Talking Teaching

June 24, 2010

students’ future intentions

Filed under: education, science teaching, university — Tags: , — alison @ 5:56 pm

Today’s news feed from the Royal Society (NZ) included the following:

Demand for tertiary study likely to fall, says [Tertiary Education Minister Steven] Joyce:  The New Zealand Qualifications Authority is reviewing university entrance standards and the Education Ministry is also reviewing open entry criteria for those aged over 20 without entrance qualifications.

Now, I agree that university entrance (UE) standards are in need of review & we should be asking for a higher level of performance: at the least, more credits in a subject area than the current 14. And also – from the perspective of a science educator – a higher standard of general numeracy would be a Good Thing: a few credits from year 11 aren’t really suffiicent for someone wanting to go on in the sciences. Mind you, we could be better signalling that, by requiring all science students to have some Level 3 maths credits. (I wonder if the reason that institutions don’t do this is due partly to concern that this would see their numbers in some of the sciences drop as maths-phobic students look for other options… Anecdotally, biology ) Similarly, open entry for those over 20 who lack entry qualifications can be problematic, although I think you’ll find that in practice universities don’t operate a free-for-all in that area; we do expect such students to be able to demonstrate readiness for tertiary study & if their background is deficient in a particular subject then we’d be expecting them to take a preparatory paper or two.

Raising entry standards demonstrates a commitment to excellence. But will it put a lid on demand? Or will it simply signal to prospective students that they need to raise their game in order to follow their future study aspirations (which will be a good thing)? And does the Minister’s statement take into account the fact that there are 5.4% more students in year 13 this year than in 2009, at least some of whom will intend to move on to some sort of tertiary study? From the website:

Mr Joyce said tertiary education funding would allow for 765 more places at universities next year and 455 more core places at polytechnics, which would equate to there being 5600 more places at universities and 6600 at institutes of technology and polytechnics than in 2008.

Mr Robertson said in the case of polytechnics 455 new places equated to 23 places per provider, which was a “drop in the ocean” compared to what was likely to be needed.

OK, the Minister is assuming that, because we are coming out of a recession, school-leavers will be moving into jobs rather than heading for tertiary study. And certainly applications for study do seem to increase at times when jobs are drying up. But at the same time the Tertiary Education Strategy tells us (in the ‘Strategic Direction’ section) that [t]ertiary education plays a key role in improving the skills and knowledge of the workforce and in building on New Zealand’s knowledge base through research. Reducing or capping the number of places available in universities and polytechnics would surely limit their ability to deliver new, skilled workers able to contribute to that knowledge base. After all, [h]igher skills increase the productivity of individuals and the productivity of others they work with. Skills underpin firms’ ability to innovate and apply new ideas, and adapt to competitive challenges and new markets (TES).

(There is another side of the problem, for those of us in the sciences: a mismatch between students’ subject choices & the country’s need for people trained in science, technology & engineering. [Each semester the registrar & I see students wishing to study chemistry who have little or no chemistry in their school background, or engineering with no mathematics or physics, & so on.] It may be that the universities’ response to the cap on student numbers includes not only restrictions on who can enrol, but also some reconfiguring of their offerings that sends a signal to intending students. Perhaps a different, or stronger, focus from government & also from those in the secondary sector who advise students on future careers & subject choices would be helpful there as well. But then, it’s one thing to demonstrate a demand for graduates in a particular area, & another to get students to take up those opportunities. A senior colleague of mine used to comment on how the Australian mining industry was desperate for geologists, but that universities were shedding staff in that area – because students simply were not choosing to study geology. A difficult balancing act all round.)

June 13, 2010

the tyranny of powerpoint

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 11:31 pm

This is a re-post of something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog, as a result of reading a thought-provoking paper about powerpoint that was given to me by a colleague.

