Talking Teaching

October 26, 2013

doing citizen science

This is something I wrote for my ‘other’ blog, but I thought I’d post it here as well as the whole ‘citizen science’ thing has considerable value for school-level education, and I thought some of you would probably have some valuable insights into/comments on the subject.

The other day I was asked for some advice on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)

The idea of citizen science has been around for quite some time – there are papers on the subject dating to the 90s – but in New Zealand I would hope it’s developing a higher profile in the scientific community with the advent of the NZ Science Challenges & their requirement to get ‘the public’ more engaged with the science that we’re doing in this country.

And under the citizen science model this requires some serious thinking about the logistics, because one thing it’s not, is scientists telling laypeople what they’ve been doing. Instead, it sees school children, their whanau, members of various community groups, all getting involved in an organised and coordinated way with the actual research: making observations, collecting data, discussing the results, looking at how to apply them in their area. This is a lot more complex in terms of organisation than arranging to give a talk or write a pop-science article (or a blog!).

Jonathan SIlvertown defines a citizen scientist as “a volunteer who collects and/or processes data as part of a scientific enquiry” (2008: 467), and notes that such projects are becoming particularly common in ecology and environmental science. (And it’s not a new initative: Bonney et al (2009) point out that US lighthouse keepers got involved in collecting data on bird strikes back in the 1880s. Perhaps we could regard Charles Darwin as a citizen scientist, particularly at the beginning of his career – he certainly wasn’t doing it as part of a paying job!) He goes on to say that “[t]oday, most citizen scientists work with professional counterparts on projects that have been specifically designed or adapted to give amateurs a role, either for the educational benefit of the volunteers or for the benefit of the project. The best examples benefit both” (2008: 467). This makes it clear that planning to involve citizen scientists in a given project has to part of the initial project development; it can’t really be an add-on at the end. While many of the projects Silvertown lists are essentially surveys and censuses, Bonney et al (2009) provide a model for doing citizen science to answer particular scientific questions in a way that also enhances science literacy and engagement with the subject.

Bonney & his colleagues work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which over the years has seen the results of many ‘citizen-science’ projects published in a range of journals. At the same time they’ve noted increases in scientific literacy and engagement with science among many of their lay participants. These are very positive outcomes, and they’ve put together a model for setting up such initiatives and assessing their success. Commenting that “e have found that proj- ects whose developers follow this model can simultaneously fulfil their goals of recruitment, research, conservation, and education “, Bonney & his team list the following steps/stages in setting up & running a successful citizen-science project:

1. Choose a scientific question – it will probably be one that stretches across a relatively long period of time, or a large geographic area.

2. Form a scientist/educator/technologist/evaluator team – this must include individuals from multiple disciplines – the scientist to develop the question, methodology & analysis tools; the educator to field-test methods with the participants, develop support materials, etc; and so on.

3. Develop, test, and refine protocols, data forms, and educational support materials: it’s essential that participants receive clear protocols for collecting their data (using clear simple forms) & that they receive help in understanding those protocols and passing their data on to the researchers.

4. Recruit participants. How this is done is going to depend on whether the project is open to all or is intended for a particular cohort eg school students.

5. Train participants, so that they gain confidence in their ability to collect and submit data, & know they’ll be supported as and when necessary.

6. Accept, edit, and display data. “Whether a project employs paper or electronic data forms, all of the information must be accepted, edited, and made available for analysis, not only by professional scientists but also by the public. Indeed, allowing and encouraging participants to manipulate and study project data is one of the most educational features of citizen science.” [my emphasisi]

7. Analyse and interpret data. This can be tricky due to the often‘coarse’ nature of the data-sets collected by participants,  & made more so if there are (for example) errors due to species mis-identification or misunderstanding of protocols.

8. Disseminate results. While this will involve scientific publications, it’s also important – & essential – that the results and their interpretation & application are also communicated with the citizen scientists who helped to generate them.

