Talking Teaching

September 27, 2010

the vexed question of learning objectives

If you’re a secondary teacher you’re probably very used to the idea & application of learning objectives – those things that you would like students to learn as a result of your classes. Tertiary teachers use them as well, but I suspect that for many they are implicit, or perhaps not even stated at all – instead they’re something one has in the back of one’s mind when designing courses & writing lectures.

Now, I think this is something that we uni lecturers really need to address. In my institution the need to do this is relatively pressing, as having clearly-stated learning objectives in our paper outlines is one of the KPIs (aka Key Performance Indicators) of our newly-revised Teaching & Learning Plan. So the other day Marcus & I met with some colleagues to talk about the whole vexed issue, before we start moving towards meeting the KPIs across the Faculty (some Departments are well on the way to this already).

I say ‘vexed’ because I just know that this issue is going to generate quite a bit of heat. And probably much of that is because the uni system is such that most lecturers aren’t trained teachers. This isn’t to criticise their teaching, but just to note that the lack of teacher training means that many won’t have been exposed to any of the literature around teaching methods, for example. For most of my colleagues, teaching is something you learn about as you go, & it’s quite possibly a fair bet that much of what’s done is modelled on the way that we ourselves were taught.

I’m not a brilliant example here either. OK, I learned all about learning objectives when I did my teacher training, & that’s certainly been reinforced by the various tasks I’ve been involved with through the NZQA. So I’ve always thought quite hard about what I’d like students to take from my lectures, and I’ve always told them the key take-home messages. But it’s only recently that I’ve taken to spelling them out in writing, because it really sank in (as a result of working on the Uni’s teaching & learning plan) that saying these things truly isn’t sufficient – they need to be written down so that students can refer to them later.

So now all my lectures have a slide at the beginning that lists the learning objectives (LOs) for the class, beginning with the phrase “after this lecture – & the associated readings! – you should be able to: …”, and using words like describe, explain, determine, discuss. (Avoid words like ‘understand’ or ‘demonstrate understanding of’ as they don’t really give any indication of how a student would know that they could do this.) Last semester I included a question on the students’ thoughts about this, in the paper appraisal questionnaire – the response was overwhelmingly positive, with students saying that they use LOs in revision, preparing for tests & exams, & that LOs make it quite clear (ie transparent) what they need to know. This isn’t spoon-feeding, incidentally; my LOs aren’t simply a list of things the students have to remember. I make it quite clear – eg through the use of those words ‘explain’ & ‘discuss’, which they’re very familiar with from the NCEA – that I’m not simply after rote learning of responses. (This, of course, has to be backed up by assessment items that test these higher-order cognitive skills. Because students tend to be assessment-focused, they’ll very quickly take on board what we do, rather than what we say, in the area of assessment. I can feel anothe r post coming on…) Writing them was also good for my teaching, as it made me focus on what really was important. And it was also very helpful when it came to writing assessment items :)

That transparency (of intent, as well as about content) really is important. After all, we’re surely not out to trick students, or fool them. LOs really do need to tell the students how they’ll know when they’ve done what’s needed to succeed. That’s actually where the conversation Marcus & I had with the others got quite interesting, because it really highlighted for us why some degree of teacher education is so important. Our colleagues think carefully & deeply about what they’d like students to know at the end of a paper, or a program of study, but this was couched in terms of how they’d know students had succeeded in this. “80% of students will pass a term test”, for example. But the question here, of course, is how would the students know that they’d probably reached a level of understanding that would see them in that 80%?

We talked about this for a while, & then got on to a related (& very interesting) question: isn’t all this rather subjective? After all, it’s still the lecturer making the decision on whether students have met the LOs. And yes, it is, but there are ways to ensure it’s done as objectively as possible. Part of this, again, is related to how student achievement is determined. Take the essay my students are writing at the moment. I wrote the questions (they’ve got a choice of three) – and then I wrote the marking rubric for each one: what I’d expect to see (without actually writing the essay for them!) and the marks they’ll get for each bit. And then both the rubrics & a brief outline of the key things I’ll be looking for were posted on the Moodle page for this paper. Again, this is not dumbing down or making it too easy for them – they still have to find the information, marshall their arguments, & write the essay. But it is beng transparent. I’m not out to fool them – why should they have to second-guess me in the matter of what I’m looking for in this particular piece of work?

So, I think some valuable things came out of that meeting, & they’ll be helpful for Marcus in organising the next teaching advocacy workshop for the Faculty. Small steps, but we’re on the road. (And I guess you can see that the subject for the session after that will probably be assessment. Now there’s a biggie!)

