Talking Teaching

August 31, 2015

should we stop students using laptops during lectures?

I guess it depends on what they’re using their laptops for.

Most days when I come in at the back of the lecture room & walk down to the front, I’ll see a lot of laptops open & in use. Quite a few students will actually have the (incomplete*) powerpoint for the day’s class open on their screens, but quite a few others are on Facebook (or some arcane form of social media that I haven’t caught up with yet) or just surfing. So when a friend shared an article titled Professors push back against laptops in the lecture hall, I read it with interest & also shared it with one of our big FB student pages for some consumer opinion. (There’s some interesting commentary here, too.)

One of the major reasons many oppose laptop use is their potential to distract students from what’s going on in the classroom, and judging from the ‘consumer feedback’ I received, that can be quite a big issue:

I don’t begrudge others using them except when they are watching videos or checking facebook etc during lectures. That’s very distracting.

It’s only annoying and distracting when people take their laptops and play games or scroll Facebook. Which a lot of people do…

Somewhat surprisingly, that distractive effect extends to students putting their devices to what many of us would regard as ‘legitimate’ use ie searching for information directly related to the class. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’ll ask a student to look something up, especially if I think they’re doing something other than class-related work! For example, this brief report cites a study showing that

students who spent a greater proportion of time seeking course-related sites recalled significantly less than those who were more often browsing sites unrelated to the course (r = -.516, p. < .02).

And worse:

the more students used their laptops, the lower their class performance (β = -.179, t(115) = -2.286, p = .024), the less attention they paid to lectures (p = .049), the less clear lectures seemed to them (p = .049), and the less they felt they understood the course material (p = .024)

Yikes! This really piqued my interest, & led me to a 2014 paper by Mueller & Oppenheimer, which has the wonderful title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

I’ve certainly observed that many students struggle with long-hand note-taking, to the extent that I’ll get the occasional complaint that “she moves on to the next slide before I’ve copied it all down” in my teaching appraisals. (I do explain that they shouldn’t be ‘copying it all down’…**) And I type much faster than I write, so I can sympathise with students who want to use their laptops for note-taking in class. So did some of my students, commenting that

I actually find typing notes better for me, because my typing speed is so much faster than my writing speed.


I would hate it if we were not allowed laptops in lectures anymore! I’d miss half the notes and then have to go home and panopto lectures (or die if they weren’t panoptoed) which just takes up time that i could use studying all my notes properly.

Mueller & Oppenheimer’s paper has really got me thinking. They point out that there is a considerable body of evidence around the efficacy of note-taking, commenting that even without the distraction effect,

laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.

This could have that negative impact on learning by two routes: ‘encoding’, and ‘external storage’. ‘Encoding’ is valuable because – ideally! – students process information as they make their notes, and doing this enhances both their learning & their ability to retain information. ‘External storage’ refers to the ability to review and learn from notes at some later point, including notes taken by others: indeed, we employ note-takers to do this for students who are unable (for a variety of reasons) to take notes themselves.

An important question here is, what are students actually doing when they take those in-class notes? Are they actively summarising what’s been discussed eg via drawing a concept map, or writing a paraphrase? Or are they simply copying, word for word, every single thing I say & show in class?*** While some could argue, “but it doesn’t matter ‘cos I’ll write a summary later”, Mueller & Oppenheimer observe that

verbatim note taking predicts poorer performance than nonverbatim note taking, especially on integrative and conceptual items.

This underlies their suggestion that while laptops allow more rapid note-taking, if those notes are verbatim, then learning and understanding may actually suffer. In fact, they observe that

One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage, which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.

So where do we go from here? I must admit to being a tad flummoxed at the moment – with the need to offer more flexible learning opportunities and  the current trend to ‘paperless offices’, we’re moving into a more highly digitised world and those laptops aren’t going to go away any time soon. How, then, to overcome the apparent negative effects they may have on student learning? If part of the problem lies with the ability to take appropriate notes, do we need to somehow teach this skill to all our incoming first-years?


* I mean, why would I give them the whole lot up front (including the answers to my in-class quizzes)?

** no, seriously! What I’d much prefer is that they read through the material I provide ahead of class, identify the bits where they have no idea what I’m talking about, & then that’s where they should focus any note-taking during class.

