Talking Teaching

December 6, 2018

the sad state of science learning in primary school

This post was first published on my ‘other’ blog. It’s not intended to diss primary school teachers – quite the reverse! They need all the help & support they can get to help them deliver the science curriculum.

In 2011, Sir Peter Gluckman released his report, Looking ahead: science education for the 21st centuryIn it, he noted the need to improve science teaching in primary schools, commenting that

there should be an attempt to improve the confidence [my emphasis] of all teachers within primary schools to assist in science and that all primary schools should be encouraged to develop a science champion.

And in 2012, David Vannier pointed out that

there is growing evidence that too many children are not doing well in science and do not have access to effective instruction, especially at the primary level.

and that

[at] the same time that the New Zealand government is seeking to spur innovation in science as a means to improve the economy, less and less emphasis is being placed on science instruction in primary schools.

Fast forward to Monday this week, when Radio NZ reported on the findings of The National Monitoring Study of Student Assessment (NSSA): that 20 percent of Year 8 children last year reached the expected level of achievement in science – the lowest figure of any learning area in the curriculum. While most children liked learning about science at school – 82% of those in year 4 and 65% in year 8 – those figures haven’t changed significantly since the previous survey in 2010, and the decline between years 4 and 8 should be a concern. Overall, these results don’t augur well for science literacy and engagement with science amongst our young people.

You may be tempted to lay this result at the feet of National Standards. Don’t. Looking Ahead was published in 2011. National Standards were first implemented in 2010, just a year earlier. The issues identified by Sir Peter Gluckman have had a longer gestation than that.

I wrote about Sir Peter’s report at the time, highlighting his statement that

science education is not just for those who see their careers involving science but is an essential component of core knowledge that every member of our society requires.

Thus, science education needs to deliver on what Sir Peter characterised as ‘citizen-focused objectives’, where all children need to have:

  • a practical knowledge at some level of how things work;
  • some knowledge of how the scientific process operates and some level of scientific literacy
  • enough knowledge of scientific thinking as part of their development of general intellectual skills so that they are able to distinguish reliable information from less reliable information.

But can it deliver? His report also notes that

[a] well prepared primary school teacher will integrate excitement about the natural world and scientific forms of thinking into literacy and numeracy teaching, and into general educational processes. The challenge is how to provide primary teachers with the skills to do so. [My emphasis]

I believe that meeting this challenge will require changes to at least two things: teacher-training curricula, and professional development (PD) and support.

Just 25% of primary school teachers hold another qualification, in addition to their teaching degree, and it’s probably fair to say that BSc graduates are in a minority. Intending primary school teachers usually study for a 3-year Bachelor of Teaching degree, and take a range of papers in their first year – including one on science teaching. This one paper, plus learning opportunities while on practicum in schools, may well be their sole exposure to science (Campbell, 2018).

Which is where the PD and support come in. Ally Bull (2016) found that science was “marginalised” in the primary curriculum; and that teachers – lacking confidence to teach the subject – often had little in-school support and only limited access to opportunities for PD. The majority of those providing the PD (51%) aimed to enhance teachers’ confidence to teach science, and just 5% felt that developing their knowledge of science was important. Bull also cited other research that found that “primary teachers’ lower confidence in low confidence in teaching science reflected their lesser degree of content knowledge.”

There are ways to address this. Anne Hume & Cathy Buntting (2014) developed resources and shared these with primary teacher trainees, encouraging them to think about what science ideas they could teach (plus the why, when & how) while using those resources. Their results? Really encouraging:

Even student teachers who had previously felt very apprehensive about teaching science reported feeling far more confident about the prospect after completing the CoRe assignment.

Programs like theirs, changes in teacher education, and the commitment to provide ongoing mentoring and support, should raise teachers’ confidence in teaching science and see them reach their full potential as ‘science champions’. Our teachers and our children deserve no less.

 

 

December 2, 2018

teachers’ reactions to this year’s year 13 bio exam

Today I’ve been hearing from some very unhappy teachers. As in, teachers who are upset to the point of tears on behalf of their students. Excellent, very experienced teachers. The reason for their unhappiness? This year’s NCEA Level 3 (year 13) biology exam, sat by their students just a few days ago.

And at this point I should emphasise that the teachers’ concerns were focussed towards the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, and not the individual examiner(s) who, after all, prepare these documents with advice and guidance from NZQA staff. Their concerns were focused on the system.

