First of all, this isn’t a commissioned review – I bought The New Education by Cathy Davidson myself and am (sort of) reviewing it because I found it extremely thought-provoking. In fact, on a recent trip to the States with a few colleagues, I nattered on about it almost non-stop so I feel that I should probably share a few insights from the book. It is worth noting that the book is very USA-focused and so not everything is going to be applicable for everybody. However, there are more than enough shared issues among higher education institutions that the book resonated with me in a lot of different ways. Below, I pick out a few of the sections that I found particularly interesting, and share some of the ways in which they might affect the way that I try to influence teaching at my university:Read More »
When I advocate for pedagogical research (an area in which I try to maintain an active interest), I am often told by colleagues that the quality of the research is poor. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate what actually works in higher education and so there is no real impetus to change what we already do. Indeed, I remember one academic colleague squeaking through a teaching qualification by the skin of their teeth because they steadfastly refused to cite any pedagogical literature. I wanted to write a quick post to make the case that this is not always true.
Specifically, the article I want to mention is this one:
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – a highly reputable journal in which many of my colleagues would be delighted to publish their work – the paper describes a review of an approach known as “active learning“. This method is very simple: students should be actively engaged in the learning process rather than being a passive audience. From the article:
The studies analyzed here document that active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning. The analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.
The authors compared 158 active learning studies to 67 traditional lecturing studies to find these rather startling effects. Unsurprisingly, those studies that used a typical lecturing style had significantly greater failure rates. This likely stems from the student’s lack of evaluation of their own learning during the course, which is only revealed when the exam marks are returned at the end of teaching. Through active learning, students gain a greater appreciation of their progress through a continued self-reflection on progress made. Similarly, the increase in performance is not surprising: students who have errors in their understanding discover those errors and can take steps to remedy them when engaged in an active learning environment.
So why aren’t we all doing active learning? The simple answer is that active learning requires an investment of time and a different perspective on teaching. Most university lecturers have never actually been trained as teachers, and their only experience of teaching was the old-fashioned exposition style of didactic lecturing. They are doing what they know. Workloads are at such a level that retraining and refocusing efforts on new ways of teaching is occurring piecemeal, rather than through large-scale redesign of teaching based on empirically validated methods.
So what is the solution?
For me, there has to be a community of practice that allows academics to help one another to enhance teaching. Since teaching in higher education tends to be relatively siloed into modules, academics often develop their own teaching style with relatively little input from colleagues. A greater awareness of best practice and learning from one another could bring about considerable enhancements, with support and guidance (and, sometimes, copying wholesale if appropriate!) in the implementation of new techniques. I’d be interested to hear whether anybody has found a solution to this problem and any interesting case studies where the transition from exposition to active learning has been achieved successfully. Feel free to drop a note in the comments below.
On 1st August 2018, I took on a new role as Director of Student Education in my department and that has got me thinking more practically about the higher education teaching stories that I read. Since I now have a position where I can effect change, are there positive steps that can be taken? The first story I came across was this from the Times Higher Education Supplement:
The modular structures of degree programmes have resulted in a stressful assessment environment for students in UK universities, according to a recent study. It is not just the volume of assessment but also the ways that students are evaluated that is hindering meaningful learning…
A few months ago I wrote a short blog post about “Community Collaborative Science” as a model for impactful teaching and research in UK universities. As I mentioned back then, this kind of “service learning” is a core part of the curriculum in many US universities, but has not taken off in quite the same way in the UK. I was discussing the idea with my partner and we ended up putting together a pitch for a NESTA seed grant. The grant would have been used to build the system and pilot a few projects through an online collaborative workspace. Here’s the pitch:
Unfortunately, the pitch wasn’t successful, but there seem to be other people thinking along similar lines. If you are interested in this kind of topic then please do drop me a line and we can discuss this in more detail.