*** and if they are taking such fulsome notes – how much attention is being paid to everything else that’s going on in class: the questions, discussion, extra explanations?


August 24, 2015

riffing on the national standards

Over on Facebook, a friend of mine shared a post (from a friend of hers) about National Standards in the NZ primary education sector. If you’re on FB I recommend reading it; it certainly gave me a bit of food for thought. In his post the author, Jamie Strange, identifies what he sees as problems with the National Standards as they currently exist.

His first, that they “[narrow] the curriculum… [placing] extra emphasis on literacy and numeracy, to the detriment of other subjects”, is something that I’ve commented on previously in the context of teaching & learning in science. Back then I said that

the introduction of National Standards appears to have focused attention elsewhere, away from the delivery of science. (I know that it should be possible to address the Standards within the context of science – or pretty much any other subject – but the risk is that this won’t be recognised by many teachers without opportunities for further training.)

It would be nice to think that things have moved on in 5 years, but Jamie’s post suggests otherwise :(

Later on he states that “National Standards limits [sic] creativity in the classroom”, in terms of restricting teachers in the methods they use to help learners gain mastery. At a time when there is increasing use of innovative teaching techniques in tertiary classrooms, it would be a pity if we really are losing that at the other end of students’ learning experiences. There’s a fascinating interview with educator Sir Ken Robinson in which he discusses why creativity is something that we really, really need to foster.

And he quotes the Labour Party’s education spokesman, Chris Hipkins:

A conformist model of education that says every student has to achieve an arbitrary set of ‘standards’ at a set time in their life, will rob us. Greatness doesn’t always follow a conventional path. Students certainly need to know how to read and write, but they also need good levels of communication, self-management, perseverance, curiosity, and social skills. What can easily be measured must not become the sole measure of success.

This is expanding on something that Hipkins said in 2014:

To thrive in the 21st century, today’s students will need to leave school with a set of skills and knowledge that are quite different to what our education system has been focused on in the past. Far from ‘standardisation’ we need to focus on fostering:

  • Creativity and innovation: New Zealand is a land of boundless potential, to realise that we will need to think outside the square, try new things, and take a few risks.

  • Adaptability and flexibility: Look at how much the world has changed in the past 15 years. We can’t even imagine how it will change over the next 15 years and yet that’s the world those starting their educational journey today will step into. Equipping them with the skills they will need to adapt to whatever life throws at them is one of the most significant gifts we can give them.

  • Collaboration and cooperation: When they step out of the education system and into the workforce, today’s students will be expected to work in teams, to problem solve, to self-motivate, and to manage their own time. Our education system needs to embrace those characteristics.

And he’s right. And his words apply to the tertiary sector as well. While ‘subject knowledge’ will remain an important attribute for uni graduates too, what one might call competencies & capabilities are just as important. These are attributes that we should foster in everyone, no matter where they’re at in their journey through our education system.

April 25, 2015

how do we assess teaching quality?

Way back when I was a secondary teacher, & there were signs that the government of the day was looking at a possible move to performance pay, there were fairly frequent staffroom discussions discussions around how to assess the quality of one’s teaching. (There’s a much more recent report on this subject here.) One metric proposed was how many of your students passed School Cert. (I told you it was a long time ago!) That was all very well for those whose classes – we had streamed classes at my school – contained students who could mostly be expected to achieve rather well. I had one of those, but I also had the ‘problem’ 4th-form (year 10) class: kids who for a variety of reasons weren’t viewed by many as likely to pass.

I had no problems with that class. I had to teach them science, and so we ‘did’ science in contexts that they found engaging & relevant: the science of cooking, the science of cosmetics, & so on. We had a ball, & in the process they seemed to absorb some knowledge of science: what it was, & how it worked. But mostly they still didn’t attempt School C (the equivalent of today’s NCEA Level 1), & so by that rubric I’d have been judged a poor teacher. Perhaps, if we’d looked systematically at the level of prior knowledge those students entered my class with, and assessed the gains they made on that, both they and I would have been judged differently.