Now, it’s several years since I was an examiner at this level, and I know that the nature of the exam has changed. And of course the teachers themselves are well aware of what’s been expected in the past; they’re just taken aback by the nature of this year’s papers**.

Thing is, I was also involved in developing Scholarship-level exams and to me, while for some questions there’s quite a bit of resource material to get through in this year’s L3 exam, the amount of writing required of students seems an awful lot for level 3. The question-books for the exam (you’ll find them here) contain multiple blank pages for students to write their answers: the implicit message is that a lot of writing is needed. There are 3 questions like this in a book, so three essay-type answers for students hoping to achieve an excellence for the paper.

This may not sound like much – but the actual exam covers 3 separate achievement standards. So a student who’d prepared for all three (and most schools encourage this) would find themselves faced with writing up to 9 (yes, nine) extended answers over the space of three hours. (For comparison, a Schol Bio candidate would write just 3 essays in the same time frame.) In other words, the demands of this exam are such that it would quite likely preclude students from doing justice to all three papers.

So, here are some of the teachers’ concerns (I’m quoting with their permission):

  • for an ‘excellence’ response, a student had to demonstrate high-order analysis & evaluation skills, in an answer generated in just 20 minutes (less, really, because of the requirement to read the question & plan an answer first). This is a big ask.
  • students who were slower writers, or who had lower (but still OK) literacy levels would struggle to complete in a way that still allowed them to demonstrate their knowledge about biology and so gain an ‘achieved’. [And let’s remember that there’s a lot more to knowledge than simply being able to write a bunch of definitions.]
  • “all my students felt let down by this examination. All their hard work, dedication, and love for the subject were lost in those 3 hours.”
  • “I have seen a fair few of my students this week and they are so demoralised! Many are gutted they tried to do all 3 papers [because they] couldn’t do them justice- am gutted for them!”
  • “A Facebook comment stated, “OK, I will play their game and only do two externals next year”. What is happening to the integrity of our subject when the assessment is driving the whole course structure of Biology in schools throughout the country?”
  • “We are losing students because the subject is deemed too difficult. A colleague informed me that her daughter would not be taking Biology next year because it was too hard so she is taking Physics and Chemistry instead.”

Yes, this is anecdotal. But if these comments reflect a widespread reality, then science education in this country will be the loser.

 

** I was rather concerned about a particular question, too – but that’s best left to another post, on my ‘other’ blog.

May 10, 2018

talking about what we should teach

This is a cross-post of something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog.

While I was on holiday (Japan – it was wonderful!) – I read Tom Haig’s interesting article about ‘curriculum wars’ over on Education Central, and it reminded me of the concerns I’ve held for some time that we don’t really talk enough about what to teach in our classrooms, be they university-level or in the secondary sector.

Several years back (how time flies!) I was involved in developing the ‘Living World’ component of the New Zealand Curriculum document, as well as entering into the discussions around what the science component of that document should deliver. (Right down to a discussion of what it actaully is to ‘do’ science.) At the time I was somewhat taken aback to discover that the panel was not required to give any exemplars for teachers, any indication of what they might do to help students master particular concepts – something that’s noted by Tom. Yes, I totally get it that schools are free to set their own curricula, but at the same time I couldn’t halp thinking that the occasional ‘starter for 10’ might be useful.

Layered on top of that – & amplified by my experiences in relation to developing and assessing Achievement Standards for NCEA, was the way that while new content or concepts might be loaded on up-front, we didn’t seem to remove stuff at the other end. This had the result that the amount of information associated with a standard might just grown & grow (CRISPR, anyone?). Pretty much the same thing tends to happen at university – if you look at one of the standard first-year biology textbooks, Campbell BiologyA, you’ll see that it’s become steadily thicker over time as new material’s added. (In my experience, at least some first-year uni lecturers argue that all the basic stuff should be delivered at school; they shouldn’t have to teach that. However, this sits poorly against the fact that no NZ universities have any prerequisites for their first-year biology papers, and also suggests that those making the statement don’t really recognise that not all year 13 students are heading for university. Remember, schools have the ability to shape their curricula to suit the needs and requirements of their individual communities.)

In other words, we didn’t seem to be having any discussion around what should be taught, and why. And we still don’t, although hopefully such issues will be addressed in the review of NCEA. For, as Tom Haig says:

Working out what we should be teaching, and why, is something that we should be discussing together and taking much more seriously as teachers than the second place it’s taken to discussions of technique. Hattie, ERO, the Best Evidence Synthesis and so forth are filled with advice about ‘how’, but shouldn’t we be thinking just as hard about ‘what’?

