Talking Teaching

May 30, 2010

more thoughts on assessment

I’ve been spurred to write this one following a discussion with my colleague Dorothy around assessment. Yes, I know I’ve banged on about this before, but it’s a complex issue & not one that’s easily sorted, I think.

This time I want to think about the nature of the questions we ask. Now, if you look at a lot of our first-year test & exam questions, you’ll see a lot of the ‘list’ or ‘define’ or ‘describe’ or ‘illustrate’ type of thing. Even when words like ‘explain’ are used, the marking often indicates that really all that was looked for was a list of facts – hardly an ‘explanation’. And I’ll be the first to admit that those were the sort of questions I relied on when I started uni teaching. Still do to some degree, because for some students that’s pretty much where they’re at (& I’m not going further into that one just now) & they need at least some questions that they can answer!

But over the last several years I’ve become more & more involved in the process of assessment at a national level, albeit for secondary schools. This has been a real learning curve for me because it’s really forced me to focus on just how to develop a good question that offers students the opportunity to demostrate knowledge and understanding. It’s also made me more aware that, by the time students come through our doors, they’ve already been conditioned to a particular style of questioning: the words ‘describe, explain, discuss’ have particular meanings for them & elicit quite specific responses. ‘Explain’, for example, requires that the student give a reason for an observation or a fact, while for able students ‘discuss’ elicits a fairly complex answer that explains & analyses ideas.

Now, I think there’s a good argument to be made for university lecturers teaching first-year students (& maybe beyond) using this style of questioning. (Of course, it would necessitate thinking about the nature of the answer schedule as well; see above!) It has to do with ‘bridging’ or ‘scaffolding’ students from secondary school into the tertiary learning environment, which is quite different. Students have a lot of new experiences & must confront a range of expectations from their lecturers, which may not be signalled as clearly as they might be. (How many of us have heard a frustrated student say, ‘but I didn’t know what the question was asking for!’?) Finding out about the assessment styles & tools used at school, & using some of those with first-year students, might well be useful step to take in helping students come to terms with everything we’re asking of them.

I think there are other good reasons for tertiary teachers to make themselves more familiar with what’s going on at school. Looking at the means of assessment makes us more aware of how to structure an assessment item that best elicits a demonstration of the students’ knowledge & understanding of a topic (let’s face it, very few university lecturers are trained teachers, with all that this entails). And if you look into the assessment, you perforce become more aware of the curriculum as well. And if you do that, then you gain a better understanding of your incoming students’ prior learning experiences, which in turn makes you better able to link what you’re teaching with what they already know. And this enhances their learning in your classroom.

Focusing more on how assessment operates should have other desirable outcomes as well. One relates to the knotty issue of what our graduates are capable of when they leave our doors at the end of their studies. We’d like to think that they are capable of critical thinking, independent learning, analysing & synthesising facts, & so on. If that’s what we want, then not only do we have to model these attributes, but we also need to signal that’s what we want through the way we assess. Students aren’t slow; if they see that all that’s needed to pass a test is a bit of good old rote learning (because they’ve looked at previous papers & seen that you only ever ask for facts & not analysis or critique), then that’s what they’ll do. Assessment doesn’t simply measure the level of student learning, it shapes the learning outcomes just as much as the actual teaching does.

May 17, 2010

more on student engagement & active learning

This is a re-post from something I’ve just added to the Bioblog. While its focus is on engaging students with maths & physics, I believe that the ideas it offers can be equally well applied to teaching & learing in any of the sciences.

A colleague of mine (thanks, Jonathan!) sent me through the link to a talk by Dan Meyer, on teaching maths & physics. Dan’s talking about how to engage students with the subjects he teaches; how to put them on a level playing field – where they can all understand what a question’s about; how to get them talking about the question in a way that guides them to understanding how to get at the answer in a meaningful way. His aim: for all his students to become ‘patient problem-solvers’. His hope: for textbook authors to develop resources that support this aim instead of obfuscating it. Enjoy. (While Dan’s talk is aimed at high school teachers, I’d argue that it should also be compulsory viewing for the university staff who teach those teachers – where else are teachers-in-training to get this information from?)

May 11, 2010

bridging students in from secondary school

Today I went along to a meeting of the University’s ‘Teaching Network’. It was great! Two whole hours of talking about teaching with like-minded folk.

