Reflections on the end of another academic year

Re-blogged from educationandstuff.wordpress.com

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And so another academic year ends – except for the shed loads of marking I’ve to do. Once again, I taught all years from first to fourth.  My biggest take away? The class dynamic is a mysterious thing.

Final year students are generally easy to teach. They’re usually mature, eager to do well and keen to get on with their careers and lives. First years are also easy to teach but only if the class size is small (as mine is), and not if you have to endure one of those mega-classes where 250+ students are crammed into an enormous lecture theatre for hours on end.  (Advocates of ‘broad entry’ take note.)

When you get the chance to work closely with first years, you find them to be raw, enthusiastic and a little naive. And there’s a pervasive sense in the class that they are embarking on a great journey. Everything is possible.

It’s with second and third years that the challenges lie, at least in my experience. It’s because of my experience with these groups of students that I would never have the nerve to make a blanket statement that I am a ‘good lecturer’.

I would hope that I am ‘good’ at least some of the time but I know there are times when I’m just adequate. But it’s not simple a question of having ‘off’ days. It’s more to do with the class dynamic and how I connect with that dynamic. It’s easy to teach bright enthusiastic students and over the years I have taught many classes where the general positivity in the class brought out the best in me. In those situations I think I have been ‘good’.

But there have been class groups over the years who just exuded negativity and apathy. There was never any malice involved and the individual students have always been very nice people in their own right. But when they got together for lectures, or even labs, they seemed to behave with a sort of hive mind, everyone a bit resentful and grumpy and seeing everything as an imposition on them. I’m not sure why that happens and I’m sure psychologists have studied group dynamics to death but when there is an air of negativity in a class it can drag the lecturer down despite their best efforts.

I know that there have been occasions when I could feel my enthusiasm fade within minutes of entering a class. In situations like that I don’t think I have been ‘good’ at all and that is a failure on my part.

But there’s always next year!

 

Developing Engagement with Feedback

Blanaid White is a lecturer in the School of Chemical Sciences

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Think of a powerful piece of feedback you received – how did it make you feel? This was one of the first questions posed by Prof. Tansey Jessop at the recent Y1 feedback conference. The figure below, generated by those of us in the audience in response, illustrates the impact of our feedback.

blanaid

 

Feedback has a huge impact on us – on our confidence, on our self-esteem, on our sense of identity. Equally, when we give feedback to our students, we are impacting their confidence and sense of identity. As educators, we are aware of this, and try to package our feedback to our students as constructively as possible, using techniques such as the “feedback sandwich”, in an attempt to protect our students from crushing responses. But as was highlighted by cognitive psychologist Dr. Naomi Winstone (“I like your hat – Your face is ugly – But your top is nice”), these well-intentioned strategies can backfire badly. Instead, in their inspirational keynotes, Naomi and Tansey challenged us to think differently about feedback. Instead of concentrating on developing strategies to deliver high quality, carefully designed feedback, we are challenged to consider that we should be focused on teaching students how to deal with feedback. We can be sure that as our students graduate from university and move into a wide variety of careers, they will continue to receive feedback. We can also be sure that at some stage in that journey, our graduates will receive poor quality feedback – perhaps poorly timed; or badly phrased; maybe even inappropriate. We cannot prevent this; we cannot protect our students from it. But we can teach them strategies to deal with this feedback. We can acknowledge that feedback can elicit a powerful emotive response, and that’s OK. We can be cognisant that dealing with that feedback immediately may not be optimal, and give students space until they are ready to deal with it. And when they are ready, we can teach students how to take our feedback and use it effectively.

One of the key tools we can use to teach our students how to deal with feedback is by using it as a scaffold to begin a dialogue with our students, a dialogue built on trust. In that dialogue, we can explore both the content details of the feedback, and the feedback process itself. We can help students contextualise our feedback, emphasising that some skills are constantly evolving, and will continue to evolve throughout our careers. We can reassure students that we don’t expect them to get an assignment fully right, but will support their development to make incremental improvements throughout their studies. Throughout this discussion of academic content, we can work with students to develop their own capacity to make evaluative judgements about their work, and progressively learn to construct their own feedback. But throughout this process, while we try to ensure the appropriate balance between praise and critique, we must remain cognisant that the student’s learning gain is more important than their satisfaction. Prof. David Carliss challenged us at the start of the Y1 feedback conference to consider that feedback is only feedback if students use it, that we need to help students incorporate our feedback into their learning strategies, even if they don’t use it for that particular assignment. Viewed through this lens, our feedback not the end of the assignment process, just an intermediate step. Taking the next step and helping our students to engage with our feedback and continuing our dialogue with them is the natural progression of this process. As an analytical chemist, I am much more comfortable with initiating a dialogue on feedback content than on strategies to deal with feedback. But that is no reason not to begin that dialogue, and so I begin a concerted effort to engage students with the feedback I have, often meticulously, prepared. I have found the UK Higher Education Academy Developing Engagement with Feedback Toolkit (DEFT) particularly useful in my endeavours so far. I hope that my students will find it similarly useful, and that we can add the skill “effectively dealing with feedback” to the list of attributes in our graduate’s skills repertoire.