I began my university teaching career in the years B.P. (Before Powerpoint). Blackboards, chalk, & overhead transparencies (often hand-written & hand-drawn) were the order of the day. Since then, Powerpoint has become an almost universal tool & ‘chalk-&-talk’ is a rarity. But Powerpoint is just a tool, & using it doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. (Slides that simply present large blocks of text; blocks of text in tiny fonts; lines of text that ‘fly’ in from one side or the other; typewriter sounds as letters appear on the screen – don’t do it! Please don’t go there!)

Anyway, a colleague has just given me a copy of Yiannis Gabriel’s 2008 paper looking at the use (& abuse) of Poweroint as a teaching tool. And it’s really got me thinking.

Gabriel begins by noting that Powerpoint “accomplish[ed] what earlier technologies did (overhead transparencies, slides, chalk and blackboard) only more efficiently, more stylishly.” However, it’s probably had more widespread, more pervasive effects: Powerpoint has become the basic lecture  tool, but simply relying on it without thinking about how it’s used can have some far-reaching effects on the nature of the learning that goes on in lecture theatres. One of his concerns is that, while Powerpoint is great for showing information in visual form (graphs, diagrams, photos, embedded videos), it may also affect students’ abilities to analyse & think critically about information. (It can also act as a prop – how many lecturers these days would feel comfortable giving a lecture without powerpoint, if the power goes down or the technology fails?) In fact, he expresses his own concern that “Powerpoint inevitably leads to comfortable, incontestable, uncritical, visually seductive and intellectually dulling communication.”

Now, like almost all my colleagues I use Powerpoint on pretty much an everyday basis, & so Gabriel’s ideas gave me considerable food for thought. It’s easy to slip into using this technology routinely, in a way that’s really just ‘chalk-&-talk elevated to another level. I try hard to avoid this: I use images & phrases as something to talk around & as cues for students to think about concepts, & I try to encourage discussion around the ‘big ideas’ of each lecture, using things like pop quizzes to start things off. (I really enjoy it when students ask probing questions that require a bit of thought for me to answer properly, not least because it lets me model how scientists think about things.) But is this enough?

Certainly the technology has its shortcomings, although these tend to be in how it’s applied rather than inherent in Powerpoint itself. You’ve planned your lecture in advance, all the images & words are assembled onto your slides – how easy is it to deviate from this if during the course of the lecture it becomes obvious that some in the class don’t understand what you’re saying, or want to ask questions around a particular issue? It could be argued that you just have to get through that material – it’s needed as the basis for the next lecture or some other paper – & the students will have to come to tutorials or ‘office hours’ to fill the gaps. But by then the moment’s passed.

Myself, I don’t see the value in that. Better by far to address the issues that students raise, on the spot – after all, how can I expect them to understand the material that follows if they haven’t ‘got’ what I’m talking about at the moment? You can deal with this with Powerpoint, as you would have done in the ‘old days’: I had the experience a few weeks ago where it became clear that many in the class hadn’t a clue about meiosis, & without it much of the rest of the lecture wasn’t going to make much sense to them. We ended up with an impromptu tutorial, with me using the computer mouse to ‘draw’ on my slides (having changed it from the usual arrow to a virtual felt-tip pen) to illustrate the points we were talking about. Yes, we didn’t get through everything I’d intended to for that class – but I was able to do an extra panopto recording later that day for the students to follow, & there were always the tutorials…

So I thought I was doing OK – & then Gabriel mentioned bullet-point lists… These are pretty much the standard way to present information in Powerpoint, but Gabriel points out that they contain some fish-hooks for teacher & student alike: “many people (and most  students) confronting a list will assume that it is exhaustive, that the items on it are co-equivalent…, and that they are mutually exclusive. In reality, few lists meet these requirements, and yet they block thinking into precise areas of overlap or items that are absent from the list.” There’s also a risk that students will see the lists as completely authoritative where they may actually be tentative. And it’s easy to use them to gloss over things that the lecturer’s not sure about, or doesn’t want to discuss – just don’t put those items on the list! 

