SciBlogs

Posts Tagged education

a learning experiment, and a pleasant surprise Alison Campbell May 01

No Comments

On Wednesday we ran our first whanau tutorial with the first-year students – a class for those students who identify as Māori. The driver for this was the observation that a disproportionate number of the Māori students in my first-year class didn't do well in our first test, & as a result I asked Kevin, our Faculty's senior tutor responsible for supporting Māori & Pacific Island students, to see if he could help me by setting up a whanau tutorial.

So he contacted all the Māori students in the class, sorted out a time & day that worked for them, and booked a room, & both of us organised some food and drink. Kev welcomed everyone & one of the students said a karakia (prayer) before we started. Brydget, the senior tutor who runs our first-year bio labs, came along, and so did one of the tutors from Student Learning - who took on the role of asking the 'silly questions', to show the students that asking questions really is a good thing & one that's encouraged. Which gave me the chance to steal one of Brydget's lines: that the only silly question is the one you didn't ask :)

There was a test coming up and so the students wanted to work through questions from previous tests, plus they wanted to know how to learn (& remember) things like the characteristics of some animal phyla. I did a bit of talking but for much of the time we had the students working together in groups after a bit of an explanation from me. It was great seeing the energy levels, the engagement, and the fun in the classroom. Brydget & I both try for that when we're teaching, but this was a whole new level. It was quite a salutory eye-opener for me, as I've liked to think I'm an 'inclusive' teacher, but I'd never had this level of engagement from this particular cohort before, and I've learned now that I still have a long way to go.

We ended up going way over time and the students were buzzing when they left. Kevin always does exit surveys for his group work and I was really looking forward to the results: there's a lot of evidence available on the effect of supporting Māori students' learning styles, but I wanted to see how our own students had perceived the session. Fourteen of the 16 attendees completed the survey, & it turned out that

  • all 14 agreed that they could understand the presenter.
  • they loved the learning environment, commenting that it was easier to ask questions; they liked the interactions and group work & the opportunity to work out the answers; felt that I'd explained things clearly & liked it that I made sure they understood before we went on to a new topic; the sheer informality & friendly environment went down well.
  • they'd all recommend it to their friends (yay!) & rated it as either very good or excellent
  • and felt it was a great way to revise.

As I said, a salutory learning experience for me. I've always tried to make classes inclusive, interactive & so on, but it was obvious that the set-up of this particular workshop – with its focus on a specific cohort – provided the spark that was missing.

Even better, next morning a lot of the whanau participants came along to a standard tut with a lot of other students there, as they usually do – but this time things were different. They were much more active in the class, spoke up more and asked more questions than before; their confidence was at a whole new level. They were the only ones to point out to me that I'd made a mistake with labelling a diagram :) (And I said thank you, & that I appreciated it, & it showed they really understood that particular topic.) And afterwards some came up to say how much they'd enjoyed the whanau tut, and a couple followed me back to my office to ask more questions – also a first. And after the test last night I heard that they felt they were much better prepared, this time round. (I haven't started the marking yet, but I am sooo hoping that this translates into improved grades!)

So yes, we'll continue this for the rest of the semester, and on into the next half of the year. There's nothing novel in what we did, & I certainly can't claim any credit (there's a lot in the literature on how best to help Māori students in tertiary classrooms eg hereherehere, & here). I'm just mentally kicking myself, and wishing we'd done it much sooner.

And I'm thinking: the Tertiary Education Commission has identified Maori and Pacific Island students as groups that TEC would like to see increasingly more involved with tertiary education. And to do that, and to maximise their learning success, we do need to reorganise our classrooms: eg do more flipping; get used to a higher level of chatter as students work together to solve problems; reduce the formality inherent in a 'normal' teacher-driven lecture class & sometimes become learners alongside our students. And that requires recognition that students' needs have changed since those of my generation were on the learners' side of the lectern, and that learning styles can and do differ & can be accommodated by using a range of teaching techniques. In other words, a classroom culture shift – one that sees educators recognising that they, too, can be learners when it comes to meeting the needs of a changing student demographic.