September 22, 2010

a cultural divide

One of the things that I find profoundly irritating is hearing tertiary teaching staff decrying the efforts of their colleagues in the secondary education system. [Edit: here I must add that it's not something I hear all the time - but I do hear it.] (And yes, sometimes I respond & make myself rather unpopular.) Comments along the lines of “teachers teach [insert topic name here] really badly; the kids come into my classes & they don’t know anything.” Or “secondary teachers do a really bad job of preparing students to study [my subject] at university.” As well as being patronising, these comments are generally just plain wrong, & they reflect a real lack of understanding of the current nature of science teaching in our secondary schools and of the science curriculum itself.

When really pushed, I have asked my colleagues to take a step back & truly reflect on what they’re saying. Do they really think that teachers don’t know anything about the subjects that they’re teaching? Because – what does that say about what’s going on in their own classes? After all, science teachers (in any disciplinary area) will have a science degree – at the very least a BSc, increasingly an MSc, & sometimes the person at the front of the classroom will hold a PhD. And they obtained those qualifications in university lecture theatres and laboratories.

What’s more, our education system has moved on from the ‘old days’ (the days that many lecturers perhaps are harking back to) when most students in 7th form (year 13) classes were going to go on to university. The way it was when I was a secondary student. Then, it could truly be said that students were essentially being primed for university study. But these days, many more students stay on for that final year at school, and they have many more future study options to look forward to. Schools have to support them all in their learning & so it’s simply not realistic to teach a class as if everyone in it was going on to take that subject at uni. It’s far more important to see them gain a thorough understanding of what [insert subject here] is all about AND the skills needed to take their learning to a new level when they move on to another institution, plus the general scientific literacy that’s needed in today’s world.

What of the content? Looking at specifically at biology, it’s huge. I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers & also people in NZQA, about what could & couldn’t be omitted – there is a lot of ‘front-loading’ as new discoveries are made & new techniques developed, but alas! it’s rare that anything falls off the back to compensate. What we need – urgently, in my opinion – is a discussion around just what is ‘core’ knowledge in biology, as that might help to thin things out a bit. So, maybe students don’t need to learn the details of how every latest biotech technique works, but should be able to apply critical thinking skills to issues surrounding the technique’s application?

Such scientific literacy is, of course, the focus of the new curriculum. Have a look at it, & you’ll see ‘the nature of science’ (NOS) at the top of every page. In developing their understanding about science, for example, students will “learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.” They’ll also investigate, “[carrying] out science investigations using a variety of approaches: classifying and identifying, pattern seeking, exploring, investigating models, fair testing, making things, or developing systems”; they’ll communicate, “[developing] knowledge of the vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems, and conventions of science and use this knowledge to communicate about their own & others’ ideas”; and they’ll participate and contribute, “[bringing] a scientific perspective to decisions and actions as appropriate”. It’s expected that the nature of science will underpin any & all learning activities that students carry out, with the intention that when they leave school they’ll have those skills and that knowledge that I mentioned above.

Related to this is the fact that at the moment the existing NCEA Achievement Standards are being ‘re-aligned’ with the new curriculum. For instance, in many cases particular topics have been shifted around between years eg the genetics material currently in year 13 has been moved, in the curriculum document, to year 12. This means not only that the ASs have to be re-jigged to account for that, but also that the nature of what’s taught has to be re-examined. Year 12 students may not be at the point where they can grasp some of the concepts entailed in the current assessment standards in genetics, for example.

Now of course all this has implications for the universities. From 2014 the students coming through to the tertiary sector from year 13 will have been taught using the new curriculum & assessed using the new set of standards. They will almost certainly have been exposed to less ‘content’ and can be expected to have developed more process skills. (And I don’t envy secondary teachers who must grapple with how to achieve this.) Lecturers assuming that this crop of students will have been taught the same material as all previous intakes will be sadly mistaken. And because of the way they’ve been learning (& how they’ve been assessed) these students may very well have different expectations of how they’ll be learning, & demonstrating that learning, at university.

And these are all things that university lecturers must recognise, and adapt to, if we’re to continue to successfully bridge our students from secondary school and into their tertiary studies.

September 14, 2010

how do you give feedback on feedback?

A group of us met today to discuss the tricky question of just how to give feedback to students on the feedback that they give to us. More specifically, on the feedback that we ask them to provide on how they perceive the quality of the papers they’re enrolled in & the teaching in those papers.

