What works in higher education: active learning

university-105709_640When 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:

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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.

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One quick trick to increase visibility and citations of research papers

digitization-of-library-3068971_640Since I’m “young” (whatever that means) I sometimes get asked to advise on how to disseminate research outputs through new-fangled doohickies like “the social media” (like writing click-baity headlines). This came up in a School Management Group meeting today, in the context of trying to increase visibility and citation rates for papers published by our faculty. It was something that I was quite interested in, so I spent about an hour doing some quick literature searches and then implementing some of what I found. Here’s the gist:Read More »

Community Collaborative Science (CoCoSci) as an alternative model for scientific collaboration?

G.Mannaerts, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://bit.ly/2dT3gK4
G.Mannaerts, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://bit.ly/2dT3gK4

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…

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A hat-full of academic how-tos

Dipping in and out of the stream of tweets, there are always fascinating links to excellent resources for academics at all stages of their careers. I just spotted another, and thought it might be about time to aggregate some of these for posterity. Here’s the quick list (to which I will add if people suggest links), and details are below

  1. “How to find a postdoc”
  2. “How to get started with R”
  3. “How to use Github and RStudio”
  4. “How to use Github effectively”
  5. “How to respond to reviewers’ comments”
  6. “How to write a literature review”
  7. “How to help fight sexism in academia”
  8. “How to make your publications more accessible”
  9. “How to make your work reproducible”

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The Fishy Business of Brexit

fishing-boat-1281272_960_720Before you start to feel bad for the fishermen (fisherpeople?) on the Thames, here are some facts:

1) Quotas are important. If we fish all the fish, there are no more fish. The fishing industry has been utterly unable to regulate itself. EU quotas have led to the glacially slow recovery of managed stocks, because the quotas are higher than scientists advise. We need lower quotas combined with no-take zones, otherwise there will be no industry at all. Furthermore, UK quotas are divided among UK fishermen by the UK government so if one individual boat loses out it’s not necessarily the EU’s fault.

2) Three large companies own 61% of all fishing quotas. This isn’t about Michael Gove’s father alone on a tiny boat in a stormy sea. This is an industry monopolised by millionaires who are fighting regulation, just like all other industries. Viewed in that light it is completely unsurprising that “Big Fish” has joined Farage, alongside his banker allies.

3) Fishing rights to certain waters are set based on historic use. The fisheries industry does not want that to change because British boats are in loads of places that definitely aren’t British.

I know emotive stories about these poor Scots in their woolly jumpers and orange hats are relatable, but (as always) it is more complicated than that. It is completely understandable that they are unhappy: the history of their industry has generated a lot of jobs that simply cannot be supported through sustainable fisheries. It seems that the fishermen think Brexit would lead to higher quotas. Someday quotas might increase, but only if ecosystem-based management leads to increases in stocks that can support higher quotas, and that is the point of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

Making my research more open using Kudos

I’ve always tried to make sure that my academic work wasn’t tucked away on a dusty shelf (or paywalled in an obscure academic journal, which is the equivalent in the digital age) and that has meant that my digital footprint is huge. I have accounts on ResearchGateTwitterSlideshareLinkedInFigshareGoogle ScholarAcademia.eduFlickr, and Google+ (as well as probably a few more that I’ve forgotten!). I don’t think I have lost anything by “scattering my wild oats” across a huge swathe of the internet, because I assume that it increases visibility. Indeed I get a few views across all platforms:

However, what I have been looking for is a service that allows me to aggregate all this content. Ideally it would have (i) a single page per publication, where I could bring together all the bits of information relating to that paper (data, preprints, press coverage, and a lay summary), and (ii) a personal profile page that brings all of those publication pages together under my profile. Well, I think I’ve found it!Read More »

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a monk!

I am fascinated by the field of “biomimetics” – attempting to find solutions to problems by looking to the natural world. Sometimes this involves buildings that work like termite nests, swimsuits that use tiny hooks like those found on shark skin, or Velcro that uses the same principles as seed burrs as an inspiration. However, among the most celebrated examples of biomimetics are those involving flight.

Charles_Le_Brun_-_Daedalus_and_Icarus_-_WGA12535There have been a great many legends describing early attempts at flight, with perhaps the most famous being that of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus created the Labyrinth on Crete for King Minos and the king imprisoned Daedalus in a tower so that he could not spread the knowledge of labyrinth-building to other kingdoms. Daedalus escapes with Icarus, but Icarus flies too close to the sun causing the wax holding his feathers melts and he falls into the sea and drowns. Daedalus, meanwhile, reaches Sicily (750km away). Ovid’s description of the myth states that Daedalus “…flexed each [feather] into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings”, and so this is clearly a calculated (if legendary) attempt to mimic bird flight.Read More »