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.

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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.

What kind of scientist do I want to be?

Rhianne Curley is a first year student in Biotechnology and the post below is based on an assignment given to the class following a lecture I (GF) gave them on the ten types of scientist.

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When I was in my Transition Year in secondary school I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work in one of the labs in Bristol-Myers Squibb. I felt really comfortable in the lab environment and this is when my interest in working in the science industry really began.

I was up early every morning anticipating an interesting new day while I was there. Working in the labs, developing and analysing products is my idea of the perfect job. What excites me most is the fact that people working in the drug development industry have to be adaptable due to the fact that new drugs are needed in order to combat new strains of existing diseases and also to treat and prevent new diseases.

As the world faces increasing life expectancies and a growing elderly population the pharmaceutical and medical device industries will be a sector full of opportunity. The thrill of discovery and the possibility of making an impact in the world is what attracts me to this type of work most. I imagine with a job like this I would wake up almost every morning with a feeling of excitement for a new day of work. I understand that it is not a typical 9 to 5 job but I believe that I have the patience, commitment and the right attitude required to succeed in the competitive development industry.

I have a desire to make a contribution to science and believe this will be possible if I have the privilege to work in this industry. My absolute dream job would be to work as a drug developer in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. I’d love to be able to be a part of a team attempting to come up with products that could potentially benefit millions of people in years to come. I imagine myself using sophisticated computers and equipment, working with microscopic compounds and conducting experiments in order to aid the development of pharmaceuticals.

The ideal company that I’d like to work for would be a multinational company like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, or other similar companies. I would look forward to having the opportunity to travel to another country to work with like-minded people and to develop my own skills. I admire the dedication the employees at these companies have, discovering medicine and treatments that can help people all over the world. I know I have just begun my journey into the world of science but I am really excited about the next four years studying areas that I really have an interest in.

More tales from the LIYSF

Kashif Ali is a second year student in biotechnology

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LIYSF, I wonder what these five letters mean to a non LIYSFer. I imagine they assume that it is just five randomly scattered letters; well that is what I assumed it was before participating in LIYSF 2016.

LIYSF stands for London International Youth Science Forum, which takes place over two weeks in the heart of London in Imperial College London. For these two weeks the forum each year welcomes the brightest minds from all four corners of the globe (I mean this literally!!) because at LIYSF 2016, the 59th edition of the forum there were 75 different countries represented by around 580 students. The theme of LIYSF 2016 was Great Scientific Discoveries. I along with a fellow science student in DCU were lucky enough to have been selected as Ireland’s delegates in the forum.

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The Forum kicked off with the opening ceremony on the 28th of July, where I was privileged enough to carry the Irish flag, without a doubt the proudest moment of my life. In the opening ceremony the key note address was given by Professor Romain Murenzi from UNESCO and the President’s note by Professor Richard O’Kennedy of DCU.

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The forum schedule was filled with amazing Principal Lectures and demonstrations, which truly achieved the theme of LIYSF 2016 as these lectures seek to dissect the process of scientific discovery from the eureka moment through to the widest, successful scientific developments. Also in the schedule at LIYSF are specialist lectures, which were an amazing opportunity for majority of students at LYISF to experience their chosen lectures in different fields of sciences, sciences in which they may wish to purse their further education. Most of the delegates were pre-college (High school) age and therefore the specialist lectures helped them find an area of science that they found most intriguing before choosing a course in university. For me, however, the situation was a little bit different. The specialist lectures allowed me to see the great research that is being conducting in the Biotech industry currently and the kind of research work I may be conducting in future and so these specialist lectures definitely reassured me that the field of science that I am pursuing my future in is one for me.

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It is not only the full, rich and varied programme with incredible lectures, speakers and visits to incredible lecture departments around the UK that made LIYSF great but rather the great diversity and engaging social programme. The diversity at LIYSF was evident to me when somewhere in the middle of the fortnight I found myself having lunch at a table with a Mexican girl, a Spanish boy, a Kuwaiti boy and a Cypriot girl. That’s the beauty of LIYSF: interacting with as many different cultural backgrounds as there are people around you. Everyone I met at the forum had a completely different view on current global issues, while at the same time, sharing the same love for science as I do. That made me acknowledge how important it is to accept and embrace the baffling diversity our planet possesses, because it is only by welcoming everyone’s point of view that we can evolve as species.

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My personal favourite moment of the forum came when I was asked by the Pakistani delegates to perform a traditional dance with them in the International Cabaret, which was a cultural showcase performance evening. It is these kind of moments that only LIYSF can offer that will live forever live in my memory. LIYSF changed my point of view because it is not about seeing who’s the best scientist but rather sharing our love for science and spreading our culture with people from all corners of the world. LIYSF is about communication as much as it is about science. By attending the Forum my views on matters of the world have changed in a way I would’ve never imagined but I guess that’s the beauty of this forum. LIYSF only outlined how important international collaborations are in this day and age. As Henry Ford once said ‘’Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success,’’ LIYSF brought us together now it’s our responsibility to stay together and work together to change the science of tomorrow. The only dull moment over the fortnight came when the plane’s wheels lifted from the ground and the feeling that LIYSF 2016 was over struck me with the power of a boron-enhanced fuel.