A No relation! I was privileged, though, to meet the late Neil Campbell when he visited New Zealand, and was struck by what a wonderful educator he was.

February 25, 2018

what are the challenges for first-year core science courses?

This is another post based on a talk at FYSEC2017, & which I’ve also published on my bioblog.

Prof Karen Burke da Silva was the keynote speaker at Day 1 of the 2017 First-Year Science Educators’ Colloquium, held in Wellington. Her topic:Transforming large first year science classes: A comprehensive approach to student engagement. Currently at Flinders University, she’s been instrumental in setting up an ‘integrated teaching environment’ that’s seen a drop in withdrawals, and a marked increase in engagement, among their first-year STEM students.

If you’ve read my earlier FYSEC-focused post, you’ll know that student engagement was a hot topic at last year’s colloquium. Which isn’t surprising; as Karen noted, both NZ and Australian universities have trouble with attention, engagement, retention, and performance of their first-years, who face some significant challenges in transitioning from their smaller high-school classes to the large lecture rooms of universities. She commented that

how best to build a first-year program in sciences that allows for different student backgrounds, abilities and interests is a task that all first-year coordinators face.

Because students are so diverse, if we’re going to accommodate their various needs and backgrounds, we really need to know about those first. In Australia, the SSEE Project gathered data on both student and staff expectations and experiences (& whether the two converged) across all disciplines at Flinders, the University of Adelaide, and the University of South Australia. The decision to set this research project up was based on some reasonably concerning information:

  • Statistics show that of all students entering Australian universities one-third fail to graduate and of those students who withdraw from their programs over half withdraw in their first year.
  • Students preparing for tertiary study may do so individually or via school, government and university initiatives. Many students, however, still experience an early ‘reality shock’ during their first semester rather than a smooth transition to university.
  • The mismatch between students’ expectations and experiences has ramifications for their learning, satisfaction, retention and ultimately, their wellbeing.

Among the findings that Karen presented to us:

the majority of students were neutral about, or agreed with, the statement that secondary school education was an adequate preparation for university study;

students from schools offering the International Baccalaureate program outperformed those from all other schools on entering university (with students from state schools doing least well), & the difference was still reflected in GPAs at the end of that first year:  However, the difference between state and private schools disappeared over that time;

friends, university websites, and universities’ recruiting efforts had more effect on shaping students’ views about university study than teachers, guidance counsellors, family, new and traditional media outlets, and provided a more accurate reflection of what uni life is really like.

students’ expectations around what constituted a reasonable time interval for returning marked work to them were not matched by the reality: the majority expected it back in 2-3 weeks, but in reality most waited 3-4 weeks;

the great majority felt that receiving feedback on drafts would be very important to their learning – but most disagreed with, or were neutral about, the statement that they actually received such feedback. (While students may not be aware that there’s more to feedback than written comments on an assignment, providing feedback in a timely manner is something that most universities need to work on.)

When Karen arrived at Flinders, back in 2007, the STEM disciplines had a high fail rate of around 23%; this was particularly noticeable among mature students & those who hadn’t taken the final year of high school. The changes she & her team made to teaching delivery were intended to address this, but they would have the effect of enhancing the learning experience for every student. I found her ideas around this really exciting (although I suspect that those wedded to a more ‘traditional’ approach to delivery would be shaking their heads).

This is what the new program looked like: first up, the first semester of the year became ‘transitional’, ensuring that everyone was in the same place before entering semester 2, which was ‘extension’, taking students’ knowledge & understanding further. Along that were ‘pre-lecture’ classesA for students identified as lacking the normally-expected background in the subject, which resulted in the students having greater confidence in their ability to cope with the subject, plus increased motivation & understanding. And I loved  the idea of regular case-based ‘lectorials’, where the students were actively engaged in addressing the issues raised in each case study. Karen’s research showed that 98% of students reported that these classes enhanced their understanding of how biology relates to the real world.

Learning was further supported by peer-assisted study sessions, run by 2nd- & 3rd-year students (who received training for the role), which were part of the formal timetable and for which students could gain up to 5% of their final grade for attendance. Karen reported that these sessions were very well attended.

