It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

Making a place

I’ve just finished reading this book – Making a Place: An oral history of academic development in Australia, edited by Alison Lee, Catherine Manathunga and Peter Kandlbinder.

Here are my fairly rough notes and reflections. I found the book to be very frank about academic developers’ experiences, as most of the interviewees have now retired so they can really spill the beans without fear of repercussions!

  • It’s good to know the history of the field in which I’m working. In fact, I think it should be mandatory reading for all new Aussie academic developers.
  • I enjoyed reading about the contributions of people who didn’t necessarily publish or publicise their work – they just got on with doing it.
  • I loved Barbara Falk’s description of the early seminars she ran on uni teaching – still mostly the same topics 50 years on.
  • There are many quotes that still have resonance today e.g.

‘It was vital to have senior people who saw academic development as valuable because one of our biggest problems was that the Deans were always fighting for money. Very often they saw academic development as a waste of time and money.’ (p87) –  Terry Hore & Ian Thomas

‘ …what you got was the setting up of deans of teaching and learning, pro vice-chancellors of teaching; a whole organization sort of alongside the academic development units. I have a feeling that that really sidelined some of the academic development units…’ (p129) – Roger Landbeck

  • I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the history of my own academic development unit (ADU), which was established in the 1980s. Apparently the University of Sydney was ‘the last major university in the country without an ADU….I came to the CTL in 1982 and in the beginning there was just the Director (Michael Dunkin), Mike Prosser and me. We were like a beleaguered little ship in the night.’ (p159) – Jackie Lublin. It was great to read about how everything started, and to be aware the origins of some of the programs we still offer today.

You can read more about the how and why the editors conducted the study here.

Sydney Teaching Colloquium on Blended Learning – Day 2


The second day of the colloquium kicked off with presentations by A/Prof Adam Bridgeman, Chemistry, and Dr Sandra Peter, Business School, who spoke about how they have flipped their classes. You can see a short video here on how Adam uses worksheets and demonstrations in his lectures – because when you put some of the lecture content online, there’s more room for fun stuff. Adam showed us some student feedback, including this memorable statement:

Sandra Peters has also had success flipping her classes. Her videos of industry experts are a great way to show subject relevance:

Sandra also encouraged people to take small steps towards flipping their classes. Just add some online resources, you don’t need to change the face-to-face classes at first – work towards it. She showed a great slide of herself at home recording a video using her smartphone balanced on a tower of containers!

During question time, Adam said that peer observation was a useful way for academics to develop their teaching. And research agrees (including my own research *cough, cough*). Adam said that sitting in the back row was a good way to see a class from a student perspective.

After the morning tea break, there was a choice of two sessions. I’m not sure what happened in the ‘Learning Analytics’ session, though one of the presenters, Dr Abelardo Pardo, kindly shared his slides via Twitter:

I was at the session on ‘Gizmos, apps, learning tools and personal devices’. We heard from three speakers:

Prof James Arvanitakis, University of Western Sydney (2012 Prime Minister’s Australian University Teacher of the Year), A/Prof Gareth Denyer, Molecular Bioscience, and Craig Smith, Autism Spectrum Australia & Apple Distinguished Educator

All three were inspiring speakers, and I’ll give just a highlight from each. James gave a definition of blended learning that didn’t mention technology:

Gareth, like Adam and Sandra, has also successfully flipped his classes:

And Craig told us about how he uses creatively uses technology such as iPads used to teach children with autism. He also gave us a bag of ‘digital candy’, which James Humberstone has helpfully collected:

The day concluded with a student panel and group discussions about students’ expectations and experiences of technology. The student panel said that they valued animation, simulations, role plays, online submission of work, facilitated online discussion spaces & the technology working. There was strong agreement that students want lecture recordings and lecture slides to be available online, which sparked an interesting discussion on Twitter:

Some of the notes from the table discussions were shared on Twitter, which is good because I was roving around with a mike and not able to take notes:

Then, finally, A/Prof Simon Barrie closed the colloquium with some comments on what happens next:

It’s fitting to close with a tweet from Tai, because she did such a fantastic job organising the colloquium. Thanks to Tai and all who presented and participated – it was a great two days.

Sydney Teaching Colloquium on Blended Learning – Day 1


Yesterday, Wednesday 2nd October, was the first day of the University of Sydney’s annual Teaching Colloquium. This year the theme is ‘Blended Learning for Engaged Enquiry’ . Here are a few of my impressions.

