Learning to teach - Teaching to learn

30 September 2015 - By: Caroline Wood

Learning to teach - Teaching to learn

Learning to teach- IN txt 1
Catherine Russo

By Caroline Wood

How do you get your students’ attention during your lectures? Perhaps you need to consider a move away from the traditional didactic delivery? Maybe you need to be more innovative in your teaching techniques? “Innovations and best practices in undergraduate education”, a one-day session organised by SEB+, proved to be a great success in attracting new delegates to the SEB Meeting with teaching at the forefront of their mind (and their university role).

“We wanted to bring together people to share ideas, learn from each other, and build a community with similar interests in high-quality, undergraduate education”, said Mary Williams, co-chair of the session with George Littlejohn. Judging from the reactions of the participants, the session was a great success. “There was quite a buzz!” said George. “The mood was friendly and supportive with a lot of stimulating discussion following each presentation”. 

Our plenary speaker, Susan R. Singer, who is Professor of Biology at Carleton College in Minnesota and Director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, described how her work to support the development of effective undergraduate science teaching draws on research from the social sciences as well as discipline-based educational research. “Educational change is needed because, traditionally, students have learned biology as a descriptive, memorization-based discipline”, explained Susan, “but it is now truly a data-driven science that requires analytical and critical thinking skills”. Having recently co-authored two (free to download) reports: “Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering” (2012) and “Reaching Students What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering” (2015), Susan cited the fact that socioeconomic status remains a huge factor in college completion, even when only the top-achieving 25% of students are compared. As she observed, change will come about through partnerships, networks, and networks of networks- from citizen-science projects to networks of department chairs. 

Meanwhile, in the UK, there is increasing pressure on universities to deliver high-value educational experiences, including lab practicals. However, John Love (University of Exeter, UK) rejects the “follow-a-recipe” format: “It’s time to reframe the skills that practical sessions develop and move from technical skills, such as pipetting, to intellectual skills and the scientific method”, he said. He believes that this approach fosters more durable transferable skills. “After all, many of the practical lab skills I learnt are already redundant”, he said. So how does John do this? Simple – each group of students is given three test tubes containing unknown plant hormones. Their task is to apply their knowledge from lectures to identify each hormone and its concentration. Rather than grading them on success, the students are assessed based on their understanding of underlying concepts. “They are basically doing what we do in the lab - performing lots of experiments until something eventually works”, John said. Meanwhile, the student feedback says it all; from being “boring and tedious”, practical sessions are now “useful and challenging”. Hopefully not too challenging to put them off a career in research! 

Gonzalo Estavillo (CSIRO, Australia) has taken investigative learning a step further, using “mysteries” to capture his student’s imagination. “I used to use the standard “recipe book” manual, so all I had to do was prepare the materials and supervise the students”, Gonzalo explained. “But then I asked “How would I like to be taught plant science?” And so “Plant Detectives” was born. Based on Gonzalo’s own research on the model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, students are given a series of challenges that require them to use their investigative skills. “Arabidopsis is a good teaching tool because we have a large collection of mutants and a vast knowledge of its physiology and genetics”, explained Gonzalo. “We give the students an unknown mutant and they have to find the “suspect” gene responsible for the phenotype”. The programme has received a number of awards and is seeing larger numbers of students enrolling onto the Honours programme. Encouraged by this success, Gonzalo and his colleague decided to make the Plant Detectives project* available to all. “We feel that these laboratory investigations truly reflect the puzzle-solving processes of research and hope that this will help to improve the learning experience of plant biology students worldwide”, he concluded. 

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Gonzalo Estavillo. Photo: Su Yin Phua

Enterprise skills, such as group-work, creative thinking and risk-taking are crucial for any professional workplace, yet these are often not taught in a particularly inspiring way. “Students can find it quite tedious to have a session solely devoted to group work, then another to creativity, etc.”, said Millie Mockford (University of Sheffield, UK). “But if these skills are embedded in a task that teaches other valuable content then students enjoy it a lot more!” Millie has developed a science communication biology module in which students have to produce a short science-based documentary. Student feedback was so positive that the project has been developed into a full credit-bearing module. “We hope to bring in a diverse mix of industry professionals so the students have top-class guidance, feedback and contacts for their future careers”, she said. 

“The ability to visualise three-dimensional shapes, and the concept that structure leads to function, is central to understanding biological processes”, said David Smith (Sheffield Hallam University, UK). Yet enzymes, proteins and nucleic acids are typically shown on flat, 2-D PowerPoint screens which don’t convey their 3-D structures. Realising that some students struggle with mental-rotation, David decided to use 3-D printing to tailor-make his own bespoke teaching aids. The students are asked to identify major features of each object and suggest how these relate to function. Because these discussions are based on personal observation, with no wrong answers, students feel more encouraged to interact. But why stop at proteins and molecules? “3-D printers are becoming increasingly common and cheaper”, said David, “making it possible to produce tissues, organs, or whatever else you require. It doesn’t matter what the object is, as long as it stimulates conversation!” 

Craig Franklin (University of Queensland, Australia), described another way to use technology to inspire undergraduates. “Monitoring and tracking animals using biotelemetry (radio-, acoustic, GPS, and satellite) can very effectively enhance learning”, he explained. This has many advantages, including linking lectures to topical issues and developing quantitative skills in handling big data. Craig presented some case studies including a project where students fitted temperature sensors to cane toads, which were then released on campus and monitored for three months. “This gave the students a chance to experience field work and the challenges associated with tracking animals”, he said. For those who don’t have a population of suitable animals close to hand, the internet has a wealth of freely-available data. Craig introduced us to one such repository, ZoaTrack (http://www.zoatrack.org/), which contains data on animals as diverse as saltwater crocodiles, diving petrels, sharks and koalas. Besides the geospatial data, this platform contains a range of statistical tools, allowing teachers to pose a variety of questions to their students. “I see increasing potential for using biotelemetry in undergraduate teaching”, Craig concluded. “It can also improve animal welfare as classes of over 500 students can learn from just 5-6 animals”. 

Many biology undergraduates struggle with biomechanics and the application of physics and maths in their discipline. This stems, in part, from the link between biology and physics often being overshadowed during early education. To address this, Zoe Self (Royal Veterinary College, UK) designed a range of lesson plans using practical tasks to demonstrate biomechanical concepts in line with the National Curriculum. At Key Stage 2, for instance, pupils are required to know “the importance of eating the right amounts of different types of food”. The activity, “If my chocolate biscuit had legs”, does this by asking how high different food products could jump if the energy value was converted into potential energy. Meanwhile at Key Stage 3, secondary school pupils are introduced to the inverted pendulum model, investigating how leg length influences stride length and speed. “The lessons require no specialist equipment and build skills in experimental design, data collection and presentation”, Zoe said. Potentially, these ideas could also be used to develop a more engaging approach to teach biomechanical concepts to undergraduates. 

George Littlejohn concluded the session by inviting speakers and attendees to submit their education research papers to the SEB Prague F1000Research Channel, where you can learn more about the exciting new developments in undergraduate teaching! Visit http://f1000research.com/channels/undergraduate-education 

*The Plant Detectives Manual is available at http://press.anu.edu.au/titles/anu-etext/the-plant-detectives-manual/ 

Category: Teaching and Learning
Caroline Wood-Profile_opt (1)

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.