Talking Teaching

November 27, 2010

Can negative stereotypes in learning be overcome?

This is a short one.

I just came across this post by Ed Yong in his blog ‘Not Exactly Rocket Science’ over at the Discover site. Ed is a great writer (one of my favourite science writers out there), and this post is so well written that y’all might as well head that way.

Still, I thought it might bring up some interesting conversation.

November 19, 2010

cheating in an exam – how would you handle this one?

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — alison @ 11:59 am

Over on Sciblogs Grant’s just posted a fascinating (& saddening) video that shows how one professor (at the University of Central Florida) handled widespread cheating in a recent exam .

I count myself fortunate that I’ve never been in a position like this. Prof Quinn is obviously absolutely gutted by the decision of so many of his students to cheat on their mid-term exam. I don’t know that I could be as magnanimous as he was, in making them the offer that he did, particularly as the UCF systems obviously allow administrators to work out whodunnit with a high degree of accuracy, so I’d be interested to hear what others think of this.

November 18, 2010

Redesigning my course

As a final assignment for my paper in the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, we were asked to write a 3,000 word essay on a course or teaching module redesign.

I knew this assignment would come up, and started thinking about it early in the year. This allowed me to explore a few things during my first semester teaching, gather student feedback, and give my redesign a test during second semester. I also took advantage of the peer-review assignment to get some nice feedback from one of my course-mates.

One of the questions I asked myself was ‘what would my lecture look like if it was invented today?”. That is, what if I had no access to powerpoints I used in prior years. Would I use powerpoint or Prezi, or just the document camera? Would I give students printed notes or just make everything available online?

It was a great mental exercise (albeit exhausting!) so I thought a reflection on the process was worthwhile and I am happy to share here (with some corrections!).


As tertiary teachers we rarely come across the chance to redesign from scratch a course or a teaching module within a course. More often, we are assigned lectures for which we are to replace a departing faculty member, and in the process we usually inherit their class notes, their slide collection and sometimes even their exam questions. Different iterations of the course most often involve addition and subtraction of material, updates to recent discoveries, changes of images in the slides, but rarely a thoughtful process of reflection on our pedagogy, the values that we hold true, or careful thinking about ‘why’ it is we do what we do and how we go about doing it.

“These tacit beliefs about education are not purely an individual matter. They surface in the language that is used to describe educational goals, in the choice of what it is to be taught, in the design of teaching spaces, in the allocation of time within the course, in decisions about assessment.’ S Toohey, 1999

There are, in my opinion, two fundamental problems with the way in which we approach our roles as educators.

Firstly, at least in the sciences, too much emphasis is currently placed on content. Increases in student enrolment leading to larger class sizes, the increased use of of norm-referenced assessment, and the exponential increase in factual knowledge that is derived from scientific research have slowly shifted the focus of our classes to covering the ever increasing content, sometimes to the detriment of what are probably considered fundamental skills in science, that is, critical thinking, independence, collaboration, and healthy scepticism.

As a result focus in the process of learning is incrementally lost. In a recent conversation with a group of second year students they expressed how they increasingly feel that any learning outside of the boundaries of the material provided in class is both unnecessary, discouraged and detrimental. Their focus slowly becomes shifted from ‘keenly learning’ to ‘passing the exam’. This is in contrast with the views often expressed by colleagues who voice their frustration at finding it difficult to engage students in independent enquiry, and at hearing the old and dreaded question: ‘Will this be in the exam?’.

This mutual dissatisfaction cannot be blamed either on the students nor on the teachers, since they both seem to agree that learning could be a lot more fun if it was focused on, well, on learning! But despite both groups having (at least at the onset) the same objectives, somehow this becomes lost in the process of trying to get an academic degree (or pass a course). The only explanation then is, that it is the ‘way’ in which we go about teaching and learning no longer ‘works’.

The way we teach sends a clear message about that which we value about our teaching (and about our students’ learning). For the most part we lecture in rooms designed for top down instruction, we primarily use summative assessment to determine whether a student passes or fails, and we find it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of outside of the classroom activities that could provide students with formative assessment. A colleague of mine  (Pete Hall) argues that the increased use of norm-reference assessment may also create unrealistic expectations in our students: 90% will fail at being in the top 10%, and inevitably 10% of the students will be in the bottom 10%, no matter how well or badly a group may have met given learning criteria.

It is therefore not surprising that students would equate achievement with exam passes.

Secondly, we seem to have lost sight that teaching and learning is a form of communication, and we as teachers do not seem to be able to overcome the barriers of communication that result from the ever increasing student enrolment.

Teachers, especially those of an older generation, are accustomed to communication that requires face-to-face or at least one-to-one engagement. Students on the other hand, have embraced technology, using SMS text and on-line social network platforms to communicate with a large number of peers.

I would suggest that the barriers of communication that result from large student numbers could be overcome if teachers took advantage of the students’ ready engagement with digital communication. Discussions in the on-line student management systems, the use of social network groups, or collaborative note taking on wikis by a larger proportion of teachers could contribute to the increased communication that is needed to engage students in critical thinking and self directed learning.

