Talking Teaching

May 12, 2014

facebook – more than just social networking

Some of my readers over on Sciblogs will probably have realised that I quite like Facebook – not least because it’s a good source of gorgeous images and quirky facts that can start me thinking about a new science blog post. (You don’t see that side of me here on Talking Teaching :D ) Also, it’s fun keeping in contact with friends & participating in various discussion groups.

One of those groups was set up by the biological sciences students at my institution, and it’s used mainly for sharing biology articles and images, the occasional in-joke :) , and alerting other students to upcoming events that their committee has organised. This particular page sees a bit more student activity than some of our paper-specific moodle pages, so for a while now I’ve wondered about the potential of a good Facebook page to be more than ‘just’ a place to hang out and share pictures & stories.

Anyway, recently I had a conversation (on FB, lol) with a couple of fellow Ako Aotearoa Academy members about this potential. It turns out that they both use FB quite extensively in their teaching lives and gave me a lot of helpful hints – along with a very recent paper on this very subject (Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014).

Kevin Dougherty and Brita Andercheck teach a large (around 200 students) introductory sociology class at Baylor University in the US. Like all those with classes of this size (or larger), they recognised that one of the major issues they face is

the tendency for students to feel like anonymous spectators rather than active, collaborative participants

– that is, there’s a real risk that many students will not properly engage with classroom activities, & that their learning will suffer as a result. I’ve written previously about flipped teaching as an example of a technique to increase student engagement (& performance), but with a range of different learning styles among class members, what works for one student won’t necessarily work for another.

So, how do Dougherty & Andercheck use social media to enhance their students’ engagement with the subject, and their achievement (as measured against the learning objectives for the paper)?

The larger a class gets, the harder it can be – even with the best will in the world – get everyone actively involved in discussions, debates and group work during class time. Teachers might try & manage this using a Student Learning Management System (SLMS) like Moodle but again, many students don’t really engage here either. (Certainly that’s been my own experience.)

The authors wondered, what about Facebook? After all,

[s]ocial media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are part of life for the generation of students now filling college classes

and it’s easy to load material and set up discussion threads. (Even a relatively technological illiterate like me can do it!) Why not use it as a more engaging SLMS, one that’s more likely to get buy-in from students because it’s already familiar to them?

I can just hear the cries of horror that might greet such a proposition. Don’t students already spend far too much time on FB and other networking sites? It would just be a distraction. These are valid objections. But with evidence in favour from a developing body of research into such uses of social media, Dougherty & Andercheck set up a study of the impact of a group FB page on students’ engagement & performance in their own class.

For anyone interested in doing likewise, their paper in Teaching Sociology has a very useful description of how the class page is set up & administered. (One of my Academy colleagues has similar pages for MOOCs that he is involved in; due to their size, he has some students help with the admin.) It was run in parallel with their ‘normal’ SLMS, Blackboard, and the latter was where students obtained class handouts & readings. FB was for sharing & discussion; for videos, news stories, & photos; for the ‘Question of the Day’.

For students unable to participate or uncomfortable participating in the classroom discussion, we invited them to add their thoughts and reflections to the conversation on Facebook. We used poll-style questions on the Facebook Group as another means to engage students.

Students readily got involved, ‘liking’ posts, joining discussions, and posting material. Two weeks into the semester, more than half the class had joined the page, and 2/3 were part of it by the end of the paper. To see how all this activity affected learning outcomes, the researchers carried out content analysis of student postings & matched this to performance, and also asked students for feedback via the usual paper appraisals.

The appraisal data showed that half the class visited the FB page on at least a weekly basis, and that the majority were positive about its effect on their experience in the class. While  24% disagreed (ranging from slight to strong disagreement) that it enhanced their experience, Dougherty & Andercheck noted wryly that “it was students who never or rarely used the Facebook Group who disagreed”. Students also felt that the page gave them a stronger sense of belonging in the course, and also that it positively influenced their achievement of the learning objectives.

Of course, the final proof of the pudding is in the eating (sorry, channeling cooking blog here!): was this reflected in actual performance? The researchers found that FB group membership showed a positive correlation to total quiz points and total points. It also had “a marginally significant, positive relationship” with both a student’s total score for the paper and their score in the final exam, and the number of posts someone made was linked to their quiz score.

What’s more, their analysis of the page’s content and their students’ use of the page clearly shows how involved many class members became in discussion. This is a big point for me: I use Moodle in my own class & it’s sometimes a bit sad to see how little real conversation there is about a topic. We might see a question posted, followed by a couple of answers, & then it all dies down again. Would discussions become deeper & more complex in a different, more familiar (&, let’s face it, less clunky) medium? I guess there really is only one way to find out. (And I’ll be making good use of the very helpful hints provided at the end of this thoughtful, and thought-inspiring, paper!)