Now, there’s a real tension between the various purposes to which these appraisal results can be put. In most institutions there’s probably a demand for numbers: nice ‘hard’ data that allow managers to see whether they’re meeting various benchmarks. (I wrote ‘hard’ in quote-marks because the data may not be all that ‘hard’ in reality; after all, these surveys are eliciting subjective comments on papers and teaching that may be subject to influence by a whole range of different factors.)

Teaching staff, on the other hand, have an understandable desire to get high ‘marks’ for things like promotion applications & personal goal-setting interviews. This may lead to reluctance to take risks, to change things about their teaching (even if there’s data in the literature suggesting that such changes might be beneficial), because if their students are resistant to such change then that’ll show up in the course appraisals. And then it could be bye-bye promotion.  And it’s true – taking risks is uncomfortable; it takes you outside your comfort zone; and I think you probably have to be confident in your own abilities, & also confident in your rapport with the class, to do this. 

And of course, appraisals can and should be used for the continuous enhancement of teaching. For this to happen, though, teaching staff need to read more than just the numbers on the usual Likert-style questions – if there are open-ended questions as well, these are likely to be rather more informative. But staff may need a bit of help interpreting them. Equally, students may need a bit of education as well – constructive criticism is far more valuable than destructive personal comments. (And staff may need support there too. It’s easy to become focused on the occasional harsh personal comment, & to lose sight of the fact that maybe only 1-2 are like this while the great majority of students report a good level of satisfaction with what’s going on in the classrom.)

But to get useful, reliable information, we’ve got to keep students engaged with the whole process. And that’s what we were tossing around today – just how do you do this? Typically appraisals are done towards the end of a paper, so that by the time the results have been analysed, that semester’s over & you may not see the students again. But if you don’t give them an indication that you value what they’ve told you, that you’ve heard it & will use it to inform your teaching, they’ll rather quickly become very cynical about the whole process. I’m always really upfront about this ahead of the appraisal’s being done: I say something along the lines of how I really value their feedback as it gives me an indication of how I can improve both my papers and my teaching. But how do you let the class know that you have a) read their comments & b) intend to do something about it. How do you give feedback on their feedback?

Seriously – what do you think? What works for you & your students? Does your institution mandate this sort of feedback on feedback, or is it voluntary? How do we reach the students: a session in lecture time/written comments on Moodle the following semester/information in the study guide for the next iteration of that paper/ an e-mail giving your comments, sent out to all members of last semester’s class? And – how do we move on from the formal, ‘official’ appraisals alone to include other forms of feedback on teaching and learning?

So many questions – hopefully you, our readers, will be willing to share your solutions!

September 9, 2010

panopto – good for more than just recording lectures

I’ve just been reading a thought-provoking essay by Laura Guertin - it’s certainly given me some ideas on ways to expand my use of panopto in my teaching :)

As you’ll have gathered from previous posts, I began using panopto with my first-year biology class in the A semester this year. And I’m very enthusiastic about it. I use it to review my classroom performance, & our Teaching Development Unit staff used on recording for a staff-development workshop on peer review – the thinking here was that participants might be more willing to give strong constructive criticism if the focus of that criticism wasn’t actually present. (I got the feedback in written form & found it very helpful.)

But that wasn’t the reason I decided to go with panopto. I was more interested in its potential to support student learning, hoping that it would be valuable for students who’d missed a lecture or wanted to view part of one again. We included a question on student attitudes to the technology in the course appraisals for the paper: comments were universally positive & included statements that they were downloading the lectures as podcasts to watch when travelling, & valued the opportunity to go over content that they’d missed or not fully understood the first time round.

There has to be more to this technology, though, so it was good to read Guertin’s essay & find that she identifies a number of other possibilities for podcasts. Several of them really appeal to me & I’ll look at ways of including them in my own practice. The first is in reducing pre-class anxiety. I know from time spent advising students about their programs of study that some can be really worried about their papers – they’re not sure if they’ll be able to succeed, anxious about their ability to understand the content (especially if they haven’t studied that subject for a while or it wasn’t their strong suit at school), and often have misconceptions & preconceptions about what they’re likely to cover during the semester. Guertin suggests that providing podcasts before the paper or on course assessment.

This one got me thinking, as traditionally quite a bit of the first lecture is taken up with ‘house-keeping’ – information on when labs & tuts begin, how the course is assessed, where to find people & buy printed handouts, & so on. It’s a heap of information & – judging by the number of times we get asked for that same information later on – many students simply don’t take it in. Quite probably they just can’t take it in; they’re being hit with this sort of thing in all their lectures & it’s a real informaton overload. But, if I were to make the information available as a podcast ahead of time (& use the ‘participants’ list on Moodle to e-mail them all that the podast was available & where to find it), maybe they’d listen to it in advance & they’d have the podcast to refer to when they needed to. So that’s on my list of things to do before 2011A begins.