I was reminded of this during a discussion today about assessing the quality of teachers in a university setting. Now sure, we have a system of paper appraisals and teaching appraisals. But they aren’t shared with line managers as a matter of course, and so that can make things difficult during goal-setting and promotion rounds. For in the absence of that information, just how do line managers (& others) come to any evidence-based assessmentof a teacher’s abilities and performance in the classroom? I suspect the short answer is that they can’t, not really.

But even where the appraisal data are available, they shouldn’t be the only tool individuals (& managers) use to assess performance. I’m often told the appraisals are easy to ‘game’, although I’m not sure how correct that is; it does tend to assume that students aren’t able to assess papers and teacher performance reasonably well. I mean, statements like “this teacher made it clear what was expected of
me”, “this teacher made the subject interesting”, and “this teacher was approachable when advice or
help was required” are fairly objective, after all. But ideally they’d be just one element in an educator’s portfolio.

That portfolio could also include notes and commentary from an option that teachers in the compulsory sector will be used to: having a colleague sit in on a class and provide constructive feedback afterwards. In my experience this is rare in universities, which is a real pity, because both parties can learn a good deal from the experience. (We are accustomed, and encouraged, to have others cast a critical eye on our research outcomes, so why not our teaching?)

It could also include notes & reflections from the education literature. I firmly believe that while my teaching has to be informed by current research in my discipline (& I simply can’t imagine teaching the same thing, year after year!), it must also be informed by findings from research into pedagogy.  Things change, after all. Teaching & learning methods that might have seemed to work for those who taught me at uni are almost certainly out of date in today’s classrooms. As regular readers will know, I put much of my own reflection into writing these blog posts: the blog makes up a largish part of my own portfolio.

And of course, if you’re dipping into the literature, and attending seminars or workshops from your equivalent of our Teaching Development Unit, then you’ll pick up all sorts of other, informal, tips for gaining feedback on how things are going in the classroom. It’s worth linking back to a guest post from a my friend & colleague Brydget, as she summarises all this very well.

The trick, of course, is to work out how to present that information to one’s line manager :)

April 15, 2015

sustainability & on-line learning…

… and serendipity!

I’ve just participated in a great AdobeConnect session, run by the university’s Centre for e-Learning, on the interfaces between academic publications and social media. It was fun, educational, & thought-provoking & has provided something of a spur to my own thinking about the value** of social media in this particular sphere. (For example, while academics are pressured to publish, & the number & position (journal) of those publications is seen as a measure of their worth, you could well ask what the actual value of the work is if few or no people actually read it. I’ve got another post lined up about this.)

Anyway, one of the things that I brought into the conversation was the value of Twitter (& Facebook) in terms of finding new information in fields that interest me. (I know that a lot of my recent blog posts have developed from ideas sparked by FB sources.) I’m a fairly recent convert to Twitter but have enjoyed several tweeted conversations about science communication & science education, and I do keep an eye on posts from those I’m ‘following’ in case something new crops up.

And so it was that when I started following our AdobeConnect host, this popped up:

Stephen’s link takes you to this article: net positive valuation of online education. The executive summary makes very interesting reading at a time when ‘we’ (ie my Faculty) are examining ways to offer our programs to a changing student demographic. It finds that on-line learning as a means of delivering undergraduate programs opens up access for people who don’t fit the ‘typical traditional undergraduate’ profile, such that those people may end up with greater life-time earnings & tax contributions, and reduced use of social services. And using on-line learning pedagogies & technologies seem to result in a reduced environmental footprint for the degrees: the authors estimate that on-line learning delivery of papers saves somewhere between 30 & 70 tonnes of CO2 per degree, because of the reduction in spending both on travel to & from campus, and on bricks & mortar.

There’s an excellent infographic here, and I can see why the report would indicate that the institution they surveyed (Arizona State University, ASU) would say that

[i]n the near term, nearly 100 percent of an institution’s courses, both immersive and virtual, will be delivered on the same technology platforms.

However, there are caveats.  ASU has obviously got a fairly long history of using e-learning platforms. This is not simply a matter of taking an existing paper (or degree program), making its resources available on-line, & saying ‘there! we’re doing e-learning’. Because unless the whole thing is properly thought through, the students’ learning experiences may not be what their educators would like to think.

In other words, this sort of initiative involves learning for both students and educators – and the educators’ learning needs to come first.


** As an aside, here’s an example of what could be called ‘crowd-sourcing’ for an educational resource, via twitter. But the same could easily be done for research.