And of course, the evidence is already there that making these changes benefits all students.

how do we assess teacher quality? Alison Campbell Apr 25

3 Comments

This is a post originally writing for Talking Teaching. It's a difficult question for universities, but an important one at a time when they are increasingly under scrutiny for the quality of their educational outcomes (read: student completion & retention). It's a difficult question for individuals too!

Way back when I was a secondary teacher, & there were signs that the government of the day was looking at a possible move to performance pay, there were fairly frequent staffroom discussions discussions around how to assess the quality of one's teaching. (There's a much more recent report on this subject here.) One metric proposed was how many of your students passed School Cert. (I told you it was a long time ago!) That was all very well for those whose classes – we had streamed classes at my school – contained students who could mostly be expected to achieve rather well. I had one of those, but I also had the 'problem' 4th-form (year 10) class: kids who for a variety of reasons weren't viewed by many as likely to pass.

I had no real problems with that class. I had to teach them science, and so we 'did' science in contexts that they found engaging & relevant: the science of cooking, the science of cosmetics, & so on. We had a ball, & in the process they seemed to absorb some knowledge of science: what it was, & how it worked. But mostly they still didn't attempt School C (the equivalent of today's NCEA Level 1), & so by that rubric I'd have been judged a poor teacher. Perhaps, if we'd looked systematically at the level of prior knowledge those students entered my class with, and assessed the gains they made on that, both they and I would have been judged differently.

I was reminded of this during a discussion today about assessing the quality of teachers in a university setting. Now sure, we have a system of paper appraisals and teaching appraisals. But they aren't shared with line managers as a matter of course, and so that can make things difficult during goal-setting and promotion rounds. For in the absence of that information, just how do line managers (& others) come to any evidence-based assessmentof a teacher's abilities and performance in the classroom? I suspect the short answer is that they can't, not really.

But even where the appraisal data are available, they shouldn't be the only tool individuals (& managers) use to assess performance. I'm often told the appraisals are easy to 'game', although I'm not sure how correct that is; it does tend to assume that students aren't able to assess papers and teacher performance reasonably well. I mean, statements like "this teacher made it clear what was expected of me", "this teacher made the subject interesting", and "this teacher was approachable when advice or help was required" are fairly objective, after all. But ideally they'd be just one element in an educator's portfolio.

That portfolio could also include notes and commentary from an option that teachers in the compulsory sector will be used to: having a colleague sit in on a class and provide constructive feedback afterwards. In my experience this is rare in universities, which is a real pity, because both parties can learn a good deal from the experience. (We are accustomed, and encouraged, to have others cast a critical eye on our research outcomes, so why not our teaching?)

It could also include notes & reflections from the education literature. I firmly believe that while my teaching has to be informed by current research in my discipline (& I simply can't imagine teaching the same thing, year after year!), it must also be informed by findings from research into pedagogy.  Things change, after all. Teaching & learning methods that might have seemed to work for those who taught me at uni are almost certainly out of date in today's classrooms. As regular readers will know, I put much of my own reflection into writing these blog posts: the blog makes up a largish part of my own portfolio.

And of course, if you're dipping into the literature, and attending seminars or workshops from your equivalent of our Teaching Development Unit, then you'll pick up all sorts of other, informal, tips for gaining feedback on how things are going in the classroom. It's worth linking back to a guest post from a my friend & colleague Brydget, as she summarises all this very well.

The trick, of course, is to work out how to present that information to one's line manager :)

tips for effective on-line science outreach Alison Campbell Apr 19

No Comments

As you'll have gathered, I'm finding Facebook – and now Twitter – great sources of information, whether it's for teaching, sharing with my students (& others!), or blogging about. And today, this paper popped up on my Twitter feed: Ten Simple Rules for Effective On-line Outreach. Because it's published on a PLoS journal (in this case, Computational Biology), it's open-access, and so you can read the full paper here. For that reason I'll just list their 10 rules here, with the occasional aside from me.

