Talking Teaching

February 27, 2012

what is the caminalcule lab supposed to teach?

Filed under: science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:37 pm

It’s quite interesting (& post-provoking) to read the search terms for this blog every now & then. Today’s examination gave me the title of this post :-)

I was first introduced to the Caminalcules way back in the dim dark past when I was a brand new undergraduate student. They were the basis of a lab exercise on evolution & evolutionary relationships, & were invented by the taxonomist Joseph Camin to aid learning about taxonomy & classification. Here’s what they look like (these are just the ‘living’ species):

The idea was to sort them – both ‘living’ and ‘fossil’ species – into groups on the basis of various similarities, & then to work out a possible family tree (a phylogeny) that reflected their possible evolutionary history. Camin used made-up ‘animals’ rather than actual organisms because he wanted to avoid students’ preconceptions about relationships affecting the development of their phylogenetic trees.

I must have found this rather fun because, when I was in the position of redeveloping a paper on the evolution & diversity of life, I remembered the Caminalcules & decided to use them as the basis of a lab class myself. As you do, I did a little googling & found not only the images of fond memory, but also a lab exercise developed by Rob Gendron, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I e-mailed Rob & he very kindly allowed me to use his lab exercises in our BIOL201 paper. (And I’m extremely grateful that he was so generous with his resource – if you read this, Rob, thank you again!)

I must admit, I did wonder what today’s computer-savvy generation of students would think of a paper-&-scissors exercise, but apart from one or two who felt it a bit kindergarten-ish, everyone seemed to enjoy identifying the features that would (& wouldn’t) be useful in working out relationships & in building up what turns out to be quite a complex family tree. Along the way they learn about synapomorphies (features shared by a particular group that derive from a common ancestor for that group); how to recognise convergent evolution; and the taxonomic significance of vestigial characteristics (among other concepts). They’re also challenged to think about how environmental conditions might drive the diversity seen in some lineages of Caminalcules, and similarly, why other lineages appear to be in evolutionary stasis.

You can see that there’s a lot of concept development, & good hard thinking, going on in this lab. Because it’s such a good introduction to thinking about evolutionary history, I used it as the first lab in our 12-week semester, to give the students the framework into which to fit the concepts & ideas they’d be gaining as we worked through the rest of the paper. Camin’s original concept has turned out to be one useful, & long-lived, idea :-)


When I went looking for the image I’ve used here, I was enchanted to also find the “Snouters“, another family of imaginary creatures. (I actually have the book about them, thanks to one of my brothers.) So nice to be reminded that science doesn’t always match the popular image, but is also about creativity, imagination, & downright fun!

February 26, 2012

in the rush to ‘e-learning’, are we losing sight of our goals?

One of the ‘big things’ in schools these days seems to be the increasing expansion of e-learning. I’ve written previously on one school’s decision to require all its new students to have iPads, or similar tablet-style computers. At the time I worried about whether, in the rush to embrace new technology, the question of whether its use would enhance student learning was being left behind.  And a friend of mine who’s a secondary teacher recently said something similar: these technologies can be tools for learning but do not & should not replace the need for linking our teaching to a student-inquiry-based experiential and cognitive-conflict-based learning (which requires a lot of forethought & planning from teachers!).

That concern resurfaced yesterday as I was reading the NZ Herald‘s on-line edition (on my iPad, lol), & found one story citing a couple of US reports suggesting that perhaps e-learning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The first of the Herald‘s references was to this report at Education News Colorado, which examines the performance of students who are taught entirely on-line (for a range of reasons, that could include having dropped out of  ‘regular’ schooling, living in an extremely isolated area, or for philosophical reasons. At this point I need to note that the news report is based on an analysis of on-line school data, & so far doesn’t appear to have been published in the science education literature. (However, the Colorado Department of Education annual report, from which the data are drawn, can be found here.) Nonetheless, the analysis does appear to highlight some rather worrying trends:

  • Online students are losing ground. Students who transfer to online programs from brick-and-mortar schools posted lower scores on annual state reading exams after entering their virtual classrooms.
  • Academic performance declined after students enrolled in online programs. Students who stayed in online programs long enough to take two years’ worth of state reading exams actually saw their test results decline over time.
  • Wide gaps persist. Double-digit gaps in achievement on state exams between online students and their peers in traditional schools persist in nearly every grade and subject – and they’re widest among more affluent students.

Now, one reason put forward by education officials for the apparently wide differences in results was that on-line education was pretty much an option of last resort, & certainly at least one Colorado virtual school does appear to target at-risk students who may well be behind on many educational indicators. However:

The analysis of state data shows, however, that most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students. Only about 120 students of the more than 10,000 entering online programs last year were identified as previous dropouts returning to school, and only 290 entered online schools after spending the prior year in an alternative school for troubled youth.

The obvious question is, why? Because there does appear to be something going on. And it’s relevant to NZ even though fully on-line teaching is a long way from the use of iPads & their like in a bricks-&-mortar classroom: we’re still looking at two stages on a continuum here.