DEFT Toolkit: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resource/developing-engagement-feedback-toolkit-deft

PISA, maths teaching and cognitive activation

Greg Foley is a senior lecturer in the School of Biotechnology

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A recent OECD report suggested that using ‘cognitive activation’ is the best way to teach mathematics, better than what the OECD call teacher-directed instruction and also better than what they call ‘active learning’, something that in the world of the OECD seems to be a form of project-based learning.

The main characteristics of teaching based on cognitive activation seem to be:

  • Giving students hard problems, i.e. ones about which they have to think for a long time and for which there is no obvious solution or for which there might be many solutions, and for which the context might be somewhat unfamiliar.
  • Giving students the freedom to use their own procedures to solve complex problems
  • Asking students to reflect on and think about what they are doing or have done when attempting to solve problems.

When I think about what I do when I teach chemical engineering to my biotechnology students, it would appear that I am pretty much in the cognitive activation camp. Good for me you might think!

A very big chunk, probably the majority, of my ‘lecture’ time involves students working on problems that I have posed. But the idea that you learn engineering by solving problems is as old as the hills so nothing I am doing is particularly innovative. And I should stress that in all cases, I lecture first and the students solve problems second. This is not discovery learning.

But here’s the thing: for the sake of the students (not for me I hasten to add because lecturing is hard, much harder than walking around a classroom while students are solving problems) I would much rather spend more time on teacher-directed instruction (i.e. lecturing) because the price I have had to pay for adopting the in-class problem-solving approach is a large reduction in content. I’d love to be able to cover more material and trust that students would go to the library or go home and solve problems on their own or in groups with their classmates, and do so consistently. But I can’t.

And that’s the problem with a lot of discussion around education. It ignores the broader social and cultural context and it frequently fails to mention what is lost as well as what is gained as a result of some innovation or other. Yes, a student might get more out of an individual problem-solving session than a single lecture but that’s not the point. The real question is how much has a student learned, and how well have they learned it, at the end of the module.

My sense at the moment is that for whatever reason, students do not put in the hours of independent study that we expect of them and, despite all the advice we give them, they are still prone to cramming. I also believe we are in an era where a reduction in content is not seen as a bad thing; but it is.

So I think my third level students do learn better because of the way I teach. But they don’t learn as much as I would like and many (but not all) do not display the independence that I would expect of college-going young adults.

“This House Believes Artificial Intelligence (AI) Could, Should and Will Replace Teachers”  The future of mass higher education

Brian Mulligan is an online distance learning developer at the Institute of Technology, Sligo.

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“This House Believes Artificial Intelligence (AI) Could, Should and Will Replace Teachers” is the topic of a debate at the upcoming  OEB conference in Berlin later this year.  Often when I ask lecturers the question, “If computers could replace lecturers, should they?” I get a negative response justified by various quite valid arguments that teachers will always be required for one reason or other.  However, the question they are answering is not the one posed.  It ignores the “if” at the start.

As an engineer I have always assumed that it was my job to improve the world by making our work more efficient and reducing waste.  Sometimes this might include the disappearance of certain professions, but looking back in time it seems that this disruption, although unpleasant for the disappearing profession at the time, was best for society in the long run.  So if you are in agreement with that general principle the answer to the question is “yes”, computers should replace lecturers if they can.

But before we give up the ghost and let management replace us with computers, there is the question of whether they are capable of replacing us.  In the same spirit of misreading the question above, lecturers are loath to admit that computers can, to any great extent, do any of the tasks that we do well enough to replace us.  This is the natural inclination of any profession to protect itself but it may not be the best thing to do if it ignores the changes that are undermining it and inhibits the profession’s ability to adapt.

So, to what extent is information technology capable of replacing lecturers? You might say that the first big scare we got was from the MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses.   The demise of higher education as we know it was being heralded by the sight of tens of thousands of learners taking courses from rockstar professors.  It was cold comfort to the profession that the drop-out rate was high, or that the teaching was simple or interaction between learners limited and non-existent with the lecturers, because large numbers were still learning some very useful stuff.  However, we had an ace up our sleeve; assessment and accreditation.  Despite our claims of lofty learning objectives, we know that young people come to university to have a good time and to get a certificate that will get them a decent paying job.  Employers, parents and students themselves trust us to maintain good standards and not be handing out certificates to anyone who is willing to pay the fees.

So we’re OK then?  Maybe not.  A number of years ago the presidents of US universities were polled on what they believed would cause the most change in higher education in the future.  Sensibly, they suggested it wasn’t MOOCs.  However, they did identify the idea of unbundling, or the separation of learning from assessment, which allows learners to learn as they please and to submit themselves for assessment whenever they are ready.  If implemented in universities it would unleash a wave of innovation in learning both inside and outside universities as learners seek the most cost effective ways of learning wherever they can find them.

