Physiology Questions

The goal of our multi-institution NSF-funded project is to help students at all academic levels develop the ability to reason using the principles of flux and mass balance.

Principle-based Reasoning in Physiology

A major goal of the undergraduate physiology curriculum is for students to learn to reason like physiologists. That is, to learn to reason using the unifying principles of physiology. Two of these principles are flux and mass balance.


Passive movement of matter down gradients is proportional to gradient over resistance.

Cell membrane protein channel.

  • Ions moving to generate an action potential
  • Blood flowing through the arteries
  • Carbon dioxide diffusing from the air to RubisCO

Mass Balance

Change in amount of a substance in a compartment is determined by the relative magnitudes of the rates in and out.

Cell membrane protein channel.
  • [Ca++] in the cytoplasm of a muscle cell determines the force of contraction
  • Volume of blood in the arteries determines MAP

It is a major challenge for students to use principles to reason across all physiological systems, in both plants and animals. 

Students tend to focus on and memorize the superficial features of each process rather than recognize that the same principle (e.g., gradient over resistance) governs them all.

Our Project

Our our multi-institution NSF-funded project is developing resources to help faculty address this issue for all students. Including:

  • First year students to graduating seniors
  • Students from community colleges, primarily undergraduate institutions and four-year universities
  • Students in pre-allied health and physiology/ biology major tracks

We have developed a large number of questions across a wide range of topics that are available for instructors to use to determine where their students are in their development of principle-based reasoning.

We have also developed a reasoning framework that describes how students’ ideas increase in sophistication as they move along the path to mastery of principle-based reasoning.

Open-ended questions best allow students to express their ideas, but they are time-consuming to evaluate. Therefore, we are developing computer scoring models to automatically score students’ answers according to the reasoning framework. This will help instructors determine where students are in their development of principle-based reasoning. Click here to read more about this work.

By participating in this project, your students’ answers will contribute to improving our reasoning framework and computer scoring models to ensure they accurately represent the ideas of diverse populations of students.

Are you interested in learning more about how your students reason about physiology?

We are recruiting faculty to use our physiology questions in the 2019-2020 school year. How does it work? There are three easy steps!

Step One

Choose which of the following set of questions you would like to give your students.  Indicate your choice in the sign up form (click on the “Sign up!” tab above).

This year we have eight question sets to choose from.
Neuromuscular Physiology A
Neuromuscular Physiology B
Cardiovascular Physiology
Respiratory Physiology
Renal Physiology
Plant Physiology A
Plant Physiology B
Multiple systems

Step Two

We send you a link to a web survey with the questions.
Your students answer the questions.

Have questions about how to administer the Physiology Questions? Click on the “Phys Questions FAQs” tab above.

Do you have a question not answered on the FAQ? Please email us!

Step Three

We send you your students’ answers and a link to an interactive scoring report for some of the questions.

You explore your students’ answers and gain valuable insight into their reasoning. See an example interactive report here.

We have a scoring report ready for at least one question for each set with more added every month.

Do you want to know more about our project? Please click on the “About Project” tab above.

We designed the questions to be taken by students at multiple points in their academic careers. Some students may be unfamiliar with the physiology content while others may have already discussed the content in your or other courses. We have given each question to students from pre-physiology non-major courses to advanced biology major physiology courses, and we find that students at all levels are able to provide a thoughtful answer. 

We suggest using the Physiology Questions as formative assessment. We suggest you will find the questions valuable in these three ways:

  • Once near the beginning of the unit or term as a formative assessment to explore students’ ideas about these physiology topics before teaching.
  • Once near the end of the unit or term to assess how what ideas students’ have after teaching
  • Once near the begging of the unit and once near the end to monitor how students’ ideas are changing over time

We recommend introducing the questions to students first in class and then over email. Consider making the following points:

  • Let students know you are asking them to answer questions about physiology to help you understand their reasoning so you can better help them learn.
  • Advise students they may see questions that that they are not yet familiar with. They should not get discouraged and give their best effort. Explain that any answers will help you understand how students are reasoning and that they will receive full credit for a good faith effort.
  • Encourage students to use the questions as practice for exams and a way to test their understanding of physiology.

After introducing the questions in class, send an email to students. For example:

Here is the link to the physiology survey that was mentioned in class.  This survey is part of normal course requirements and will provide feedback on how well you understand physiological concepts.  The survey will contain 6 questions. The answers will not be graded, but you will receive 5 points for completing the survey.  This survey will take roughly 20 minutes.  You may see questions on the survey that you are not yet familiar with.  Don’t get discouraged.  Just make your best effort to answer the questions.

Please follow the link below to access the questions, which will remain open until 10 AM on Monday December 2.

In our experience, we have found that instructor enthusiasm for the questions–and offering course credit–are essential for achieving high participation rates. You can assign these questions to your students in two ways: 1) as an assignment that is a normal part of your course, or 2) as an extra credit opportunity.

Both of these methods have different requirements for how you can offer the questions to your class due to our IRB approval (UW STUDY00001316). Our IRB allows us to ask your students for permission to use their answers to improve our computer scoring models and better understand student reasoning. Below, we describe these requirements for each way of offering our questions:

Assigning the questions for course credit: If you choose this option, we recommend providing a small number of course points (e.g., 3-5 points out of 1000 class points) for participation, but not for correct answers.

Tell students they should answer the questions for credit, and that there will be a question at the end of survey for them to indicate whether or not they wish to allow their data to be used to improve our computer scoring models and our understanding of student reasoning.

Students who choose not to share their data with researchers will have their answers deleted after the answers are sent to you. Researchers will not use their data.

Assigning the questions for extra credit: If you choose this option, you can assign a small number of extra credit points to students for completing the questions. However, if you have students who do not want to answer the questions, you must provide an alternative extra credit assignment of similar length and points for these students. IRB requires that all students have equal access to earning the extra credit points.

Do you have a question not answered on the FAQ? Please email us!

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1661263, 1660643. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.