Having noted that it can be quite a challenge to develop and keep an audience for what you have to say, here's how the authors introduce what their paper's about: 

Here, we describe ten rules for conducting effective online outreach, so that other scientists can also enjoy the advantages of disseminating their knowledge and expertise through social media.

  1. Stop treating outreach and research as separate entities. This point dovetails with the comments in an article that I have in my 'must blog about real soon' list: that much published work doesn't get read & is never cited. Blogging or tweeting about research is a way of making it accessible to a wider audience, one that may never read a scientific journal but still wants to hear about what scientists do.  There's also this: 

    It should also be acknowledged that the requirement of translating research to a public audience increases both awareness and intimacy with the published literature—one that can feed directly back into your research program.
     

    Not to mention that both blogging and tweeting can increase your range of contacts and, from my so-far limited observation, lead to new collaborations.
     

  2. Be strategic. Be deliberate. In other words, plan before you act. I know that when I began blogging (seven years ago, now!), I gave a lot of thought to why I was doing it & to the nature of my target audience. 
     
  3. Find your niche & story. I've always seen this blog as outreach. Originally it was set up to reach year 13 biology students & their teachers, and although that range has expanded over time, I still have that group in mind. To that extent, I guess this descriptor from the paper applies: "a sustained effort to disseminate science beyond the ivory tower." I like to mix & match topics, depending on what catches my attention in my reading & on-line activity; it would be really really boring to stick to just a single area or focus! 
     
  4. Branding… branding… branding… Not one I've really thought about, beyond the fact that the blog carries the University's branding, given that it's hosted by the uni :)
     
  5. Recruit a top-notch team. I wish! Group blogging would certainly share the workload and, as the authors note, allow for more diversity of voice & viewpoint. Certainly this is something afforded by Sciblogs
     
  6. Focus on the story. I agree with the authors that good communication skills include story-telling and the ability to develop a narrative. These things allow you to show the human side of science & so build links with the audience. 
     
  7. Leverage multiple tools to disseminate content and build up your network. Yes indeedy. Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and all the other things I have a peripheral knowledge of: they're all ways of getting your ideas and stories out to a much wider network. My friend Kimberley Collins did her MSciComm thesis on this.
     
  8. Collect & assess data. This is not something I do in a formalised way, and I suppose that I should. (My Head of School would certainly agree!) But I do keep an eye on my blog stats, the number of 'likes' posts get on FB (I've taken to sharing each post there), and whether tweets are 'favourited'. (Social media are doing strange things to grammar…) The blog platform WordPress also shows you what search terms people used in coming to your site, giving an indication of what things are currently interesting to your potential audience.
     
  9. Iteratively assess what works and what doesn't. This follows on from #8. The authors also suggest going for shorter, rather than longer, posts; I have to admit that I'm torn on this one. Orac, for example, writes some monumental posts, but his topics are usually fascinating and he carries a large audience along with him. Carl Zimmer & Ed Yong, two other bloggers whom I really admire, go more for brevity. So both can work, but I agree that for many readers shorter is better.
     
  10. Create prestige for public scholarship. Let's finish with the authors' words:

The most important overarching benefit is visibility—to one’s colleagues, to the media, and to the public. By being accessible, researchers participating in online conversations have the opportunity to have a much more influential voice for their science. In these days of dwindling governmental investment and increased public distrust of science, scientists need to speak out on the value of their profession and training.

Because we have witnessed such direct and beneficial gains as a result of our online outreach activities, we feel strongly that such activities should be given more weight when determining scientific productivity, e.g., during hiring/promotion decisions. The impact of online activities is increasingly recognized, and they should be formally encouraged.

