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 »
What works in higher education: active learning
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.
Overassessment, stress, and university education
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…
Update on Community Collaborative Impact
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.
Keeping them engaged – tech solutions for in-class quizzes
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 »
How to write a scientific paper
When we teach students how to write papers, we take it for granted that they have already absorbed the basic format of a scientific article from their reading of the primary literature. They should be familiar with abstract-intro-methods-results-discussion-references, for example, and the content that goes into each section in order to lead the reader through the work. However, it is easy to see how students might fail to grasp the general structure of a scientific paper. For example, we often hold up the high impact journals as models of scientific research, but journals such as Nature, Science, Current Biology and PNAS have a structure and a style that is really quite different from other journals (referenced abstracts, methods at the end, extremely brief structure). I have been teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students how to write scientific papers and theses for a few years now, and I thought I would share my personal method (I think I can credit Phill Watts, now at the University of Oulu, for suggesting this to me years ago):
I hope it’s useful and please do let me know if it helps, either in the comments here or on the YouTube page. The video is released under Creative Commons.
PhD funding for biological research at the University of Leeds
If you are interested in doing a PhD but are struggling to find funding that fits your project or have been unsuccessful in applications to the funding schemes that are scattered around (e.g. the NERC DTP schemes that are interviewing at the moment) then don’t despair! There are always funny little pots of money that you can apply to. The University of Leeds has three such scholarships available that can be used to fund PhD research in biological sciences (and some other areas). These all close on 1st June but if you are interested in applying please do get in touch with me (or one of my colleagues in the Ecology and Evolution Research Group) to discuss a potential project. The sooner the better!Read More »
Pedagogy and a Pint
Academics have many draws on their time: research (grant applications, writing papers, speaking at conferences), teaching (planning lectures and workshops, delivering teaching, marking), and administration (committees on all of the above and more – admissions, marketing, student education, research, outreach). Most of that is just keeping things afloat, and so we sometimes lack the time to develop new ideas and discuss interesting and novel ways of working. Over the past couple of years I have been the “Academic Champion for Blended Learning” in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, and that has meant that I have spent a fair amount of time horizon scanning for teaching technology and working with early adopters. However, trying to roll-out big initiatives (like our brilliant new lecture capture system) can be hard because staff have limited time to engage. Recently, I tried something new to give colleagues an opportunity to talk about teaching: “Pedagogy and a Pint”.
Online computer programming courses
Computer programming is becoming an increasingly important part of biology (my own discipline) and a range of other subjects. Programming allows the analysis of data, the creation of software and the building of online resources and interfaces. There are a range of online courses that you can take to develop these skills, and use as teaching aids for students, that cover a lot of different languages with different applications:
Twitter in teaching
- Hashtags – these are tags denoted by the “#” character that group tweets according to particular topics. For example, a recently published paper on avian phylogenies might be tagged as #bird #evolution. This makes it easier for users to find and share relevant content.
- Retweets – rather than generating all of your own content on Twitter, it is common practice to spread the content created by others. If someone has posted something you found interesting, you can retweet (designated “RT” within the tweet) to push that back out to your followers.
- Followers – the people who subscribe to tweets from your account are known as “followers” and you will see the option to “follow” other users on Twitter. This is the audience for your tweets.
The good thing about Twitter is that there is a lot of information. The bad thing about Twitter is that there is a lot of information. Using Twitter effectively means being able to take what you can from the stream of data without feeling too bad about letting a lot of it slide past. This can be helped by managing lists of users of particular interest, and by using programmes that interface with Twitter, such as Tweetdeck and Hootsuite.
- Using Twitter as a communication tool with the rest of the class (e.g. posting assignment deadlines)
- Using Twitter in-class, by incorporating a Twitter stream on a screen while teaching. Students can then interact in real-time.