Talking Teaching

June 9, 2014

carl wieman on active learning

Recently I wrote about a paper by Freeman et al: a meta-analysis looking at the impact of active learning on student success in maths, engineering, & the sciences (the ‘STEM’ subjects). In the same volume of PNAS is an accompanying commentary by Carl WiemanWieman is a physics Nobel Laureate who also leads a research group working on improving teaching & learning in maths, engineering, & the sciences (which has resulted in some interesting initiatives at other institutions). Commenting on Freeman’s results, he notes that

Freeman et al. argue that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture teaching as the comparison standard, and instead, research should compare different active learning methods, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture is substantially less effective. This makes both ethical and scientific sense.

Wieman goes on to say

However, in undergraduate STEM education, we have the curious situation that, although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM courses are still taught by lectures – the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting. Should the goals of STEM education research be to find more effective ways for students to learn or to provide additional evidence to convince faculty and institutions to change how they are teaching?

Personally I’d go for the former; there’s a wealth of information out there now. What’s needed now is to somehow get more university STEM educators to engage with the scholarship of teaching & learning in their various disciplines. Now there’s a challenge!

C.E.Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS published ahead of print, May 22 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407304111

June 3, 2014

more on moocs – go read this post!

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:31 am

I wish I had more time, because then I could read even more articles and blogs and papers about the things that really interest me, like enhancing the quality of teaching and learning. And there’s some great stuff out there, including a post on Massive Open On-line Courses entitled “MOOCs, student engagement, and the value of contact.” It’s the lack of real interpersonal contact in MOOCs that’s one of their big limitations, from my perspective, and I think the post’s author nailed that concern in this comment:

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

Just one reason to go over & read the full post by chemprofdave.

June 1, 2014

“If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers”

This is a post I first wrote for the Bioblog.

There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?

And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

March 31, 2014

paying it forward

Over the last few weeks I’ve been mentoring a colleague from another institution, helping put together their portfolio for the 2014 Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards nominations. It’s been a huge amount of work for them, given the need to encapsulate how they meet the award criteria in a total of 8000 words.

At first this looks an unreachable target, but then once you start writing notes and accumulating statements in support, then the problem becomes how to cut the thing down to size. And many people also find it really hard to write about themselves: it sounds like blowing your own trumpet & that can be a difficult thing to do. (Having said that, I know I looked my own finished portfolio & thought, wow! do I really do all that? It was quite affirming, plus the constant reflection was great for my teaching practice.)

So, it was a lot of work for my colleague, who wrote and edited many drafts, solicited supporting comments from students and colleagues, decided on a ‘theme’ to tie it all together, found suitable images – and all the while also carried their usual demanding teaching & admin roles. (I suspect the research may have taken a back seat for a while.) The end result: fascinating reading on a number of levels and a record of excellent teaching in practice (regardless of what happens in the TTEA stakes).

And on the other end of email & phone, I read those drafts, offered other possibilities for investigation/inclusion, proposed many edits (both large & small), found the occasional image, and suggested cuts – you reach a point where you’ve so much personal investment in what you’ve written that you just can’t bear the prospect of removing anything, no matter how the word limit looms over you**.

Yes, that took quite a bit of time at my end too, & I’ve had other colleagues at my institution asking why on earth I would want to take on such a task. But you see, I believe in paying forward: having won one of these awards myself, I feel that I should share what I’ve learned from the process and to help others with tasks like this.

And I’ve made a new friend as well!

 

**(I gather I also provided a calming influence :)  It’s been a great learning experience for me too, as I’ve learned about the cool things someone else is doing to enhance their teaching & their students’ learning experiences.)

March 12, 2014

teaching plant life cycles – trying a different approach

For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

February 16, 2014

presenting on plants at WCeLfest

This post was first published on my ‘other’ blog.

For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest – a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there’s always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I’m going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

My WCeLfest session was billed as a workshop, so to kick things off I explained that the attendees were going to experience being in what is effectively a ‘flipped’ class, getting the students’ perspective, and why I’d developed the class in the way that I had. (I added that feedback on that experience was welcome!) I think there was one biologist in the room, so for most of those present the things they’d be doing would be just as novel as they will be for many of my students.