And of course, STEM subjects have labs. Karen told us that Australian universities are tending to reduce the lab component of STEM papers, such that most first-year papers have less than 30 hours of practical classes – this is a real pity as in general students really enjoy labs and the practical classes (if properly focused) can enhance understanding of key concepts as well as teaching a range of practical skills. (I’m often perplexed by suggestions that we move to on-line ‘labs’, as both lab & field work have a lot of practical & interpersonal skills development associated with them, & that’s something that you don’t get by interacting with a mouse & a screen.) At Flinders, Karen told us that a science paper would have 2, two-hour, lab classes each fortnight: the first session is all about preparation & planning, & the second is the actual practical work. It seems to me that this would give students a good experience of actually ‘doing’ science – something that the students agreed with, as well as reporting that they liked becoming more responsible for their own learning.

The research projects that all science students at Flinders do in their first year of study would also have that effect, although they have to be scaffolded into these assignments – which also provide an excellent opportunity to learn many of the personal skills needed for successful teamwork. (This is another of those competencies that universities often say their students gain, but for which they often don’t really provide much in the way of carefully-designed learning opportunities.)

I was fascinated to hear that Karen also includes art, & other creative tasks, in her assessment tools – this is great as it allows students to recognise that science contains an element of creativity. She commented that having the first assignment as an art project both helps to remove the fear associated with doing a science assignment, and helps connect the teacher with their students. The question she sets is a very simple one: what does biology mean to you? These were self-graded, something that would make many science lecturers raise their eyebrows! – but apparently in moderating the results Karen’s found that 90% of the class awarded themselves the same marks that she would. Of the remaining 10%, those who graded themselves lower tended to be female, while those giving a higher mark were male. The students submitted some amazing work.

Apparently other staff weren’t always happy as they felt that students didn’t give their own assignments the same attention – but there was a happy outcome: they began to look at ways of offering the opportunity for similar assignments, with a real-world focus, in their own papers. I’d do that myself, given that these changes in delivery & assessment had a marked impact in terms of student outcomes, with fewer failures & withdrawals.

And we were reminded that students need to feel some connection with the institution & with those teaching them. (There’s quite a lot of literature available on this, including TLRI studies from NZ & other papers like this.) Having that contact offers opportunities to find out how the paper is progressing, & also to identify any problems that students might be having & to refer the students to appropriate support if necessary. I think it would also help lecturers to understand the school system that our students have come from; having that understanding is crucial in optimising the transition from secondary to tertiary learning environments.

We ended with some questions around the value of recording lectures. My institution does this; I suspect most universities in NZ do. Feedback from students indicates that the practice is helpful for international students, those wanting to review their understanding, & for those who’ve had to miss a class; Ican certainly see the peak in views just before a test! But we’re finding that many students neither attend class, nor view the recordings, & while some may muddle through like this, others don’t. So, we need to come up with a way to change students’ mindsets – and for their seemingly insatiable demand for recordings & lecture notes & previous exams. (This is something that’s definitely a carry-over from school, I think.) So, how do we deal with that demand, that sense of entitlement, that lack of engagement? I’m not sure I have the answers. Do you?

Karen thinks recorded lectures have changed face of education in a very negative way. Good for internationals, for high-achievers, for review. But the mid-range group don’t show, don’t view the recordings either. If we’re to continue with recordings then we need to change the student mindset as well.

A For those interested in the concept of prelectures, here’s the abstract from one of Karen’s papers on the subject:

First year biology students at Flinders University with no prior biology background knowledge fail at almost twice the rate as those with a background. To remedy this discrepancy we enabled students to attend a weekly series of pre-lectures aimed at providing basic biological concepts, thereby removing the need for students to complete a prerequisite course. The overall failure rate of first year biology students was lowered and the gap between students with and without the background knowledge was significantly reduced. The overall effect of the implementation of pre-lectures was a more appropriate level of teaching for the first year students, neither too difficult for students without a prior biology background and no longer too easy (or repetitive) for students with high school level biology.

February 13, 2018

engagement & experiences in undergraduate science education

This post is based on a presentation at the 2017 First-Year Science Educators’ Colloquium (FYSEC), and is also published on the Bioblog. 

At FYSEC2017Gerry Rayner led a session called “Undergraduate science education in the 21st century: issues, needs, opportunities”.

