Talking Teaching

July 29, 2010

learning in lectures is a two-way street

As you’ll have gathered, I really enjoy my first-year bio classes, & one of the reasons for this is that the students respond to my questions and ask questions of their own. I’ve just read Marcus’s excellent post on what he’s learned from his students & it’s spurred me to write a bit about this too. What follows was originally published on my ‘other’ blog.

So, what’s so good about student questions? Well, as Marcus says, those questions, & the students’ responses to our own probing, can combine to tell us (ie the teachers) a lot about our students’ current understanding of a particular topic. And if it turns out that they don’t follow it, or have particular misconceptions, then there’s not really any sense in going on to the next topic regardless. You’d just be muddying the waters further. Unfortunately there’s a tendency to push on anyway; after all there’s so much other material to get through & surely the students can read up about the bits they don’t get, after the lecture’s over? But it doesn’t work like that, so heaps of kudos to Marcus for throwing out 3 of the ‘set’ tut questions so that he & the class could focus on coming to terms with one key issue. (& if students in his class are reading this – you’ve got a really good teacher.)

The other thing is, you can just about guarantee that students’ questions will lead to me learning something new :-) Take moss, for example – a student question in a botany lecture led to my learning something quite fundamental about moss biology. So do bear with me while I set the scene…

You’ll sometimes see moss described as a ‘lower’ plant: mosses don’t have any xylem & phloem (the vascular tissues that transport water & nutrients around the plant. Their leaves generally lack a cuticle, which along with the lack of internal plumbing makes them very susceptible to dehydration; they don’t have roots, just ‘rhizoids’; and they use spores for dispersal.

By the way, mosses can tolerate extended periods of dehydration just fine. They go brown, shrivel up, to all intents & purposes look dead – but rehydrate them & bingo! they spring back into life. This poikilohydric lifestyle means that mosses can live in some pretty extreme environments, including mainland Antarctica (not the Antarctic peninsula), where they’re the most complex plant around. A bit like the plant equivalent of tardigrades, really :-)

Anyway, back to the spores. Mosses, like all plants & in fact like algae as well, have a life cycle that’s characterised by something known as ‘alternation of generations’. In algae, mosses & ferns this manifests itself as 2 separate plants: a gametophyte generation, which produces the gametes, and the spore-producing sporophyte. (In the gymnosperms & angiosperms you never actually see a separate gametophyte, it’s tucked away inside the tissues of the sporophyte, which is the familiar pine tree or rose bush.) This is quite a complex way to do things, & among the bits which my students struggle with, & which we consequently spend a bit of time on, is the number of chromosomes in the gametophyte & sporophyte.

Because plants ‘do it’ differently from animals. In terms of chromosome number, gametes are haploid – they contain just a single copy of each chromosome. In animals, gamete production & the type of cell division that produces them, meiosis, are very closely linked. But that’s not the case in plants. Here, meiosis takes place in the sporophyte & produces, not gametes, but haploid spores, which are then shed & dispersed by the wind. When they germinate, they grow into the gametophytes, which are thus also haploid. Some gametophytes are female, & produce eggs; others are male & produce sperm (but by mitosis, not meiosis, so there’s no further change in chromosome number). When a sperm fertilises an egg, this produces a diploid zygote (ie two copies of each chromosome), which goes on to grow into the sporophyte. (There’s a nice video about this here on Youtube.)

Well, we’d spent quite a bit of one lecture going through this (& subsequently spent a fair bit of 2 more), & then someone said: but what determines whether a gametophyte plant is male or female? And do you know, I didn’t have a clue. It just wasn’t a question that I’d thought to ask myself, & maybe you can put that down to the fact that I’m really a zoologist by training rather than a botanist, & maybe I’d just never thought about it :-) But my goodness, once that student woke me up to the fact that here was something fairly central to the subject we were talking about, I went off & found the answer.

It turns out that in moss, all sporophytes are XY. This means that meiosis will produce 2 types of spore: half of them will carry a Y chromosome, & grow into male gametophytes. The other half have an X chromosome & become female gametophytes. Said like that, it seems quite straightforward, & I was mentally kicking myself for not having thought about that earlier. And when I went to the next lecture & shared what I’d found out, I also made a point of thanking the students for asking that key question in the first place. Because without that I might still be blissfully ignorant on that question (& yes, I’m sure there are many others!).