First, my ‘class’ got some extra background information. If previous years are anything to go by, then about a third of the students in my first-year biology class won’t have studied the year 12 Achievement Standards related to plants1. This always poses something of a challenge as we run the ‘plants’ part of the paper first, flowers & fruit being readily available in late summer (& I doubt things would be different if we taught it later in the paper). So I’m always thinking about improved ways to bridge students into the subject without boring those who have a reasonable background in things botanical.

The first lecture looks at what plants are & why they’re important, both ecologically & in terms of human history. For the last 2-3 years I’ve used an active learning exercise, putting up a graph on changes in atmospheric oxygen over the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence and asking the students to interpret and discuss the information it shows. But, using the same graph with a different group of learners, I realised that some of my students might not even know what photosynthesis entails, which would rather destroy the purpose of that part of the class.

So this year, they’re getting homework for the night before: this video. And at WCeLfest, we watched it together.

As you’ll have seen, there are a few, very basic, questions at the end of the video, but we stopped the video before reaching the quiz & instead briefly discussed and answered each question in groups, plus there were some additional queries, which was great. The original set of questions reinforce the basic concepts & give those students who were unfamiliar with them a bit of confidence that they’re prepared for the next step.

Now, for my ‘real’ class I’ll be showing an additional, more complex video, but for this shorter session we just moved on to the data interpretation.

Again, I explained the rationale behind this part of the session. I’d decided to do this exercise with my first-year students for a couple of reasons: firstly, to break up the class and get them actively engaged in the learning process; and secondly, to give practice in the process skills needed to interpret information provided in graphical form. The question they needed to address, using their knowledge from the video and the data in the graph, was: without plants, life as we know it wouldn’t have evolved in the first place. Why not?

O2 concn over time.png

As I do in my normal classes, while the class split into groups to come up with an answer, I circulated between those groups2 in order to hear what was going on & field any additional questions. “What was the atmosphere made of before photosynthesis began?” was one, which led to a brief consideration of how the Earth formed. And I needed to explain oxidised/oxidation, as well. This was a really valuable process for me as it’s highlighted a couple of areas where I need to do a little more background work with my first-years.

A quick summary of the class discussion: the ‘oxidation’ part is important because that’s how we know when oxygen generation began – iron-rich rocks began to rust. It wasn’t until the exposed rocks had been oxidised and the ocean had become saturated with oxygen, that oxygen began to be released into the atmosphere, as evidenced by more oxidised rock. As O2 accumulated in the atmosphere, the ozone layer formed, offering protection from the sun’s UV radiation & allowing living things to move onto the land.

And we finished with a quick look at the ‘design-an-organism’ class that I’ve previously blogged about.

The feedback was very positive, with several people saying that they could see how they might use the flipped classroom technique in their own teaching. It was also lovely to hear someone say that they’d got a bit worried when they realised we’d be talking science, but that they’d really enjoyed the experience and learned some new things along the way. And I’d learned ways to improve the exercise, so the enjoyment & learning were mutual

1 These are AS91155 Demonstrate understanding of adaptation of plants or animals to their way of life, and AS91156 Demonstrate understanding of life processes at the cellular level. You’ll find them here on the NZQA website.

2 In my ideal class3 there’d be an ‘aisle’ between every 2 rows of seating, to allow teachers/facilitators to move more freely among the students.

3 I can dream, can’t I?

December 13, 2013

can we help students too much?

One of the (many) good things about writing exams at a national level was that it really taught me how to write a good question: one that lacks ambiguity, clearly identifies what’s being asked of the students, and gives them opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. So I was a bit saddened when marking exams recently to find that one question, in particular, wasn’t eliciting what I’d hoped for.

You see, I’d written a question in two parts. Students were first asked to summarise their knowledge the process of gene expression, and then – using the phrase “in your answer you should also” – asked to explain how various events might introduce diversity into the genome. And for some reason many students went straight past the first part and answered the second (and generally did this very well, I might add).