K.D.Dougherty & B.Andercheck (2014) Using Facebook to Engage Learners in a Large Introductory Course. Teaching Sociology 42(2): 95-104 DOI: 10.1177/0092055X14521022

March 31, 2014

paying it forward

Over the last few weeks I’ve been mentoring a colleague from another institution, helping put together their portfolio for the 2014 Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards nominations. It’s been a huge amount of work for them, given the need to encapsulate how they meet the award criteria in a total of 8000 words.

At first this looks an unreachable target, but then once you start writing notes and accumulating statements in support, then the problem becomes how to cut the thing down to size. And many people also find it really hard to write about themselves: it sounds like blowing your own trumpet & that can be a difficult thing to do. (Having said that, I know I looked my own finished portfolio & thought, wow! do I really do all that? It was quite affirming, plus the constant reflection was great for my teaching practice.)

So, it was a lot of work for my colleague, who wrote and edited many drafts, solicited supporting comments from students and colleagues, decided on a ‘theme’ to tie it all together, found suitable images – and all the while also carried their usual demanding teaching & admin roles. (I suspect the research may have taken a back seat for a while.) The end result: fascinating reading on a number of levels and a record of excellent teaching in practice (regardless of what happens in the TTEA stakes).

And on the other end of email & phone, I read those drafts, offered other possibilities for investigation/inclusion, proposed many edits (both large & small), found the occasional image, and suggested cuts – you reach a point where you’ve so much personal investment in what you’ve written that you just can’t bear the prospect of removing anything, no matter how the word limit looms over you**.

Yes, that took quite a bit of time at my end too, & I’ve had other colleagues at my institution asking why on earth I would want to take on such a task. But you see, I believe in paying forward: having won one of these awards myself, I feel that I should share what I’ve learned from the process and to help others with tasks like this.

And I’ve made a new friend as well!


**(I gather I also provided a calming influence :)  It’s been a great learning experience for me too, as I’ve learned about the cool things someone else is doing to enhance their teaching & their students’ learning experiences.)

January 21, 2014

teaching laboratories – the shape of things to come?

A quick post from notes I took during another talk at the Ako Aotearoa Symposium last December: this was an exciting presention on the changing form of teaching laboratories, by Ken Collins and Joanne Kelly from Labworks Architecture (another colleague also mentioned this session, in her own post on the day’s proceedings).  Ken & Joanne began by noting that lab spaces are used for students to gain and enhance a range of skills: critical thinking, developing solutions to problems, working collaboratively, practising practical skills. ‘Traditional’ lab spaces don’t really accomodate all this, they said, & went on to explain why & to share with us some of the solutions they’ve developed for various clients.

Their focus was on the links between space, technology, and pedagogy (something that’s been missing in most of the labs I’ve taught in, where the technology’s been retrofitted as need and funding dictate). Having more flexible spaces encourages pedagogy, which in turn is enabled by space. Pedagogy is enhanced by technology, which will also place demands on space – after all, if you’re using computer screens to show things, you want to be in a room where all students have a clear line of sight to the sceens. In other words, a modern teaching space embeds technology, which of course extends how we use the space. (I see this a lot in the way our wonderful first-year tutor delivers our lab classes, retrofitted technology & all.)

More & more, this is equally true for how we use lecture/tutorial spaces.

‘Old-style’ learning spaces have always tended to focus on the perceived needs of the teacher, & to support highly structured, teacher-led, ‘instructional’ (didactic) learning experiences. Joanne & Ken believe – & I think most of those who attended their presentation would agree – that these days, in a modern classroom, about 15% of lab-room learning would be teacher-led. Of the remainder around would see students collaborating on various investigations 75% – ie there’s much more collaborative problem-solving, which realistically is how many workplaces operate anyway – and the remaining time is given over to small- & large-group discussion & feedback. It’s arguable whether that’s best done in a lab, & so the presenters showed classrooms they’ve designed where glass doors separate formal lab space from breakout spaces. I immediately added that to my mental ‘I’d really like this for our students’ list :)

They concluded by asking us to think about classroom space in general. We’re already seeing a move from libraries as study environment to ‘hubs’, with individual work spaces alongside commons, cafes, and alcoves where people can chill out or just sit for a quiet discussion. What will the future be like, as we continue down this road? (More virtual reality, perhaps? At a previous symposium we heard about the use of ‘virtual labs’, for example, via Second Life, allowing students to practice lab skills & protocols before actually coming into the real-world lab.) Certainly any changes should allow & support innovative practice in teaching & learning; for example, new lecture theatres could be low-pitched rather than steep, with room to move between rows, & thoroughly technology-enabled.