During the keynote address by Professor Pip Pattison I made a note to look up these reports on MOOCs: More than MOOCs by Austrade and Maturing of the MOOC, a literature review commissioned by the UK government. Pip also mentioned a recent paper that shows that non-tenure track academics are better teachers than those with tenure. In a group activity after the keynote, our table discussed possible outcome measures for blended learning, and came up with the following:

  • student assessment outcomes and quality
  • participation and engagement – students will participate if they see the value in doing so
  • ‘mastery’ – connects to intrinsic motivation
  • meaningful collaboration between students
  • students report that they are motivated to engage in the unit of the study (this data could be collected at the beginning, middle and end of the unit)

For the rest of the day we heard from Faculty leaders and academics on what they are doing in the blended learning space. There are some fantastic initiatives, and there were also thought-provoking questions and comments from both the live audience and those on Twitter. Here are some of my favourite tweets from Day 1:

This is turning into a bit of a Storify, so I’ll stop there! But perhaps this gives a small taste of the conversations that were going on, both in the room and on the Twitter back channel.

To conclude day 1, we heard from the Vice Chancellor (who had something perplexing to say about distancing assessment from teaching, but more on that another time) and then we celebrated our award winning teachers. Those who stayed for the team trivia had lots of fun, with the trophy going the Engineering and IT team ‘The Turing Testers’.

Off to Day 2 now, more later.

Walk off the street and start teaching


Arty Guerillas, Flickr

When I tell friends and family what I do, I say ‘I teach university teachers about teaching’. People often nod and mention a terrible lecturer they had when they were at university. In a recent article in The Australian a trio of authors from University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education say that:

One can literally walk off the street and start teaching in a university. This makes for a rather unusual profession. This needs to change.

Their article is in response to a report by the Grattan Institute which agrees that teaching quality at universities needs to improve. A 2010 survey of 20 Australian institutions found that 37% of academics have never undertaken any form of teacher training. The Grattan report proposes the creation of 2,500 teaching-only positions, to be allocated on a competitive basis across 10-12 institutions. The authors acknowledge that while

…there is no clear evidence that teaching-only roles, in themselves, lead to a better-quality student learning experience…teaching-focused roles can offer potential for better recruitment, development, and recognition of individuals with high-level teaching skills, free of dominating research considerations. (page 49)

The authors of the Australian article say that this solution risks creating ‘a dichotomised university workplace in which the benefits to students are more imagined than real’ – because it doesn’t address the quality of teaching of the majority of staff.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) in the UK has introduced a national Professional Standards Framework which might prove a useful model for Australia. Richard Brawn of the HEA was in Sydney in April and said that while postgraduate certificates in higher education teaching are useful for those with no previous qualifications in higher education, other routes are needed for experienced staff. He spoke about the ‘immunisation effect’ of postgraduate certificates– once you do it, you never have to think about teaching again.

The ‘immunisation effect’ doesn’t seem to be true for my university. I’m about to start teaching one of the units in our Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education) – this afternoon in fact.  Research on our program shows that staff who complete it provide their students with a better learning experience and are more likely to receive teaching awards and grants than staff who do not participate in the program.

ANU scrapped its Graduate Certificate and is going with the HEA scheme, but the two are not incompatible.  I can see a role for formal programs, alongside informal forms of professional development, such as peer observation of teaching and mentoring.

My brain hurts…cognitive load


Photo by Alain Picard, Flickr

I’ve been reading a bit about cognitive load theory lately. My interest was first sparked by an article in Time magazine which discussed a study by neuroscientist Sylvia Morelli and psychologist Matt Lieberman, in which the participants looked at images of sad or happy people:

either when they were free to focus on them completely or when they were trying to memorise an eight-digit number…Consistently, the people operating under that so-called cognitive load showed reduced empathy reactions…People with uncluttered brains processed—and felt—things more deeply.

I then found a video of a keynote lecture by Professor John Sweller, who developed cognitive load theory. He has a recent book as well, but I thought the video would be a good introduction. In the 45 minute lecture, Sweller gives a summary of the principles of cognitive load theory and describes some of its effects. Below I note some of the points that he makes.

The principles of cognitive load theory

Information store principle

An enormous store of information is held in long term memory. We tend to overlook this store of information in education, but it’s central to how we learn, think and process information. Studies of chess grand masters have shown that their prowess is because they have memorised tens of thousands of board configurations.  The reason it takes years to become a chess grand master is due to the huge feat of memorisation required. Sweller says that exactly the same principles apply to everything we teach in any classroom at any level – we are good at something because of what’s in our long term memory, and that is the basis of skill.

Borrowing and reorganising principle

How do you get information into long term memory? Sweller says it’s by borrowing it from other people. We imitate what others do, listen to what they say, and read what they write.

Randomness as genesis principle

Where does information come from in the first place? When solving an unfamiliar problem, we use a long, slow and laborious process of testing things out.