Learning in lectures does indeed go both ways.

July 23, 2010

reflecting on why i enjoy first-year teaching

The other day Marcus wrote a post about teaching first-year classes, & some of the things he said made me reflect on how I became a ‘first-year specialist’ & why I get so much enjoyment out of teaching at that level. (And I have to say that I don’t think he’s giving himself enough credit – the fact that he’s constantly thinking about what he’s doing, & how to improve his teaching & his students’ learning, makes him a good teacher at any level :) )

My first taste of teaching at university was as a ‘demonstrator’ – a senior student assisting with teaching in first- & second-year biology lab classes. This was while I was working towards my PhD. After completing that (in 1983) I went on to get a job as a secondary school teacher, something I really enjoyed, & I stayed in that area until in 1992 I was asked  if I’d be interested in returning to Massey University’s Ecology Department as a senior tutor (which I found quite flattering as it wasn’t as if I was actively looking around for a position!). To begin with, this just involved lab teaching & being responsible for the first-year papers that we taught extramurally, but pretty soon I was asked to take on a bit of lecturing as well.

This sounded like it could be fun, but it was also a rather daunting prospect. I knew I was pretty good at controlling classes of 30 students or so at secondary school, but we were talking around 400 uni students here. And they could be an unforgiving lot – I had not-so-fond memories of a class way back when I was a first-year myself. In this particular case it was right at the start of the semester & the lecturer – who was completely new to the job & I think to uni teaching – stood up & told the class just that: that he had no real experience of teaching at uni level & hoped we’d be understanding. Alas, some in the class weren’t; their behaviour was pathetic & paper darts were just a part of it. That was a good lesson for me – to be confident (or at least to present that way, no matter how hard the butterflies were flapping in my stomach) about what I was there to do. Having that secondary school experience helped – some 4th-form (year 10) classes that I’d encountered had a reputation for being ‘difficult’ & if you didn’t come across as confident & in control from the start you were sunk…

I found I really enjoyed lecturing, but my goodness! I was nervous before each class. And to some degree I still am: nervous that I’ll forget something important (I don’t use notes, just powerpoint images & some words as cues), or that I’ll say something stupid & totally confuse everybody. I think that’s actually quite a good thing as it means that I think carefully about what I’m doing & I plan ahead. And revise/review stuff all the time, not least in the light of student feedback on the papers I teach & on my actual teaching. In fact, I think that when I stop being a bit nervous is probably going to be a signal that maybe I should consider looking for something different to do. (The other signal – & just as important! – would be when I stop having fun in the classroom & it all becomes just routine.)

When I joined the Biological Sciences Department at Waikato I was taken on as a ‘specialist’ first-year teacher, partly because that was where my experience was & also because by this time I’d also been working quite extensively with school students & teachers on a variety of  ‘outreach’ activities. That, plus the fact I was a trained secondary teacher, convinced the then Head of Department that I had a contribution to make in bridging school students into study here & also in developing & enhancing our (then rather minimal) links with the secondary schools in our region. So, while I have taught at all levels up to PhD supervision, first-year makes up the bulk of my teaching role. And frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. I do believe the HoD was right, that my secondary background – & since then my various other activities to do with NCEA – gives me a good understanding of where my first-year students are coming from, that helps enhance their enculturation into the university world. And besides – first-year teaching’s such fun!

No, seriously – I really do enjoy it. I’m my own worst critic if I think I’ve done a poor lecture, but I love teaching & I really get a buzz out of first-year classes. They’re always challenging, not in the sense of my having to do a lot of crowd control, but because you can guarantee that someone will ask a question that I haven’t anticipated & that I really have to think hard about before I can answer it properly. But that is good too – keeps me on my toes! – but also gives the opportunity to model how scientists think. You know – “I don’t actually know the answer to that one. But, on the basis of this information, here’s my hypothesis about how it could work. Now, if that hypothesis is correct, what do you predict that we might find if we do ‘x’?” And so on. Intellectually stimulating for all parties :-) Weaving a story that ties what they are learning with me, at this minute, into what they learned at school and what they’ll be learning with the next lecturer or the next paper, is also fun. (Yours truly is a firm believer in the power of narrative.) Plus, I love that ‘buzz’ that you get from a class that is (mostly!) engaged with what’s going on in the classroom – & it’s so good to see someone’s face light up when something you’ve said ‘clicks’ with them :-) That really makes my day.