I’ll have to make sure these options are on the table, when the time for lab refurbishment rolls round.

December 9, 2013

shaking up the academy? or how the academy could shake up teaching

Last week I spent a couple of days down in Wellington, attending the annual symposium for the Ako Aotearoa Academy. The Academy’s made up of the winners of the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, so there are around 150 or so of us now. While only 35 members were able to make it to this year’s event (& the executive committee will survey everyone to see if there’s a better time – having said that, everyone seems so busy that there’s probably no date that would suit everyone!), we had a great line-up of speakers & everyone left feeling inspired & energised. I’ll blog about several of those presentations, but thought I would start with one by Peter Coolbear, who’s the director of our parent body, Ako Aotearoa.

Peter began by pointing out that the Academy is potentially very influential – after all, it’s made up of tertiary teachers recognised at the national level for the quality of their teaching, & who foster excellence in learning & teaching at their own institutions.  But he argued – & I agree with him – that there is room for us to become involved in the wider scene. Peter had a number of suggestions for us to consider.

First up, there’s a lot going on in the area of policy – are there areas where the Academy might be expected to have & express an opinion? For example

  • There’s the latest draft of the Tertiary Education Strategy (TES), which “sets out the Government’s long-term strategic direction for tertiary education; and its current and medium-term priorities for tertiary education.” There’s a link to the Minister’s speech announcing the launch of the draft strategy here.
  • In addition, the State Services Commission’s document Better Public Services: results for New Zealanders sets out 10 targets across 5 areas. Targets 5 & 6 are relevant here as they are a reference point for government officials looking at evidence for success in the education sector. (Such scrutiny is likely to become more intense in light of the 2012 PISA results, which have just been made public.) Target 5 expects that we’ll “[increase] the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA level 2 or equivalent qualification”; #6 is looking for an increase in ” the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees (at level 4 or above)”. This will increase the pressure on institutions to increase retention & completion rates – might this have an effect on standards?
  • There’s also the requirement to achieve parity of success for ‘priority’ learners, especially Maori & Pasifika – this is priority #3 in the TES. (Kelly Pender, from Bay of Plenty Polytech, gave an inspirational presentation on how he weaves kaupapa Maori into pretty much everything he does in his classroom, in an earlier session.) And it’s an important one for us to consider. Peter cited data from the Ministry of Education’s website, ‘Education Counts’, which showed significantly lower completion rates for Maori & Pasifika students in their first degrees compared to European students, and commented that this will likely become a major issue for the universities in the near future.
  • If we’re to meet those achievement requirements, then how institutions scaffold learners into higher-level study, through foundation & transition programs, will become increasingly important. What are the best ways to achieve this?
  • Peter predicted increased accountability for the university sector (including governance reform). Cycle 5 of NZ’s Academic Audits has begun, and “is to be framed around academic activities related to teaching and learning and student support.” This is definitely one I’d expect Academy members to have an opinion on!
  • He also expects strengthened quality assurance processes throughout the education sector: this suggests a stronger (& more consistent) role for the  NZ Qualifications Authority, with the development of partnership dialogues across the sector (ie including universities).

Then, at the level of the providers (ie the educational institutions themselves – & that’s not just the polytechs & universities), we have:

  • a targeted review of qualifications offered at pre-degree level – there’s background information here;
  • a government-led drive to get more learners into the ‘STEM’ subjects (science, technology, engineering, & maths) – this poses some interesting challenges as, at university level, we’re seeing quite a few students who’ve not taken the right mix of subjects, at the right NCEA level, to go directly into some of the STEM papers they need for, say, an engineering degree;
  • the rise in Massive Open On-line Courses, or MOOCs. (I find these quite strange creatures as they are free to the student and typically attract very large enrolments, but also apparently have very low completion rates. What’s in them for the institution? A good way of offering ‘taster’ courses that hook students in?)
  • the likelihood that we will see the development of a system for professional accreditation of tertiary teachers (I’ve written about this previously and will write another post fairly soon, as accreditation was the subject of a thought-provoking session at the symposium);
  • how we achieve protection of academic standards – it’s possible that government policies (eg those linking funding to completion & retention rates) may result in a tendency to exclude of underprepared kids &/or lowering standards – neither is desirable but both are possible results of those policies.

