Final day of the core module began with a session delivered by a guest lecturer who talked about workplace literacy and how the non-academic writing we do on a day-to-day basis is as valuable as academic writing and teaching in forming our professional identities. This was based on a paper by Mary and Barry Stierer – Lecturers’ everyday writing as professional practice in the university as workplace: new insights into academic identities.
In the afternoon there was a catch-up for a few people who missed the peer teaching session, followed by another run of the nominal group feedback exercise to get our feedback on the module now that it has completed.
Back to the core module, EDPM05, and another split day with guest lecturers – covering equality in the university in the morning, and how to handle difficult classroom situations in the afternoon.
I feel like I must have attended half a dozen equality and diversity training sessions over the years, so the content of the morning session was very familiar, covering our legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act of 1998, as well as emphasising our moral obligations to be inclusive, and the reasons why it is just good business practice. What was different about this session was the discussion we had on the uniqueness of the HE sector. Universities tend to have rich and diverse international student bodies – at Sunderland one third of our on-campus students are from overseas – and they tend to be young, still forming their own identities, and at university will be exposed to values and opinions that are likely to be new and potentially very different from anything they have experienced before. As staff, we have a responsibility towards these students and can help them by creating inclusive learning environments which includes flexibility of teaching and assessment methods, encouraging interaction between different groups, offering pastoral care as required, and being aware of culture shock which some students may suffer from, and any unconscious biases that we may hold ourselves.
The afternoon session on how to handle difficult classroom situations was very useful. It was noted that it’s a strange omission in HE academic education that classroom engagement isn’t taught, as it seems to be assumed that it won’t be necessary with students being adults. However, these are often young adults and behavioural issues can and do arise. To manage these we were advised to set clear rules and lines about what is tolerated, preferably as teaching teams, explain these to students early on, and then enforce the rules fairly and consistently. We were advised not to get into direct confrontations in classrooms, but to record the problem behaviour and address it afterwards in accordance with the university’s regulations.
And so we come to the infamous peer teach session! In which we were each given seven minutes to teach on anything we wanted by whatever means we desired, followed by seven minutes of questions and answers, not about the content so much as observations about our teaching style.
Some interesting topics and techniques as you can imagine, from the health benefits of juicing with taste testing, to a presentation on everything you would ever want to know about the Fender Stratocaster. I taught some philosophy, in a session I called ‘Something Nietzsche Couldn’t Teach Ya: A potted history of Western philosophy from 470 BCE to (almost) the present day … Via the medium of song!’
I created a presentation using Storyline that took Monty Python’s Bruces’ Philosophers’ Song and added breaks after each philosopher was introduced in which to talk about their key contributions. In the presentation itself I had some bullet points fly in along with displaying some basic biographical information. It was well received, and I was able to field all the questions I got, though sometimes with reference to the notes I had prepared as there are things in the song which I haven’t studied.
One little thing I did struggle with was time management. The seven minute format was chosen for a reason, to see how well you can manage your topic into the available space. Though the song is very short, I had about a minute of content for each philosopher which took me over. Anticipating this, when I received my six minute warning I was ready to skip to the end and the final slide which I wanted to leave people with – about Socrates decrying modern technology! Watch the full presentation here if you wish.
Another split day, wearing my student hat in the morning for the core module, and in the afternoon teaching part of the digital technology module, this time with the added pressure of being formally assessed as part of one of the assessments for the core module. It does get rather circular.
The morning session was excellent, far and away the most useful couple of hours I’ve ever spent on assessment. A guest lecturer facilitated an extended and iterative exercise using the seemingly simple task of defining a biscuit as a metaphor for the problems of assessment marking. First we each had to write a definition of a biscuit in 180 characters or less, the length of a Tweet, then the room was split into two groups and each group had to agree a common definition. Then the fun part, a plate of ‘biscuits’ was given to each group and we were tasked with marking them against our definition, placing each within a four point rubric of ‘biscuity’, replicating the undergraduate degree classification system. I was expecting trouble with the Jaffa Cakes, but the viciousness and racism which came about as a result of the shortbread finger took my by surprise. Alas, we were forbidden from removing the more contentious ‘biscuits’ from the equation by eating them.
The afternoon session for EDPM08 covered digital communication and virtual reality technologies and tools. It was this part that was delivered by myself and I was given an hour. I spent the first 30 minutes going through a short presentation I created about the use of virtual, augmented and mixed reality systems in higher education which I based on the microsite I wrote, followed by another 30 minutes or so in which people were able to have a go with some hardware and software which the module leader and I supplied – phone based VR headsets using some VR and AR apps I had found which showcased educational uses such as Anatomyou VR.