When I think about it, I can see some of these things coming through in students’ test papers. For example, in teaching about the different ‘major phyla’ of animals, it’s easy to list the key features of each phylum in a series of bullet-points. I make the point in lectures that there may be other interesting features in a particular phylum – but in a test, for many students it’s as if I’d never said that; the bullet-point items seem to be all-important. This suggests to me that these students haven’t thought about other things that were said in lecture, or maybe those other things didn’t even register. And it’s made me wonder if there are other steps I could take to get this information across in a meaningful way that prompts the class to think carefully about what’s being said & why it matters.

Gabriel criticises images as well. And I agree with him – it’s quite easy to put together a sequence of images that can engross the audience, to the point where they don’t actually think critically about what’s being said. But I also strongly agree that it can enhance student learning & understanding of things like anatomy or physics. Diagrams, too, are a double-edged sword. Used simply to present large amounts of information they can be both boring & overwhelming – but they can “also open up new possibilities of creative thinking, communication and learning.”

I can see that I’ve got a lot of thinking and reorganising to do. I’d like to re-jig my Powerpoints to encourage a number of skills in my students, to enhance their learning – and because many of the skills that Gabriel identifies as desirable emphasise aspects of the nature of science itself:

  • filtering out the irrelevant & focusing on the memorable and significant;
  • tolerating uncertainty;
  • coping with ambiguity;
  • recognising & enjoying the fact that we don’t have clear, permanent solutions to every puzzle & problem;
  • developing the capacity for analytical, critical thought.

Using Powerpoint in a way that goes beyond it being merely a tool for presenting information can only enhance students’ learning (& – speaking personally – my enjoyment of teaching).

Y.Gabriel (2008) Against the tyranny of powerpoint: technology-in-use and technology abuse. Organisation Studies 29: 255-276. doi: 10.1177/0170840607079536. Document available online at

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

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.

June 8, 2010

About Paulo Freire

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — kubke @ 5:51 pm

As part of the Postgraduate Certificate where I am a student, I was to give a 10 minute lecture on one theory of teaching. A list of ‘candidate’ theories were provided, and to my surprise Paulo Freire‘s ‘Pedagogy of the Opressed‘ was in the list.

Well, that was quite a surprise.

I had first come across Paulo Freire’s orginal book about over twenty years ago, when I read it in the context of literacy programmes in Latin America. I would not have, then and now, predicted that his ideas would ever make it to a rather mainstream reading list. So, of course, I thought it would be fun to read him once again.

I don’t think I was aware how much I had internalised Freire, and how much of the way that I think about teaching is inspired by that original reading. It was indeed an interesting excercise. Especially because this time around I read his book while thinking how (or if) his ideas could be put in place in tertiary education given the real life limitations of the current tertiary system (like the large size of the classes).

In any case, this lecture also gave me the opportunity to give Prezi a go. First time user, but I love what can be done with it.

Freire’s philosophy is perhaps better defined for what it is not (it is not what he calls banking education). What it is, to me, is what is in this presentation. This presentation also has some thoughts about how I think his ideas could be applied to the current educational system.

It may make for a nice debate, so I thought why let all the work go to waste, right?

Well, here it is:

June 6, 2010

reflective writing on teaching about science

A couple of days ago I took part in a discussion around reflective writing. It was organised by the University’s Student Learning Support team, with the intention of helping students working towards their PhDs to think – in a reflective way – about what they are writing. I was asked along because the organisers felt that some of my blog posts were a good example of reflective writing – showing in my writing how my thoughts about a particular topic develop. (This is the example they chose as a basis for the discussion.) It was an interesting & productive session, & I think I probably learned as much as the students (albeit about different things).