That’s a big list and the Academy can’t do everything! So, what should it focus on? (This is not a rhetorical question – it would be great to get some discussion going.) The Academy, in the person of its members, is effectively a resource; a body of expertise – can it become a ‘go-to’ body for advice? Speaking personally I think we need to make that shift; otherwise we remain invisible outside our individual institutions & the teaching-focused activities we’re involved in, & in a politicised world that’s not a comfortable thing to be. Can we, for example, better promote the significance of teaching excellence outside the education sector? Become involved in the discussions around & development of any accreditation scheme? Develop position papers around maintaining teaching excellence in the context of the new TES?

What do you think? And what shall we, collectively, do about it?

November 21, 2013

learning leadership

and yes, that’s an intentionally ambiguous title :) (The full version was Learning leadership: the interplay between our own professional development and our classroom practice.)

I recently gave a pecha kucha** presentation on this subject, at an Ako Aotearoa mini-symposium up in Auckland. The idea for the subject of my presentation leapt to the front of my mind while I was at a Teaching Network*** meeting looking at how to raise the profile of teaching in tertiary institutions (specifically, universities). One of my colleagues kicked off part of the discussion with a brief talk on developing leadership in teaching, & I thought, all this applies to leading/guiding our students to become better learners, as well. Which is pretty much the thrust of my presentation. I pretty much use slides as talking points:











And we finished up with some ideas on what future-focused leadership in teaching and learning could look like.

It would be really good to hear your thoughts on this :)



** a maximum of 20 slides, with a maximum of 20 seconds per slide. Certainly forces you to focus your ideas. Mine wasn’t that long, because I wanted to use it to spur discussion & so we need time for that in my short presentation slot.

*** an in-house group for staff from across the institution with an interest in all things to do with teaching.

August 8, 2012

more on accreditation

I spent some time recently in an interesting discussion around the question of whether tertiary teachers should be required to complete some form of national accreditation. Now, many – but by no means all! – institutions do already have something like this available for their staff, albeit that take-up is essentially voluntary. What would happen to these in-house programs, we wondered, in the event of such a national qualification becoming the norm? Would the individual organisations stop running their own systems? – a pity, in many ways, as these are likely tailored to the needs of their own staff and students. There’s also the issue of portability: whether the putative national qualification would be portable, between institutions and between countries. If this could be guaranteed, then why would teachers bother with the in-house model? This would be a negative result overall, as it would then remove any need for an individual institution to develop and maintain its own programs for its own staff.

We also wondered what form accreditation – accreditation, not a qualification – should take. Teaching excellence is not a static thing: the best teachers are always reviewing, reflecting on, revising and enhancing their practice. A qualification based on examinations are not going to adequately measure these attributes. Far better, we thought, to go with portfoliosmeasured by portfolio of work. This would be a living document as the individual’s practice should be constantly self-reviewed & enhanced, a process reflected in the portfolio.

Part of the discussion hinged on just how you define ‘excellence’. We were all Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award winners, so you’d think we’d know, wouldn’t you? But we’re all excellent at different things, so a definition proved hard to pin down. Can we define ‘excellence’ a la John Hattie’s work on secondary teaching? Possibly. Well, maybe not ‘define’, but we could certainly give examples of excellence from the portfolios of previous TTEA awardees.  could then act as basis of any form of professional development. In fact, you could argue that those awardees show something called ‘positive deviance‘ – and in this instance ‘deviance’ is something to aspire to!

So maybe accreditation would be based on a portfolio – a ‘living’ document – demonstrating someone’s ongoing professional & personal development, & built around a clearly explained concept of ‘excellence’ as it applies to facilitating students’ learning (& helping others to do the same)? Something to be think about, anyway.

May 28, 2012

what’s the academy *for*?

There’s a trend – a trend that is worthwhile & not before time – to recognise excellence among tertiary teachers. (Where ‘tertiary’ = beyond the compulsory education sector, which is so much wider than ‘just’  universities.) In New Zealand we have the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, which recognise & encourage excellence. These awards are funded by the Tertiary Education Commission and managed and administered by Ako Aotearoa, and winners become members of the Ako Aotearoa Academy.

Anyway, I was talking with a group of colleagues on Friday, & one of the topics of conversation was, what’s the Academy for? What does it do?

Well, if you follow that last link, & then peruse the various sections & links on the Academy page, you’ll find it does quite a lot, both for its members & also to foster excellence in learning & teaching across the tertiary education sector: workshops, teaching tools & narratives, the annual symposium for academy members (which is a most excellent event), and a range of member contributions.

