Talking Teaching

September 12, 2013

Who’s the best teacher?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marcus Wilson @ 9:47 am

[This post is a copy of one I posted yesterday on my blog PhysicsStop. http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop   ]

I’ve just come out of a very interesting cross-faculty discussion on effective use of ‘tutors’ in our courses. It’s hard to define the word, because the role of ‘tutor’ means different things in different parts of the university. But, think of it broadly as being someone who is paid (often not very much and on a casual contract) to teach in laboratory classes, give tutorial sessions to students, mark student work, undertake administrative teaching tasks (e.g. attendance registers for laboratory classes) and so forth. Tutors are often the primary contact that students have with teaching staff at the university – students probably feel able to talk to their tutors more freely than they can talk to other academic staff – though that is quite faculty and subject specific.

Their role within the university system is very valuable. Their close contact with students ensures that students feel that they belong and have somewhere they can go with problems. But it’s not the ‘soft’ stuff that’s the only reason for using tutors – take a look at this research paper on the effectiveness of teaching of tenure-track and non-tenure track (adjunct) staff. The work looks at teaching at Northwestern University in the US, across eight years (it’s a sizeable study – looking at 15,000 students). In particular, the study looked beyond a comparison of the teaching effectiveness of the two groups of staff in the courses where both groups taught, and looked at the enrollment and performance of students in subsequent courses. What it found was that students taught by adjuncts (what we might loosely call a ‘tutor’ here) got better grades in subsequent courses, and were more likely to enrol in subsequent courses in that subject.  In other words, the adjuncts were more effective in terms of both long-term student learning and student motivation. The effect was most marked with the weakest students.

The work doesn’t look at why this is the case, though it offers some speculative reasons, including that the tenured staff are recruited for being leaders in their research disciplines, not for being excellent teachers.

This article should make all universities with a two-tier teaching staff system (such as Waikato) sit up and take notice. Just what strategies are we using when it comes to ensuring excellent teaching? Should universities split staff into ‘teaching only staff’ and ‘research only staff”? Are tutors being paid according to the value that they deliver? And, importantly for the students who fork out large amounts of money to go to university – are the students getting value for money from their teachers?

David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro & Kevin B. Soter. Are tenure track professors better teachers? Working Paper 19406, National Bureau of Economic Research, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19406

August 12, 2010

Some thoughts on assessment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marcus Wilson @ 10:16 am

This is a copy of a post I put last week on my home blog PhysicsStop  http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop

I went to a very interesting seminar this morning [5 August]. Phil Race, from the UK, was presenting about making assessments better in tertiary teaching. There was a lot in his talk (you can download it and other information from www.phil-race.co.uk ) – I’ll just summarise some of the points that are most interesting to me.

1. Assessment started going downhill when, in 1791, the University of Cambridge introduced the first written exam. (Before that, it was purely oral).  Not sure that this is ever likely to change – but I can certainly say that in my experience students seem to appreciate feedback a lot more when it is given in person.

2. Don’t put a mark or grade on a student’s assignment when you return it to them. The student will become focused on the grade, to the point of ignoring all your written feedback.

3. Instead, let them work out what their grade should be, based on the feedback you give and how their work compares to that of their peers. I tried this out very briefly this afternoon in a lab class. I normally mark student lab reports by spending a few minutes the following week with the student and going through their report together (see point 1). Today I asked my poor unsuspecting students what mark they reckoned they should get.   All but one was spot-on – their assessment was the same as mine. The other one was harsh on himself – I thought his work was of better quality than he did, and I was able to explain why.

4. Never ask a student ‘Do you understand?’ This is likely to trigger the following train of thought:

What is it he wants me to understand? What if I don’t understand it? Will he think I’m stupid? Will my friends think I’m stupid? Will he ask me more awkward questions? How much do I have to understand? Is it a hint that this will be in the exam? etc. etc.

So the student answers …. Hmmm… I’m not sure…which gets no-one anywhere.