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

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.

July 11, 2010

the importance of critical thinking

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 12:37 pm

At the end of my last post I mentioned critical thinking – & said I’d leave that topic till later. This is ‘later’ :-)

If you ask a university lecturer to list the attributes that they’d like to see in their graduates, then ‘critical thinking’ will feature somewhere on that list. It’ll probably be in the institution’s ‘graduate profile’ as well. What I’d like to consider is, how well do graduates actually match that particular part of the profile? How well do we help them to become critical thinkers?  (That last means, not just talking about it, but modelling critical thinking skills for our students – & giving them the opportunity to practice! They’ll only learn by doing.)

What is a critical thinker, anyway? I’ve heard it said that a critical thinker is someone who has an open mind on issues under discussion – but not so open that their brains fall out! When faced with a given position statement (‘therapeutic touch really works’; ‘intelligent design explains biodiversity better than evolution’; ‘scientists are wrong about global warming’; & so on), someone who thinks critically will ask things like:

  • What is the source of your information?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • Is a different conclusion more consistent with the data?
  • What is an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?

These are ‘Socratic questions’. Brian Dunning (of Skeptoid) offers a good introduction to the use of these questions. And he makes a very important point. The end point of critical thinking (skepticism, if you like) should not be simply the debunking of a particular point of view. That’s not exactly helpful (even if it does provide temporary satisfaction to the debunker!) As Dunning says, “[s]kepticism is about applying the scientific method to arrive at a conclusion that is evidenced to be beneficial…” In other words, it’s not enough to demonstrate why that point of view is incorrect – you need to produce an interpretation or explanation that better fits the available evidence, and ideally one that can be usefully applied to solve a problem.

And learning to do that takes time. And practice.

July 7, 2010

the first-year experience – from the academic’s point of view

Yesterday we had another meeting of the uni’s Teaching Network – an informal meeting of staff from across the campus to talk about some teaching-related issue that interests us. (Lunch is provided – an added extra!) Today’s topic was ‘the first-year experience’, beginning with a discussion of the NCEA. The ‘National Certificate of Educational Achievement’ is the qualification gained by most state (public) school students in New Zealand, although some may opt for the Cambridge International Exams or the International Baccalaureate. It was a good choice of topic as many (most?) university lecturers are pretty much unaware of the intricacies of the NCEA, & most people there probably went away with a better understanding of the whole system.

Then the discussion got really interesting. How much attention should we pay to the NCEA ie to systems of assessment used in schools – & also to their curriculum? How helpful is it for our students if we use those systems (or something similar)? Can we change the way we teach & assess our students, given that there’s likely to be more experiential learning – & assessment of that learning – going on in your average secondary school classroom than you’d see in many first-year lecture rooms & laboratories? And should we? Shouldn’t students simply ‘harden up’ & get used to the fact that universities do things differently? Are we doing our students a disservice if we change what we do to accommodate their different prior experiences? Would this constitute ‘dumbing down’ the university experience? Can we improve our use of learning objectives? How good are we at teaching our students the skills & attributes of critical thinking?

I can’t pretend that I know all the answers to those questions, but I’ll certainly do my best to give you my perspective!

On the issue of curriculum awareness, I would argue that all first-year university lecturers (at the very least) should be aware of the curriculum that students taking their subjects would have followed in their senior secondary school years. How else can we be sure that we’re linking in with students’ prior learning; that we’re not hitting them with ideas they’ve never heard of (& so have nothing to build that new information onto), or with material that has already been fairly thoroughly covered at school? Neither of those possibilities strikes me as a good thing as there’s the potential for students to turn off from what’s going on in our classrooms – either they feel that they’ve heard it before & get bored (& maybe don’t recognise how what we’re doing might be building on that earlier knowledge), or they don’t understand & give up.

I’ve already written a bit on the nature of assessment; here, for example. Personally I believe that universities can learn a bit from looking at assessment systems like the one used in NCEA – not to say that it’s all sweetness & light, but it is definitely a more transparent system than is typical in many university papers. And I like the fact that students are scaffolded into the question & that examiners must think carefully about exactly what they’re testing (& I speak from experience here). For example, if the intention is to examine students’ ability to interpret information, then in NCEA you give them that information, rather than expect them to regurgitate the facts before interpreting them. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t expect students to learn key facts & concepts! Only that perhaps we need to think more carefully about what & how we’re assessing.