October 29, 2014

reflections on e-teaching and e-learning

Dear readers – what follows is a much longer post than I would normally write (& yes, at times I write some quite extensive posts!). This is because the current post constitutes my ‘portfolio’ to support nominations from my students for an e-learning award offered by my institution. I decided to write the portfolio in this form because blogging is a medium that I feel comfortable writing in, & because it’s so easy to add hyperlinks, files etc. (Consequently many of the links lead to my own reflective writing elsewhere on this blog, and to presentations I’ve given.) Plus I would really very much value feedback & comments – I don’t regard myself as anything approaching an expert (or even a journeyman) in this field and I know that my future practice will benefit from your insights.

That said, please do read on!

Technologies such as Moodle, panopto, AdobeConnect & the like allow access to learning opportunities  in a much more flexible way than the ‘traditional’ university environment, and this is going to become more and more important in the future as student demographics change. For example, as the number of people in the  18-25 age group continues to decline while the 50+ cohort continues to grow, then we will need to offer education to ‘non-traditional’ students and in ‘non-traditional’ ways. From an institutional perspective, using learning technologies in an interactive way can also help to ensure that we enhance retention and meet graduate profiles. For example, the graduate profile for our BSc says that students can communicate using a range of methods including multi-media (which includes web-based resources and activities), can work cooperatively, and have the skills necessary for self-directed learning: acquisition of all these attributes (plus the more usual acquisition-of-knowledge outcomes) can be supported by learning technologies, particularly those that are interactive.

So then, what does this look like in the context of my own teaching practice? I know some people see me as an ‘early adopter’ of classroom technologies like these, but on reflection I think my activities in this area have grown organically – much like my teaching career, I suppose.


Moodle and Facebook: 

Alison is constantly introducing new ways for us to learn through technology. From educational videos and other resources on Moodle to an accessible Facebook forum for students to share their own passion for biology, she has been experimenting successfully with the digital resources available to teachers at the University of Waikato.

Great at technology, innovative ideas (eg facebook page for 101)

Very helpful both during lectures and tutorials. Very active on Moodle, promptly responds to forum questions, has created a Facebook page for the paper.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

I’ve used Moodle ever since it became available: paper outlines, study guide notes, powerpoints of lectures, assessment materials, quizzes, discussion forums, useful links & readings  – it’s all there. Once panopto came on-stream, links to lecture recordings went up on moodle as well, thanks to the WCeL wizards. I’ve always encouraged students to ask questions, join discussions, and post materials on Moodle (I have colleagues who’d rather receive individual emails but honestly! why answer the same question multiple times?) but interestingly, it was the first-year students who were most active in doing this.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve seen this activity drop right off, and it’s been something of a concern. Being asked for feedback on Moodle as part of the University’s process of identifying a new student management system really made me reflect more closely on this, partly in light of my own use of other on-line communities (not least of them, Facebook). From talking with students I gained the impression that moodle can be very ‘clunky’: it takes at least a couple of steps to arrive at a resource, whereas on FB links are right there and obvious. The students complained that they were continually having to log in to moodle during the day, in contrast to remaining logged in on FB, and that they preferred the FB notification system. This got me thinking about how best to use this as an additional way of supporting my students’ learning and increasing their engagement. (This is not to say that they don’t use Moodle: a recent survey I carried out with our 2nd-year students shows that they clearly do – but they just don’t engage to any great extent.)

There’s a lot of literature available now about using Facebook to support teaching and learning. Fittingly, I was introduced to some of it through the Ako Aotearoa Academy FB page that I administer, but I’ve since talked more widely about it with colleagues at other institutions and started delving more deeply into recent publications; for example, Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014 (my reflections on that paper are here), and Kent & Leaver’s 2014 e-book, “An education in Facebook?”. And I sounded out my students, who were extremely positive about the idea. The result: we have a Facebook page for the first-year biology class, where they regularly post material & start discussions, and where I post course information and questions or polls (all mirrored on our Moodle page), along with links to other, science-based, FB pages.