And 5. There is so much literature about what works and doesn’t work with assessment that there shouldn’t be any excuse for carrying on with the same methods that we know aren’t much good. Just go and do what works.   As the Oracle of Delphi is supposed to have said “You know what the problem is… you know what the solution is…. now go and do it”

July 21, 2010

Aaaarrhh First Year

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marcus Wilson @ 3:53 pm

This is a copy of a post made today on my home blog PhysicsStop http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop

It’s no secret that I don’t like teaching first year classes.  I find third year undergraduates far easier to teach. I think the main reason for this is that with the third years I don’t have such a large gap between my knowledge of the subject and theirs. That means that I don’t need to think so much about whether I am using words they are not familiar with, or whether my explanation draws on contexts and phenomena that the class hasn’t seen before. I know others take the opposite view – third year classes are harder because the material is more advanced – but to me that’s not a problem. What is a problem is communicating, and it is easier for me to do so with students who are closer to my ways of thinking.  Plus third years tend to speak a lot more and let you know when they don’t follow something, so it is less easy to lose a whole class without knowing it.

On Monday I did a first year tutorial in which I ended up in a horrible tangle  trying to explain something that to me is really simple. To be fair on myself, I think the question that I had to explain (which came from a website) was badly put together, but I should have done rather better than I did. First year teaching takes real practice (I think it does, anyway) . I’m very envious of people like Alison Campbell who excel in teaching large groups of first years.

As part of my PGCert in Tertiary Teaching, I experimented last semester with a method of finding out whether my class (a second year one in this case) is with me or not. (See for example Turpen and Finkelstein, Physical Review Special Topics, Physics Education Research 5, 020101 (2009) ) It’s a well-used method in physics teaching, though I gave it a bit of adeptation for my class. Essentially its formative assessment – ask the class multiple choice questions at the beginning of the lecture relating to last lecture’s material and have the class discuss it in pairs – not to test them for the sake of allocating marks, but for me to know where their understanding is at.  It worked well, I think – there were questions that the class struggled with that I thought they’d have grasped easily. That has got to be good overall for the students, because it allows me to go and unpick their reasoning and correct misconceptions. In a subject like physics, where so often one concept is built on another, the teacher (me) needs to know whether the students have that foundation or not – if not, there really is no point going on.

That’s another reason why I find third years easier to teach – by the time they reach third year, they have grasped those underlying concepts (if not, they’d be failing bigtime in second year). That means less preparation on my part is required. Maybe I’m just lazy.

June 10, 2010

What equation do I need?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Marcus Wilson @ 3:19 pm

This is a copy of a recent post to my blog http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop

With A-semester exams looming, the students here at Waikato are becoming a little more focused on their work. That inevitably means that I get more of them coming to me after a lecture, or knocking on the door of my office. And that is good.

One of the most common questions I get, usually in relation to an assignment, or a past exam paper, is ‘What equation do I need to solve this?’. I have slowly come to the conclusion (by slow, I mean six years) that when a student says this he actually means the following:

1. I don’t understand this

2. But I don’t mind that I don’t understand, I just need to know what to do to answer the question (and pass the assignment, exam etc.)

It’s the second one that is interesting. Any person can put numbers into an equation and come up with an answer, but it doesn’t necessarily add to their understanding. But unfortunately it can add to their ability to pass examinations, which is what drives students. And giving students that understanding  is part of what teaching a Bachelor of Science degree is about. Without it, a student cannot hope to apply your learning to new situations. Remember, that is what real scientists (e.g. physicists) do. No-one gets a science job that involves putting numbers into well established formulae. For example, our graduate profile for a BSc degree says a BSc graduate should have

 “Skills, knowledge and attributes needed to contribute directly and constructively to specific aspects of the building of a science based knowledge economy in New Zealand”
 
That is what I need to be building in my students – the ability to do just this. It is the scientist who will drive the economy forward and solve the world’s major problems. Will our BSc graduates be able to embark down this path? Sure, a lot of science learning occurs after a BSc, but a BSc shows that someone is reasonably compentent in their use of science, enough to contribute positively. How can you contribute positively if you don’t care that you don’t understand something. (point 2 above).
 