It’s the first time I’ve seen this to any marked degree and it really bothered me, & I’ve talked about it at some length with a colleague. We’re beginning to wonder if maybe we give students too much information around the exams. Now that may sound wrong – you’d think that demystifying exams, in the sense of giving access to previous papers so students get an idea of what to expect, would be helpful. It also highlights key themes in the subject that we return to again & again. We don’t just leave it at this, mind you: we spend time in tuts discussing things like how to ‘unpackage’ questions and how to plan the answer before actually writing it. But we’re wondering if making previous papers readily available in the study guide is leading to students ‘picking questions’ – deciding what’s likely to be asked, on the basis of what’s been asked in the past, and then not just studying around that but perhaps writing and learning ‘model’ answers off by heart. And regurgitating that answer regardless of what the question actually requires of them.

And that sort of learning is not the sort of learning I want to encourage.

So we decided to do things a little differently with next year’s study guide & include just a single year’s exam paper in it. Students will still be able to access many more through the library’s database; they’ll just have to do a bit more work themselves. And thinking more on this as I’m writing, perhaps we should also devote a bit of tut time to explicitly recognising those themes & working with the students to build up a ‘big picture’ view of the main ideas associated with them, by way of encouraging that breadth of understanding – and emphasising that this approach should allow them to approach with confidence any question we might ask.

Your thoughts?

December 12, 2013

Evaluating teaching the hard-nosed numbers way

[This is a copy of a post on my blog PhysicsStop, sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop, 10 December 2013]

Recently there’s been a bit of discussion in our Faculty on how to get a reliable evaluation of people’s teaching. The traditional approach is with the appraisal. At the end of each paper the students get to answer various questions on the teacher’s performance on a five-point Likert Scale (i.e. ‘Always’, ‘Usually’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Seldom’, ‘Never’.)  For example: “The teacher made it clear what they expected of me.” The response ‘Always’ is given a score of 1, ‘Usually’ is given 2, down to ‘Never’ which is given a score of 5. An averaged response of the questions across students gives some measure of teaching success – ranging in theory from 1.0 (perfect) through to 5.0 (which we really, really don’t want to see happening).

We’ve also got a general question – “Overall, this teacher was effective”. This is also given a score on the same scale.

A question that’s been raised is: Does the “Overall, this teacher was effective” score correlate well with the average of the others?

I’ve been teaching for several years now, and have a whole heap of data to draw from. So, I’ve been analyzing it (for 2008 onwards), and, in the interests of transparency, I’m happy for people to see it.  For myself, the question of “does a single ‘overall’ question get a similar mark to the averaged response of the other questions?” is a clear yes. The graph below shows the two scores plotted against each other, for different papers that I have taught. For some papers I’ve had a perfect score – 1.0 by every student for every question. For a couple scores have been dismall (above 2 on average):

Capture1.JPG

What does this mean? That’s a good question. Maybe it’s simply that a single question is as good as a multitude of questions if all we are going to do is to take the average of something. More interesting is to look at each question in turn. The questions start with “the teacher…” and then carry on as in the chart below, which shows the responses I’ve had averaged over papers and years.
Capture2.JPG
Remember, low scores are good. And what does this tell me? Probably not much that I don’t already know. For example, anecdotally at any rate, the question “The teacher gave me helpful feedback” is a question for which many lecturers get their poorest scores (highest numbers). This may well be because students don’t realize they are getting feedback. I have colleagues who, when they give oral feedback, will prefix what they say with “I am now giving you feedback on how you have done” so that it’s recognized for what it is.
So, another question. How much have I improved in recent years? Surely I am a better teacher now than what I was in 2008. I really believe that I am. So my scores should be heading towards 1.  Well, um, maybe not. Here they are. There are two lines – the blue line is the response to the question ‘Overall, this teacher was effective’, averaged over all the papers I took in a given year; the red line is the average of the other questions, averaged over all the papers. The red line closely tracks the blue – this shows the same effect as seen on the first graph. The two correlate well.
Capture3.JPG
So what’s happening. I did something well around 2010 but since then it’s gone backwards (with a bit of a gain this year – though not all of this year’s data has been returned to me yet). There are a couple of comments to make. In 2010 I started on a Post Graduate Certificate of Tertiary Teaching. I put a lot of effort into this. There were a couple of major tasks that I did that were targeted at implementing and assessing a teaching intervention to improve student performance. I finished the PGCert in 2011. That seems to have helped with my scores, in 2010 at least. A quick peruse of my CV, however, will tell you that this came at the expense of research outputs. Not a lot of research was going on in my office or lab during that time.  And what happened in 2012? I had a period of study leave (hooray for research outputs!) followed immediately by a period of parental leave. Unfortunately, I had the same amount of teaching to do and that got squashed into the rest of the year. Same amount of material, less time to do it, poorer student opinions. It seems a logical explanation anyway.
Does all this say anything about whether I am an effective teacher? Can one use a single number to describe it? These are questions that are being considered. Does my data help anyone to answer these questions? You decide.