All this truly is wonderful stuff – and yet, there’s something that worries me. Because, outside the sector, both Ako Aotearoa & the Academy have, well, quite a low profile. I believe there is a risk – especially in the current economic climate – of the Academy in particular being seen as something of an echo-chamber for the teaching elite, with the associated question: why, in tight financial times, should it continue to be funded? Having a lowish profile is Not Good in these circumstances, because it means that there are few people outside the Academy & Ako Aotearoa who would argue for its continued existence, or mourn its disappearance.

Which would be a pity. Because, having a body of expert teachers actively sharing that expertise means that, over time (& alongside other Ako activities), knowledge that contributes to enhanced teaching practices will spread. Because, when that happens, so too will learning and learners’ experiences be enhanced, so that society can be ever more sure that those learners are prepared for what the 21st century can throw at them. Because, we have so much to contribute (the current debate on what constitutes excellence in secondary school teaching springs to mind).

It’s just that somehow, at the moment, we’re just not very good at getting that across.

June 15, 2011

engaging students effectively in science, technology and engineering

This is another little something that I originally wrote for the Bioblog. It’s a look at a new report published by Ako Aotearoa, the organisation charged with promoting and enhancing tertiary teaching excellence here in New Zealand.

My eye was caught by that title to a paper just out on the Ako Aotearoa website (click here for the summary document & here for the full report). The sub-title is The pathway from secondary to university education, a topic that is dear to my heart.

Tim Parkinson & his co-authors were keen to get a handle on just how university students make the transition from secondary school to university, and how they become/remain engaged with science during that process. The project’s underlying aims were to:

  • improve student engagement in the study of science at university;
  • improve the transition from the school learning environment to that of university;
  • identify and promolgate pedagogical ‘best practice’ for science education in the first year at university.

(I know this is nit-picking, but surely the aim was to provide information that will help universities enhance student engagement and transition, using a range of ‘best practice’ options identified during the project. They weren’t looking at whether particular interventions actually had that result.)

In order to know how to make these changes, you really need to know what’s currently happening – and also how lecturers & students percieve what’s happening in their classrooms. We already know (eg Buntting, 2006) that there’s a mismatch between lecturer & student perceptions about prior knowledge, in biology at least, so I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the same mismatch exists around perceptions of teaching quality and engagement. The research team looked at all this using a combination of questionnaires & focus groups, working with secondary school science students (N=421), university students in their first year of a science degree (N=630), school science teachers (N-33) and uni science lecturers (N=69). Each of the four groups in the study answered the same questions, although the wording differed a bit depending on the group. For example,

Teacher questionnaire: I give students the opportunity to influence the way that they are taught. Student questionnaire: I am given the opportunity to influence the way I am taught.

(Parkinson et al, 2011; answers were scored on a 5-point Likert scale.)

As you might expect, it turns out that lecturers’ style, personality & enthusiasm had a big impact on students’ engagement with science at university, and on their ability to move smoothly from secondary school to higher-level study. But the lecturers’ abiltiy to present information in contexts that students see as relevant to their own specific interests is also important – not least because this would allow students to fit that information into their own internalised understanding of & knowledge about science (their ‘schema’). In addition

learning science in a contemporary context… stimulates engagement, and students enjoy learning when it is connected with a sense of discovery.

And there were definitely notable differences in perceptions related to teaching and learning. For example, the team commented that

… school and university students thought less highly of the abilities of their teacher in [the area of teacher qualities ie things like presentation skills, quality of feedback] than did the teachers and lecturers themselves. For example, university and school learners perceived their lecturers’ qualities to be of a moderate standard, whereas lecturers themselves reported that their own lecturing qualities were of a high standard.

Something that I found intriguing was that none of the groups felt that self-directed learning was a significant facet of classroom activity – its reported frequency fell around ‘sometimes’ and ‘rarely’. Our graduate profile document indicates that we expect students to be independent learners by the time they complete their degree – developing the necessary skills must surely begin in first year! Surely there’s a need – noted by the researchers in their summary, to make sure that we reward such things as critical thinking and other higher-order learning skills (which of course has an impact on how we assess our students’ learning).

It is tricky for uni staff though, for our students come into class with a wide range of previous learning experiences, depending on what subjects and which standards they’ve studied at school. This means that we’re a bit between a rock & a hard place, needing to extend able students with a lot of existing content knowledge without losing those who might not have the same skills or learning experiences. Parkinson & his colleagues suggest that universities – certainly university staff engaged in first-year teaching – need to become much more aware of the learning outcomes gained by students in their NCEA studies. This would mean that those lecturers would be able to

build on the diversity of knowledge that results from the standards-based NCEA high school education.