Gerry kicked off by commenting that education has a greater impact – on students, teachers, and the wider society in which education systems are embedded – when people work together across a range of disciplines. What are the issues currently facing undergraduate science in NZ & Australia, he asked, and how do we address them? This was something that generated quite a bit of subsequent discussion. On the list:

  • rising enrolments: Gerry commented that in Australia, the removal of caps on enrolment, together with international demand, meant that some predictions of student numbers saw growth of perhaps 30% over the next few years’
  • increased diversity – not only cultural and ethnic diversity, but also a wider range of prior knowledge and academic achievement on entry;
  • as fees increase, and with that, student debt, we’re already seeing a change in attitude: students see themselves as customers, paying for a product, and can expect particular outcomes;
  • lower on-campus attendance may well have an effect on student engagement (and comments from attendees showed that this is something we all face) – but, to support increased numbers, we are pushed to provide more on-line delivery;
  • this means that educators need to provide not only more on-line content and assessment, but also the sort of meaningful interactions that enhance student engagement;
  • the need – Gerry described it as a moral obligation, & I agree that the obligation is there – to provice meaningful opportunities for students to enhance their employability. That is, it’s not all about mastery of content, and students also need to gain a whole range of work-related competencies and capabilities.

Gerry then introduced some data from a report on student engagement in New Zealand universities (Radloff, 2011), which defines this thing called ‘engagement’ as

students’ involvement with activities and conditions that are likely to generate high-quality learning, [something that] is increasingly seen as important for positive learning outcomes

and comments that

measures of student engagement provide information about individuals’ intrinsic involvement with their learning, and the extent to which they are making use of available educational opportunities. Such information enhances knowledge about learning processes, can be a reliable proxy for understanding students’ learning outcomes and provides excellent diagnostic measures for learning enhancement activities.

This wide-ranging report is based on data from the AUSSEA survey of student engagement, & includes chapters on Maori and Pasifika student engagement; engagement in relation to field of study; the experiences of international students; relationships between engagement, preparation for study, and employment; students’ departure intentions; differences between part-time & full-time students; and the impact of distance education cf on-campus learning on student engagement. The survey has 6 engagement scales (academic challenge, active learning, student/staff interactions, enriching educational experiences, supportive learning environment, & work-integrated learning), & 7 outcome scales (higher-order thinking, general learning outcomes, general development outcomes, career readiness, average overall grade, departure intention, and overall satisfaction). In Radloff’s report the AUSSE data from NZ were also benchmarked against responses from Australian, South African, and US undergraduate students.

The results, said Gerry, were generally good but (& the report also makes this clear) not entirely comforting. In measures of engagement, for example, NZ students rated the quality of staff-student interactions quite poorly (an average score of 18 compared to 35 in the US); and a low proportion (across all countries) felt that they had enriching educational environments – while at the same time strongly agreeing that they had quite a supportive learning environment!

And on the ‘outcomes’ scales, only about a third of NZ first-year students felt that they had gained some level of career readiness through their uni studies. At the same time, around 30% of them had considered leaving university (yes, there were a range of reasons underlying this). Even by the end of the degree only 35% felt that they were really career-ready, & 29% had considered leaving during the year. This is not particularly positive.

Overall, for the natural & physical sciences, NZ students felt that: they didn’t get a lot of support from their university; they were less likely to answer questions or get involved in discussions; they had low levels of interaction with others in their class; felt they had lower career readiness, and lower levels of workplace-integrated learning experiences, than students from other disciplines (in fact, in this 2011 report only 9% reported involvement in some sort of placement or work experience); tended to have jobs unrelated to their future study/career hopes; and were less likely than those from other disciplines to feel that their study at uni helped prepare them for the workplace.

And again, there’s that 30% of them who either considered leaving, or planned to leave, before completing their studies (but those reporting working regularly with others in class were much less likely to be in this group). However, it’s not all doom & gloom on that front:

while nearly one-third of New Zealand’s university students have seriously considered leaving their university before completing their study, students are generally very satisfied with their experience at university. [Around 75%] rated the quality of academic advice received as ‘good’ or ‘excellent. [And more than 80%] were satisfied with their overall educational experience… The vast majority … indicated that given the chance to start over, they would attend the same university again.

Nonetheless, Gerry argued (& I agree), it appears that as a country we don’t prepare science students particularly well for the workplace – despite the fact that we’d hope that they will be contributing to the ‘knowledge economy’. So the delivery of workplace-integrated learning (WIL) becomes something that STEM faculties need to look at more closely. We also need to work on improving student perceptions of the nature of their learning experiences & outcomes. Here, Gerry suggested that experiential learning that helps develop skills as well as content knowledge, peer tutoring, innovative use of technology, case studies, group work, and role playing can all help – and can also be a part of preparing students for the WIL component of their learning, and for the workplace after university. (Of course, this means that institutions also need to provide ongoing PD for their teaching staff, to support them in using new means of delivery.)