Most of these problems can be traced back to the inheritance of pre-existing design. If there was value in this exercise, it primarily came from throwing away everything that I had done before and asking myself: What would this course look like if it was invented today?

And today means teaching students that spend a lot of time on-line, that are invisible in the classroom setting because of the class sizes, that want to know how well they are learning while they are learning and that want to ask questions without hearing responses like ‘You do not need to know that’.

It will be certainly interesting to reflect a year from now on those things that worked and those which didn’t.

The full essay lives here.

November 17, 2010

Learning Outcomes

Filed under: university — Tags: , , — Marcus Wilson @ 4:31 pm

This is a copy of a post on my blog PhysicsStop.

This week I’ve had three fairly lively discussions about learning outcomes in our university papers.  (It’s well blogged already – e.g. here, but I’ll add some things to the mix). The concept is hardly new, but it is only just being given a really wide profile here at Waikato. Although many individual teachers, and many departments, have routinely written learning outcomes for their papers up to this point, it is now becoming mandatory. This is causing a bit of anxiety.

I honestly think that most of the adverse reaction is because it is seen as being another piece of administration work to do that has nothing to do with the task of actually teaching. In fact, it has everything to do with the task of teaching. Simply put, if you don’t know what the learning outcomes for your paper are, your teaching really has no purpose. 

So, for you non-teachers out there, what am I talking about?  A learning outcome for a course is a statement of what learning we want the students to have on going through this course, but given in such a way that it tells us how we would know (and the student would know) if the student has reached this learning. Biggs and Tang put it as “…a statement of how we would recognize if or how well students have learned what is intended they should learn.”  (Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university. Maidenhead, U.K.: Open University Press.)

This excludes words like ‘understand’ and ‘know’; they are too vague; my idea of understanding could be very different from a student’s.   Instead, how would my students be able to demonstrate that understanding?

So, an example. I would like my students to understand ‘skin depth’. That’s not a good learning outcome – it doesn’t indicate how that understanding could be demonstrated – so I ask myself how my students could demonstrate that they understand.  They could do that by calculating a value for skin depth for a particular situation and then interpreting what this means with regard to how far an electromagnetic wave will penetrate into a material.   So I could write “A student (who successfully completes this paper) will be able to calculate a value for skin depth in different electromagnetic scenarios and discuss critically the significance of their result in terms of the penetration of electromagnetic radiation.” 

There is content in the learning outcome, but it isn’t a list of content (That would be something like…   “a student will study….skin depth and penetration of electromagnetic radiation into matter.”)  Learning outcomes are suggestive of assessment tasks – they have to be – since learning needs to be demonstrated. So, for my example, I could assess my students’ ability to meet the learning outcome through having them do a calculation of skin depth, and asking them to comment on what their result implies.

Note that the assessment follows from the learning outcomes, not the other way around. That is, we don’t take the same old assessment that we’ve been using for the last ten years and just write some outcomes based on it. We write assessments based on what we want the students to learn (we all know students learn that which gets them through the assessments).   I used to moan that my students didn’t want to learn physics, they just wanted to pass the exam. The solution was obvious (so obvious that it only took me a few years to grasp…) – if the exam assesses the physics I want students to learn, they will learn it. And probably enjoy it a whole lot more as well.

November 13, 2010

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge – An Introduction

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — kubke @ 10:13 am

This is a guest post by our colleague Michael Edmonds, originally posted in Molecular Matters on We asked if he’d let us cross-post it here as it contains some really interesting thoughts about teaching and learning :)

Early in 2009 I attended a talk by Professor Ray Land of the University of Strathclyde on the topic of “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge”, a topic that I think provides some exciting insights into how students learn and why students struggle with different subjects. I found the talk transformed the way I think about teaching and learning.

Threshold concepts is the idea that within different disciplines there are specific concepts that are so transformative in their nature that they lead to “new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something.” (Meyer and Land, 2006). Such concepts can be described as being:

Transformative – once fully comprehended, they can alter one’s perception of the subject, or of life in general.

Irreversible – once mastered it is difficult to return to one’s previous way of thinking.

Integrative – the new concept is integrated into one’s existing way of thinking.

Troublesome – these concepts may be counter intuitive and initially difficult to understand. They may also clash with currently held values and conflict with one’s current world view (e.g. evolution may conflict with religious values). Hence the term troublesome knowledge.

Bounded – such concepts may “demarcate subject boundaries” (Ako Aotearoa website)

So how do these concepts inform and assist us in teaching? Well, if we can identify threshold concepts in our subjects and work on ways to help students to understand them then we are better placed to help students to truly master our subjects, instead of rote learning facts in order to “pass” the exam. In my opinion the mastering of threshold concepts not only provides for much a deeper understanding of a subject but is also more likely to ignite the passion of a student for the subject.

Examples of troublesome knowledge in my subject area, chemistry, would include equilibria, the kinetic theory of matter, and atomic structure.

