August 2, 2011 Features

Cochlea Under Construction

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Anatomy and physiology of the peripheral auditory system is a cornerstone course in any AuD program. Because of their complex and abstract nature, however, the concepts in the course may be difficult for students to grasp. To explain the anatomy and physiology of the auditory system, the instructor may rely on images, computer-generated animations, and lectures. Alternately, the instructor can develop a balance of multiple educational methods to optimize student learning.

Multi-modal educational approaches—using multiple approaches to teach course content—have been shown to be ecologically valid in several educational settings (e.g., Aleven & Koedinger, 2002; Moreno & Mayer, 2007), but the approach is important when dealing with scientific content because it may foster students' ability to generalize knowledge from one phenomenon to another (Kozma, 2003). In particular, this approach has been shown to increase students' learning and enjoyment of anatomy and physiology courses (Krontiris-Litowitz, 2008; Skinder-Meredith, 2010).

AuD students at the University of South Dakota (USD) embarked on a multi-modal educational exploration of the anatomy and physiology of the auditory system in the fall of 2010. The final project for the course was a group task that required students to design, develop, and build a model of the human cochlea that could accurately demonstrate the anatomy and physiology of the system. This project led students to develop metacognitive strategies—that is, to think about their thinking. Those who use metacognitive strategies approach problems by trying to predict outcomes, explain ideas, activate prior knowledge, and learn from failures (Bransford et al., 2000). The instructor's role was to provide the framework of knowledge through multi-modal lecture (verbal lecture combined with 2-D, 3-D, and interactive visual aids) and to scaffold student learning to integrate new knowledge within a broader understanding.

Discussion of this project with fellow faculty members across several institutions often elicited responses of "Are you sure they can do it?" and "That might be too complicated for them to complete." The overarching goal was not necessarily for the students to build a functioning model, but rather for them to synthesize the knowledge gained through lecture and readings into a cohesive understanding of the system. The students ultimately surpassed these initial reactions, successfully building quasi-functional models of the cochlea. In their final reports, students indicated that to build the model they had to understand how the anatomy of the cochlea tied in to the physiology of the system. Based on the congruence between student comments and the goal for the project, this multi-modal metacognitive project was deemed a success.

Project Description 

The goal for the project was for students to engage in metacognitive strategies to form a complete, cohesive understanding of the auditory system and to demonstrate that understanding by constructing a quasi-functional model of the membranous cochlea and cochlear partition.

Students worked in groups of five—assigned by the instructor on the first day of class—to build a model that accurately demonstrated the anatomy and physiology of the cochlea such that mechanical input to the model would result in respective movements within the organ of Corti. The model needed to be large enough to allow for ease of viewing this process. Students had complete freedom to choose the materials used to construct the model.

Groups also were required to blog each week about progress and problems. This requirement had two purposes: to prevent students from delaying the start of the project until the end of the term, and to give the instructor insight into the groups' thought processes that could be used to provide guidance, inform comments, and answer questions. The project culminated with group demonstrations of their models for the instructor during the final week of class. As part of the demonstration, students described the development of the model and discussed how it reflected the anatomy and physiology of the membranous cochlea and cochlear partition.

Grades—determined using a detailed rubric of expectations for individual, group, and model performance—were based on the accuracy of the anatomical structure of the model, the degree of functionality of the model in comparison to the physiology of the anatomical system, weekly blogging, the group's performance in the model demonstration, and group participation.


Each group successfully designed and built a functional model of the cochlea. Though certain aspects of the physiology could have been improved, such as the relative movement between the basilar membrane and the tectorial membrane, the students clearly put forth significant time and effort. The weekly blogging served as a journal for the students (and instructor) to reflect on thought processes, successes, and failures, fostering a metacognitive approach to problem solving. For example, one group, after reflecting on previous unsuccessful attempts, developed a model that turned on a light bulb when the hair cells within the model were in the depolarization phase.

Feedback was overwhelmingly supportive and positive. One student reported that the group project was "a refreshing way to work with others. We had to work together and come up with ways to get it to function while learning from our mistakes." One student comment expressed the students' consensus of the project: "Loved the cochlear assignment."

Clinically relevant teaching is imperative for future clinicians. Students understand the clinical relevance of anatomy, yet few feel confident of their knowledge (Bhangu et al., 2010). The fields of audiology and speech-language pathology require significant clinical training based on scientific principles students must grasp. Lecture is a means to provide details and structure to students' knowledge, but it may not be sufficient to illustrate the application of scientific content. Because individuals learn best through various modes (Bransford et al., 2000), a multi-modal approach—such as that used in the USD cochlear model project for AuD students—may guide students to use metacognitive strategies to enhance their own learning and foster understanding of scientific knowledge.  

Jessica J. Messersmith, PhD, CCC-A, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of South Dakota. Her research interests include auditory perception in individuals with cochlear implants and improving auditory perception through post-implant intervention. Contact her at

cite as: Messersmith, J. J. (2011, August 02). Cochlea Under Construction. The ASHA Leader.


Aleven, V., & Koedinger, K. R. (2002). An effective meta-cognitive strategy: Learning by doing and explaining with a computer-based cognitive tutor. Cognitive Science, 26(2), 147–179.

Bhangu, A., Boutefnouchet, T., Yong, X., Abrahams, P., & Joplin, R. (2010). A three-year prospective longitudinal cohort study of medical students' attitudes toward anatomy teaching and their career aspirations. Anatomical Sciences Education, 3(4), 184–190.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy.

Kozma, R. (2003). The material features of multiple representations and their cognitive and social affordances for science understanding. Learning and Instruction, 13, 205–226.

Krontiris-Litowitz, J. (2008). Using truncated lectures, conceptual exercises, and manipulatives to improve learning in the neuroanatomy classroom. Advances in Physiology Education, 32, 152–156.

Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. (2007). Interactive multimodal learning environments: Special issues on interactive learning environments: Contemporary issues and trends. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 309–326.

Mortimer, E. F., & Scott, P. H. (2003) Meaning making in secondary science classrooms. Maidenhead, England: Open University.

Skinder-Meredith, A. E. (2010). Innovative activities for teaching anatomy of speech production. Anatomical Sciences Education, 3, 234–243.


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