Narrow limits of change principle

Working memory is where we process new information that we haven’t stored in long term memory. Working memory is limited in capacity. There is some dispute on how many units of information it can contain, but it’s thought to be between 2-3 to 8-9 units. Working memory is also limited in duration. You can hold something in working memory for about 20 seconds, unless you keep refreshing it e.g. by repeating it to yourself. So working memory has huge limitations.

Environmental organising and linking principle

This principle explains how we use information – not just gather and store it. To be honest, I’m a bit hazy on this part – I don’t think Sweller fully explained it in the keynote, and the reading I’ve done isn’t very helpful either. So if you know what this principle describes, please let me know!

Cognitive load effects

Sweller and others have studied cognitive load effects, one of which is the worked example effect. Students who are given some information, some problems to solve and some worked examples do much better in tests than students who are only given the information and problems. This is because using a worked example reduces working memory load.

What does all this mean in practice?

I realise that cognitive load theory has developed beyond what I’ve described, but in the interests of my own cognitive load, and yours, I’ll stop there!

The ideas I’ve had after this brief look at cognitive load theory are:

  • There are no shortcuts to developing competency. It takes time.
  • Sweller’s slides were very plain. They were black text on a white background, with hardly any images and hardly any words. Was this to reduce cognitive load?
  • Think about how to reduce students’ cognitive load. This blog has some useful ideas.
  • Is some of this at odds with techniques for student engagement? Do some learning activities increase cognitive load?
  • For my own professional development, while I’m interested in many fields and how they influence learning and teaching, maybe I should just focus on a few areas and not flit around like a butterfly.

Tea cups, snowflakes and crispies


Photo by James Norton

I recently read this article, where psychologist Wendy Mogel describes new university students as ‘tea cups’ –students who are fragile and can’t handle adversity- and ‘crispies’ – students who are burnt out from studying too much and no longer enjoy learning.  I’ve also heard university students described as ‘snowflakes’ – students who consider themselves unique, fragile and deserving of special treatment.

While I understand that students need support with the transition to university, I get annoyed with generalisations like this. Are new university students really less resilient and more burnt out than in the past? This categorisation of students reminds me of labels such as ‘generation Y’ and ‘digital natives’. Jim Bright calls such generational tags ‘simplistic and insulting’.

Sue Bennett and Karl Maton found that:

…generations of students have been regularly described as fundamentally dissimilar…and are ascribed different characteristics. Indeed, moral panics over ‘new’ students are a recurrent phenomenon in education (Hickox & Moore 1995). During the late 19th century, for example, the expansion of formal state education was accompanied by concerns over the entry of middle-class and female students (Lowe 1987).  (Bennett and Marton, 2010, p322).

Bennett and Maton’s review of research into ‘digital natives’ shows that while some technology-based activities are common among young people, others are not, and such familiarity cannot be assumed.

Perhaps these tags help university teachers talk about their students, but I don’t think they are helpful in treating students respectfully, as individuals.

Exams, what are they good for?

Having four exams at the end of every semester was my least favourite part of university. The stress, the anxiety, the cramming…I still occasionally have nightmares that I’m taking an exam, and wake feeling relieved that I never have to take another one, ever.

Photo by Nick Southall, Flickr

Photo by Nick Southall, Flickr

Why do we have exams? The main reasons seem to be convenience and to minimise plagiarism. Yet exams are not completely cheat-proof, as seen in the recent case of the French woman who tried to take her daughter’s exam.

In discussing assessment, Biggs and Tang argue:

How important is the format of assessment? In a word: very. …In preparing for exams, students use memorisation-related activities and for assignments, application-related activities (Tang 1991). (p 226)

And they go on to say that although exams have possible benefits for student learning, such as forcing students to review an entire subject and possibly see it as a whole, there are also several downsides.

One of these downsides is mentioned above – that exams encourage students to memorise. In addition, test anxiety is common and can impact on exam performance. And finally, students don’t usually receive feedback on their exams, other than their grade.

If we want students to take a deep approach to their learning then assessment needs to be constructively aligned with subject learning outcomes. In other words, if you want your students to be able to effectively manage patient airways in a medical emergency, you don’t assess that via a written exam.

Ok, maybe that was an obvious example, but it’s hard to argue that written closed-book exams are an authentic type of assessment for any subject. In the documentary Make me…smart Professor Robert Sternberg says:

In real life there’s no one who gives you a problem and says the answer is a, b, c or d. In real life, you have to figure out what the problem is. Then you have to figure out some ways of solving the problem and then you have to figure out whether any of those solutions are any good.

There are plenty of possible alternatives to exams but I don’t think we’ll be seeing the end of exams anytime soon. For one thing, students taking MOOCs who wish to gain credit for their studies often need to take an invigilated exam.