9. Measure outcomes. These will be both scientific and educational. The former are fairly straightforward to quantify: number of papers published, conference presentations given, or students successfully completing theses, for example. The educational outcomes may be harder to define, but Bonney et al suggest assessing things like the length of time people were involved with the project; how often they accessed web sites associated with the project; whether their understanding of the science content improved over the duration of the research; whether their understanding of the nature of science was enhanced; positive changes in attitudes towards science; better science-related skills; the number of participants stating increased interest in a career in science.

Doing all this will of necessity require education or social science research techniques, so there’s someone else to add to the team. Yes, there are costs, in dollar terms but also in terms of the time taken to set up a rigorous project with benefits for all involved. But there is potential for those benefits to be significant.

R.Bonney, C.B.Cooper, J.Dickinson, S.Kelling, T.Phillips, K.V.Rosenberg & J.Shirk (2009) Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. Bioscience 59(11):977-984

J.Silvertown (2008) A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(9): 467-471

March 14, 2012

how do you give feedback to university teachers

How do you give feedback to university teachers? – this was the search ‘topic’ used by one visitor to Talking Teaching. It struck a chord with me as I’m part of a small group of people discussing that very question, so I thought it might be a good topic for a blog. Not least because actually sitting down & writing about it should help to focus my own thoughts on the issue.

My institution expects teaching staff to carry out regular appraisals of their papers & their teaching in those papers.While there are a number of ways to do this, in practice most people use the ‘standard’ form: a set of Likert-scale questions on both paper & teachers that are common to all appraisals; a set of open-response questions (identify 3 things about this paper/teacher that should be changed/kept the same); &, if the lecturer chooses, some other questions as well. (Last year I included a set about student’s perceptions of Panopto, for a research project that I’m running with a couple of colleagues.) So there’s potentially quite a bit of information available there.

It’s what happens to this information, of course, that matters. Here, the current state of play sees lecturers receive a summary of the Likert question responses, plus any demographic information, fairly soon after the semester ends. Once the grades for the semester are finalised, we’re then sent the original survey forms, so we can then read the open-ended material as well. Both lots of information are potentially extremely useful if you’re wanting to improve paper delivery & your own teaching. The thing is – does everyone actually read it? Anecdotal evidence would suggest not: that the sheaf of paper may sometimes simply be flicked through (at best) before relegation to the paper-recycling device commonly known as a rubbish tin. When this happens, both students & teacher miss out. The students have spent time engaging with the questionnaire & do have a right to expect that their words will be read & (hopefully) responded to. And the lecturer may have missed out on suggestions that might allow them to enhance their paper’s delivery. And of course, there’s no closing of the feedback loop – letting the class know that you’ve read their comments & suggestions, & explaining how & why (or why not) you’re intending to respond to them. This in turn can see students becoming quite disillusioned with the whole process.

One of the options we’ve discussed, as a means of improving this part of the system, is whether to provide teaching staff with a summary of the open-ended questions as well, perhaps with a commentary alongside: “X% of the class felt that…. This suggests that… – have you considered the following.. ?” This, of course, would constitute a lot of extra work for our Teaching Development staff!

And there’s also the question of whether this is the best, or the only, way of getting feedback on one’s teaching.What about on-going formative feedback during the semester, using techniques like one-minute papers or ‘muddy questions’ (in which students highlight the points in a lecture that most puzzled or confused them)? Or the use of feedback surveys in learning management tools like Moodle? There’s also the issue of perceived legitimacy – I’ve heard it said that students don’t know enough about a given subject to give any meaningful comment. (While this is likely true about the content it’s certainly not the case for the methods – students do have a fairly good idea of the teaching styles & tools that work best to enhance their learning.) Would feedback be better coming from peers rather than students? How comfortable would lecturers be with having a colleague sitting in on their classes & providing constructive comments afterwards?

I seem to be posing more questions than I’ve answered! Please feel free to weigh in with your suggestions :-)

December 19, 2010

Reflection on my first year as a student

Well, not really my first year. I started school at the age of 2 and got my PhD at the age of 32, but I hadn’t been a student since (except for a course I took as a post-doc). But this year I started my Post Graduate degree in Academic Practice, and it was, well. quite educational.

What did I learn?

Heaps. Mostly, I think I now understand my students better.