Bik HM, Dove ADM, Goldstein MC, Helm RR, MacPherson R, et al. (2015) Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach. PLoS Comput Biol 11(4): e1003906. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003906

sustainability and on-line learning… Alison Campbell Apr 15

3 Comments

… and serendipity! I’ve just participated in a great AdobeConnect session, run by the university’s Centre for e-Learning, on the interfaces between academic publications and social media. It was fun, educational, & thought-provoking & has provided something of a spur to my own thinking about the value** of social media in this particular sphere. (For example, while academics are pressured to publish, & the number & position (journal) of those publications is seen as a measure of their worth, you could well ask what the actual value of the work is if few or no people actually read it. I’ve got another post lined up about this.)

Anyway, one of the things that I brought into the conversation was the value of Twitter (& Facebook) in terms of finding new information in fields that interest me. (I know that a lot of my recent blog posts have developed from ideas sparked by FB sources.) I’m a fairly recent convert to Twitter but have enjoyed several tweeted conversations about science communication & science education, and I do keep an eye on posts from those I’m ‘following’ in case something new crops up.

And so it was that when I started following our AdobeConnect host, this popped up:

Stephen’s link takes you to this article: net positive valuation of online education. The executive summary makes very interesting reading at a time when ‘we’ (ie my Faculty) are examining ways to offer our programs to a changing student demographic. It finds that on-line learning as a means of delivering undergraduate programs opens up access for people who don’t fit the ‘typical traditional undergraduate’ profile, such that those people may end up with greater life-time earnings & tax contributions, and reduced use of social services. And using on-line learning pedagogies & technologies seem to result in a reduced environmental footprint for the degrees: the authors estimate that on-line learning delivery of papers saves somewhere between 30 & 70 tonnes of CO2 per degree, because of the reduction in spending both on travel to & from campus, and on bricks & mortar.

There’s an excellent infographic here, and I can see why the report would indicate that the institution they surveyed (Arizona State University, ASU) would say that

[i]n the near term, nearly 100 percent of an institution’s courses, both immersive and virtual, will be delivered on the same technology platforms.

However, there are caveats.  ASU has obviously got a fairly long history of using e-learning platforms. This is not simply a matter of taking an existing paper (or degree program), making its resources available on-line, & saying ‘there! we’re doing e-learning’. Because unless the whole thing is properly thought through, the students’ learning experiences may not be what their educators would like to think.

In other words, this sort of initiative involves learning for both students and educators – and the educators’ learning needs to come first.

 

** As an aside, here’s an example of what could be called ‘crowd-sourcing’ for an educational resource, via twitter. But the same could easily be done for research.

music to learn by Alison Campbell Mar 19

No Comments

This was first posted over on Talking Teaching.

I’m always looking for interesting ideas that might spark student engagement. A couple of days ago this rap video popped up on the ScienceAlert FB page:

As you can see, it’s a fun post with a serious message & – I think – an excellent piece of science communication.

Anyway, then this happened:

BIOL102 chat re rap on FB

I’m really hoping that we can make this happen. It would be an excellent way to enhance interactions between undergraduate and grad students, and also with academics if they would like to be involved (& I’d hope at least some would!) It would give the grad students (& staff) an opportunity to communicate with a wider audience about the nature & significance of their work, and the undergrads who take part would gain some of the capabilities that they need in the world beyond university.

Here’s hoping!

stuff: bible lessons lead to court Alison Campbell Feb 22

6 Comments

And if the Stuff story here is correct, then I can understand why parents might choose that route, particularly as they seem to have exhausted other options.

NZ state primary schools can offer ‘religious education’, and under the Education Act parents have the ability to withdraw their children from those classes. (Personally I think it should be a case of opt-in, with opted-out the default setting, but that’s not how the legislation was drafted.) The classes can’t actually be offered in school time; this is usually circumvented by ‘closing’ the school for the 30 or so minutes each session takes.

In the Stuff article it’s stated that despite the parents indicating that their daughter was not to attend her state primary school’s religious education classes, she was “repeatedly put back in”. The whole issue isn’t new, either, as this 2012 article in the NZ Herald demonstrates. This surely indicates a failure of process at the school end, and the parents are right to be frustrated by it.