There was a bit of pressure on me this time, as my teaching was being formally observed in accordance with university practices and as a requirement for part of one of the assessments in the core module. I felt nervous, feeling that I stumbled over my words a bit more often than I would have liked, and I completely forgot to talk about Google Glass during the AR section, but my observer thought I did fine. I was commended on subject knowledge and use of cultural references to make the presentation interesting, and given good advice which I will be able to use in the future. At one point I did go ‘off script’ and tried to open an external link which took some time to load – I should have been ready with that or else not tried it. I was also advised to end the session with an optional task that people could do afterwards to help embed their learning – a good point, and something I have done in the past.
Back to the core module today, and in the morning session we discussed learning theories and how they are applied. One of my colleagues brought up research that people have a bias towards teaching in the way that best matches how they learn – something to be aware of. The learning theories we discussed can be grouped into four broad categories – behaviourist, cognitive, humanistic, and biological, and it was noted that while most of the work on learning theories has been done in the context of children’s learning, much of it also applies to adults.
The behaviourist school says that learning is built on previously learned behaviour, and should feature frequent and timely rewards and reinforcement. Notable theorists include Watson, Skinner and Pavlov. Cognitive theories argue that learning is a complex process that is constructed by the learner themselves, using new information to develop and transform existing knowledge. The work of Piaget was discussed, before moving on to social constructivism, the current hot trend. Building on previous cognitive theories, social constructivists argue that an individual’s learning takes place within their wider social and cultural group. Vygotsky’s concepts of scaffolding and the ‘zone of proximal development’ were discussed, followed by Kolb’s learning cycle. The humanistic category was discussed briefly, as a reaction against behaviourism and the need to encompass the whole of one’s life as a learning experience. Biological theories were not discussed at all as being outside the practical application of this course, and the morning ended with a brief debunking of the concept of learning styles, citing the work of Coffield and others.
The afternoon was about different approaches to learning – surface, deep, and strategic. Surface learning is superficial, with students learning only the minimum they need to complete the task at hand and often forgetting it straight away. For this reason surface learning is generally viewed as inappropriate. In my own work I see this all the time, with academics only interested in the bare minimum they need to do as they know they can, for example, call my team twice a year when they need to set up new assignments in Turnitin. What I would like to do is find a way to fully engage them so that their learning becomes embedded, just part of their knowledge and experience – deep learning. The new VLE should help with this by being more intuitive and user friendly. The strategic approach to learning is one that combines elements of both, choosing the best approach for the particular time and context. Perhaps our troublesome academics would argue that they are merely being strategic?
The final day of the first semester was a little unusual. The morning was given over to a review of the assignments for this module which are to complete the UKPSF form, critique a learning session, analyse a learning theory, and write a report on the experience of peer observation, comparing the experience of being the observer and the observee. Drafts are due at the end of semester 2, with final versions by September. All well and good, and all covered in the module guide. This session didn’t add anything, and yet we did literally spend the entire morning debating it. Strange things happen when you have academics as students.
The afternoon session was more useful. First there was a short presentation on evaluation in general, why and how to do it, followed by an introduction to nominal group technique. A definition of evaluation was given as ‘assessing the process and practice of a prior learning strategy or event by feedback and trying to make objective summaries of an often subjective interpretation.’ This was followed by a discussion on the different types of evaluation – student, staff, data, and self – and the difference between quality assurance, which is backwards looking and tends to be about accountability, and quality enhancement, which is about how to improve and develop your programme or module.
With quality enhancement in mind, nominal group technique was then introduced followed by actually using it to evaluate this first semester. As a group, and with the programme leader absent, we drew up two lists of ten to twelve points of things that are going well, and things which we think need to be improved. These were written on a board in no particular order, then individually we had ten votes, or points, with which to rank what we thought were the most important points. So for example, if you thought that ‘over-assessment’ and ‘use of VLE’ were the two most important things that needed to be improved upon, then you could give each one five votes. The programme leader was then invited back in and the votes were added up to show what we collectively ranked as the most important things for improvement, and what we felt was going well. The outcome of this evaluation will be actively used in the development of the programme for the second semester.
A very interesting morning session for the technology module, EDPM08, covering uses of technology to support self and peer assessment. The great thing about the tutor on this module is that they don’t just know their stuff, they back everything up with research proving that what they’re talking about works. That’s definitely something to keep in mind and aspire to in my own teaching.
First there was a discussion about peer marking, and research that shows that it only takes a surprisingly small number of peer grades to be averaged for it to approximate the grade of a tutor. That’s something that could prove very useful in the assessment for the ArtWorks MOOC that I’ve been assisting to develop. Then we covered the value of real-time formative feedback assisted by quiz tools such as Socrative and Poll Everywhere. And finally, not strictly supported by technology, there was a discussion about comparative marking, giving tutors two papers and deciding which of the two should get a higher mark, but without actually grading them. An interesting idea that I would like to look into further to find out more about how it works.
There was also a nice, almost throwaway remark about the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’, and anecdotal evidence that students learn more from bad lecturers as it makes them have to work harder to make sense of what is being taught. A kind of unintended experiential learning!