I’ve been working on the animals and plants that live in urban ponds for a few years (you can find some of my work on my Kudos page here, here, and here), and I have a Google Alert running for mentions of “pond” or “wetland” in the media. However, far from lots of stories about fish, ducks, and dragonflies, all I see is this:
I went to a fascinating talk by a colleague at Leeds, Dr Mark Davis, a few weeks ago. Mark works on Alternative Finance (“altfin”), which involves a shift in economic thinking away from traditional big banks (with low interest and risky investments) towards peer-to-peer and community-based lending. You can read more about Mark’s ideas in his recent Conversation article: “How alternative finance can offer a better banking future“. Mark had a lot of fascinating insights which (to a lay person like me) resonated strongly. The notion that banks are inherently risky and create the circumstances for economic collapse, and the idea that all of our money that we give to banks ends up going far away into large, complex economic systems, rather than helping closer to home. Mark also made the point that there is a parallel between the “Big Society” notion promoted by the UK Conservative Government under David Cameron, and the Alternative Finance concept that he promotes. Under the Big Society, it is assumed that everybody has a little bit of spare time here and there and that we can volunteer that time to solve social problems. This means lower investment from the government because we are (in theory) capable of taking over from public services. Some people are skeptical… Altfin, on the other hand, takes the same approach to capital: almost everybody has a small amount of capital sitting around that is doing nothing productive, and if we pool our spare capital then we can do good things with it. This got me wondering whether the same thing was true for research…
I realise that this is the second eulogy that I have posted on the blog in the last couple of months (which is all the more striking due to the low frequency of posts), but there was one passing recently that I simply have to mark. I was devastated to hear that Professor Brian Moss died recently. You will find a number of obituaries written by people who are better qualified to comment on his scientific work, and who knew him better as a person. However, while I was not as close to him as some, I did have the honour and privilege of learning from him as an undergraduate, a postgraduate, a postdoc, and as junior faculty, and so I feel the need to share some of the affection and deep respect that I felt for Brian. There have been a number of leading academics who have influenced my work and career (Dave and Tom in particular) and without them I would not have the collaborations, publications, or career that I enjoy today. However, I think it’s fair to say that Brian had the single largest personal influence over me from anyone within the academy, and shaped the academic that I have become. Other people watch David Attenborough on television, but I had the privilege of being taught by and working alongside my very own Attenborough who inspired me to think in different ways across disciplines. Read More »
We had some sad news in the department earlier in the week. We heard from his son that Professor R McNeill Alexander FRS had passed away at the age of 81. I didn’t know Neill very well, but we had chatted a few times over coffee in the department, which he still visited regularly until a year or two ago. We also lived in the same area of Leeds and I saw him often at the local farmers market. However, there was one particular encounter with Neill that I remember vividly, and I wanted to share the anecdote:
I was at a local Cafe Scientifique in 2013 when I saw Neill give a short presentation and demonstration of some of his world-leading research on dinosaur locomotion. However, rather than this being in front of an auditorium full of people (as would befit a Fellow of the Royal Society, former President of the Society for Experimental Biology, former President of the International Society for Vertebrate Morphologists, author of countless books and articles, the list goes on…), Neill gave an informal presentation to a group of four young children, their parents, and me. Sat in the cafe at Leeds Museum, Neill quietly explained to the small audience the history of his discoveries: how dinosaur models could be used to evaluate mass and centre of gravity, how dinosaur tracks could be used to infer gait, stride, and speed. I don’t recall him taking any personal credit, although it was his to claim, but rather he discussed the ideas as having been a communal advance. Then, at the end of the talk, Neill sat with the children and played with them using the same toys from which he had drawn such inspiration as a researcher and through which he had revolutionised so much of what we know about animal biomechanics and locomotion. I don’t know who the children were, and I don’t know whether they or their parents were aware that they were sat playing with dinosaurs alongside one of the greatest scientists of his generation, but for me that is perhaps the purest example of science communication that I have ever witnessed.
RIP Robert McNeill Alexander (1934-2016)
When I joined my current institution in 2012, I was offered the role of “Blended Learning Champion” – basically I had to promote a combination of the best pedagogical tools, including in-person techniques and digital technology. As soon as I started, I learned about what became known as “the clicker fiasco”. There was a time, you see, in the halcyon days of 2010/11, when all students in my faculty were given little devices that could be used to respond to questions during the class. It looked a little bit like the one on the right here, and worked extremely well. Lecturers would embed questions in their lectures, the students would answer using the clickers, and everybody was happy. At some stage some inconsistencies in the software versions, or possibly some old hardware (the exact cause is unknown), caused the whole system to come crashing down. What was frustrating about this situation is that there was substantial buy-in from academics to use these technological tools to enhance their pedagogical practice, but the failure of the clickers deprived them of both their favourite tools and their enthusiasm for blended learning. Now, I think I have found the solution: Socrative.Read More »
I blogged some time ago about a Cafe Scientifique talk I gave on the topic of “Avoiding Attack” (broadly mimicry and camouflage in animals). I stole the title of the talk wholesale from the excellent book of the same name written by former colleagues Mike Speed and Tom Sherratt along with Graeme Ruxton). After giving that talk, I was asked to contribute to the Leeds Festival of Science – a great initiative where University of Leeds staff engage local people (particularly schools) with their research through on-campus and external events. As part of that event this year I took part in the “schools roadshow” where researchers go out into schools to teach about their work. I thought I would post the resources that I used here with some notes so that teachers can make use of the materials that I produced. Everything here is released on a Creative Commons license (CC-BY 4.0).