Question Based Dissections

Question Based Dissections


            I was really affected by an article Brad Williamson posted this January. The article discusses how rarely students get the chance to formulate their own questions in education. Unfortunately, I am often guilty of doing this. To quote a gem from the article:

            “When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school.”

So, I decided to change the way that I run my dissections in zoology. Now, I start by guiding the students to formulate their own questions about an organism. For example, one student group asked, “Why is a sharks liver so big?” To answer this question, they simply had to dissect this part of the shark.

            I had the luxury of having enough sharks to divide between two or three students. So, while one student dissected the other(s) began working on a poster. The poster’s objective was to diagram a relevant picture that helps to answer the question; furthermore students wrote three paragraph explanations of their answers to the question. This, I am thrilled to say, completely eliminated the issue about what to do with students who choose not to perform a dissection. They now had a valuable role in the dissection by doing research, diagramming, and formatting a response to the question.

IMG_0923(Note: that this non-dissecting student is carefully gleaning the dissection guide to get information.)


This student group found “BOYANCY” [sic] to be the reason for sharks’ liver size.

            The final step was the presentation. I was very proud of how well my students presented and listened to other students. For most presentations one student explained the answer to the question by using the poster while another student showed the structures in the anatomy by using a document camera.


A student group presents on how sharks breathe using document camera and poster.

            In the end, the class heard many interesting presentations. One was on how sharks swim from a completely skinned muscle-bearing shark. (This animated presentation was complete with Jaws sound effects). Also, we heard a presentation on shark’s remarkable sense of smell with bisected olfactory bulbs. We heard an in depth explanation of how they digest food, sense electromagnetic fields, fire neurons, reproduce with live young, and how their bite is so powerful. So, even though I didn’t ask each student to dissect the entire shark they were all exposed to the whole shark’s anatomy.

We have now gone through this process twice and I have seen more independently lead inquiry on the part of the students. I have seen improved speech skills. They tend to treat their beasts more “kindly”. That is, I haven’t seen as much mindless hacking at the specimens from students. Also, this method has proved to be easier to grade than some other ways of covering dissections. I still need to push the students so that they don’t settle for superficial answers to their questions. This continues to be the challenge of facilitating effective question based dissections.



3 thoughts on “Question Based Dissections”

  1. Well done Dan. Thanks for sharing. It is really fun when a little tweak or slightly different approach can make so much difference.

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