Talking Teaching

May 20, 2013

out of the mouths of students

First posted over at the Bioblog.

We’ve been trialling some software for on-line paper/teaching appraisals & I got my results back the other day. The appraisal form included open-ended questions where students could give extended feedback on particular issues that concerned them, & I’ve been going through it all so that I can give feedback in my turn, thus ‘closing the loop’. (This is something that I believe is absolutely essential: students need to know that we value their opinions & that, where appropriate, use them to inform what we do.) I’ve been interested to see that some of the class are definitely thinking outside the ‘box’ that represents my paper, and one comment in particular struck a chord:

One concern with the paper is individuals who were not taught certain aspects of the NCEA Level 3 curriculum. This is a major issue that has resulted from the preference of schools to not teach certain aspects of the course. There NEEDS to be consultation to standardise the NCEA curriculum as well as ensuring that the gap is bridged with communication between tertiary education providers and secondary education providers. As I understand it there is significant concern over the changed NCEA Level 3 Biology course, which now does not teach genetics in year 13. I don’t know the answer in the resolution of this issue, however it will greatly impact on future academic success as well as future funding when grades drop.

This student has hit the nail squarely on the head. Teachers reading this will be working on the following Achievement Standards with their year 12 students this year (where previously gene expression was handled in year 13): AS91157 Demonstrate understanding of genetic variation and change, and AS91159: Demonstrate understanding of gene expression. (You’ll find the Biology subject matrix here.)

And as my student says, this has the potential to cause real problems unless the university staff concerned have made it their business to be aware of these changes and to consider their impact. For the 2014 cohort of students coming in to introductory biology classes will have quite different prior learning experiences (& not just in genetics) from those we are teaching this year and taught in previous years. We cannot continue as we have done in the past.

May 13, 2013

selling services on line

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — alison @ 2:05 pm

Yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times carried the headline: Chinese cheats rort NZ universities with fakes. The story begins:

An investigation has uncovered a well-organised commercial cheating service for Chinese-speaking students in New Zealand. The long-standing business uses a network of tutors, some outside New Zealand, to write original assignments ordered by Chinese-speaking students attending New Zealand universities, polytechnics and private institutions

and provides a link to an essay bought by the reporting team as part of their investigation.

Frankly, about the only thing that surprised me about the story was the fact that the organisation delivering this ‘service’, and thus helping those using it to cheat, is based in New Zealand. I mean, I’ve just had one of my regular clean-outs of the spam folder. Anything there just gets deleted; there’s so much coming in that I don’t have time to scan it just in case a genuine commenter has been dumped there. But occasionally something at the top of the queue for oblivion catches my eye, and I notice things like this:

Lately, graduates are overloaded to produce essay writing, they can find custom writing services where they are able to buy critical analysis essays.

If you are desperate, you always have a possibility to purchase high quality essay and all your problems will disappear.

Are willing to be a good student? Therefore, you should realise that good high school students buy paper and if it is fits you, you can do the same!

And the icing on the cake:

Some people have got a passion of composing academic papers, but, some of them do not know the correct way to complete research papers. Professional Custom UK Essay writing service is developed to help students who cannot write.

Frankly, the standard of English in that lot should put potential buyers off! At least some of the time they make an attempt at ‘buyer beware’ (but don’t you just know that the following would link to one of these ‘good’ sites?):

If you want to escape any troubles while ordering essays at the paper writing services, you ought to be really thorough. Buy essay services only if you have solid evidences that the people you’ll be dealing with are highly educated.

Lols aside, there’s obviously a market for this sort of stuff; it’s worth pondering why students would buy in work, and what options teaching staff have for avoiding/reducing the temptation.

One obvious motivation is the pressure to do well. Students (& often their families) do invest quite a bit of money into their education. This is particularly true for many international students whose families spend a lot to send them here & support them during their studies. (So do taxpayers, via the student loan system, so we – ie taxpayers – do need to know that we’re getting good value there, & that includes the quality of students’ work.) So fear of getting a poor mark, & perhaps having to repeat a paper, could drive the sort of behaviour that our spammers and the Auckland organisation are hoping to generate.

And unfortunately ‘custom essays’ are not going to be picked up by anti-plagiarism software (eg Turnitin) – unless the ghostwriters are stupid enough to just do a copy-&-paste! That’s not to say they can’t still be identified: an obvious clue would be a standard of English that differed significantly from that in other work submitted by a student; the relevance of the actual content would be another.

But there are ways of reducing incentives to be dishonest around assessment. For example, teachers can review their use of ‘high stakes’ assessment items: single essays or reports that are worth a large proportion of the final grade (& so can offer some incentive to cheat in order to gain a higher mark). ‘End-loading’ assessment, so that it’s all due at the end of semester, is not going to help here either.

Another tool would be to have students generate work in class. Now obviously that won’t work if you want a lengthy report, but what about: getting them to do the relevant research but asking for them to write an abstract, or a summary of their findings, in-class, & having it peer-marked (using your marking scheme) or doing that task yourself? The students still gain practice in useful skills & – hopefully – your workload is somewhat reduced. If students get more involved in the writing process from the start, & are supported in learning the various skills involved, they might be more confident in their own abilities & feel less need to cheat on the assignment.