It occurs to me that doing this would send a powerful message to students – that their lecturers really do care about helping manage the transition from school to uni and are personally interested in their learning outcomes. (I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t, only that students may not perceive things that way!) And that can have a big impact on how students perceive and approach their studies.

C.Buntting (2006) Educational issues in tertiary introductory biology. PhD thesis, University of Waikato.

T.J.Parkinson, H.Hughes, D.H.Gardner, G.T.Suddaby, M.Gilling & B.R.MacIntyre (2011) Engaging students effectively in science, technology and engineering (full report) Ako Aotearoa ISBN 978-0-473-18900-6 (online)

January 24, 2011

changing the culture of science education at research universities

This is a cross-post of something I’ve just written for my ‘other’ blog :)

 That’s the attention-grabbing title of a new paper in Science magazine’s ‘education forum’ section (Anderson et al. 2011). Most readers will know that science education is a subject dear to my heart, & a topic that Marcus & I write on from time to time (here & here, for example). The authors are all professors at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute & are supported by that institution to create ‘new programs that more effectively engage students in learning science’ (ibid), so I was keen to see what they had to say on the topic of raising the profile and status of teaching at the tertiary level.

In the opinion of Anderson & his colleagues (& it’s an opinion that I share)

Science education should not only provide broad content knowledge but also develop analytical thinking skills, offer understanding of the scientific research process, inspire curiosity, and be accessible to a diverse range of students.

 Now, you might think, ‘well, obviously!’, and certainly all my colleagues would agree that these are good aims, but the devil’s in the detail. All institutions have what are called ‘graduate profiles’, & ideally when new curricula are being developed, or existing ones reviewed, their relevance to that graduate profile should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The difficulty, though, is that most university lecturers aren’t trained teachers but have generally ‘picked it up on the job’. They’re not familiar with the science education literature &, with all the pressures on them to generate external funding and maximise their research profile, it’s going to be hard to take the time to find and read relevant material. Heck, at the moment I struggle to find time, and that’s in my research area!

Anderson et al argue that turning this around requires a culture shift at the level of the institutions themselves, suggesting that these institutions need to “more broadly and effectively recognise, reward, and support the efforts of researchers who are also excellent teachers.” They list 7 initiatives that would move things along towards this end.

Educate faculty about research in learning. There’s a wealth of literature out there on ways to enhance teaching and student learning. (I’m reading some of it myself at the moment.) But the key thing here is time. Without time for researchers in any given discipline to sit down & get a a feel for the education literature (without feeling guilty about not spending that time reading in their ‘own’ field, applying for research grants, supporting research students, or teaching…), & to play around with some of the ideas therein, this will be a long, slow process. Maybe a grassroots approach might be better, more engaging? At my institution we’ve got ‘teaching advocates’ (Marcus is one) who organise informal lunchtime sessions for people to sit down & discuss particular teaching approaches, or maybe just throw ideas around. These are good ways of getting discussions going & supporting people in what they’re doing in the classroom.

Create awards and named rofessorships that provide research support for outstanding teachers. Well, we certainly have awards: in-Faculty & cross-campus at this institution & all others I can think of, plus the national Ako Aotearoa awards. And it’s jolly nice to get one, too! But a question that I’d rather like to look into is, what is the wider impact of these awards? They’re nice for the awardee (in a time when the purse-strings are tight, it’s nice to know that you’ll be able to go to a couple of relevant, conferences without having to think too hard about how to fund it!), but do they change the attitudes & perceptions of others on-campus? Do they have a lasting impact on institutional culture?

Require excellence in teaching for promotion. The authors argue, & I agree, that this needs to be a broad-brush approach, not restricted to looking at data from end-semester course appraisals. They say, “[we] must identify the full range of teaching skills and strategies that might be used, describe best practices in the evaluation of teaching effectiveness (particularly approaches that encourage rather than stifle diversity), and define how these might be used and prioritised during the promotion process.” And as part of this we need to encourage people to try new things. There’s a real worry, & risk, that trying something new in the interests of improving your teaching will backfire: if for whatever reason the students don’t like what you’re doing, those end-semester scores may well decline as a result. Which is why these shouldn’t be the only way of measuring teaching quality and effectiveness. (This, of course, requires that the people involved in determing promotion rounds need to be aware of the existence & value of other means of assessing teaching quality.)

Create teaching discussion groups. the teaching advocate meetings run by Marcus & his counterparts, & the institution’s ‘teaching network’ meetings, are developing a nucleus of such groups. Maybe members of these groups might be interested in working on peer assessment of teaching? You can learn an awful lot from watching other experienced practitioners in action – I know I do. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, having another teacher sit in on your classes, but the discussions afterwards can be really rewarding. (In that regard, something like panopto is an excellent tool to aid reflection on your own teaching, if you’d rather someone else didn’t sit in & give you feedback.)