Part of it could be that kids are not really as tech-savvy as we’d like to think. Putting them in front of a desktop computer, or giving access to things like tablets, doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily use the technology to its best advantage. They may well need to learn that skill. And those using the technology to teach also need to think about how well it fits their learning objectives – is it there because it’s ‘there’, or because it enhances learning in some way.

Coming back to the full-blown exclusively on-line learning thing: there are also issues of community & pedagogy. In a real (as opposed to virtual) school, students are part of an actual community that includes both their peers & their teachers, & which can extend into the community outside of school. It can be rather isolating to be a distance student, & not be a part of that (this was certainly my experience when I was studying extramurally for my teaching qualification).

Which is where the pedagogy comes in. Certainly from a university perspective, we haven’t always been terribly successful at moving from the face-to-face to the on-line teaching environment. However, technologies like vide0-conferencing, skype, moodle & panopto can help to give some sense of belonging to a learning community – as can tailoring teaching materials to this alternative means of teaching & learning, instead of simply uploading everything in the format that’s used in ‘normal’ classes. Are some of the students in the Colorado study missing out on that sense of community?

And the Herald‘s second reference? It was to this story (from September 2011) in the New York Times, which carried out what looks like a fairly extensive investigation on the use of technology in schools, before concluding that

schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

Now, that’s talking about the current status quo in parts of the US. New Zealand’s a long way back from what the NYT is describing, both in the extent of our technology roll-out & in the amount of money we have available for it.  And the research into the effectiveness of on-line teaching & learning is certainly being done (here, here, here & here, for example). (There’s also an interesting review of ‘virtual schools’ available here, which uses New Zealand as one of its examples.)

But still: technology, in education as elsewhere, is a useful tool, but not necessarily a panacea for all ills.

assessment for learning

A month or so back, my friend  Grant asked if I would follow up on my promise to write something on assessment. It would be great to get a discussion going around how & why we assess students, so after a bit of thought I decided to kick things off with the following post, derived from my own teaching portfolio document. (I rather feel that I need to be careful that too many of my posts don’t become Oracian in length! Not that there’s anything wrong with Orac’s posts!) It was originally posted over at Sciblogs.

For all teachers, the $64-question is whether students are learning (and, whether they’re learning what we would wish them to learn!). Assessment is the usual tool for finding this out, although it may have unintended consequences when the nature of the assessment task shapes what and how the students learn. It took me a while to realise this – and it may be that many tertiary teachers still don’t realise this, perhaps because they are focused on teaching the content in a particular discipline rather than on the best methods for doing that.

Students tend to focus on tests and final examinations, which are forms of ‘summative’ assessment; they give the assessor an indication of where the students are at, at the end-point of a program or part thereof. The downside of this is the situation where students use techniques such as rote learning to prepare for these assessments, without necessarily taking the information on board for the long term. This is exacerbated when lecturers ask questions that simply test recall rather than in-depth understanding. Far better to ask a mix of questions, with some that can be answered through recall of facts sitting alongside those that require comprehension, understanding, and critical thinking. Students who tend to use surface-learning approaches can attempt the recall-type questions. but the ‘deep’ questions encourage and reward deep-learning strategies. This mix of questions means that it’s possible to use summative assessment techniques to encourage a ‘desired’ style of learning and thinking, particularly if you let students know in advance the type of question that they can expect.

Now, if summative assessment gives you (& the students) a snapshot of where they’re at by the end of a paper, how can you use assessment to improve their learning along the way? By using a range of formative assessment strategies to build student capability, understanding, and confidence.

Formative assessment takes many forms. The most obvious is probably written feedback on reports and essays – time-consuming to deliver, but far more useful to students than simply giving them a grade. UK educator Phil Race suggests giving feedback almost immediately andwithout a grade – because often the student will look at the grade and then pretty much ignore your carefully-crafted comments. Bridget & I try to do this with the essays our students write in first-year, by giving everyone some generic feedback on the issues that we know from experience will be very common. Then we don’t have to address all that individually & can focus on the specific areas with each essay that are good or in need of improvement. Having a good marking rubric – provided to the students along with the essay topics – is a big help with this. In fact, having that rubric also means (says Phil) that you can also get students to evaluate their own work. This may sound a bit counterintuitive but it’s a good way of encouraging them to reflect on the quality of what they’ve done.

Reviewing initial drafts can also help develop a range of process skills, although with a large class I doubt that teaching staff could actually look at them all! On the other hand, you can encourage students to give this sort of feedback to each other during tutorials; it’s a good learning experience for both the reporter & the reportee… Whatever way it’s done, while university assessment practices remain centred on written tests and exams, it’s really important to help students develop these skills. For example, extended essay-type answers are expected to show the writer’s understanding of key concepts and the ability to think critically about information from a range of sources. Yet science students fresh from the NCEA may not have these skills, because even ‘discuss’ questions require only relatively brief answers. So finding ways to provide meaningful formative feedback on essay assignments gives students valuable learning opportunities & also makes it more likely that they’ll develop the deep learning skills needed for real mastery of a subject.