Another suggestion is to use them to provide answers to frequently-asked questions – things that repeatedly crop up when you’re meeting with students individually. (Now that I think about it, the same sort of thing would be really good in addressing common enrolment-related questions – we could put something together to go on the Faculty website for new &/or returning students to access! I must remember to talk with our registrar about that one.) If several students come along with the same or similar questions it’s probably a fair bet that there are others out there who are also puzzled by the conundrum-du-jour, & a podcast on the current week’s hot topic(s) would reach those students as well & also be an effective use of my time.

And I’ve written ‘interesting!’ in the margin by Guertin’s paragraph on making lecture summaries available as podcasts. This is based on a piece of research (author cited in Guertin’s paper) which found that most of the researcher’s students weren’t actually listening to the full lecture podcasts he was making available. (Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem if the students are getting all they need from the lectures & any associated reading, but anyway…) The students said they’d prefer much shorter reviews – so their lecturer turned this around by getting the students to do the work, making 6-10 minute podcasts about something they’d found interesting during class, & then uploading these to the server for their peers to view. This strikes me as an interesting exercise & I can see how it could be useful in our A semester paper where we already get the students to give brief presentations; many of them might well seize on the option of doing a podcast. Although for that, we’d have to ask the IT folks about making the software available to the students.

Although I have to say – when I read the heading for that paragraph, my first thought was that this would be an interesting discipline for the teacher. I suspect that it could actually prove to be quite a challenge to distill a 50-minute lecture down to its key ideas – but a valuable one, as it would surely focus the mind on just what the key ideas are that one wanted to get across :) And that has to be good for all concerned.

L.Guertin (2010) Creating and using podcasts across the disciplines. Currents in Teaching & Learning 2(2): 4-12

September 3, 2010

reflecting on my philosophy of teaching

This is a follow-on from Fabiana’s ‘congratulations’ post. When you’re nominated for an Ako Aotearoa award, you have to put together a teaching portfolio that reflects on & provides evidence for your philosophy of teaching & learning – at 8000 words this is rather extensive! If you’re chosen for an award, Ako Aotearoa asks for a ‘cut-down’ version to go in a publication that’s sent out to the various tertiary institutions in New Zealand. I asked if I could use that briefer essay here as well & they were OK with that, so here goes. I realise that it’s a very personal reflection & that others may – probably do! – have different perspectives on the things I’ve touched on. Please do share your own ideas :)

I followed a rather indirect path into teaching. In fact, the first career I consciously remember thinking about was medicine. That lasted until I realised that it was a lot harder to put someone back together the right way than to open them up in the first place! So I turned to science, and in fact headed off to university with the intention of following my mother’s example and becoming a secondary school science teacher. All that changed when I was invited into Honours, and for a while it looked like I was headed for a research scientist’s career. But after my PhD I ended up applying for the job of ‘assistant biology teacher’ at Palmerston North Girls’ High. And that was it: I was hooked on the interaction with students and the buzz you get when something ‘clicks’ for them. And I’ve been a teacher, first and foremost, ever since.

Looking back, the eight years I spent in secondary classrooms were invaluable as they gave me an insight into what I could expect of new students coming into my first-year biology lectures and labs, and that’s shaped how I teach. In fact, I’m as much a learner as my students. From secondary school teachers I learn about classroom practices and processes that work for them and with which ‘my’ students will be familiar when they arrive at Waikato. Working on national school curriculum and examinations has taught me a great deal about writing good assessment items. And writing a blog on biology, evolution, and pseudoscience has made me a better communicator and allows me to encourage students (well, anyone reading it, actually) to think more critically and read more deeply in the scientific literature, and hopefully helping to inspire their own passion for science.

I hope that all my students will finish their time with me with some understanding of the nature of science, given that science is such an integral part of modern life. Just giving them ‘the facts’ is never going to achieve this, and in fact I think that a discussion of just how much ‘content’ should be learned is long overdue. Guiding students to an appreciation of the process of science is just as important, something I try to do by telling stories, asking questions, and giving them the opportunity to ask their own. This sort of active participation in learning is what really turned me on to science, and can only help my own students to become ‘deep’, independent learners with a broad, in-depth understanding of the subject. This philosophy influences my course design, teaching, and assessment, and over the years I’ve worked closely with colleagues – in particular the senior tutor with responsibility for running our first-year labs – to review and redesign our introductory papers in ways that we hope will enhance student understanding, learning, and enjoyment.