One of the students asked me how thinking about science & reflecting on research affected my teaching. There followed a brief pause for thought :-)

To my mind, thinking about science must surely include thinking about the nature of science – & from there, to thinking about how we teach about the nature of science. This isn’t just idle day-dreaming: if someone is going on to a career in science, then I’d like to think that they have more than a passing understanding of what science actually is. This is something that the new NZ school science curriculum is intended to address (although, realistically, I believe teachers are going to need a lot more support & guidance in doing this). But at university, how do we teach our students about the nature of science? Or, more to the point, how are we going to help them learn about it? For sure, that learning is not going to be on the basis of ‘cook-book’ lab exercises, where students basically follow a recipe to a pre-determined end. (The tutor & I are seriously trying to move away from this, in our first-year bio labs. But that’s another story – perhaps, one that I should persuade her write about here…) We need to give them a lot more opportunities to think like scientists, & to reflect on how science is done.

Standard, ‘traditional’ teaching methods don’t achieve this particularly well. There’s an increasing body of evidence out there that shows this. That student’s original question reminded me of some work I did with a couple of colleagues (& we really must publish it!) looking at how well our students understood the nature of science. To our suprise – & concern – we found that our 3rd-year students had no better grasp of it than the first-years we surveyed. Of course those 3rd-years had a lot more scientific knowledge, but they were still quite shaky on how science worked. To me, this means that we need to be a lot more up-front in teaching the nature of science, & certainly this realisation had quite an impact on my own classroom practice.

Reworking labs is one way to give students more opportunity to ‘do’ some meaningful science, but I firmly believe you can give students the opportunity to practice thinking like scientists in lecture & tutorial classes as well. This is where some of the active engagement techniques I’ve written about earlier come into play. However, ‘thinking like a scientist’ isn’t something that’s picked up by osmosis – we also need to model how it’s done. Those of you who read my ‘other’ blog will know that I’m big on stories as a way of illustrating the way scientists develop their understanding of the world. As I said there, telling the occasional story lets students see scientists as people who are thinking; speculating – saying ‘what if?’; using hypotheses, looking at evidence, ultimately making those strong explanatory theories that tie it all together. They’re thinking creatively: science is a creative process & at its best involves imagination & creativity. They make mistakes! Most of the time we’re wrong but you don’t get to hear about that because it doesn’t make good journal articles; usually no-one publishes negative results. So you just hear about the ‘correct’ stuff. Scientists persist when challenged, when things aren’t always working well. And so on.

Another way to model ‘being a scientist’ for students is to actively show them how you arrive at an hypothesis or the answer to a question. I actively encourage students to ask questions in lectures (& it’s a given that this’ll happen in tutorials) – how else am I to know what they don’t understand, or whether I’ve explained something clearly enough. From time to time, someone will ask a question to which I don’t actually know the answer. (And reflecting on it –  :-) – this is one of the things that I really enjoy about teaching, because it spurs me to go and learn something new!)  And I’ll tell the class that, that I don’t know. They need to know that scientists aren’t infallible, that we don’t know all the answers. (The idea that scientists ‘know it all’, or think they do, is a fairly pervasive one in the media & not one that does us any favours.) But then, I’ll say: but this is what the answer might be, and this is how I arrive at that hypothesis – the information I’m basing my answer on, how it all fits together & so on. In other words, I model my thought processes for them.  Sometimes they’ll call me on that & propose their own explanations. And then, between that class & the next, I’ll go off & see what I can find in the literature that will let me give a better answer – or if it’s a tutorial class we might look it up on the spot, it depends how we’re going for time. (Occasionally someone in the class will do that too – remember, these are first-year students & I think for many of them the prospect of maybe showing me I have got things wrong is more than a little daunting…) Then I can put the information on-line via Moodle, or use it to kick off the next lecture, & hopefully we’ve all gained something from it.

I hope all that helped the ‘reflective writing’ group; that they could take something from it to inform their own thinking & reviews of their work. I know that the reflection spurred by their initial questions, certainly helped me.

Create a free website or blog at