If we produce BSc graduates who are skilled in putting numbers into formulae and nothing else we are devaluing the BSc, denying the country good scientists (and therefore harming the economy) and short-changing the tax payer who gives the majority of the money to the universities to educate students. So when I get asked ‘What equation do I need’ I need to stop and think? – What does the student really want, and is it in his best interests (and the country’s) to give him that?

N.B. I could also say the point is that we, the teachers, need to set decent assignments, that mean stuffing-numbers-into-formulae isn’t sufficient to pass.

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.

March 24, 2010

Mind games for physicists

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Marcus Wilson @ 4:54 pm

This is a copy of a post on my blog http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop.  It’s talking about physics, but I suspect that there is a lot of carry over to other areas of science….

Here’s a gem of a paper from Jonathan Tuminaro and Edward Redish.

The authors have carried out a detailed analysis of the discussions a group of physics students had when solving a particular problem. They’ve worked hard (the researchers, as well as the students) – the first case study they chose was a conversation 45 minutes long.

While tackling the problem, the students have ‘played’ several epistemic games – or, put more simply, have used different ways of thinking. There are six different games identified – corresponding to six distinctly different ways of thinking about the same problem.  Students don’t stick to one game though, they can flip between several. Very quickly, they are:

1. Mapping meaning to mathematics.   This is where the students work out what is going on (or what they think is going on) and put it into a mathematical form (e.g. to make an equation) – then the equation can be used for things.

2. Mapping mathematics to meaning.  Kind of the reverse of (1). Here the students start with a mathematical expression they know, and work out what it might mean in practice.

3. Physical Mechanism Game. In this game the students try to draw sense from their own intuition of the physical principles involved.

4. Pictorial Analysis Game.  Here diagrams are used as the major step.

5. Recursive Plug-and-Chug. I’ll quote from the authors here, because they do it so well: “[here the students] plug quantities into physics equations and churn out numeric answers, without conceptually understanding the physical implications of their calculations.”   (The emphasis is mine.)

6. Transliteration to mathematics. Here the students draw from a worked example of another, similar problem, and try to map quantities from problem A onto quantities of problem B.

Now, I ask myself, which methods do I see my students doing in my classes, and using in the assignments I set.  I have to say that in many cases I’m not sure – and probably my teaching is the worse for it.  I can say which games I would like to see students using (1 to 4) and which games would make me shudder (5 and 6 – in which the students develop no physical understanding about what is happening),  but do I know?  There are certainly ways of getting students to use the ‘right’ games, notably setting the right kind of assessment questions.

OK, so which games do I play most in my research?  I’d say probably 1, 2 and 3.  I do a lot of physical modelling, in which I represent a problem (e.g. how do neurons in the brain behave in a certain environment) through a series of equations (game 1) and then work out the implications of those equations (game 3). I also draw a lot from my intuition about physics (e.g. if you increase the pressure across a pipe, you’ll get more flow, regardless of what shape the pipe is) – that’s game 3.

Finally, those physicists among you might like to know what problem the students had to solve. It was this. Three electrical charges, q1, q2 and q3 are arranged in a line, with equal distance between q1 & q2, and q2 & q3.  Charges q1 and q2 are held fixed. Charge q3 is not fixed in place, but is held in a constant position by the electrostatic forces present.  If q2 has the charge Q, what charge does q1 have?

    o    q1                   o   q2                    o  q3

The authors say that most experienced physics teachers can solve this problem in less than a minute. I solved it in about five seconds, using game 3, with a tiny smattering of game 2.  The students concerned (3 of them together) took 45 minutes – this massive difference is perhaps interesting in its own right.

Reference (it’s well worth a read if you teach physics at any level):  Tuminaro, J. and Redish, E. F. (2007) Elements of a cognitive model of physics problem solving: Epistemic games. Physical review special topics – Physics education research (3) 020101.   DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.3.020101.

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