Professor Land also made the point that it is not always easy for educators to recognise threshold concepts, because we have already “crossed” these various thresholds of learning, sometimes with no difficulty, and once these thresholds have been crossed it can be difficult to remember how one thought before this knowledge was gained (e.g. threshold concepts are transformative, irreversible and integrative).

I would be interested in hearing from the various readers of sciblogs what concepts in their own areas of expertise they would consider to be threshold concepts.

November 9, 2010

moderation in all things

Over the last week I’ve been marking exams & the experience has led me to think (yet again) about the question of moderation. More precisely, of moderating exams – both the questions, & the marking itself. I’m beginning to think that this is a foreign concept for many teachers in undergraduate papers. (Graduate papers are a different kettle of fish – written exams are sent out so the marking can be moderated, and theses have external examiners as well as being marked in-house.)

Over the years that I’ve been teaching at the tertiary level I’ve seen some pretty awful practices: questions that are so poorly worded as to be quite ambiguous (if I’m course coordinator I take the liberty of rewriting these…); the same questions used year after year (so when papers are available in the library students catch on to this & can simply prepare & memorise answers); questions that require a single, rote-learned word or phrase to answer yet carry the same marks as a question that requires some thought and understanding to answer well… Which generates questions in response: why do people write the questions that they do? What sort of learning do these practices encourage in students? Why don’t we have some formalised system of moderating the papers prior to the exam? (You could probably add more but I don’t want this post to be toooo long!)

Now, here’s why I’m asking (& attempting to answer!) these questions – up until this year I was involved in setting assessment at a national level for our secondary school examinations, plus I’ve also taken done some work looking at Unit Standards at the tertiary level. One of the big differences between secondary and undergraduate exams is that the papers themselves are very closely moderated. Drafts are closely examined by a number of people & the examiner has to be able to justify why they’ve written a particular question in the way that they have. Ambiguities are removed, language is tightened up, examples are scrutinised for relevance and usefulness – and to be sure that they permit discrimination ie  the ability to distinguish betwwen the excellent, the middle-of-the-road, and the just-getting-by students. And the questions themselves are typically supported by some contextual information, the philosophy being that at least some of the time we should be looking at students’ understanding of a topic and not simply their ability to recall facts in a sort of soundbite way. (I sometimes wonder what students who’ve experienced that system think, when they come to uni & hit a different set of assessment practices…)

I suspect that the main reason that this isn’t done for many university exams is that those setting the papers haven’t had any training in doing it. Usually someone’s been hired onto the staff on the basis of their research experience; if they’ve taught before that’s fine but the focus has only recently begun to swing to teaching. And if they do have prior teaching experience, I’d be willing bet that ‘experience’ is the key word ie they’ve picked it up as they went along. There’ll be previous tests/exams to go on for examples in setting assessment & that’s probably what new appointees base their own assessment practices on. The trouble is that this isn’t the best way to develop good assessment practices. That, plus time pressures (multi-choice & one/a few word answers are faster to mark than any sort of extended or open-ended question), leads to overuse of some of the sorts of questions I was complaining about at the start.

Which sort of leads onto an understanding of ‘curriculum’. From tearoom chats, it seems to me that for a fair number of my colleagues see ‘curriculum’ as being ‘the facts that we teach’. In fact it’s so much more. I guess one way of bringing folks to realise this would be to say, OK, what attributes do you want our graduates to have, when they finish studying. (We’ve actually got a list of these on our ‘graduate profile’.) The ensuing list will include things like practical skills, communication skills, the ability to think critically etc. So the response to that is, how are students going to pick them up? For example, they’re never going to start thinking critically about the things they’re learning until they get a clear signal that this is valued (eg via exam questions that allow them to demonstrate that skill). Developing those attributes is also part of the curriculum, and helping students to develop them is also part of our job. How we teach is also part of it: we need to take care to model the skills and attributes that we wish to see in our students.

And it’s important to be aware of that, because teaching methods and assessment practices combine to shape student learning. Which is why that ‘same questions every year’ approach is such a concern. (People can – and do – complain that the NCEA, with its limited set of Achievement Standards that focus on only some areas of the curriculum, drives an undesirable focus on learning just what’s needed to pass the exam. But having questions that change little, if at all, from year to year does exactly the same. If students know that Jim Bloggs only ever asks a particular set of questions, of course they’re likely to focus on learning only what they need to answer them! They may even write answers ahead and commit them to memory. And if the questions encourage shallow, rote learning, then all the other interesting things Jim’s said during the year will fall by the way (and indeed, you have to wonder whether he has a set of learning outcomes in mind when writing his lectures & and his tests…). Surely we want more than this from our students?

So by now you’ll have guessed that I think we do need some form of moderation for undergraduate exam papers. It doesn’t need to be external – it could simply be a brief meeting of those involved in teaching, to go over the paper and be sure that the questions are going to elicit the sort of responses that we really value. Which, of course, fits within discussions around curriculum – which need to be beyond just the indivdual papers. Which is going to get quite involved… I think I’ll just go & have a nice lie-down while I contemplate this prospect in all its glorious complexity :)

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