Students benefit from WIL, as they can get a better understanding of the world beyond the universities. This is true even for projects run on campus, so long as there are industry links of some sort and the students are working on authentic problems that let them apply their content knowledge in real-world contexts. But WIL has benefits for academics as well, as the improved connections with employers can deliver research opportunities. It requires effort (& investment) to set up, but the outcomes for institutions and students would make this worthwhile.

A AUSSE: the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement

A.Radloff (ed.) (2011) Student engagement in New Zealand’s universities. pub. ACER & Ako Aotearoa. ISBN 978-0-473-19590-8

October 2, 2016

unplugging a flipped classroom

The always-excellent Faculty Focus has been running a series on techniques for developing and running flipped classrooms. I’ve been reading them with interest, because – as some of you might remember – I’ve ‘flipped’ some (but not all) of my own teaching sessions.

Now, my own classes have been pretty low-tech; with the ‘design-an-organism’ classes (an idea that I learned from my colleague Kevin Gould), students are expected to do a bit of revision of their notes, but the actual lecture-room experience involves nothing more than group work + pens & paper (& a projector to share the results).  So the topic of a recent post naturally caught my eye: The Flipped Classroom Unplugged: three tech-free strategies for engaging students – not least because at my workplace there’s an increasing amount of discussion around ‘going digital’, and we need to take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Dr Barbi Honeycutt’s list includes: adapting the ‘muddiest point’ feedback technique (except now it’s the students who analyse the comments for commonalities and patterns); mind-mapping; and a brain-storming challenge.

I use mind-mapping quite a bit in class, & also in my own thinking & planning. Barbi’s post reminded me of the PhD research of my friend (& then-student), Cathy Buntting, in which she had me teaching students in tutorial classes how to develop mind-maps using the same tools Barbi describes: post-it notes, pens, & large sheets of paper (in place of whiteboards). (Writing concepts on the sticky notes lets students move them around, revising their maps as their understanding changes.) We also encouraged the students to use concept maps in their revision & to plan essays in exams – and Cathy found that the sort of deep learning encouraged by this technique really paid off in those examinations: students who’d learned complex information using concept maps did much better on questions testing complex understandings than those who tended to use shallow, rote learning methods. (There was no difference between the groups when it came to rote-learning tasks.) She also found that a large majority of students thoroughly enjoyed these tutorial sessions and found the mind-mapping technique both enjoyable and helpful.

I’ve used concept mapping widely (though not exclusively; a range of tools is much better) ever since. However, in lecture classes it’s usually been as a means to show how to review knowledge of a topic & plan out an exam answer, after students have spent time in discussion. In future, I really must be a lot more active in encouraging their own use of this tool in lectures, & not just in the smaller, more manageable tutorial sessions.

Thank you, Faculty Focus!

 

May 1, 2015

a learning experiment, and a pleasant surprise.

On Wednesday we ran our first whanau tutorial with the first-year students – a class for those students who identify as Māori. The driver for this was the observation that a disproportionate number of the Māori students in my first-year class didn’t do well in our first test, & as a result I asked Kevin, our Faculty’s senior tutor responsible for supporting Māori & Pacific Island students, to see if he could help me by setting up a whanau tutorial.

So he contacted all the Māori students in the class, sorted out a time & day that worked for them, and booked a room, & both of us organised some food and drink. Kev welcomed everyone & one of the students said a karakia (prayer) before we started. Brydget, the senior tutor who runs our first-year bio labs, came along, and so did one of the tutors from Student Learning – who took on the role of asking the ‘silly questions’, to show the students that asking questions really is a good thing & one that’s encouraged. Which gave me the chance to steal one of Brydget’s lines: that the only silly question is the one you didn’t ask :)

There was a test coming up and so the students wanted to work through questions from previous tests, plus they wanted to know how to learn (& remember) things like the characteristics of some animal phyla. I did a bit of talking but for much of the time we had the students working together in groups after a bit of an explanation from me. It was great seeing the energy levels, the engagement, and the fun in the classroom. Brydget & I both try for that when we’re teaching, but this was a whole new level. It was quite a salutory eye-opener for me, as I’ve liked to think I’m an ‘inclusive’ teacher, but I’d never had this level of engagement from this particular cohort before, and I’ve learned now that I still have a long way to go..