Create cross-disciplinary programs in college-level learning. Or maybe even just cross-disciplinary discussions. When I taught at high school, everyone was involved in staff meetings, so you had plenty of opportunity to talk with people teaching in other subjects. You tend to lose that sort of collegiality in large tertiary institutions, because every Faculty, & sometimes every department, will have its own tearooms & meeting spots. And that’s a pity, really, because unless you go out of your way to meet your counterparts in other parts of the organisation (or even just go to one of their in-house seminars), you can be closed off from some really interesting discussions about research & practice. (But yes, it is hard to find the time. Time, again; that really does seem central to all this.)

Provide ongoing support for effective science teaching. This can potentially be expensive up-front, but has long-term benefits in terms of student engagement & outcomes. Expensive, because students learn science best when they’re engaged in doing science – & this means lab & field work, as often as not.  But how else are students to learn what it is to ‘do’ science, & to become really engaged in that doing?

And finally, Anderson & his colleagues recomment engag[ing] chairs, deans, and presidents (in NZ, a ‘president’ would be a vice-chancellor), because institutional leadership is crucial in bringing about such changes. These leaders – & in fact, all involved in teaching & learning, need to

foster a culture in which teaching and research are no longer seen as being in competition, but as mutually beneficial activities that support two equally important enterprises, generation of new knowledge and education of our students.

Anderson WA, Banerjee U, Drennan CL, Elgin SC, Epstein IR, Handelsman J, Hatfull GF, Losick R, O’Dowd DK, Olivera BM, Strobel SA, Walker GC, & Warner IM (2011). Science education. Changing the culture of science education at research universities. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6014), 152-3 PMID: 21233371

September 3, 2010

reflecting on my philosophy of teaching

This is a follow-on from Fabiana’s ‘congratulations’ post. When you’re nominated for an Ako Aotearoa award, you have to put together a teaching portfolio that reflects on & provides evidence for your philosophy of teaching & learning – at 8000 words this is rather extensive! If you’re chosen for an award, Ako Aotearoa asks for a ‘cut-down’ version to go in a publication that’s sent out to the various tertiary institutions in New Zealand. I asked if I could use that briefer essay here as well & they were OK with that, so here goes. I realise that it’s a very personal reflection & that others may – probably do! – have different perspectives on the things I’ve touched on. Please do share your own ideas :)

I followed a rather indirect path into teaching. In fact, the first career I consciously remember thinking about was medicine. That lasted until I realised that it was a lot harder to put someone back together the right way than to open them up in the first place! So I turned to science, and in fact headed off to university with the intention of following my mother’s example and becoming a secondary school science teacher. All that changed when I was invited into Honours, and for a while it looked like I was headed for a research scientist’s career. But after my PhD I ended up applying for the job of ‘assistant biology teacher’ at Palmerston North Girls’ High. And that was it: I was hooked on the interaction with students and the buzz you get when something ‘clicks’ for them. And I’ve been a teacher, first and foremost, ever since.

Looking back, the eight years I spent in secondary classrooms were invaluable as they gave me an insight into what I could expect of new students coming into my first-year biology lectures and labs, and that’s shaped how I teach. In fact, I’m as much a learner as my students. From secondary school teachers I learn about classroom practices and processes that work for them and with which ‘my’ students will be familiar when they arrive at Waikato. Working on national school curriculum and examinations has taught me a great deal about writing good assessment items. And writing a blog on biology, evolution, and pseudoscience has made me a better communicator and allows me to encourage students (well, anyone reading it, actually) to think more critically and read more deeply in the scientific literature, and hopefully helping to inspire their own passion for science.

I hope that all my students will finish their time with me with some understanding of the nature of science, given that science is such an integral part of modern life. Just giving them ‘the facts’ is never going to achieve this, and in fact I think that a discussion of just how much ‘content’ should be learned is long overdue. Guiding students to an appreciation of the process of science is just as important, something I try to do by telling stories, asking questions, and giving them the opportunity to ask their own. This sort of active participation in learning is what really turned me on to science, and can only help my own students to become ‘deep’, independent learners with a broad, in-depth understanding of the subject. This philosophy influences my course design, teaching, and assessment, and over the years I’ve worked closely with colleagues – in particular the senior tutor with responsibility for running our first-year labs – to review and redesign our introductory papers in ways that we hope will enhance student understanding, learning, and enjoyment.