I’ve written previously about other, in-class techniques that can provide students with immediate formative assessment on where they’re at with their understanding of a subject (here, and here, for example). Actually, the lecturer gets formative feedback too – if class responses to an item show a general lack of understanding on an issue, then that should be a pretty clear signal that I need to try a different approach :-) Over the years that I’ve been teaching I’ve increasingly incorporated some of these techniques, & one that both I & the students (judging from their comments eg “I really like the little quizzes in lectures, the conversations, and the freedom to ask questions”) find useful is in-lecture pop quizzes.

The way I use them, each quiz consists of one or a few questions that either examine students’ prior knowledge of a concept we’re going to discuss, or test their memory & understanding of concepts just covered. Students discuss their responses with each other & then I display the answers on screen & explain why I think a particular response is the correct one. (Quite often this will lead to further discussion.) There’s no pressure, no marks, but the class gets immediate feedback on where they’re at. Plus, the use of techniques like this can lead to greater student engagement and promote more active learning.

As well as encouraging students to think more deeply and critically, teaching methods like this also help them to make connections between concepts and ideas, and with their existing knowledge framework. Sometimes this can be a bit uncomfortable, when you find that existing & new information simply don’t fit together & you have to do a bit of hard analysis of your viewpoint (the ‘troublesome knowledge’ that Michael Edmonds wrote about on Sciblogs NZ). And the evidence is there that learning to link concepts in this way does have a positive outcome for our students: while for ‘recall’ questions there was no difference between students who’d learned concept mapping & those who had not, for big-picture and interpretive questions there was a statistically significant improvement in pass rates for the concept-mapping group (Buntting et al., 2005).

Of course, assessment is only part of a bigger picture. Whatever the assessment techniques you use, they have to fit within papers with a clear outline of their structure & content, so that students are aware from the start of the material they will be covering. (If you’ve read an earlier post on visualising a curriculum, you’ll know that this does come with a caveat.) They need to know how – and why – the course will be assessed. It’s also a good idea to spell out your expectations of the students, and what they can, in turn, expect from their lecturers. All these things work together to encourage students to develop an independent, deep-learning approach to their studies – & set them up for learning for life.

Now I need to get on & write something about assessment & learning objectives…

C.Buntting, R.Coll & A.Campbell (2005) Using concept mapping to enhance conceptual understanding of diverse students in an introductory-level university biology course. Paper presented at the 36th annual conference of the Australasian Science Education Research Association

February 19, 2012

have universities degraded to only teaching scientific knowledge?

The title of this post is one of the search terms that people used when they came here to Talking Teaching. It caught my eye & I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings.

We’ll assume that this question is directed at Science Faculties :-) Using ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science. (If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say – oh OK, I will say – that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience (eg homeopathy, ‘therapeutic touch’, etc) has no place in a university, & it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in the curriculum eg in the US, UK & Australia. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, & close investigation – in one case, by a 9-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subject? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?

I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ & not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts & expect them to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences & a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowledge they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit their new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.

What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that simply by presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking & answering questions in a scientific way.  And in that sense, then I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’ – until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts & cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts, conveyed very little about what science is actually all about.  And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (here, here, & here, for example).

Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (& much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of uni, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments & must surely have talked about the hows & whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour. However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, & they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy & the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, & students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first year. In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously. And when you’re under pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses want students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’d generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.

Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller 3rd-year classes?) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, & practicing a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I linked to show that it can be done, and done very successfully. Argument 1: there’s more to producing a scientifically-literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, & then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world.

And argument 2: giving students early practice at doing & thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study. (In NZ, graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!)

I’m sure you can think of others :-)

here be dragons

Over on SciblogsNZ we had a bit of a discussion around the issue of science & belief systems. How far should scientists, & those who communicate about science, go in ‘pushing’ against strongly-held beliefs? (These could include creationism, but also beliefs about ‘alternative therapies’ such as homeopathy & TCM.)

It is an area where care is needed, because if you ‘push’ so hard that people feel their ideas are threatened, they may become defensive & those ideas more entrenched. Neither’s a desirable outcome from science’s point of view. On the other hand, in teaching about science, from time you actually need to put students in an ‘uncomfortable’ place regarding their conceptions about the world, if they’re to examine those questions critically & perhaps reshape them in the light of the new knowledge they’ve acquired. (If that doesn’t happen, then that new knowledge is likely to be learned only superficially – quickly gained & just as quickly forgotten.)

I’d like to reproduce a comment from that thread, partly because it would be good to get a discussion going around the question of how far & how best to promote a science-based world view, & partly because the comment reminded me of the late, great Carl Sagan: I’m just re-reading his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I enjoy the lyrical nature of much of Sagan’s writing, but I also like this book for it’s ‘baloney-detection tool kit’ – a set of useful questions & approaches to encourage & strengthen critical-thinking skills. 

Anyway, here’s the comment: 

[if we just accept a belief system], in the end we pass deeper into the land of moral equivalency (how dare you question my belief system – it’s as valid as yours!).

Here be dragons.

Dragons are best slain – no good comes from people attempting to turn them into pets, or ignoring the fact that they scorch the curtains and eat children.

What do you think about this?

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