Start Your Synapses!

Medical Neuroscience, taught this spring by Duke University’s Leonard White, Ph.D., is one of the most ambitious courses offered on the Coursera platform to date. The estimated time requirements for a sample of 242 Coursera courses, including Medical Neuroscience, are presented in the graph below. This histogram illustrates the relatively large overall time requirement for Medical Neuroscience.

Histogram of workload on Coursera courses including Medical Neuroscience.

The estimate of total hours comes from the product of the number of class weeks and the estimated hours per week that are presented on each class landing page. The value beneath each histogram bin represents the lower bound of the bin width, e.g. “20” refers to the set of classes that have an estimate between 20 and 39 total hours.

Medical Neuroscience on Duke Campus

Dr. White showing a brain to Medical Neuroscience students.Dr. White teaches a pair of courses on campus at Duke University centered on medical neuroscience in the School of Medicine; ‘Brain and Behavior’ targets first year medical students and ‘Body and Brain II’ is for first year doctor of physical therapy students. These graduate-level courses are taught to cohorts of 70 to 100 students. Both courses focus on human neuroanatomy, neural signaling, sensory and motor systems, brain development, and cognition. The Brain and Behavior course runs for 3.5 weeks with Dr. White spending approximately 80 hours of scheduled time with students. Many students study 8-10 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, to keep pace with this fast-moving course.  Duke students who take this course have completed prerequisite classes in biology, cell biology, psychology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and statistics, among other subjects in the natural and social sciences.

Developing the Online Course

Dr. White developed his neuroscience course for Coursera with the goal of providing and requiring a similar level of intellectual rigor. He states:

“I aimed to offer a course that is consistent in scope and caliber to a basic science course from the Duke University School of Medicine.”

His effort resulted in the development of 45 hours of high-definition instructional video tutorials, hundreds of pages of related notes, and over 400 quiz and exam questions. The course content is offered over nine weeks with an additional two week period for the final exam. Students who enrolled in the class were advised to spend 16 hours or more a week to facilitate learning and to achieve the Statement of Accomplishment. Prerequisite knowledge was gauged in an ungraded preliminary quiz that sampled from a range of basic biological and anatomical topics. A student comments:

“What makes this course particularly beneficial is its diverse set of resources for learning. For a course that is free, the tutorial notes, the lectures, the discussion forums, and assignments are astoundingly refined in detail and presentation. From previous experiences, these “free courses” are more like youtube videos of information than they are actual courses. This, however, feels like a course, it looks like a course, and, if faithfully adhered to, will provide an education equivalent to a course. A wonderful and well-deserved round of applause for the course designer.”

Connecting to Students

Dr. Leonard White wearing white gloves supporting a human brain during a Medical Neuroscience presentation. The brain shows the caudal view.One of the original concerns was whether Medical Neuroscience would reach a target audience of Coursera students that have both the necessary background experience to take the class and the desire to learn the material presented. The pre-course survey indicated that this effort was quite successful in drawing the desired student body. Based on more than 6,000 student responses, 77% of students had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher and 46% identified themselves as having a health sciences background. Over half of the respondents indicated they had done each of the following: touched a real human brain, visited a neuroscience laboratory, and taken an in-person neuroscience course. Over 70% of the replies indicated they had taken either upper-level college or graduate-level courses in biology. About two-thirds of the respondents indicated they were planning to attend school in the future in a health or basic sciences field.

Another contingent of students is using Medical Neuroscience as a means of refreshing or updating their previous studies in the field. One student said in response to a question about their medical school experience relative to the Medical Neuroscience course:

“I think we covered Neuroscience in 16 weeks but the organization of the content and effectivity of teaching were not as good as the lectures and notes from this course. That is why I find it amazing how Dr. White and his staff has structured the Neuroscience course.”