We ended up going way over time and the students were buzzing when they left. Kevin always does a survey for his group work and I was really looking forward to the results: there’s a lot of evidence available on the effect of supporting Māori students’ learning styles, but I wanted to see how our own students had perceived the session. Fourteen of the 16 attendees completed the survey, & it turned out that

  • all 14 agreed that they could understand the presenter.
  • they loved the learning environment, commenting that it was easier to ask questions; they liked the interactions and group work & the opportunity to work out the answers; felt that I’d explained things clearly & liked it that I made sure they understood before we went on to a new topic; the sheer informality & friendly environment went down well.
  • they’d all recommend it to their friends (yay!) & rated it as either very good or excellent
  • and felt it was a great way to revise.

As I said, a salutory learning experience for me. I’ve always tried to make classes inclusive, interactive & so on, but it was obvious that the set-up of this particular workshop – with its focus on a specific cohort – provided the spark that was missing.

Even better, next morning a lot of the whanau participants came along to a standard tut with a lot of other students there, as they usually do – but this time things were different. They were much more active in the class, spoke up more and asked more questions than before; their confidence was at a whole new level. They were the only ones to point out to me that I’d made a mistake with labelling a diagram :) (And I said thank you, & that I appreciated it, & it showed they really understood that particular topic.) And afterwards some came up to say how much they’d enjoyed the whanau tut, and a couple followed me back to my office to ask more questions – also a first. And after the test last night I heard that they felt they were much better prepared, this time round. (I haven’t started the marking yet, but I am sooo hoping that this translates into improved grades!)

So yes, we’ll continue this for the rest of the semester, and on into the next half of the year. There’s nothing novel in what we did, & I certainly can’t claim any credit (there’s a lot in the literature on how best to help Māori students in tertiary classrooms eg here, here, here, & here). I’m just mentally kicking myself, and wishing we’d done it much sooner.

And I’m thinking: the Tertiary Education Commission has identified Maori and Pacific Island students as groups that TEC would like to see increasingly more involved with tertiary education. And to do that, and to maximise their learning success, we do need to reorganise our classrooms: eg do more flipping; get used to a higher level of chatter as students work together to solve problems; reduce the formality inherent in a ‘normal’ teacher-driven lecture class & sometimes become learners alongside our students. And that requires recognition that students’ needs have changed since those of my generation were on the learners’ side of the lectern, and that learning styles can and do differ & can be accommodated by using a range of teaching techniques. In other words, a classroom culture shift – one that sees educators recognising that they, too, can be learners when it comes to meeting the needs of a changing student demographic.

And of course, the evidence is already there that making these changes benefits all students.

March 19, 2015

music to learn by

I’m always looking for interesting ideas that might spark student engagement. A couple of days ago this rap video popped up on the ScienceAlert FB page:

As you can see, it’s a fun post with a serious message & – I think – an excellent piece of science communication.

Anyway, then this happened:

BIOL102 chat re rap on FB

I’m really hoping that we can make this happen. It would be an excellent way to enhance interactions between undergraduate and grad students, and also with academics if they would like to be involved (& I’d hope at least some would!) It would give the grad students (& staff) an opportunity to communicate with a wider audience about the nature & significance of their work, and the undergrads who take part would gain some of the capabilities that they need in the world beyond university.

Here’s hoping!

 

November 10, 2014

a surprising misconception

I spent much of the weekend marking first-year biology exam papers. It was a lovely weekend & I really didn’t want to miss all the nice weather, so I ended up finishing the task well after midnight last night. And in the process I identified evidence of what is, on the surface, a really puzzling misconception, one that relates to the effects of X-chromosome inactivation.

Now, we’d spent quite a while in class discussing X-chromosome inactivation in female mammals: why it happens, how it happens, & its phenotypic effects (anhydrotic ectodermal dysplasia, anyone?). One of the images I used in this discussion was of Venus, a tortoiseshell cat with an extremely unusual colour pattern:

This image comes from the NBC News site, but Venus is a very famous purrball who even has her own Facebook page, and I’ve blogged about her previously. She’s either a chimera, or we’re seeing a most unusual (but not unique) example of the typical X-inactivation tortoiseshell coat pattern. Anyway, I used a similar image of Venus and asked

What is the most likely explanation for the colour pattern shown in the coat of this female cat?

And about 90% of the class answered, “co-dominance”. Which really made me stop & think.

Why? Because it suggests that, while I’m sure they could quote me chapter and verse regarding a definition of co-dominance, they haven’t really thought any further about what that means in phenotypic terms. For if codominance were in play here, with both alleles for coat colour being expressed in each cell where the gene’s active, then we shouldn’t see that clear definition of the two halves of the cat’s face. Instead, both should be a fleckled mix (is ‘fleckled’ a word? Yes, it is; Shakespeare for the win once more) of black & golden hairs (rather like roan coats in cattle & horses).