Recommended reading**:

J.C.Bean (2001) Engaging Ideas: the professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass (Wiley). ISBN 978-0-787-90203-2

** actually, make that highly recommended!

May 2, 2013

science challenges & science education

The National Science Challenges have been announced – and have already received a lot of attention (including on Sciblogs, with posts by my colleagues GrantSiouxsie, and John - who also points at where the money’s going). What I’d like to address here is the comment by the Panel that it

was concerned by the lack of significant proposals in educational research

I have to admit that my first response to that was, well d’oh! Because, well, the public discussion was around national science challenges, I suspect that for many (most?) submitters the focus was to come up with a science-based proposal. After all (& please note bulging cheek ensconcing my tongue at this point), isn’t science education something that schools & other seats of learning ‘do’, rather than requiring science research? Hopefully not many scientists really think that way, & it’s great to see the additional Challenge, “Science & New Zealand Society” with its two goals (the first a science goal, while the second is societal):

To ensure the science capacities and literacy of New Zealand society so as to promote engagement between S[cience] & T[echnology] and New Zealand society, in turn enhancing the role played by science in advancing the national interest.

To allow New Zealand society to make best use of its human and technological capacities to address the risks and Challenges ahead. This requires the better use of scientific knowledge in policy formation at all levels of national and local government, in the private sector and in society as a whole.

 

Both are relevant to what follows here.

Let’s look more closely at the question of science literacy/appreciation/education for citizenship. The chair of the Panel, Sir Peter Gluckman, has previously made it clear that we need to do much more in engaging young people with science, to the extent of developing a science curriculum that focuses far more on science literacy than on accumulation of science knowledge. But what constitutes science literacy? This is something I’ve written about previously, & my fellow Scibloggers and I discussed it between ourselves more recently. So I was interested to find a set of nine science literacy ‘themes’ listed and expanded upon in a recent paper (Bartholomew & Osborne, 2004):

scientific methods and critical testing

science & certainty

diversity of scientific thinking

hypothesis and prediction

historical development of scientific knowledge

creativity

science and questioning

analysis and interpretation of data

cooperation and collaboration in the development of scientific knowledge

And while we might not agree on the relative order of these themes, or the completeness of the list, but they do give us something to go on with. (I’m going to talk about the formal education system for the moment – but I’m perfectly well aware that there’s much more than that to public engagement with science! Let’s just treat this as a starting point for discussion.)

Now, I’d like to think that the current NZ Science curriculum gives a good basis for developing these skills & attributes in all students Right Now, regardless of whether or not they intend to go on to study science at tertiary level. And let’s face it, most won’t, so we surely have to work on engagement with and understanding of what science is about, for all students. in fact, that’s a tension I struggle with myself: a proportion of my first-year biology students are taking the subject purely for interest, & in some cases haven’t studied the subject before. I want them to come away with an appreciation of the wonder and worth of the subject in their lives, as much as I want them to accumulate biological knowledge. It’s a tricky balancing act.

Anyway, while I might like to think that about the curriculum document, in reality I suspect that it doesn’t yet deliver. And that’s something that’s unpacked further by Bartholomew & Osborne, who note that there are a number of factors that affect teachers’ “ability to teach effectivelyabout science”.

One of those factors is the teachers’ own understanding of what science is all about, as opposed to their body of content knowledge. NB Please note, at this point, that this is not a criticism of teachers and the demanding work that they do; it’s a question of whether the training and experiences we offer our teachers prepare them well for this particular aspect of teaching science.

The researchers found that a reasonable proportion of the teachers they worked with were not really confident in their own ability to teach lessons based on the ideas embedded in those themes. This was partly due to uncertainties about their own knowledge, and partly around feeling that they lacked the classroom skills to deliver such a program. Which, of course, raises issues around provision of professional development opportunities (with the associated resourcing).

Related to that is their own engagement with the subject. OK, if you’re teaching the subject as a specialist science teacher, I’m guessing that you took this role on because you enjoy the subject and want to share that. But if someone’s a primary school teacher with very limited exposure to science during their training, then the story might be very different.

And so that would be a fruitful area for research, in NZ (and at this point someone is probably going to tell me that they’re Already Doing It): what is the actual level of science literacy – using, for example, those 9 themes listed above – in NZ science teachers at all levels? And how does that translate into classroom practices? And – if the answer is, not as well as we’d like – what do we do about it?

Teachers’ ability to enhance learning about science (as opposed to of science) is also affected by factors outside their classrooms. For example, the pressure is on, at senior school level, to ensure students do as well as possible in national assessment – which, for all the changes associated with NCEA, remains largely content-based. And classroom time is limited, so it’s easy to see how there can be more focus on content & less on the other desirable attributes. As Bartholomew & Osborne comment,

developing a questioning and sceptical attitude to scientific knowledge claims in students might actually be disadvantageous.

Perhaps that also needs to change. [Pace, Schol Bio examiners!]

 

H.Bartholomew, & J.Osborne (2004) Teaching students “ideas about science”: five dimensions of effective practice. Science Education 88: 655-682 doi: 10.1002/sce.10135

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