November 21, 2013

learning leadership

and yes, that’s an intentionally ambiguous title :) (The full version was Learning leadership: the interplay between our own professional development and our classroom practice.)

I recently gave a pecha kucha** presentation on this subject, at an Ako Aotearoa mini-symposium up in Auckland. The idea for the subject of my presentation leapt to the front of my mind while I was at a Teaching Network*** meeting looking at how to raise the profile of teaching in tertiary institutions (specifically, universities). One of my colleagues kicked off part of the discussion with a brief talk on developing leadership in teaching, & I thought, all this applies to leading/guiding our students to become better learners, as well. Which is pretty much the thrust of my presentation. I pretty much use slides as talking points:

Slide2

 

Slide3

Slide4

Slide5

Slide6

Slide7

Slide8

Slide9

Slide10

And we finished up with some ideas on what future-focused leadership in teaching and learning could look like.

It would be really good to hear your thoughts on this :)

 

 

** a maximum of 20 slides, with a maximum of 20 seconds per slide. Certainly forces you to focus your ideas. Mine wasn’t that long, because I wanted to use it to spur discussion & so we need time for that in my short presentation slot.

*** an in-house group for staff from across the institution with an interest in all things to do with teaching.

September 23, 2013

teach creationism, undermine science

This is something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog.

Every now & then I’ve had someone say to me that there’s no harm in children hearing about ‘other ways of knowing’ about the world during their time at school, so why am I worried about creationism being delivered in the classroom? 

Well, first up, my concerns – & those of most of my colleagues – centre less on whether teaching creationism/intelligent design is bringing religion into the science classroom1, & more on how well such teaching prepares students for understanding and participating in biology in the 21st century. For example, if a school can make statements like this:

It is important that children and adults are clear that there is one universal truth. There can only be one truthful explanation for origins that means that all other explanations are wrong. Truth is truth. Biblical truth, scientific truth, mathematical truth, and historical truth are in harmony2.

and go on to list the “commonly accepted science we believe in”, then their students are not gaining any real understanding of the nature of science. And the statements regarding the science curriculum that I’ve linked to above indicate that it’s not just biology with which the school community has an issue. Physics, geology, cosmology: all have significant sections listed under “commonly accepted ‘science’ we do not believe in”3. (Did you notice the quote marks around that second mention of science?)

Science isn’t a belief system, & while people are entitled to their own opinions they are not entitled to their own facts. Any school science curriculum that picks & chooses what is taught on the basis of belief is delivering (to quote my friend David Winter) “a pathetic caricature of actual science, … undermin[ing] science as a method for understanding the world and leav[ing] the kids that learned it very poorly prepared to do biology in the 21st century.” Or indeed, to engage with pretty much any science, in terms of understanding how science is done and its relevance to our daily lives. And if we’re not concerned about that lack of science literacy, well, we should be.

 

although I do think this is a problem too.

2 with the subtext that the first ‘truth’ takes precedence.

Taken to its extreme, the belief system promoted in teaching creationism as science can result in statements such as this:

We believe Earth and its ecosystems – created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence – are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing…

…We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of miniscule changes in atmospheric chemistry.

This does not look like a recipe for good environmental management to me.

 

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