Since then, this has started to happen.  Universities in the US are offering challenge examinations with credits attached.  People predicted that the prestigious institutions would not get involved in this but MIT is launching micro-masters degrees where you can study the module for free in the form of MOOCs and then pay for assessment to get the credits.  There’s worse.  These free and cheap online courses may get a lot better.  Progress is being made in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and it may have a significant impact in several areas.  lDeep Learning’ can monitor the activity of very large numbers of learners in order to optimise and personalise learning pathways, including remedial activities for individual students.  AI has also made progress in creating “bots” who can act as first line advisors to learners who are in difficulty.

OK, so we may get replaced, eventually, but we’re smart and we can find other useful thing to do, like research.  And the universities will still act as assessors and accreditors so they’re OK. Well maybe.  Employers have mixed feeling about the education young people receive at university.  On one hand they complain about the lack of key skills in graduates but  on the other hand they find universities to be largely trustworthy in maintaining standards and particularly like their ability to help them separate job applicants.  University degrees are effectively a cheap selection tool for employers. However, they are not so cheap for the candidates or the state who may subsidise the process.

But what if employers found other more efficient ways of assessing what a job candidate knows or can do?  Recently a major international management consultancy firm announce that it would no longer require a university degree from new employment applicants.  Whatever, this implies about the value of degrees, it certainly indicates that they believe that learning can come from other sources and that they have the competence to evaluate such learning.  In domains where there are dire skills shortages, individuals are turning to alternatives such as “boot-camps” and free online courses with added fees for assessment.  Many of these are creating “alternative credentials” with electronic certification  which can be displayed online and, more importantly, examined in detail by potential employers who can drill down to see much more detail on the contents of the courses and performance of the candidates.  Should such credentials gain the trust of employers the associated course may well prove to be more attractive to school leavers who need to balance the pleasure of the “college experience” against their employability and the total cost of their education.

So to conclude, there is every reason to believe that technology may be able to replace a lot of what we as teachers do in the near future, and the trust the public rightly places in our institutions may not be enough to protect the profession.  We may be heading for a time where the need for teachers is much less and their role is much different.  Not only do we owe it to ourselves to prepare for such a possibility, we also need to admit that if it provides better, cheaper and more accessible learning for the public, it is to be welcomed.

A Lateral Move into Science Communication

Fintan Burke graduated with a BSc in Biotechnology in 2014 and an MSc in Science Communication in 2015.

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I am part of a growing number of science graduates who have taken a ‘lateral move’ into a science-related career, in my case science journalism. The move often raises a few eyebrows among peers, but I credit it with reshaping how I approached my final undergraduate year in biotechnology.

During that time, I began to think about where my exact interests in science lay. One project I had at college was writing about the legal aspects of life sciences for a blog. I was as interested in the effects of science as much as the mechanics of it. Science journalism appeared the best way to combine my two passions.

I have been fortunate through my Master’s degree in Science Communication and two journalism internships to fully understand the effects of science in society. Once results get published, they take a life of their own, though not always in the way researchers may intend. Four years’ worth of labour-intensive research may get a half-page feature in The Times, or be summed up in a glib tweet.

Either way, there is rarely a focus on the intense work required for the results. This leads to few having any idea of what the scientific theories or processes involve. This can then lead to poor results after deciding on a science education. This is especially true if students choose science in college because it is regarded as a ‘good’ or ‘safe’ degree.

I think part of my move to science communication was that I fully understood the procedure of writing. Before the blog I had also written for local and college papers and had knowledge of the rewards and challenges of going into this area. Knowledge of my real-life potential allowed me to put any academic challenges in perspective.

When people choose a science undergraduate, I think few will understand the challenges that are ahead. A memorable example of this is of a student-lecturer meeting in my final undergraduate year. One of my classmates stated her frustration of not knowing how heavily engineering featured in her coursework. This was recognised by the lecturers, who also found that that element had not been clearly communicated in prospectus materials.

In my view these unknown hurdles can quickly overwhelm some students, and change their focus towards simply getting their degree, ignoring the idea of a career beyond it. This does not instil a positive attitude to study.

This is not to say that my move to science journalism was an easy one. Debating philosophical aspects of science took me out of my comfort zone and I certainly struggled in other places. But knowing how these challenges would help me after earning the degree helped to contextualise and renew my efforts.

To the credit of my college, these concerns are being addressed. There is now a stronger emphasis on demonstrating the role of each module for industry/academic research. Granted, a sizeable proportion will always drop out in the first two years, but those that remain will be better aware of what is ahead.

My college ensures that authentic work experience is a mandatory module for nearly all life science courses. This allows students to gain experience of the real expectations that will be put on them once they graduate. Out of that experience, I think college work can be better put in the perspective of long-term goals.

Colleges do so many things correctly, and ultimately many students will only make this decision (lateral or not) in their final year as I did. That said, it never hurts to remind students that getting the degree is only part of the goal.