First-year teaching can be a tricky balancing act, squeezed between the demands of second-year lecturers to have students prepared for their classes, and the need to develop understanding and awareness of what science is all about – in all students, not just those going on to major in science. Achieving this balance is made even harder by the fact that for a lot of students there’s a big gap between what they actually learned at school and what many lecturers assume that they learned. This is one reason I value my ongoing links with the secondary sector so highly – what I learn through them flows on into my teaching and enhances the whole learning experience for my students. I think it’s also put me in the relatively rare – and privileged – position of being able to easily recognise those gaps in learning and to work on bridging them with the young people coming into my classroom. And I do try to give something back, through help with preparing for examinations, and giving talks on human evolution (which resulted in my nickname, the ‘Skull Lady’!).

I’ve never been comfortable with the traditional university lecture format and its transmission model of teaching (lecturer talks, students take notes). I much prefer to actively encourage student participation and a two-way flow of information, telling stories rather than simply providing facts, and using open-ended questions and quick pop quizzes. Each quiz is just a few questions that either examine prior knowledge of the next concept, or tests their understanding of concepts just covered. Students discuss their answers with each other and then with me as well, plus I’ll put my answers up on screen so they get immediate feedback. And they tell me they find all this extremely helpful.

But it’s always easier to get this sort of active participation in tutorial classes, where you can more often use small-group and one-on-one techniques. To me, in tutorials students should feel comfortable asking questions about concepts that they find difficult; about material in upcoming labs; even about items in last night’s news. All these provide more opportunities to help them make those all-important links between new and prior knowledge. I find tutorials enormously stimulating because the students are always asking new questions, and I enjoy the challenge of working to present the answers in a meaningful way. Concept mapping’s a great tool for this, one I began using regularly a few years ago during a PhD research project. This technique lets students see how concepts fit together and allows them to build on their existing knowledge in a way that really encourages deep learning.

Of course, like it or not, students’ perceptions of assessment practices also affect their learning, and you also need to use assessment methods that encourage that desirable deep learning habit. Here again my involvement with development and review of national science curriculum materials, achievement standards and assessment has had a big impact on my own assessment practices, something that was brought home to me when I first set an ‘NCEA-style’ essay question in an exam. The great majority of my first-year class answered that question far better than any ‘standard’ university-style questions in the same exam paper, partly I think because it was a format they were used to and partly because it gave them the opportunity to provide a wide-ranging narrative in response rather than simply repeating ‘the facts’.

We also use the e-learning platform Moodle in a variety of ways: for extra tutorials, as a forum to discuss all sorts of things (including setting up revision groups and helping each other with problems), and as a way to obtain lecture notes to review later. I think this works because the students find Moodle a non-threatening environment (especially when you enable anonymous commenting), which encourages many students to become more involved than they might be in an actual classroom – it’s another way for them to build confidence and capability in their studies. It also gives students another way to contact teaching staff, especially if they don’t like to speak up in lectures or tutorials. Any opportunity to build a personal relationship with lecturers is useful, as we know that this can have a significant impact on a student’s decision to continue with a course of study, or even with their university career. And recently I’ve started using Moodle as a means of supporting the Scholarship Biology students, helping them to develop the critical thinking skills that they’ll need for their exams.

In a way this last is just an extension of my other on-line activities – a couple of websites (Evolution for Teaching and Science on the Farm) and the ‘Bioblog‘. I originally began blogging because some secondary colleagues asked if there was something else I could do to help their scholarship students, and a blog seemed a good way to write posts to get them thinking, to provide up-to-date information, and to talk about the exam. But it’s quickly grown to something that I use with my own students to introduce them to scientific papers, and I find it’s got an international readership – something that gives me a real thrill.

For the future – I want to keep on doing what I know and love. When I reach the point where teaching’s no longer exciting but ‘just another job’, and when I lose that frisson of nerves at the start of a new class, a new year, a new semester, then that will be the signal to stop. But in the meantime, the Ako Aotearoa award offers me the chance to do something (maybe many somethings) to enhance what I do in the classroom. Conferences beckon, but I’m in the fortunate position of having a bit of funding put aside for that anyway. Friends reckon that as the Skull Lady™ I should be buying a new, updated set of hominin skulls for classroom use. But for someone who writes and speaks about evolution, the opportunity to do something like visit the Galapagos and experience some of the things that so deeply influenced Charles Darwin would be hugely inspirational. (I suspect what eventually decides that one will depend on a combination of teaching commitments and the best time to go in order to avoid huge crowds.) But whatever I end up doing, I will remain deeply grateful to Ako Aotearoa for putting me in the position of being able to contemplate this conundrum in the first place.

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