BIOL101 student post

BIOL101 2nd student post

My thoughts after a semester? Yes, it’s a bit of additional work, because notices, polls and so on must be posted in two places rather than one, and because there’s the need to interact with other posters. It would be good to see more students there – at present just over half the class is present and at least observing on FB – but (and it’s a big ‘but’), commenters are far more lively and engaged than on Moodle, which seems to be reserved for ‘serious’ questions. That engagement is important, as it contributes to enjoyment and performance. Plus there’s also evidence that engagement (or lack thereof) with study, with teachers, and with the institution – can affect student retention.

As an aside, the lack of ‘personal’ feel to many MOOCs is a shortcoming of this method of content delivery; as the author of this blog post has said,

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

We have to ensure we deliver that personal touch!

Anyway, next year I’ll be more systematic about my use of Facebook in relation to my teaching, in the sense of examining whether there is any correlation between use of the page and academic outcomes. And I’ll use tools like ‘question of the week’ – on both Moodle and FB – to try to lift engagement further.


I leaped early into the panopto pool, and I’ve been splashing around in it ever since

Incorporates technology. Records every lecture for panopto and makes good use of moodle.

regular and helpful facebook user. encourages students to get involved in various online activities.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

Panopto’s a tool for capturing classroom teaching and making it available on-line for students to access whenever they please. I first became aware of it when the University was gearing up for its i-TunesU presence, and decided that the technology had a lot to offer me and my students as a tool to enhance teaching and learning practices. (I am definitely not a fan of technology for technology’s sake – it needs to have a pedagogical benefit.) And I’ve been using it ever since – for lectures, for podcasts, for catching up when I’ve had to cancel a lecture due to illness. I promote it whenever I get the chance, in tearoom conversation but also at conferences and symposia (e.g. Fun with panopto). (I also use it to review and reflect on my own classroom performance; the recordings are really useful when considering whether something could have been better communicated, although they are certainly unforgiving when it comes to things like mannerisms and use of voice!)

Students certainly value this technology. It gives them the flexibility to balance workloads, manage lecture clashes, revise for tests and exams, and to be absent due to illness or family commitments. Of course, it also gives them the ability to simply skip class and promise themselves that they can catch up later, something the literature shows doesn’t necessarily happen. I believe that we (academics) need to be more forthright in communicating with students around this, but that’s not to say that we should reduce our use of lecture recordings!

Able to pause and go over things i don’t understand. Can also do them in my own time.

For me, Panopto is most valuable during study week for revisiting explanations rather than for catching up on missed lectures.

Usually if I don’t watch an entire lecture on panopto it was because I preferred the text-book or other material to the lecturer’s style of teaching, or because the lecture recording failed, or because I listened to the lecture on podcast.

(2014 student feedback via surveymonkey)

There’s a lot more to lecture recordings than this. They can be used for ‘catch-up’ snippets – recordings of the slides at the end of the lecture that you didn’t get to because there were concepts that needed additional explanations. But panopto also supports more active learning techniques such as flip teaching, where a lecturer can prepare a short recording for students to watch ahead of class, and the actual classroom time is used for group discussions and problem-solving. For a couple of years now I’ve been running ‘Design-an-animal/Design-a-plant’ classes (described in the previous link) to consolidate student learning in a fun and cooperative way, during the A semester.

(2013 student feedback: Aspects of the paper that should be maintained)

The design a plant exercise. This exercise ties the knowledge we have acquired in past weeks, producing a
comprehensive well developed understanding of the adaptations and functions of different plants

the “designing a plant” was a great activity that was very interesting and exciting

the flip class which was really fun.

And in the B semester this year we had a session on DNA technology, where the class decided they’d like to hear more about GMOs: I provided short explanatory clips on gene cloning and PCR & DNA sequencing for them to watch ahead of time, so that we could spend the ‘lecture’ on discussion (and a very wide-ranging discussion it proved to be!).

Furthermore, techniques like this have a clear and significant positive effect on student learning (eg Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011)Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011) and we need to encourage their wider use as we reshape ourselves as a true ‘university of the future’.



Educators aren’t just using techniques like this simply because the technology has become available. There have to be positive outcomes for the students. I touched on some of these at the beginning of this post, in the context of ensuring that students have gained the attributes we describe in our graduate profiles.

