Rush University - Department of Molecular Biophysics and Physiology


Joel Michael, PhD

Professor Emeritus
Department of Molecular Biophysics & Physiology
Rush Medical College
Rush University Medical Center
1750 W. Harrison St.
Chicago, IL 60612




The focus of my research is on how students learn 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, (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.


Conceptual assessment in physiology


More is known about physiology than students in a course can be asked to learn.  This leads to the obvious question, what should students know and take away from a physiology course? How can we best help students learn the important concepts of physiology?  How can we determine whether they, in fact, understand these things? 

My work in the area of conceptual assessment in physiology (CAP) 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 (2011) then surveyed physiology faculty to determine what the physiology teaching community thought were the core principles of physiology.


The CAP group is currently pursuing several overlapping projects: (1) developing our understanding of what is meant by homeostasis and how this concept is applied in physiology, (2) developing and validating a concept inventory for the core concept of homeostasis, (3) unpacking (analyzing) other core concepts, and (4) developing ideas about how to use core concepts in teaching physiology.


The work of the CAP group has been supported by NSF grant DUE-1043443 to Jenny McFarland.

Papers describing this work include:

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. (2011). Core principles (big ideas) of physiology: Results of a faculty survey. Advances in Physiology Education, 35, 336-341.


NOTE: These papers and all others published in Advances in Physiology Education can be downloaded as pdf files for free from

Development and use of interactive, simulated patients


As a member of the Advisory Board for i-Human Patient, Inc., I have been collaborating with the founder, Craig Knoche, on the development of basic science exercises to be incorporated in the interactive, simulated patients being developed.  I have contributed prediction table exercises and causal concept map exercises for a wide variety of patient cases.  These exercises can help students develop a deeper understanding of physiology and the application of physiology to understanding disease.





Development of learning resources


Our understanding of many physiological mechanisms either originated in studies of patient cases or has been further elucidated by considerations of clinical issues.  For this reason physiology has, for a great many years, been taught with a reliance on clinical examples as the basis for understanding normal physiology. 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. I also included repeated references to a set of general models with wide applicability in physiology.

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

Explorations of student misconceptions


Misconceptions (faulty mental models) pose serious impediments to students understanding of all sciences, and physiology is no exception.  My colleagues and I in PERC have cataloged physiology misconceptions in large and diverse student populations.  This work has been reported in papers cited below.  Note that the work of the CAP group in building concept inventories also requires collecting student misconceptions about core concepts.


The PERC group has also studied some approaches to helping students repair their mental models (correct their misconceptions).


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.

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

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

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

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.


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.

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.

Active learning in physiology


Papers exploring different aspects of active learning include:

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

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.


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

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

One-On-One Tutoring (human and computer)

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? Evens and Michael accumulated a library of transcripts of one-on-one tutoring sessions and derived rules defining the tactics and strategies used by tutors. These rules were implemented in a "smart" computer tutor (CIRCSIM-Tutor) that carries out a natural language dialogue with students solving these same problems. This work was funded by the Office of Naval Research.


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.


Molecular Biophysics & Physiology Home | Rush University | Medical Center

This page last modified July 24, 2015 © Rush University