved with this authoring project and what excites you the most?

Gosh, that’s a hard one because this is literally a dream come true! Let me think about the roots of that dream…. The thing I love most about teaching is reaching that student (or students) who aren’t sure if they want to engage. Teaching the Hermione’s of the world is fun, but I love that moment when you see the spark in the eyes of a reluctant student.

One of the hardest and most rewarding teaching posts I ever held was as a weekly guest teacher at a school for pregnant and mothering teens when I was a graduate student. These young parents had every distraction in the world, and my job was to teach them about the immune system. And yet, inside each of those young women, and inside each of us really, is a learner. If we can connect to curiosity and find an approach that seems relevant, we can help each student uncover the scientist within themselves.

For those young women it was exciting to learn about antibodies in breastmilk, but for another learner in another set of circumstances it might be neuroplasticity or the role of inflammation in disease or how muscles change as we exercise that ignites wonder inside them. So, I guess the thing that drove me to get involved with this project is the same as what drives me in every facet of my teaching: the addictive magic of student curiosity.

Two Passions Intersect

I was fortunate to have had a fantastic undergraduate education with professors who invested a lot of time in helping me to become a better writer (shout out to Professors Bacon and Stranford!). Writing has always been a big part of my experience with science. When Cengage approached me about this project it seemed like the perfect marriage between two of my loves: writing and making A&P relevant and approachable to a wide spectrum of students.

In writing this book I get to think about how to reach the scientist inside so many learners. I hope that this book and its resources can empower students to gain skills and confidence in their learning, find a love and excitement for the human body, and help instructors find new ideas for how to present the material and tools to help them foster wonder and critical thinking in their classrooms.




About the Author 

Professor Liz Co

Liz (Elizabeth) Co is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Departments of Biology and Health Sciences at Boston University. She teaches Gross (cadaveric) Anatomy, Human Physiology, Systems Physiology, and Physiology of Reproduction. Dr. Co can be found around campus spending time with her students, writing, or working on pedagogy research and education initiatives.   

As a professor, Dr. Co is renowned for her passion—both about the human body and about learning itself. In 2018 she was nominated by students and members of the faculty at BU and received the Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching, Boston University’s highest teaching award. 

Dr. Co received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences (with a focus on Immunology) from the University of California, San Francisco; she earned her BA with High Honors in Biology and Education at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

She has taught a variety of courses, including Human Anatomy, Human Physiology, Human Infectious Diseases, Introductory Biology, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Human Biology, Human Pathophysiology and Histology.