Teaching in 2013:
At the conclusion of the teaching period last year – overwhelmed with papers to mark, and already forgetting the names of students I had just finished teaching – I had only fleeting ideas of what you might call ‘reflections on teaching’. Some of these reflections were based on the students, others on the quality of instruction.
To a large degree most students completed reasonable, if not excellent, assignments that addressed the assessment criteria – mark categories of credit, distinction and high distinction were awarded based on reasoned argument, clarity in style of writing and, that mysterious foe to first years, referencing. The most disappointing aspect of marking these first and second year assignments was the lack of integration between course content and assignment outcomes – sure they had researched their topic and included information under key headings, but there was almost a complete absence of connection between the terms, theories and conclusions from lectures and the assignments.
What are we teaching students?
This then led to my vague questioning of the delivery of our units – how are we teaching course content, and more importantly, what are we trying to teach students? The delivery of content and assessment mechanisms are equally important in this aspect – we must teach appropriately and we must assess to make sure students are getting the message. So how do we ensure quality teaching? And how do we ensure that what we think we are trying to teach is reflected in the students’ own experiences?
Part of the problem is that academics just don’t know their students like they used to.
Between reduced resources, increasing pressure for academics to publish and undertake extra-curricula activities, there has been a time-resource squeeze. There seems to be no maximum number of students per unit, so some students are now asked to volunteer not to turn up to lectures at all. The number of students in each lab appears to grow in inverse correlation to the number of labs that are provided over the semester, with the result that tutors are seeing more students less often. The ability to interact with students – to challenge those individually who are capable of being challenged, to identify and support those that need additional assistance – suffers greatly. The quality of the teaching – by and large – probably remains the same, there is after all no reduction in the dedication with which academic staff write and deliver content.
Assessments must similarly be reduced in recognition of the need to reduce workloads.
This is the case for academics (with other work pressures) and sessional tutoring staff (with reduced budgets for unit delivery). In response to this I have seen assessments where only a portion of the material is marked, at random; an increasing number of group assignments; decreased length of written exams. There is nothing wrong with these methods per se, so long as they still allow students to demonstrate proficient understanding of the course content, and staff enough content to grade on. Whether this is happening or not is another question, and goes back to the original question of how and what students are really expected to learn.
The current fashion with regards to course delivery is to focus on ‘Unit objectives’ – key outcomes for students at the end of the course delivery. Unfortunately, these objectives are necessarily vague. How do you summarise an entire 13 weeks of program delivery into six dot points that are understandable to a broad population? How do you then assess whether students have achieved these objectives?
WA Teaching and Learning Forum
Last week I attended the WA Teaching and Learning Forum at UWA. The annual Forum is designed to give academics the opportunity to share teaching experiences, experiments and theories with the wider WA tertiary academic community. There was a great range of presentations included, with a particular focus on engaging ‘other’ students, the use of technology in tertiary education, and modification of teaching and assessment to provide better outcomes for students. Associated with this was an entire dialogue I was unfamiliar with; I had to catch up on what ATAR scores are (tertiary entrance rankings), become familiar with FIFs (‘first in family’ students, categorised as an ‘other’ group of students potentially requiring special attention), and ‘scaffolding’ seemed to be very popular (breaking large tasks into smaller tasks, each with a differentiated tool or support structure). While these topics were of interest there was one other which seemed particularly important, and related directly to the idea of what you want students to achieve and how you intend to assess them: ‘authentic learning’.
The idea here is that you attempt to create a learning environment and assessment tool that will in some way mimic a realistic work experience. Students are said to respond better to ‘authentic’ tasks because they can see relevant application in their future, removing the ‘why bother?’ aspect of routine tasks. In manufacturing an ‘authentic’ experience students are also more likely to use higher order learning skills from the cognitive framework within Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. Instead of just rote learning and regurgitating memorised facts an authentic learning situation should stress that students take stock of their own knowledge within a subject area, comprehend what else it is that they may need to know, and learn to apply skills to tasks. An authentic assessment should result in not just the synthesis of facts but analysis and evaluation. Several examples of ‘authentic’ learning experiences were provided, including the use of citizen-based science for students to contribute to a wider scientific network, a problem-based learning activity that saw students apply knowledge to a physical problem with very few boundaries, and students preparing quasi-professional reports that could be handed to an external administrative body.
The interesting thing about all these ‘authentic’ education experiences was that all of them had a variety of assessments of small value, assessing the application of different tasks. Each assessment was targeted at a skill that should have been developed in the course, a skill that was applicable to job-seeking in the future, but the assessment tasks did not seem to necessarily establish a need for clear understanding of the course concepts – again there seemed to be a disparity between skills and assessment delivery, and assessing students’ understanding of core concepts.
So, we return to my initial question: how and what are we trying to teach? The findings of one presentation indicated that exams test only lower-order learning skills (regurgitation of facts), but rarely allowed for application of higher-order learning skills, such as analysis or evaluation. There was then disagreement in the audience – some believed that exams are very good at testing fine-tuned understanding of concepts, and other assessments are there to test higher-order learning skills. Others indicated that exams should be abandoned to make way for more ‘authentic’ learning and assessment experiences that focus on these higher-order learning skills. The question remains – how and what are we teaching students? Are we teaching students sets of knowledge that will broaden their mental horizons, teaching them key concepts necessary for discipline-specific work areas, or are we teaching students thought-based skills that will be applicable to future work experiences?
After consideration of all these issues I think there are three aspects that seem to increase the likelihood of enabling a quality teaching experience for students:
– Outline clear learning objectives that include both understanding and application of course content and demonstration of higher-order learning skill. This will ensure that students can say they have learnt something at the end of a unit, whilst also ensuring that skills are developed. The current one-liner objective structure may not be useful for this.
– Assessments should be varied and frequent. Assessments can be online quizzes, presentations, personal reflections, research reports, group assignments, peer reviews, and any number of other tools, each with a different skill demonstrated. The assessment criteria should be commensurate with the skills and knowledge being assessed, and should be structured so as to minimise work strain on academic staff, where possible.
– Enthusiastic teaching, with clarity around learning expectations and assessments. Teachers should be accessible, have real-world experience, and shouldn’t emphasise their own research area too heavily in teaching. Teachers should be engaging, but not at the expense of clarity. Too often I feel that I have witnessed an incredibly engaging presentation, but fifteen minutes later I’m not entirely sure what the presentation was about.
Of course, application of these concepts is not easy (I even mentioned earlier in this article that writing clear objectives is nearly impossible!). But I’m definitely interested in seeing how I can apply some of these concepts. What kind of ‘authentic’ learning experience can I create? How can I bundle assessments to capture a wide range of skills? Will students recognise my enthusiasm? I guess this year I’ll find out… What are your thoughts?