Another student adds:

“I have the idea that this course was designed to be like what we learn in the first year of a medicine or another health career. In my case, it was pretty much like what I have learned in my first year at medical school here in Brazil. In fact, I joined this course with the objective of reviewing some concepts and also to have an idea about how it is done in a top university in USA, like Duke. It is indeed very complex, and I think it is a fact that we forget some (or a lot?) of these details, but for those who really like it and have the intention of working in this field, I think it is necessary. This is the first “heavy” course that I’ve found here at Coursera. It is not easy to study all the lectures, especially if you are kind of busy, but I think it is really worth it.”

These comments and others in the discussion forums suggest that Dr. White seems to have met, and perhaps exceeded, his goal of providing a Coursera course that reflects the scope and caliber of his classes offered at Duke.

Student Time Commitment

Currently, we are in our sixth week of the Medical Neuroscience course. I recently polled our students to ask about their experience so far. There are approximately 2,000 to 3,000 engaged students at this time.



Given that the majority of Coursera students have regular jobs and families, the information in this graph indicates an impressive commitment of time and effort, despite more than half of the students reporting less time than the recommended 16 hours per week.

Assessment Design

Assessment design has also been crucial to Medical Neuroscience. There are six unit quizzes and two exams, each with a time limit and up to five graded attempts. The questions in each assessment are grouped by themes with a variety of questions in a question bank for each theme. Out of this question bank, a random selection of questions is drawn for each student and each attempt, so that a student never experiences identical quizzes (the chances are less than 1 in 14 million for the typical quiz). Most questions are multiple choice, with one best answer and four distractors among the options. These answer options are also often drawn from a larger pool of possibilities and then randomly ordered, so that even the same original question may appear different to the student, adding to the variety of experience. The large variety of questions is a critical element to keep assessment meaningful in the context of multiple attempts of a multiple-choice quiz with immediate feedback. Many of the questions also go beyond memorization and require students to synthesize their knowledge. For example, students might be asked to localize a lesion in the nervous system of a model clinical case given a set of neurological signs and symptoms. After students take a quiz, they receive immediate feedback on their correct and incorrect answers. Across many classes in Coursera, this immediate feedback has proven to be one of the most popular and effective methods of keeping students engaged with class content and continuing to learn.

Reflection on the Course

Dr. White reflects on his experience working on the course and its progress so far:

“Medical Neuroscience is an experiment for all of us involved.  We are exploring whether online  courses such as this one might have a critical role in medical education in the future, especially for basic biomedical sciences.  We have no intention of replacing person-to-person contact in biomedical education here at Duke.  However, we are discovering that a MOOC experience can indeed provide a vibrant learning environment for foundational content.”

Overall, the Medical Neuroscience course has stretched the boundaries of what a MOOC is capable of offering to students. The sophistication of the course topics and the student workload have been at the highest end of the spectrum of current Coursera classes. Students have responded to the challenge with remarkable determination and enthusiasm. The following quote from the Medical Neuroscience forum captures the general consensus among students:

“I have taken several Coursera courses, and this one FAR exceeds any of the others I’ve taken. You and your staff should be commended by Coursera and Duke for the quality of this course. This course is definitely worthy of being an actual credit bearing course.”

Justin Johnsen

Author: Justin Johnsen

Justin supervises CIT’s Online Course Builders as they assist Duke faculty to develop massive open online courses (MOOCs). The team maintains a deep knowledge of the features of the implemented platforms and can also offer suggestions on how to use online tools to achieve teaching goals. Justin is the primary technical liaison for Duke with the Coursera company, and he keeps up to date on the latest platform features and issues to share with our CIT staff and Duke faculty. He has previously worked closely on ‘Introduction to Genetics and Evolution’, ‘Introduction to Astronomy’, ‘Medical Neuroscience’, ‘9/11 and Its Aftermath — Part I’, ‘Marine Megafauna | An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation’, ‘Understanding 9/11’, and ‘Tropical Parasitology’ offered by Duke and Coursera.