Now, before you accuse me of ignoring the huge amount of good teaching done by my fellow academics, I need to justify my first comment. Most university lecturers are not trained teachers. They’ve typically been taken on for their research skills & it’s generally assumed that they’ll pick up the necessary teaching skills & strategies as they go. Which generally happens. But it means that often they are researchers first & teachers second, & it can be quite hard to get a conversation going about matters related to teaching: things like curriculum (I suspect some lecturers think that means, the stuff they talk about in lectures, but it’s so much more than that), assessment strategies, engaging students with the subject, bridging them in from school… you can probably add to the list.

So you can see why today’s session was so good. The main topic for discussion centred on bridging students in from secondary school, & while we went on to talk about a whole heap of related issues, it’s the ‘bridging’ one that I want to talk about at the moment.

If you’re a lecturer reading this, then you’ve probably heard something along the lines of ‘students just aren’t as well-prepared for uni study as they used to be’… (I suspect you would probably hear that every generation, but anyway.) One of the issues here, I think, is that we’re all thinking back to when we were students. And for many of us, that was a loooong time ago. (Oh, all right, 36 years ago if you insist!)

But here’s where I think there’s a major disconnect: between tertiary teachers’ expectations (coloured by their own experiences) of what their students ought to know, and the prior learning experiences of those same students. I’ll use my own area, biology, as an example.

First up: in the ‘old days’ (when I was at school), the only kids who went on to the 7th form (= today’s ‘year 13) were those who were going on to university. This is no longer the case; preparing students for uni study is only one of the tasks of a year 13 teacher.  

Secondly, the school curriculum has changed. The ‘new’ version, in schools this year, is the second iteration of the document since I began my teaching career. It differs in significant ways from the previous (1993) one: not only is the content altered & moved around between year levels, but also – & far more importantly – the ‘nature of science’ has become of overarching importance right across the science disciplines.

Assessment has changed. The ‘National Certificate of Educational Achievement’ (NCEA) and its attendant Achievement (& Unit) Standards were brought in a few years ago now, but with the change in curriculum these are having to be realigned. Now, while assessment shouldn’t drive what’s taught in the classroom, nevertheless this happens, & so from 2014 on students arriving in my classroom will have studied different content, & in a different way, from their predecessors who also gained their NCEA. Not least, they will have spent more time learning what science is all about, & less time learning content. (Which is a Jolly Good Thing, in my opinion.)

What’s more, way back when I was a student, & more recently when I started my secondary teaching job, all schools pretty much taught the same stuff. With the NCEA & its Standards, that has changed. Take biology: at present there are 7 standards, worth a total of 24 ‘credits’, that schools can offer their students. Most of the teachers I know would teach 20 credits, max, & may sometimes be under pressure to reduce that to make room in a crowded school curriculum for a range of other material. It’s also possible for the actual standards taught to differ from school to school: I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear, for example, that the ‘evolution’ standards aren’t taught in some ‘special character’ schools.

In other words, our incoming students’ backgrounds differ far more than would have been the case 20 years ago. Now, surely this means that we (tertiary teachers) need to be aware of what’s going on in schools, what’s in the curriculum & so on, in order to help us be more effective in bridging students into their tertiary learning experiences?

I suspect I’ve got a bit of an advantage here: I used to be a secondary school biology teacher, & I still work extensively with secondary teachers & students, & I’ve been involved in development & review of our Achievement Standards (which give an indication of what students are capable of, in a particular subject) & the ‘new’ curriculum that’s being implemented this year. I do think that gives me an edge when it comes to helping students make links between what they’ve already learned & the material I’d like them to take on board.

Yet a PhD study done here at Waikato (Buntting, 2006), which looked at universities across the country,  found that not all lecturers are aware of the gulf between their expectations & assumptions and where their students are actually at. The study also found that there are things we can do that are very effective in helping to bridge that gap, such as the use of concept mapping (e.g. Buntting, Coll & Campbell, 2005: food for thought for another post, perhaps…). Think how much more effective such interventions would be if they were used in the knowledge of our students prior experiences of learning.

C.M.Buntting (2006) Educational issues in introductory tertiary biology. A thesis submitted in the fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Waikato.