At yesterday’s discussion someone raised the point that we don’t have funding to change what we do, that in a financially-tight environment exams & multichoice tests are the best way to handle the demands placed on the lecturer by the need to assess learning – in large classes in particular – & that change would require money we don’t have. I’m not sure that I agree with that. Some of the changes we’re instituting in first-year biology – peer-marking of essay drafts, for example – certainly take time to set up & you need to educate the students about what you’re doing & why. And of course, there are no actual marks in the mark sheet. But once these changes are in place then – hopefully! – student learning around what’s actually expected of them in tasks such as writing an essay should improve, & from my point of view the end-product should be of higher quality & perhaps even require less actual time from me in marking & giving feedback :-) So I would argue that it is possible to change the way we teach & assess even in large university classes, in a way that links with students’ earlier experiences of these processes & enhances their enculturation into the academic world of the university.

The counter-argument to this is that we would simply be perpetuating the ‘spoon-feeding’ that may have gone on in schools. Should students just ‘get on with it’, harden up, & accept that universities do things differently? (Secondary teachers: please don’t shoot me! I don’t actually agree with that; I’m being rhetorical here :-) Well, not really, this argument was raised yesterday.) This would perhaps be true – if universities can demonstrate that their way of  ‘doing things’ produces better outcomes, in terms of student learning, than the alternatives I’m discussing. But I’m not 100% convinced that we can. For example, if you look at your average ‘graduate profile’ – the statement of what graduates are capable of – you’ll find it says things like ‘will demonstrate critical thinking skills, be an independent learner, be capable of communicating in a range of different modalities’, & so on… But – how do we know this? Do we give students the opportunity to learn & practice these skills, & how do we know that they possess them at the end? Traditional, teacher-down, lecture- & ‘cookbook’ lab-based teaching isn’t going to deliver on these things.

The other thing here, of course, is that the nature of the student body has changed over time. When I was a student, mumblety-years ago, only a rather small proportion of senior school students went on to university. We were taught by that traditional method, by & large we survived it, & (mostly) we did well. It worked for us, why won’t it work for ‘them’… But this ignores the fact that – whether we like it or not – incoming students are far more diverse, with a wider range of learning experiences, language abilities, cultural backgrounds, & so on. Universities simply have to take this into consideration in their practices. On a purely pragmatic basis, having those who can’t cope (read, haven’t ‘hardened up’) simply drop out won’t serve us well when a proportion of our funding rests on completions & retention rates…

And no, taking all the above into consideration does not equate to dumbing down our curriculum! Doing things differently doesn’t mean doing them less well & may in fact improve the effectiveness of our teaching.

Learning objectives… We all have them. Often they’re implicit, unstated; when you go into a lecture you’ll have at the back of your mind the things you hope your students will learn from it. But all the course outlines I’m familiar with have learning objectives/outcomes written in there somewhere. So what’s not to like?

The trouble is that they are often phrased in such a way that students aren’t actually much wiser about what they’re expected to be able to do. ‘Students will understand/demonstrate an understanding of…’ is a common one, & it provokes the question, how will they (or the teacher) know that they understand? Will they be able to use a piece of equipment in the right way & in the right context? Or show their understanding by explaining a concept or correctly interpreting a particular data set? If the outcome is ‘have the attributes of a critical thinker’ then again, how will both parties know that this has been achieved?

So spelling them out has benefits to both parties, & for those of us on the lecturing side of the partnership, it helps us to focus on what we actually intend our students to gain from our teaching. And from our assessment – assessment drives student learning much more strongly than teaching does. So it’s no use having clearly stated learning objectives if we then go on to ignore them in setting assessment items. If the former expect higher-order skills & the latter test mostly lower-order attributes, then which do you think the students will focus on in their revision & exam preparation? (I have to say, having good clear learning objectives makes it much easier to develop good assessment tools!)

And critical thinking? I think I will save that for a whole ‘nother post :-)

July 1, 2010

reflecting on panopto

Way back at the start of the semester, I started using Panopto software (plus the necessary bits of lecture-room hardware) to record my first-year lectures. It was a bit of a step into the unknown, really, but the technology was there & I could see some of the advantages that could accrue to both teachers & students. Anyway, after a semester of using it, it’s interesting to reflect on how things have turned out.

