Talking Teaching

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.


September 21, 2015

does it help when we give handouts to students?

I seem to be asking a lot of questions in my posts lately.

Recently a teaching colleague pointed me at a post entitled 5 common teaching practices I’m kicking to the curb. While I’ve never used 4 of them, it’s common practice (at my uni, anyway) to provide students with a printed study guide** that contains much of the course content, and most of us also make the powerpoints available ahead of class. (In my case, they’re incomplete; I see no real value in providing absolutely anything that I’m intending to cover during a class.) The intention is that students will read through them ahead of coming to class, & identify the bits where they need to pay particular attention &/or ask questions. The reality, of course, is that some do and some don’t.

But the post my friend shared, plus my own recent learning around the effects of laptops in class, have made me think carefully about this practice. Like the author of that post,

[this] system, I felt, made it easy to catch up students who had missed class, and it prevented students from missing important points made during the lecture.

However, handing out a complete set of everything probably does send a message to some students that they don’t need to do anything further. And if they don’t engage with the material covered – in print & in class – then any learning is likely to be transient at best :( This leads me to think that I should be doing more to help students learn how to take notes that will be useful, in a way that means that they aren’t simply focusing on writing everything down & so failing to pay attention to what’s actually being said. This is important, as I’ve noticed that students will do exactly that (write it all down) for each novel slide. Fortunately help is out there, as the author of 5 common teaching practices includes some useful links, including this one to a University of Nebraska (Lincoln) page advising staff on how to help students learn to write good notes.

Perhaps it should be required reading for all of us teaching in first-year papers?


** or, in the digital era, a downloadable pdf :)

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.

November 4, 2014

angst around lecture recordings

These days there seems to be a fair bit of angst in the tearoom, centred around using panopto: students are watching panopto recordings (or not) rather than coming to class, and for some colleagues this seems to be a Bad Thing & should be Stopped.

Now I’ll admit that I see a drop in numbers attending the lecture, from time to time – usually ahead of a test in another paper, when students want a bit more revision time, or when there’s an essay due for me & they’ve left things till the last minute. And there are a range of other reasons for students preferring ‘virtual’ classes over the real thing (eg Karnad, 2013). Personally I’m fine with that; students have a lot of conflicting demands on their time and if they choose to manage those demands by dealing with the most pressing issue first & catching up on class later, I don’t see it as a huge problem (apart from the fact that I wish some of them would develop some better time management skills, & maybe we need to look at how we help with that). And the reality is that we’re going to come under increasing pressure to deliver a truly flexible learning experience as population demographics change.

So it’s saddening to hear comments along the lines of ‘well, we should leave the recordings up for just a week, to force students to watch them soon after delivery’. This really runs counter to the idea of supporting flexibilty, & also of encouraging truly independent learning. I mean, on the one hand I’m often told that our students are adults now and we shouldn’t be keeping tabs on things like lab attendance, and yet on the other there’s this quite punitive attitude around coming to/viewing lectures. Talk about contradictions!

Yes, of course there are things we can do better! A conversation with each semester’s classes around using lecture recordings ‘properly’ eg watching in a timely manner, and what the literature tells us about the results of not doing this, certainly wouldn’t go amiss, and would help our students really start to come to terms with the realities of a modern university. (Here’s an example of good practice in this aspect of teaching & learning, one that I think that my own institution could well emulate.)

But we should also think about how to change our own techniques so that students actually want to be in every lecture that they can possibly attend. If they perceive no additional benefits in a kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) class, compared to a recording, then there is no incentive to come along. As the (anonymous) author of this excellent resource for teachers says

Students will want to attend the live lecture because of the way you structure it to include some interactivity and will then obtain further value from reviewing portions of the live lecture as they add to their notes and reflect in order to deepen their understanding.

While the author makes it clear that making lecture recordings available can have a positive impact on student learning and on retention, they also point out that there’s little benefit overall if lectures follow the ‘traditional’ format. (Now where have we heard that before?)

Research suggests that recording traditional lectures adds relatively little pedagogical value to the student learning experience. Therefore add pedagogical value by ‘seeding’ the face-to-face lecture with student tasks or activities, or follow-up questions for discussion and research, so that students can benefit from reviewing your lecture recording and use it to add depth to the reflections that they are already making in the live lecture.

For after all,

[the] main goal of providing recorded lectures is to engage students in blended learning experiences that facilitate a flexible self-paced mode of learning and review that supplements rather than replaces the need to attend the face-to-face lecture.

Karnad, A. (2013) Student use of recorded lectures: A report reviewing recent research into the use of lecture capture technology in higher education, and its impact on teaching methods and attendance. LSE Report.

University of Canterbury (no date) Best practices for recording lectures. Echo 360 for staff

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