C.Buntting, R.K.Coll & A.Campbell (2005) Student views of concept mapping use in introductory tertiary biology classes. International Journal of Science & Mathematics Education 4(4): 641-668. doi: 10.1007/s10763-005-9014-7

May 3, 2010

academic language & learning about science

This is a re-post of something I’ve just written for the Bioblog. I think it’s equally relevant over here.

One of the biggest challenges faced by students of biology (or any science, really) is coming to terms with the language of science. Scientific language is precise, it’s concise, and it uses a dauntingly large number of new terms. (I saw it written somewhere – sorry, too much marking & the memory’s gone bad! – that learning the last is like learning French or some other foreign language.) Going by the conversations I’ve had with some of my first-year students, just that overwhelming number of new words can be enough to make some people seriously reconsider taking the subject. Which is kind of sad, really – & one reason why I always take a great deal of care in my lectures to introduce new terms carefully & explain what they mean & how we use them. (OK, maybe not every new word, but at the very least, the ones that I know they have trouble with.) It also highlights the fact that it’s so very important to be meticulously careful in how you use words, when communicating about science with a wider audience. While the language can add precision, its sophistication & complexity can also be a real barrier to understanding (Snow, 2010).

Catherine Snow (2010) comments that what we call ‘academic language’ – something that all university students are expected to master, albeit in the form required by their own particular discipline – tends to be concise, lacking in repetition, with a high number of ‘information-bearing’ words that allow it to be very precise, and wtih a particular set of grammaticial rules. (Most of which I break, here, on a regular basis LOL). This works just fine when you’re communicating with someone else who understands the rules of engagement, but it can be a long way from the ease & simplicity of everyday speech patterns.

Thinking about it, this is probably one of the reasons that the Cafe Scientifique movement is successful – because the organisers take care that the scientists who speak at these events are well aware that they need to present to a general audience, & to keep the jargon to a minimum. In some ways the lack fo powerpoints & so forth probably aids this, too, as it’s all to easy to fill a screen with lovely long scientific words & totally lose your audience in the process. But I digress…

Well, no, I don’t really, Because Snow points out that the habits & characteristics of oral language probably are more accessible to the non-scientist. Sentences often begin with pronouns, so the listener/reader can be drawn in  rather than held stiffly at arm’s length. Verbs really are ‘doing’ words, and if you’re getting a lot of information across, it tends to be in a sequence of ideas rather than a whole bunch of embedded clauses. (OK, I know I do that sometimes.) All too often, perhaps, a piece of written academic scientific prose can come across as impersonal, distanced, authoritative, & too full of those scary new words – this can be off-putting to newcomers, & I know from experience that it’s extremely hard for new students to produce their own written work in the same register (desirable though that may be to their lecturers). They actually need a lot of support and multiple opportunities to practice, if we want them to be able to deliver the desired standard of work on a regular basis.

And it’s not just enough to teach the vocab. This is particularly the case if the definition of a new term includes other, widely-used scientific words that the student doesn’t know either! Snow gives the example of a piece of physics text: ‘Torque is the product of the magnitude of the force and the lever arm of the force.’ Now, I have a fairly good grasp of terms like ‘magnitude’, & I know what a ‘lever’ is, so I can work that one out. But to a new student, ‘product’ & ‘arm’ & ‘force’ have other, general meanings, & if they apply those meanings to the academic definition, they will be in all sorts of strife and misunderstandings & misconceptions will almost certainly follow.

Yet students who are going to progress in science really do need, eventually, to learn to write (& speak, in oral presentations anyway) in the complex formal register of science. The devil, of course, is in the detail of how we get them there. Snow argues – & I agree completely – that this needs to be embedded in the science curriculum (ideally, before students arrive at uni, but certainly at university level). The obvious questions are, how, and what do we leave out in order to do this? (Myself, I’m not convinced that we necessarily have to leave things out, but do have to change the way we teach. Material for another post, methinks.)

And hopefully the best of those students will end up with the best of both worlds – an ability to communicate within the science community, and the skills to translate from that to the wider community beyond the walls of academe.

 C.E.Snow (2010) Academic language and the challenge of reading for learning about science. Science 328: 150-452. doi: 10.1126/science.1182597

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