The afternoon session was back to the core module, EDPM05, and the use of reflection on teaching and learning. This was facilitated through an iterative exercise where we discussed where and how reflection takes place, wrote down ideas on sticky card and then worked the cards round on a board to reach some conclusions as a group.
Two sessions today, delivered by two guest lecturers on different topics. The morning was devoted to peer observation and discussed the exercise in general terms, the balance which needs to be struck between institutional and individual focus, and between negotiated and imposed criteria, and then on how it works here at Sunderland specifically. Here there is a standardised form which is part of the academic quality handbook, and everyone has to be peer observed a couple of times every year. One of the assessments for this module is for me to be observed, conduct an observation and write a reflective piece on the experience.
This was followed by a discussion on various quality frameworks and their different purposes which we assessed on a scale of institutional / individual focus, and negotiated / imposed criteria:
- UKPSF: About an individual’s professional teaching;
- NSS: The National Students Survey about their experience;
- TEF: The impending Teaching Excellent Framework which is designed to capture the performance and effectiveness of institutions;
- DfE Teacher Standards: About the role and responsibilities of teachers;
- Oftsed Observation Matrix: About the quality of learning as a result of teaching.
Our lecturer in the afternoon began with a discussion on different types of knowledge in practice, including research based evidence, tacit knowledge (from the work of Michael Polanyi who gives, as an example, the ability to ride a bicycle but difficulty in explaining how), and postmodernist approaches which argue that knowledge is socially constructed and thus particular to a given set of social and historic circumstances.
This was followed with reflective practice, the usual suspects, Gibbs and Schon, and a new one for me, Jan Fook, who writes about critical reflection and the need to unearth and examine the deeply held assumptions underlying our experiences.
Finally there was a discussion about his own research in auto-ethnography, a disciple which combines anthropology with biography to record the experience of being in a particular culture.
Continued our discussion on curriculum design, this time using John Biggs’s idea of constructive alignment. This is the theory that learning is best accomplished by having students construct meaning for themselves, rather than trying to impart or transmit knowledge. The role of the teacher in this model is to be a catalyst for learning and to facilitate the process by providing relevant learning activities and an optimum environment in which learning can take place.
We then discussed the importance of getting learning outcomes right and the need to regularly review and revise them based on student outcomes. A tip given for writing learning outcomes was to avoid using ‘understand’ as the measurable verb, to instead use something which places the focus on a practical application if possible. Again, Bloom’s taxonomy was recommended as a source of inspiration for alternatives.
For the afternoon session there was a change of lecturer and topic, to discuss the scholarship of teaching and learning using the work of Angela Brew as a starting point. The argument here is that, as an academic, you should focus on teaching and learning first, and scholarship will follow naturally. We discussed Foucault’s ideas about truth and the regimes of truth, and how the current neoliberal agenda is repurposing higher education to produce employable and marketable students who will become high earners, rather than the traditional purpose which was to produce citizens capable of critical and independent thought. Tying these strands together, if the neoliberalisation of HE was applied consistently, then teaching would be more highly valued than scholarship or research, as the bulk of university funding now comes directly from students through tuition fees.
The morning session picked up EDPM05 where it left off the week before, discussing curriculum design and setting learning outcomes. There was a discussion on the distinction between learning outcomes which are for students, and learning objectives which are more of a tool for staff when designing the curriculum. Advice given for writing good learning outcomes was to phrase them in the future tense, and make them achievable, assessable and easy for students to understand. It was recommended to build each outcome around a measurable verb, e.g. reflect, hypothesis and solve for high level outcomes, and describe, identify and measure for low level. Bloom’s taxonomy was cited as a source of inspiration in looking for these. In terms of practical considerations and UK HE culture, we were advised not to set too many learning outcomes as they need to be assessed, and too many learning outcomes can quickly lead to assessment overload.
To put this into practice we were given an example from a real-world module which, when inherited by the current programme leader, had 24 learning outcomes, and we were asked to find ways to reduce these. The programme leader actually got these down to 9 by clustering a number of them. Removing any of the outcomes wasn’t a possibility because that would have constituted a major change and triggered a re-validation.
The afternoon session was for EDPM08, the optional module on Digital Learning which I am teaching on, so I was there not as a participant but as a teaching assistant to support the discussions that were taking place. Today’s session utilised an audience response system so there was a discussion about the merits of using dedicated handsets over newer app and text based systems such as Socrative and PollEverywhere. Research was cited showing that such systems increased student enjoyment and engagement.
There followed a live application to get learner’s feedback on a discussion of Marc Prensky’s argument that today’s learners can be classified into digital natives or digital immigrants, depending on whether or not they have grown up with the internet. Critiques of this argument that we discussed included evidence that the multitasking Prensky claims digital natives are capable of is actually detrimental to performance, that he creates an artificial barrier between generations, and that the ability to manage the types of non-linear and non-hierarchical leaning spaces generated by the use of hyperlinking is more a matter of a person’s working memory capacity and pre-existing knowledge than any skills they may have gained by growing up with modern digital technologies.