However, another big plus for digital learning technologies is the way in which they allow us to meet the different learning needs of students. (I’m inclined to agree with the author of this post regarding different learning styles, mind you.) For example:

  • They really open up the options for students for whom work commitments, or geographical isolation, mean that they can’t attend classes in the ‘normal’ university hours.
  • For all students, the ready availability of lecture recordings means that they can review a class, or part thereof, as often as they need in order to gain understanding of concepts and information.
  • Students who are ill, or have lecture clashes, or sudden family commitments, don’t have to stress too much about missing classes (but see the following paragraph :) )
  • The fact that recordings are downloadable as mp4 files means that students can use them pretty much where & when they choose – on the bus, perhaps, or sitting in a comfy chair at home.
  • It’s easy to incorporate video clips, or even music (albeit with a scientific message) into classes. This opens up a whole new range of resources to use with our students (and breaks up the ‘lecture’ format, re-energising the classroom). This has occasioned some ‘interesting’ discussions over the use of such material from other institutions: it’s not “our” learning material, and students should be seeing our resources and ideas. This is true, but why re-invent the wheel? If an excellent resource exists, then use it! – and enhance the role of facilitator of learning, rather than simply someone delivering facts.
  • Technologies also empower students in ways that we might not always consider – for example, setting up a Moodle discussion forum for anonymous use means that someone who might be too shy to speak up in the lecture theatre can ask their questions, & make comments, in a less-threatening environment.
  • And having just attended a session on the use of AdobeConnect, I can see (& will make use of) the potential in being able to set up a ‘virtual’ pre-exam tutorial, synchronous with an actual class, for students who can’t make it onto campus for that particular session: they can see & hear what’s going on & ask questions of their own, for example. (It looks like panopto on steroids so I will admit that I’m left wondering what will happen to the latter in the future.)

I feel very strongly, however, that while we definitely need to provide learning opportunities for academic staff around learning technologies, we also need to educate students around their use. Despite the frequent use of the term ‘digital natives’ in discussion around our students and e-learning, the description really doesn’t fit our current cohort particularly well, and there’s a very interesting discussion of the term here. (It may be another story when the current crop of under-5s reach tertiary classrooms as many of them have truly grown up immersed in and using on-line technologies. And having said that, we also need to remember that there remain sectors of society who simply cannot afford to access the hardware to enable such learning. How do we enable them?) This means walking the class through what’s available on moodle, for example, or how to download an mp4 file of a panopto recording. But it also means discussing with our students – very early on in the piece – the perils and pitfalls of relying on recordings as an alternative to actually being in class eg the frightening ease with which you can fall behind in watching lectures after the event. This should be done with all first-year classes: many of this cohort have difficulty adapting to the different requirements, expectations, and learning environments of the tertiary system as it is and, lacking time management skills, can very easily fall off the wagon – something that has implications for both completion and retention.

She is very helpful and she knows her topic well. Very organised and goes beyond her duty to make sure students are getting everything in order to succeed. 
I think she is a really great lecturer and has used a range of different tools to help us learn in her lectures such as a drawing tool on the computer and has also created a Facebook page for BIOL102 to make it more interactive and fun to learn for everyone enrolled in the paper.
She is a really great lecturer, who makes a lot of effort to ensure her students get all the information they need to learn about what she is teaching. she also takes the time to make sure that students questions are answered, and always keeps in mind that because students have different learning levels, that she gives all the information required. 
Demonstrates a real passion for what she teaches. 
(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)


As I said earlier, I definitely don’t see myself as an expert in this field! This means that I frequently reflect on my classroom practice and the things I’ve learned (the focus of many of the posts here on Talking Teaching!), and I take advantage of professional development opportunities as often as I can. In the past I’ve attended quite a few workshops on various aspects of Moodle (and the on-line support materials are very useful too; thanks, WCeL team!). The university’s Teaching Development staff run regular Teaching Network sessions, where participants learn from each other on a whole range of teaching-related issues, & I go to these at every available opportunity. The most recent session, by Alan Levine, introduced the idea of pechaflickr as a tool for engagement and for learning, and that’s led me to think about using a pechaflickr session in tutorials, as a fun change of pace but also of a means of checking understanding of particular concepts. Definitely one for next year.