My conversations with my students have always been frustrating. I too often hear about their frustration and disappointment about their relationship with their degrees and coursework.  And it seems that no matter what we do as teachers, this doesn’t seem to go away. And we as teachers, become frustrated as well.

So what was my experience as a student? Well, I would have to say, not too different from that of my students’. And this realisation was shocking to me. Because after all I consider myself a highly motivated and independent student.

What happened between signing up to the degree and the process of taking a course I was totally excited about? I became unmotivated: not about the content, but yes about the process of being a student.

It wasn’t the teachers. They were good teachers. The class setting was adequate: we were a group of 12 students having moderated discussions. It wasn’t that the assignments were not ‘appropriate’. Then what?

I think that I can pin it down to the lack of formative assessment. While the teachers went to a lot of trouble giving me feedback on my work, the feedback was so specific to the assignment at hand that I did not find it useful to apply to other work. And what happened as a result of that really surprised me: I started thinking ‘what does the teacher want’.

Once I handed in an assignment, that was it. I got my mark and I ‘felt’ any interest in my learning on that topic ended at that point. So that prevented me from exploring unusual approaches to my assignments, prevented me from trying to be innovative, prevented me from raising what might be considered controversial points of view. Because after all, my progress was defined by that one mark: I was not given an opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

But wait, isn’t that how we learn?

I started exploring teaching in my own way, but none of that went into my assignments much. I didn’t feel there was much room for that.

For my last assignment I decided to do ‘what I thought was right’. And here is where I ran into trouble. We were asked to ‘redesign’ a course module – 3,000 words essay. I designed the lecture notes that I would give the students, I built a wiki environment for the class and then I realised: I still have to write a 3,000 word essay. Because the assignment wasn’t ‘a 3,000 word essay or equivalent’. It was a ‘3,000 word essay’.

Well, there goes creativity down the drain.

So what could we not do? We could not do a video on the assignment showing how the class would be done (that would have been interesting). We could not do a Prezi or conceptual map (that could have  been cool). We could not do what I did. I still had to write that wretched essay. And my question then is:

Did I sign up for the course to learn how to write essays or to learn how to teach?

And that is where it clicked: I am not being assessed on what I learned about teaching. I am not being offered a space to have a dialog about my teaching. Those 3,000 words are not about my teaching: they are about my thoughts about teaching. And that does not necessarily translate to the classroom setting.

So back to my students: I now see where we are failing. We are not being flexible enough to allow them to relate to the content in ways that will ‘engage’ them with the content. We tell them what is the ‘right’ way to engage with the content. We do not, for the most part, create spaces for learning. We create systems of delivery and assessment.

So that is what I learned. I am a student: I have become disengaged.

So I now have a whole summer to think about what I need to do to create learning spaces where my students (or at least the ones who are interested enough) can explore different ways of relating to the content and thinking about their learning.

Wish me luck.

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 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.

August 18, 2010

controlling nervousness

Every now & then I cruise through the statistics for this blog – it’s always interesting to see who’s linked here & of course we do like to know how many visitors we’ve got! Anyway, I noticed that someone had used the search term ‘controlling nervousness’ & I thought that might make a good topic for a post. (I have to add that what follows is purely from my own experience; I’ve never done a course on public speaking or anything like that!)

I remember being intensely nervous when I first started demonstrating in labs as a PhD student; when I began my secondary teaching career (remember, at that point I hadn’t been to training college…); when I became a university academic. And in fact I still have bouts of nerves today, before I front up to a class – made worse if it’s a topic I haven’t taught before, or (even worse!!) if the audience is a group of academics. Mind you, I do think that some level of nervousness is a Good Thing as it helps keep me on my toes (& if I ever lose that feeling it’s probably a signal that I should be looking for another job), but the trick is to control it where possible.

Part of the nervousness, as a new, first-time lecturer, is due to the fact that you may have absolutely no idea what it’s going to be like. You’ll have been a student, so you know all too well what goes on on that side of the lectern :) But to stand in front of that sea of faces, none of whom you know or have any sort of rapport with; that’s something else again. (Especially if, like me, you have memories of how poorly students can behave if they are so inclined.) If you can (& if they’re willing), sit in on a couple of lectures by a more experienced colleague; they’ll have a few tricks that they use & you may decide that some of these will work for you. Or spend time over coffee or a cuppa talking about what might work in the classroom. Personally I believe that sort of mentoring should be a given; all too often you hear of new lecturers effectively being thrust in front of classes with no real idea of what to do apart from their memories of how they were taught themselves. The current trend of expecting/encouraging staff to take some form of qualification in tertiary teaching (as Marcus & Fabiana are doing)  is a Very Good Thing.