But wait, there’s more. From the article:

One of the Bible class teachers from Life in Focus Trust1, a volunteer who was not a qualified teacher, said parents did not need to be notified because the classes were “history lessons” as the Bible was factually correct.

Seriously? (There’s no evidence for the exodus in contemporary Egyptian documents, for example.)

I think it would be great if students learned about comparative religions (if there’s room in the already crowded curriculum). But the fact that a document revered by one particular faith is being presented in this school, at least, as an ‘historical document’ suggests that other religions aren’t getting a look-in – and also raises questions about how the Genesis stories, for example, might be taught. Because those are certainly not ‘history’ (the comments thread to the Stuff article is quite… …. interesting).

1 Having had a look at the Life in Focus website, I can see that its classes are mapped onto the NZ Curriculum document. Since the various outcomes & attributes the program lists are already intended to be delivered in classrooms I’m not clear on why additional people, not all of whom are qualified teachers, would need to be involved, and why myths and stories from only one faith would be used in developing universal attributes in multicultural classrooms.

the 10 commandments of rational debate Alison Campbell Feb 20

3 Comments

Critical thinking is a necessary tool for understanding the world we live in. And I don’t believe we teach it particularly well. I know that students in high school science classes learn how to assess the validity/reliability of a source, for example, and that’s great, but on top of that we need to get students really thinking about the information and arguments that they’ll come across on pretty much a daily basis.

And for that, something like this (found, as is often the case, via Facebook) would be a useful resource:

For example, you’ll often see someone advocating for science-based medicine described as a ‘shill’. (Apparently all of us on Making Sense of Fluoride are shills. All I can say is, if the cheque’s in the mail, it’s a long time coming.) This is an ad hominem attack that does nothing to address the person’s arguments. In fact, I’d add another: the argument from authority eg Prof X says so, therefore it’s true. (We get that a lot.) You’ll find some more examples of these rules to work by, here.

what would the world be like if we all just… disappeared Alison Campbell Jan 30

No Comments

I do enjoy asapSCIENCE – their videos are quirky, entertaining, & informative, and can provide some great talking points for science classes. But for this one, add poignant to the adjectives.

ncea & university entrance – numbers & interpretations Alison Campbell Jan 29

4 Comments

January has again been a very busy month those of us involved in the student enrolment process. This year we noticed that a reasonably large number of students hadn’t achieved university entrance, and while there are very definitely options available for that cohort, it was still a concern & we’ve been waiting to see what the Ministry had to say about it.

Well, there is now a press release out, and I must say that it has a certain optimistic spin. The headline is very positive: “Upwards NCEA trend continues”, which indeed it does – at Levels 1 & 2. But the proportion of students achieving University Entrance has dropped markedly, from 70.6% in 2013 to 58.3% for last year’s candidates. This will have a flow-on effect on both those students (in terms of their plans for future study) and on the universities to which they’d applied.

There’s also this, in the context of a comment regarding the reasons for changes to University Entrance requirements:

Data showed that students who began their university studies with NCEA* Level 3 performed significantly better than students whose highest qualification was NCEA level 2.

This is a little disingenuous in that, in order to gain University Entrance, students have always had to achieve a minimum of 42 credits at level 3 of NCEA: 14 in each of two ‘approved’ subjects (eg english, history) and a further 14 from no more than two other approved subjects combined (eg at least 14 credits from biology plus mathematics). They’ve also had to meet numeracy and literacy requirements (the latter of which also changed in 2014). On top of that, many university papers have their own prerequisites for entry eg a student needs to get 16 credits in L3 chemistry to get into some of our first-year chemistry papers.

To leave school with NCEA level 3, they needed a total of 60 credits at level 3 or above & 20 credits from level 2 or above – University Entrance & NCEA are not the same thing, but both involve a reasonable number of level 3 credits.