Sharing is good. And so I promote these technologies when I get the chance :) This year I facilitated a session on flip teaching at our annual WCeLfest (where I gained a lot from the participants’ feedback), but was also invited to take part as a panellist in a discussion of what our university might look like in a future where distance and blended learning make much more use of digital learning & teaching technologies. And I’ve previously shared their application at other conferences – in a 2013 discussion around how teachers’ roles are changing from disseminators of facts to facilitators of learning, for example. In addition, I led a discussion about MOOCs at a UoW Council planning day earlier this year, which also formed the basis of this particular post.

Learning technologies also have huge potential in terms of outreach to the wider community. For example, since 2005 I’ve been running Scholarship Biology preparation days for students – and their teachers – preparing for the Scholarship Biology examinations, which has involved travelling to deliver sessions in the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Auckland and Hawkes Bay, as well as in Hamilton itself. (I also write another blog, originally intended to support these students and still containing a considerable amount of material that’s useful to them and their teachers.) But these face-to-face sessions are one-offs, as it were, so this year I decided to set up a Facebook page so that interactions and support could continue. Feedback from the teachers is very positive. Sadly,  the students have not been so engaged on the page,  although the teachers tell me their students are definitely using material from the page in class,  which is a great outcome from my perspective. I’ll leave this one up and running and hopefully, as resources build up and teachers encourage their students to use it from the beginning of the year, we’ll start to see some more active student participation. I can also see the value in using AdobeConnect to run occasional virtual tutorials for this far-flung group of students – it would be particularly valuable for those students who are the only one at their particular school sitting this exam, as they’d get the opportunity to interact with others (&, if I can work out how to set it up!) work cooperatively with them to solve problems in an on-line active-learning world.

Schol Bio FB feedback


 If you’ve read this far – thank you for staying with me :) I appreciate your company on what is for me a continuing journey of self-reflection and learning around my teaching practice. I’ll be grateful for your feedback – and I do so hope you don’t feel you’d have been better off sitting at home in your bunny slippers :)

best wishes, Alison

October 28, 2014

pechaflickr and other cool stuff from Alan Levine

Recently I had a blast, attending an inspirational workshop by Alan Levine (I grab professional development opportunities like these with both hands!). The workshop gave me some ideas for new things to try with my students next year, and I thought I would share the notes I made at the time (with commentary) in case there might be useful things there for others.

Alan kicked off by asking us if we knew when the internet was created (heaps of history here), by whom (I’ve never really understood why so many people think it was Al Gore), & for what. It was originally intended to allow scientists to better communicate with each other – but sometimes it feels as if the science is being swamped & lost in amongst everything else that’s posted on the web. (A friend once said to me that one day the internet could collapse under the weight of funny cat pictures. She could be right.)

The web certainly allows openness, reduces insularity, and engenders connectedness. Well, in an ideal world it does, and many parts of the internet do function in that way (eg the sub-reddit on science), but at the same time the web has also seen the development of various silos where dissent isn’t tolerated and the ban-hammer is wielded on a regular basis.

But in education openness is to be valued, because we can all – teachers & learners alike – learn from each other. Alan introduced us to one of his projects, which involves videoing teachers as they talk about what goes on in their classrooms. You’ll find these stories at True Stories of Open Sharing, and he sees them as a form of ‘paying it forward’. At this point one of the others at the session volunteered a story about how she’s using twitter to support student learning. I still haven’t got into tweeting & I found the whole thing quite fascinating- it seems an even more direct connection than Facebook.

Alan noted that people see many barriers (perceived and real) to doing this sort of sharing around teaching:

  • lack of confidence
  • not comfortable with spontaneous story-telling (and yet narratives are such a great way to engage others – the link is about working with children, but everyone loves a good story!)
  • don’t have original ideas
  • fear of being seen as mediocre, or not good enough – worried about what others think
  • the worry that it may affect how peers or employers perceive you
  • the lack of face-to-face contact, so you can’t judge your audience (& for many of us that is very important; I can’t get quite the same buzz going when I do a panopto recording in my office, for example, although that could be lack of practice, perhaps?)
  • don’t want to be seen as commonplace, repetitive, or wrong.

Which I guess may be why many of my colleagues don’t actually share a lot about what goes on in their classrooms.

Yet that sharing & feeling of the personal are important, because education is becoming less about ‘product’ and more about relationships, connections, and engagement. With information so readily available on-line at the click of a mouse (think MOOCs, for example), universities do need to re-examine, & perhaps re-invent, the way they do business. What is the ‘added value’ that we provide, that makes students want to continue to come to a bricks-&-mortar institution? And how do we make on-line learning a valuable and engaging alternative, for those who choose it?

Because the knowledge is already out there. We need to move from seeing ourselves as deliverers of content, to delivering a learning experience. And that really does require some fairly significant changes; we’re not really talking business-as-usual. (One of those changes will probably be the development of a code of ethics around how we share materials, ideas, and content with each other & between institutions.)

After this we moved on to the idea of improv(ing) ourselves – as in, improvisation: being natural, rather than forced. After all, the ability to improvise is a valuable skill as classes don’t always go as expected. Alan asked who knew about pecha kucha (usually, speaking to no more than 20 slides for no more than 20 seconds per slide – it really forces you to focus on your message!). I’ve used this presentation style several times now, & in fact had something of a baptism of fire for my first one: got roped in to do one at my first Academy symposium – except that I didn’t know the subject until just before speaking, & someone else chose the slides :)

Anyway, quite a few of us knew of pecha kucha – but what, he said about pecha flickr? He set one up for us, with each person taking a slide in turn. It was hysterically funny and we could straightaway see that Alan was right: this sort of improv changed the energy levels in the room, raised enjoyment (as if we weren’t already having fun!) and engagement, and got everyone participating. I could see how good it would be as an icebreaker at a (smallish) conference, but I also started wondering how we could use it in first-year bio classes. Maybe in tuts, as a revision tool? The students would have to be comfortable about it, but the technique would have a lot of potential for diagnosing gaps in knowledge and also for giving practice in verbal communication.

And we finished off with the idea of ‘connected courses’. (This was very brief as we’d spent so much time having fun.) There’s a need to find ways of making on-line spaces personal, welcoming, & engaging – connected. For example, MOOCs tend to have a high attrition rate, & it’s possible that’s because they’re a bit like motel rooms (Alan’s metaphor): impersonal, & with no real sense of ownership. In contrast, many blogs are the equivalent of a personal bedroom, with comfort, boundaries, & security. How can on-line courses generate that sense of connectedness? One way to find out is to experience it – at Connected Courses: an open course in how to run an open course :) I’m really hoping that next year I’ll find myself with the ‘free’ time to invest in investigating this one further!

June 9, 2014

carl wieman on active learning

Recently I wrote about a paper by Freeman et al: a meta-analysis looking at the impact of active learning on student success in maths, engineering, & the sciences (the ‘STEM’ subjects). In the same volume of PNAS is an accompanying commentary by Carl WiemanWieman is a physics Nobel Laureate who also leads a research group working on improving teaching & learning in maths, engineering, & the sciences (which has resulted in some interesting initiatives at other institutions). Commenting on Freeman’s results, he notes that

Freeman et al. argue that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture teaching as the comparison standard, and instead, research should compare different active learning methods, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture is substantially less effective. This makes both ethical and scientific sense.

Wieman goes on to say

However, in undergraduate STEM education, we have the curious situation that, although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM courses are still taught by lectures – the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting. Should the goals of STEM education research be to find more effective ways for students to learn or to provide additional evidence to convince faculty and institutions to change how they are teaching?

Personally I’d go for the former; there’s a wealth of information out there now. What’s needed now is to somehow get more university STEM educators to engage with the scholarship of teaching & learning in their various disciplines. Now there’s a challenge!

C.E.Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS published ahead of print, May 22 2014.

June 3, 2014

more on moocs – go read this post!

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:31 am

I wish I had more time, because then I could read even more articles and blogs and papers about the things that really interest me, like enhancing the quality of teaching and learning. And there’s some great stuff out there, including a post on Massive Open On-line Courses entitled “MOOCs, student engagement, and the value of contact.” It’s the lack of real interpersonal contact in MOOCs that’s one of their big limitations, from my perspective, and I think the post’s author nailed that concern in this comment:

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

Just one reason to go over & read the full post by chemprofdave.

June 1, 2014

“If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers”

This is a post I first wrote for the Bioblog.

There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?

And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.

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.)

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