For me, having done my teacher training was a boon, because it taught me a lot of crowd control skills, & that helps control the nerves. Things like setting the ground rules for behaviour right up front – these need to be fair, but they also need to be adhered to. From my perspective, I’m the one controlling what goes on in the classroom, & I have a right to be heard & to facilitate learning without other people creating a distraction; simple courtesy, in other words. (Respect, I have to earn.) From the students’ side of things, they have the right to expect that they’ll be similarly treated with courtesy, that their learning environment won’t be disrupted, that their questions will be answered clearly & well. That early teaching experience gave me the confidence that I could set that sort of thing up. Now, these aren’t ground rules that I’ve ever spelled out, & maybe I should do that… But for me, anyway, it’s more a matter of what I do in front of the class. For example, you need a signal to the class that you want them to be quiet when it’s time for the lecture to begin. You could just try talking over them but that’s never appealed to me, & certainly not shouting – that’s just undignified :) But try waiting them out. Put your first slide up on the screen, look at them (really look around the class, & make eye contact), stand there… and wait them out. As I said in the previous post, I find that dimming the lights at the same time is a good signal, & I usually only have to do the waiting bit once or twice with that before they’re all nicely conditioned.)

What about if someone starts talking at the same time that you are? Myself, I just stop. And wait. And look at them. It doesn’t take too long for them to realise that not only am I doing that, but a fair number of the rest of the class are as well :) If they persist, or do it again, then I’d suggest simply asking if they’re having trouble with the material that you’re discussing. If they are, deal with it then (see ‘the sea of blank faces’). If they’re just gossiping, maybe they’d like to take their conversation elsewhere? Having times during the lecture when the students know they’re going to have the chance to discuss things, or making sure they know that it’s fine to ask questions if they don’t understand something, probably reduces any tendency to chat anyway. (I must admit to being really nervous the first time I used a pop quiz in a lecture & told the students that they had a couple of minutes to discuss their answer with their neighbours. I mean, what if they didn’t quiet down again when it was My Turn??? But it all went swimmingly, probably because they were already conditioned to my signal for when it was My Turn.)

But the really important thing, I think, is not to let on that you’re nervous :) You need to project confidence, even if inside you’re trembling in your boots. It’ll be easier if you’re well prepared (notes in order, powerpoint sorted); if you remind yourself – just occasionally; you don’t want to get cocky! – that you’re there because you do know more about the subject than your students. And if you’re prepared to admit that you’ve made a mistake, or to say that you simply don’t know. (Make no mistake – you are guaranteed to have someone ask you a question to which you don’t know the answer.) You want to be a good role model for your students, & making this admission – and showing that you’re prepared to go look for the answer, or to work it out there & then – is all part of that, plus it shows that you’re only human. Because something I am absolutely certain of, is that there’s an awful lot of stuff I don’t know. But I’m always happy to learn :)

Other sources of information

If you’re keen for more on this subject (as I said, I’m no expert: all I’m doing here is sharing some of the things that help me!), then you might like to read about improving lecturing skills on the University of Indiana (Bloomington) website. The University of Queensland’s Teaching & Educational Development Unit has a very good resource on teaching anxiety (as in, anxiety about teaching), which begins by making the key point that “[if] you are prepared to acknowledge fear of lecturing as a totally surmountable challenge, it can be used to work to sharpen your performance as a lecturer.” And the Cambridge University Press offers an excerpt from The Art of Lecturing that also offers many tips on overcoming nervousness & turning it to your advantage. (I must check with our Teaching Development staff to see if they’ve got a copy, as it looks really interesting.) Enjoy :)

June 8, 2010

About Paulo Freire

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

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

Well, that was quite a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, here it is:

Blog at