What’s notable from the Ministry’s own figures is that the proportion of students gaining that Level 3 qualification has not really changed between the 2013 and 2014 cohorts, so the issue is apparently related to UE. (It’s relatively rare for students to come straight from school to university with only the Level 2 qualification.)

This year, aspiring university students needed NCEA Level 3, plus they had to meet numeracy, literacy, and the new UE requirement for each of three Level 3 subjects to contribute at least 14 credits to their total, and that seems to have tripped many students up. Again, the proportion achieving NCEA Level 3 is little changed: down to 78.6 from 79.2%. So students who’ve not met UE requirements seem to have missed out on literacy, &/or numeracy, &/or that specific requirement for 14 credits in each of 3 approved subjects. And we do need to know why this has happened – could it be to do with how information about the changes was communicated to students, for example, or are there other factors in play?

But as the Minister says, at this point it’s important that students who didn’t gain UE don’t feel that the door has been slammed in their faces. There are still a number of choices open to them, and one of those is definitely to approach the university they’d wanted to attend, and ask about their options.

 

* NCEA = National Certificate of Educational Achievement

should food containing dna be labelled? Alison Campbell Jan 20

No Comments

Apparently 80% of people in the USA think so, according to a Washington Post article that’s been all over Facebook in the last few days. That is, 80% of those polled in the regular Food Demand Survey (by Oklahoma State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics) agreed with the proposition that all food containing DNA should be labelled. (To put this in context, there is currently a heated debate in the US – driven by those opposing the incorporation of material from genetically-modified organisms into the food chain – over whether such foods should be labelled as such.)

Now, you could argue that the question was poorly worded. There’s been a certain amount of skepticism that those in agreement with the DNA proposition could be so high – after all, anything with whole cells in it will definitely contain DNA, & there’ll probably be traces in most other foods, apart from very highly processed foodstuffs like refined oils and sugars. And salt. Perhaps they thought they were talking about foods from genetically-modified sources, as opposed to ‘natural’ foods (more on that later)?

Perhaps. But there was also a question on that.

The author of the Post article suggested that the poll results were the outcome of “the insection between scientific ignorance and political ignorance”, and went on to say that perhaps many of those polled “don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realise that it is contained in almost all food.”

This is close to the ‘information deficit model’: the one that argues that if ‘laymen’ are given all the information on the scientific issue du jour, that they will change their minds & accept the scientific perspective. However, this ain’t necessarily so. As that debate around labelling of GM foods shows, there are far more factors in play than simple (lack of) scientific understanding: do people feel that their voices have been heard by those making the decisions. Do they have particular religious beliefs that affect their attitudes? How much of their feelings on the subject are shaped by personal ethical perspectives, or individuals’ experiences? This means that those communicating about science need to be aware of these perspectives and frame their communication accordingly, with an eye to real engagement rather than simply throwing information at people.

In New Zealand these issues & others were canvassed by the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification, back in 2000. This was a good example of the sort of meaningful engagement with the public that needs to become more widespread, although looking at how these questions are addressed in schools could also be interesting. I know that back in the early 2000s, we found that a small proportion of new first-year students were aware that all living things – & not just GMOs – contained DNA. A much, much, much smaller proportion than in the US survey! So at that level, maybe we’re doing something right :)

Coming back to the ‘natural’ vs GMO foods: geneticist Kevin Folta has noted that modern GM techniques give far more control, in terms of known genetic & phenotypic outcomes, than hybridisation or mutational breeding (& that genes can and do move between species without human intervention). There’s a useful graphic, comparing the outcomes of the different techniques, here.

Oh, & the Washington Post wrote a rather tongue-in-cheek mock-up of what a food label might look like, if public opinion results in such labelling becoming mandatory:

WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.

EDIT: For other comments, try Kavin Senapathy’s post, and also this thoughtful piece on whether the question was actually inappropriate in its context, by Ben Lillie (and thanks for the heads-up on Ben’s post, Grant).

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer