Rush University - Department of Molecular Biophysics and Physiology


Joel Michael, PhD
Department of Molecular Biophysics & Physiology
Rush Medical College
Rush University Medical Center
1750 W. Harrison St.
Chicago, IL 60612
312.942.6426 (v)
312.942.8711 (f)


Learning and understanding physiology

The focus of my research is on how students learn science, most specifically physiology, and how teachers can best help students learn.

What does it mean to "understand" physiology? What are the obstacles to students achieving an acceptable level of understanding? How can teachers assist students to acquire an understanding of physiology? How can we assess whether students do understand physiology? These are some of the questions that frame my work in educational research and development.

Some of the specific issues that I have pursued in the past and continue to pursue today include: (1) the prevalence of student misconceptions about physiological mechanisms, (2) the efficacy of student laboratories as a vehicle for correcting student misconceptions, (3) active learning in its broadest sense, (4) what makes physiology hard for students to learn, (5) how to assess students' conceptual understanding of physiology, and finally, (6) the use of computer-based learning resources, and (7) how to use cases to help students learn physiology.

Much of my work has been carried out with the collaboration of the Physiology Educational Research Consortium (PERC) and its members. Information about PERC can be found at

Many aspects of my work are summarized and discussed in:

Michael, J. A. and Modell, H. I. (2003). Active learning in secondary and college science classrooms: A working model for helping the learner to learn. Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum Associates. (

I am currently actively engaged in three projects that encompass many of the educational issues listed above.

Conceptual assessment in physiology

What should students know and take away from a physiology course? How can we determine whether they, in fact, know these things?

My work in the area of conceptual assessment in physiology began with participation in two Conceptual Assessment in Biology meetings sponsored by the National Science Foundation. At these meetings a diverse group of biologists succeeded in identifying a set of core principles or big ideas that students should understand. The outcomes of these meetings have been reported (Michael, 2007 and 2008 below).

Michael et. al (2009) proposed a list of "core principles" in physiology and discussed their application in teaching. Michael and McFarland (submitted for publication) then surveyed physiology faculty to determine what they thought were the core principles of physiology. McFarland and Michael have submitted a proposal to NSF TUES program to complete this analysis and to begin the process of writing a physiology concept inventory.

Michael, J. (2007). Conceptual assessment in the biological sciences: A National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop. Advances in Physiology Education, 31, 389-391.

Michael, J., McFarland, J., and Wright, A. (2008). The second Conceptual Assessment in the Biological Sciences workshop. Advances in Physiology Education, 32, 248-251.

Michael, J., Modell, H., McFarland, J., and Cliff, W. (2009). The "core principles" of physiology: What should students understand? Advances in Physiology Education, 33, 10-16.

Michael, J. and McFarland, J. (submitted for publication). Core principles (big ideas) of physiology: Results of a faculty survey.

Using simulated physiology experiments to foster learning

In collaboration with Craig Knoche and his colleagues at Summit Performance Group and we have been designing a platform for delivering simulated physiology experiments over the Internet. These are highly interactive modules in which students are presented with an issue and asked to make predictions about the response of the system before actually using the simulator to determine the behavior of the system. The simulations are based on a highly sophiscated, real time mathematical model developed by Summit Performance Group. The pedagogy employed here is based on the work of Modell and Michael (2000, 2004).

Modell and Michael have submitted a proposal to NSF to support the development and field testing of these learning modules. Knoche has submitted a pre-proposal to the Gates Foundation to develop and widely deploy these modules in anatomy and physiology courses in 2-year and 4-year colleges.

Modell, H. I., Michael, J. A. et al. (2000). Helping undergraduate repair faulty mental models in the student laboratory. Advances in Physiology Education, 23, 82-90. Available at

Modell, H. I., Michael, J. A., Adamson, T., and Horwitz, B. (2004). Enhancing active learning in the student laboratory. Advances in Physiology Education, 28, 107-111. Available at

Using interactive simulated patient cases to foster learning

Following my experience teaching in a problem-based learning curriculum (the Rush Alternative Curriculum, 1983-1998) I have continued my interest in the use of cases to facilitate learning. In collaboration with my late colleague Allen Rovick we developed a number of problem solving exercises based on small cases or clinical vignettes. Many of these were incorporated in a book on problem solving in physiology.

Michael, J. A. and Rovick, A. A. (1999). Problem solving in physiology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

More recently I have edited a medical physiology textbook for which I wrote a clinical case for each of the organ systems and incorporated case-based questions into the text.

Michael, J. (Editor). (2010). Fundamentals of Medical Physiology (based on the work by S. Sircar). Thieme: New York, NY. (

In collaboration with Summit Performance Group, Keith Boyd, MD (Rush Medical College, Office of Medical Student Programs) and Iare developing a simulated patient case system for use by medical students. This system requires the student to obtain the patient information required to generate a differential diagnosis. They can then order tests and receive test results. At any point in this interaction students may be confronted with a problem, question, or simulation to run. An SBIR proposal to support the development of this system has been submitted to NSF.

Papers about student misconceptions include:

Michael, J. A. (1998). Students' misconceptions about perceived physiological responses. American Journal of Physiology, 274, (Advances in Physiology Education, 19), S90-S98. Available at

Michael, J. A. et al. (1999). Undergraduate students' misconceptions about respiratory physiology. American Journal of Physiology, 277, (Advances in Physiology Education, 22), S127-S135. Available at

Michael, J. A. et al. (2002). Undergraduates' understanding of cardiovascular phenomena. Advances in Physiology Education, 26, 72-84. Available at

Michael, J. (2002). Misconceptions - what students think they know. Advances in Physiology Education, 26, 5-6.  Available at

Modell, H., Michael, J., and Wenderoth, M. P. (2005). Helping the learner to learn: The role of uncovering misconceptions. American Biology Teacher, 67, 20-26.

Recent papers on active learning include:

Michael, J. A. (2001). In pursuit of meaningful learning. Advances in Physiology Education, 25, 145-158. Available at

Michael, J. A. (2004). Mental models and meaningful learning. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 31, 1-5.

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education 30, 159-167. Available at

Michael, J. (2007). Faculty perceptions about barriers to active learning. College Teaching 55, 42-47.

What makes physiology hard for students to learn:

Michael, J. (2007). What makes physiology hard for students to learn? Results of a faculty survey. Advances in Physiology Education 31, 34-40. Available at

One-On-One Tutoring

Solving problems, like any skill, requires practice with appropriate feedback. How do students learn to solve problems about the baroreceptor reflex (CIRCSIM problems)? How do tutors interact with students learning to solve such problems in a one-on-one interaction? We have accumulated a library of transcripts of one-on-one tutoring sessions and have derived rules defining the tactics and strategies used by tutors. These rules have been implemented in a "smart" computer tutor (CIRCSIM-Tutor) that carries out a natural language dialogue with students solving these same problems. Details of the analysis of one-on-one tutoring and of the implementation of the computer tutor are available in Evens, M. and Michael, J. (2006). One-On-One Tutoring By Humans and Computers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (

This work has been carried out in collaboration with Dr. Martha Evens, Department of computer Science, Illinois Institute of Technology with funding from the Office of Naval Research.

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