And this gives me pause – & cause – for thought, because this isn’t a mix-up that I’d have even considered before. Is ‘codominance’ their shorthand for one gene, or the other, being expressed (due to X-inactivation)? Or do they really think that’s how codominance works? If so, it does suggest that a) I didn’t really explain codominance (or X-inactivation) all that well this year, & b) I need to review what I do before teaching that particular session again.

 

 

November 5, 2014

reflections on using AdobeConnect in a tutorial

Recently I went to a couple of seminars/tutorials on using AdobeConnect in teaching & learning. As I vaguely remember saying somewhere else, this bit of software looked a bit like panopto might, if it were on steroids, & I could see how it could be a very useful tool for use in my classes. Not least because (as you’ll have gathered from my last post), there’s some concern around student engagement, particularly among those who don’t actually come to lectures, & AdobeConnect seemed to offer a means of enhancing engagement even if students aren’t physically present.

I decided that I’d like to trial it in the two pre-exam tutorials I’m running this week (my class has its Bio exam on Friday – the last day of the exam period. No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing for most of the upcoming weekend :( ) I would really, really like to use it during lectures, so that students not physically on campus can still join in, but, small steps…

So, first I set up my ‘meeting’. Work has made this easy by adding an AdobeConnect widget to the ‘activity’ options in Moodle, so that was pretty straightforward; I just needed to make the session ‘private’ so that students signed in using their moodle identity. The harder part of the exercise lay in deciding what to actually do when in the meeting room. In the end I set it up with a welcome from me, a ‘chat’ area, so students could ‘talk’ with each other & ask questions, and a ‘whiteboard’ so that I could draw (& type) in response to those questions. And, when the class actually started, I spent a few minutes showing everyone there (the 20 or so who were there in the flesh, & the 8 present via the net) what each of those ‘pods’ was for & how to use them.

You certainly have to keep on your toes when interacting with a mix of actual & virtual class members! My thoughts & observations, in no particular order:

  • remember to press ‘record’ right at the start, if you’re intending to record a session!
  • next time (ie tomorrow) I’ll remind those physically present that they can log into the meeting room too – this could, I suppose, be distracting, but it also means that they would be able to participate in polls, for example. I did it myself, at the launch of our ‘connect week’, just to see what everything looked like from the on-line perspective.
  • it was really, really good to see the ‘virtual’ students not only commenting & asking questions, but also answering each other’s questions. I hadn’t expected that and it was a very positive experience.
  • but do make sure that you encourage this cohort to take part; they need to know that you welcome their participation.
  • the rest of the class seemed to quite enjoy having others interacting from a distance.
  • next time, I’ll bring & wire in my tablet, & use that rather than the room computer. This is because I do a lot of drawings when I’m running a tut, and while you can draw on the AC whiteboards, using a mouse to do this is not conducive to nice smooth lines & clear, precise writing. I <3 touchscreens!
  • it’s very important to remember to repeat questions asked by those in the room: the microphone’s not likely to pick their voices up, & if you don’t repeat the question then the poor virtual attendees won’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.
  • with a pre-exam tut it’s hard to predict what resources might be used, in terms of powerpoints, web links & so on. For a lecture I’d be uploading the relevant files right at the start (ppts, video links & so on), but today I was pretty much doing things on the fly. However, I’m running another tut tomorrow & have put links to a couple of likely youtube videos into the meeting page already.
  • Internet Explorer seems to ‘like’ some AC actions more than Chrome; the latter wasn’t all that cooperative about ‘sharing my screen’, which seemed to me to be a better option than uploading at one point in proceedings.
  • as a colleague said, doing it this way meant that overall I had more people in class than would have been the case if I’d only run it kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) – what’s not to like?
  • for me, the whole session was quite invigorating, & I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning to use a new piece of software to improve the classroom experience.

Mind you, on that last – it was my impression that the classroom experience was improved. And you’ll have gathered that I truly did have fun. But I’m not a learner in the way that my students are. So I asked them for feedback (interestingly, so far I’ve had only one comment + my response on Moodle, but as you’ll see we’ve had a reasonable dialogue on Facebook) – and here’s what they said:

BIOL101 Adobe Connect tutorial

So next year I will definitely be using this during lectures, and to interact with my Schol Bio group & their teachers – and I think we’ll definitely have one tut a week (out of the total of 6 that we offer) that’s via AC, so that students that can’t come onto campus can still  get the benefits of that sort of learning environment.

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