First up – there wasn’t a drop-off in the number of students coming to lectures :-) This was contrary to the expectations of some of my colleagues & I must say that I was very happy about it. Obviously my students see some value in actually being there. I wonder if part of that is the opportunity to ask questions & also to hear what others are saying – the microphone in the lecture theatre I’m timetabled for picks up my voice very well but not those of students asking questions. This means, incidentally, that you have to be absolutely scrupulously careful to repeat any question or comment that a student makes, so that someone viewing the lecture at some later time knows what’s going on. Without that, it would seem a very one-sided conversation!

It’s been interesting to see how & when the students use the recordings (Panopto gives you the opportunity to review all the statistics around that.) Only a few were looking at each lecture over the few days immediately following the actual performance. Of those only perhaps one or two would look at the whole thing; the others would just view for a minute or a few minutes. And I know that people who were ill or had to be away for some other reason were rapt to have the opportunity to see/hear what had been said in the class(es) they’d missed. So I can see the real potential for these recordings for someone like a STAR student: a secondary school student who’s also enrolled in a uni paper, but who might be doing it somewhere else in the country. It’s got to be better to watch lectures compared to just working through study guide & lecture pdfs from Moodle, even if you can’t actually participate.

The other fun thing to see was how the use statistics shot up before each test & the final exam. Must have been a lot of revision going on there!

And – I know that at least some in the class were downloading lectures to their i-pods. I know this because occasionally you’d see someone in a tutorial scrolling through a lecture as they searched for something to help them answer a question. (I rather like this aspect of the technology. When we had our ‘on-campus’ days for the region’s year 13 biology students, I recorded the talks I gave & put them up as video podcasts onto our external server for teachers & students to access. They’ve been downloaded a few times too, so hopefully people are finding them helpful.)

So it’ll be good to see, when the course appraisals come back, just what the class members think of this new technology. Will they see it as a useful aid to their learning, or just a bit of flashy technology?

What has all this meant for my teaching practice? First up, it’s forced some changes in how I use the classroom. I’ve always been a ‘pacer’ (I’d have made a good lion in an old-fashioned zoo!), but with the fixed cameras that we have in most rooms, that’s constrained, because if you move too far to one side or the other, you move out of the reach of the camera. Maybe the shortened perimeter of my perambulations is better for the students, less distracting? I don’t really know.

I can report that my habit of drawing on slides with the mouse comes across well & is easy to follow in the ‘slide capture’ view. It means that I can annotate slides, maybe do extra drawings, & that’s accessible to the students afterwards. You could argue that I could equally well work on the whiteboard & that’s true, but it wouldn’t be adequately (if at all) captured by the camera in my lecture theatre. If you want an example: it became (alarmingly) clear 10 minutes into a lecture on reproduction that most of the class really had no idea about meiosis, going by their responses to my questions. So there really wasn’t much point in just pushing ahead. Instead, I stopped at a slide on sperm formation & development (spermatogenesis) which happened to have a large margin down one side, & ‘drew’ in that space as I talked about the process & answered questions.  It probably took about 10-15 minutes, but the students seemed much happier with the material at the end of that. Maybe it just helped them remember something that I know they almost certainly encountered at school. Anyway, we were never going to cover everything that I’d originally intended to – but it didn’t matter! We stopped at a ‘good’ place & later on I recorded a voice-over for the bits we didn’t get to & put that on the server for them.

And it’s really useful to see myself as the students see me. I know I use my hands a lot – it’s nice to see that it doesn’t come across as random hand-waving. You can hear what I’m saying: the words are nice & clear & there aren’t a lot of ‘ums’ (thank goodness!). I should probably stop running my hands through my hair when I’m thinking of how best to answer a question. The occasional jokes & asides seem to come across OK. (Actually, I know our Teaching Development folk are using one of my recordings to work with lecturers who want to learn how to peer-review/critique colleagues’ lectures – people are perhaps going to be more open & honest in their criticisms & comments when the person being talked about isn’t actually in the room! I’ve said I would very much like to receive feedback from that group; they’re bound to pick up things that I don’t even notice, so it’s got to be to my benefit & that of my students.)

And I really must stop drinking Coke before the class starts (even if the students do treat it as a bit of a running joke)!

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