First-year teaching can be a tricky balancing act, squeezed between the demands of second-year lecturers to have students prepared for their classes, and the need to develop understanding and awareness of what science is all about – in all students, not just those going on to major in science. Achieving this balance is made even harder by the fact that for a lot of students there’s a big gap between what they actually learned at school and what many lecturers assume that they learned. This is one reason I value my ongoing links with the secondary sector so highly – what I learn through them flows on into my teaching and enhances the whole learning experience for my students. I think it’s also put me in the relatively rare – and privileged – position of being able to easily recognise those gaps in learning and to work on bridging them with the young people coming into my classroom. And I do try to give something back, through help with preparing for examinations, and giving talks on human evolution (which resulted in my nickname, the ‘Skull Lady’!).

I’ve never been comfortable with the traditional university lecture format and its transmission model of teaching (lecturer talks, students take notes). I much prefer to actively encourage student participation and a two-way flow of information, telling stories rather than simply providing facts, and using open-ended questions and quick pop quizzes. Each quiz is just a few questions that either examine prior knowledge of the next concept, or tests their understanding of concepts just covered. Students discuss their answers with each other and then with me as well, plus I’ll put my answers up on screen so they get immediate feedback. And they tell me they find all this extremely helpful.

But it’s always easier to get this sort of active participation in tutorial classes, where you can more often use small-group and one-on-one techniques. To me, in tutorials students should feel comfortable asking questions about concepts that they find difficult; about material in upcoming labs; even about items in last night’s news. All these provide more opportunities to help them make those all-important links between new and prior knowledge. I find tutorials enormously stimulating because the students are always asking new questions, and I enjoy the challenge of working to present the answers in a meaningful way. Concept mapping’s a great tool for this, one I began using regularly a few years ago during a PhD research project. This technique lets students see how concepts fit together and allows them to build on their existing knowledge in a way that really encourages deep learning.

Of course, like it or not, students’ perceptions of assessment practices also affect their learning, and you also need to use assessment methods that encourage that desirable deep learning habit. Here again my involvement with development and review of national science curriculum materials, achievement standards and assessment has had a big impact on my own assessment practices, something that was brought home to me when I first set an ‘NCEA-style’ essay question in an exam. The great majority of my first-year class answered that question far better than any ‘standard’ university-style questions in the same exam paper, partly I think because it was a format they were used to and partly because it gave them the opportunity to provide a wide-ranging narrative in response rather than simply repeating ‘the facts’.

We also use the e-learning platform Moodle in a variety of ways: for extra tutorials, as a forum to discuss all sorts of things (including setting up revision groups and helping each other with problems), and as a way to obtain lecture notes to review later. I think this works because the students find Moodle a non-threatening environment (especially when you enable anonymous commenting), which encourages many students to become more involved than they might be in an actual classroom – it’s another way for them to build confidence and capability in their studies. It also gives students another way to contact teaching staff, especially if they don’t like to speak up in lectures or tutorials. Any opportunity to build a personal relationship with lecturers is useful, as we know that this can have a significant impact on a student’s decision to continue with a course of study, or even with their university career. And recently I’ve started using Moodle as a means of supporting the Scholarship Biology students, helping them to develop the critical thinking skills that they’ll need for their exams.

In a way this last is just an extension of my other on-line activities – a couple of websites (Evolution for Teaching and Science on the Farm) and the ‘Bioblog‘. I originally began blogging because some secondary colleagues asked if there was something else I could do to help their scholarship students, and a blog seemed a good way to write posts to get them thinking, to provide up-to-date information, and to talk about the exam. But it’s quickly grown to something that I use with my own students to introduce them to scientific papers, and I find it’s got an international readership – something that gives me a real thrill.

For the future – I want to keep on doing what I know and love. When I reach the point where teaching’s no longer exciting but ‘just another job’, and when I lose that frisson of nerves at the start of a new class, a new year, a new semester, then that will be the signal to stop. But in the meantime, the Ako Aotearoa award offers me the chance to do something (maybe many somethings) to enhance what I do in the classroom. Conferences beckon, but I’m in the fortunate position of having a bit of funding put aside for that anyway. Friends reckon that as the Skull Lady™ I should be buying a new, updated set of hominin skulls for classroom use. But for someone who writes and speaks about evolution, the opportunity to do something like visit the Galapagos and experience some of the things that so deeply influenced Charles Darwin would be hugely inspirational. (I suspect what eventually decides that one will depend on a combination of teaching commitments and the best time to go in order to avoid huge crowds.) But whatever I end up doing, I will remain deeply grateful to Ako Aotearoa for putting me in the position of being able to contemplate this conundrum in the first place.

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