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Today I spent an interesting & educational few hours at the University’s “Celebrating teaching excellence” day. This is when thestaff who’ve received Faculty, University, or national awards for their teaching share their ideas & techniques with their colleagues, and this is just wonderful as you’re guaranteed to learn something new :-)

And so I thought that I would,in turn share with you the things I picked up from Sue Wardill, who’s an outstanding tutor in the Law Faculty. Sue treated us to the opening statement she gave to a class on the rule of law. “I’m not interested in your opinions,” she said. “Don’t want to know. Unless,” she said (spinning round to fix us with a hard stare) “unless they’re based on factual evidence & linked to a theory.”

I really liked that approach. It had quite an impact, and it would be a good way to start students questioning the way they approach the information they receive. And then she gave an example of a news story that she used to get the class thinking about whether a particular item was based on opinion or on evidence. It was published in the UK paper The Telegraph under the headline “Women and gay men are ‘worst drivers‘”. Here’s how it kicked off:

Women and gay men are likely to be the worst drivers, a new study has shown.

Research has revealed that both perform poorly in tasks involving navigation and spatial awareness when compared to heterosexual men.

Psychologists at Queen Mary, University of London, who conducted the study, believe the findings mean driving in a strange environment would be more difficult for gay men and women than for straight male motorists.

(There was a certain amount of whispered ‘are too!’ ‘are not!’ from the audience.)

“Whaddaya think?” asked Sue. “Unsupported opinion, or evidence-based?”

Well, the headline is rather more definite than the actual story itself. But don’t the phrases ‘a new study has shown’ and ‘research has revealed’ carry some weight? Sue’s audience thought no; that this appeal to authority was counterbalanced by the statement that the psychologists who did the research ‘believe’ that the findings lead to a particular conclusion. What did the researchers actually do, we wondered, & read on…

Apparently it supports ‘other’ (uncited) studies showing that

…women are more successful in tests requiring them to remember the position of objects, men consistently do better in tasks requiring navigation and uncovering hidden objects.

Hmmm. I guess there’s little point in continuing with those hidden-object games on my i-pad…

The research team, led by Dr Qazi Rahman, used virtual reality simulations of two common tests of spatial learning and memory developed at Yale University.

In one, volunteers had to swim through an underwater maze to find a hidden platform, while the second involved exploring radial arms projecting from a central junction to receive ‘rewards’ .

Sooo - the volunteers in this project were essentially playing a computer game, one using virtual reality simulations. They weren’t actually behind the wheel of a car, with all the cues that you receive when driving along the highway… Sue’s class agreed that they’d find this report more convincing if the research team had followed the next logical step & actually had their volunteers drive an unfamiliar route.

(And if I’d followed ‘someone else’s’ advice we might still be on the Melbourne ring-route. Just like ‘Gridlock’ on Dr Who…

… well, maybe that’s just a slight exaggeration…)

Thanks, Sue!