Reflections

Reflections – a very personal view

Reflecting on teaching in higher education can be summarized as do I teach for students to pass the exam or do I teach them skills and knowledge beyond that? So far, I have aimed for the latter. Nt only do I see lectures as supplement to the course material but also as an arena for asking questions and discuss the material. Lectures are not recitations of the course material, slavishly following the book. As I am now also designing exams, I take great care to ask ”thinking and understanding” questions and not fact questions. My opinion is facts can be googled but it needs a brain to make sense out of the facts. The pedagogic course gave me the terminology for it: assessment for learning not assessment of learning. That captures very well what my mom was teaching me. She did not ask her students who was N and what theory XY N had but rather inquired whether the student understood the theory XY and could derive it and see the implications of it. It is this critical thinking skill, not just “learning by heart” (“pugging”) or rote learning. In the behavioural literature we distinguish between rote vs rule learning. Pigeons are rote learners, corvidae are rule learners. We humans may learn a poem by rote but most other knowledge comes from rule learning, i.e. identifying the common elements, incorporating it into one’s own schemas. This comes with biases and pitfalls, as our memory is not like a PC RAM. But it also allows for creativity aka new associations. And that is what drives humankind and makes teaching fun. Just think of a student suddenly making a connection between P and F where P stands for the topic you are right now teaching, like nerve cells’ action potential and its propagation, and F for football. I clearly see the link, football fans can behave like nerve cells, excited and singing or not excited and no chorus wave propagates through the stadium. Thus, I will continue my way of teaching for life rather than exam, improving on presenting the material but not much changing my attitude towards teaching and assessment.

The course on teaching in higher education made me aware of three main aspects I “kind of know” but have not given much attention to it. Firstly, it is about the choice of method. Why have I chosen lecture or seminar? Secondly, it is about how I evaluate students including giving feedback, but also designing exams and grading. Thirdly, it is about the ethical guidelines of teaching, ranging from gender issues, minority aspects to considering disabilities like dyslexia. Accordingly I will take up each of those three aspects in depths.

To give or not to give a lecture

Lecturing is great, you can show off your knowledge, impress students and avoid any kind of interrupts if this is your style of teaching. It requires some preparation of the material you are lecturing but everything else is voluntary. The use of blackboards, hand-outs, powerpoints or other tools are up to you and the type of material you are teaching. There is only one snag: lecturing this way is for a student like watching a movie: passive and keeping them engaged required a damn good movie. Either action or comedy. The opposite method is “guiding” a seminar. Students present whatever they have prepared and expect feedback, morally as well as scientifically. Sounds easy during the seminar hour, as the students shape the lecture, but here the snag is in preparing good exercises for them that they find not too easy but also not too hard, and giving them the right timeframe and support along the way. Well, I am not an actor and moviestar, respectively. My lecturing is tailored to the topic and the audience. But crucially, my lecturing tries to engage students by having short tasks incorporated in the teaching material. As an undergraduate I started with supervising lab exercises and seminars, i.e. I gave feedback on how well students have understood the material. This is a very effective method for small groups but a seminar-like style brakes down in large groups, as too many can hide and do nothing. Small groups are ideal and benefit a lot from such group assignments. When it comes to transfer knowledge to a large group, lecturing is by far superior. The quietness in the lecture hall and the attention paid to the lecturer guarantees a certain knowledge-transfer from teacher to student. This can be enhanced by various methods, but one should keep in mind the main point of the lecture: presenting the material in a way that is accessible to the students, exploiting the dynamic inherent in a lecture (graphics, mathematical derivations etc). It should not be misused as a recitation of the written material anyway available to the students. Another important point is that both lectures and seminars are the public meeting points between the curious student and the also curious but slightly more knowledgeable lecturer in the topic at stake. Knowing about this unwritten deal is important. I find it ridiculous to forbid or limit questioning during or after lectures or seminars. Both sides are prepared, far better than meeting unannounced. Therefore I clearly encourage and signal that questions are welcome.

To praise or not to praise

Lecturing and seminars also differ in the chance to give individual feedback. During a lecture I cannot give tailored feedback but I can provide the solution to a question I have ask, and hence a student can compare his/her result with the solution. From looking at their faces, I can gauge how well they have understood it and reassure me to carry on or rather repeat. If a student asks a good question I can mention this explicitly and hence provide a kind of formative evaluation (Allen 2012). However, this is still rather unspecific if it is based on asking a question, as my reply how good the question was can be understood as a polite remark. Here, we can see the advantages of seminars. By letting students present something I can evaluate them how far they have come to understand the topic and are prepared for taking the exam. That is a major reason why I have always one seminar session in my lecture series. It pushes the students to start early reading the material, not just 1-2 weeks before the exam, as well as it is a tool for me to see how well I can explain the topics. Of course, this is not a 1:1 relationship. A batch of students may have had the material before and therefore being good at it. Or the reverse, they might have heavy working load with another practical assignment and deliver a mediocre seminar work. Judging from the performance to my lecturing is not straightforward but it can hint at challenges students have, may it be outside of the course (study load) or with the topics themselves. Chats with students in the breaks often clarify this matter. At a different level is the feedback one gives during supervision, either by commenting on written parts of a thesis or during oral meetings. I find this direct and 1:1 feedback very helpful. The student gets an evaluation on his/her understanding of the material. This is rarely just an evaluation, it often includes advices on how to improve.

With respect to summative evaluation I have made recently a very strange experience. I have been asked to read four exams where students appealed their grade. An external sensor and I had pretty much the same conclusion which grad the students deserve. To our surprise was this in a somewhat stark contrast to the grade they received in the first round. We gave them better grades. This is strange insofar as I graded a Masterthesis very tough and a home essay assignment as well, with just one A, some D’s and many B and C’s. However, it all became much more clear when we looked at the so called sensurveiledning. It was good but not sufficient. It gave us two who were unbeknownst to the exact pensum too much freedom how to interpret what a student should write to get an A, B, C and so on. This showed that despite instructions on how the students should answer the exam question to get a good grade, large discrepancies still cannot be avoided if these instructions leave ambiguities. Tove Dahl, a colleague of mine, criticized this in her article (Dahl, 2006). The solution is not more bureaucracy around one big exams, but rather to have repeated assessments. This is far more common in the natural sciences as it is in the medical sciences or humaniora. The course I gave at NTNU had two parts, an oral exam and a written exam. The oral exam was half-way in the semester, providing me and the students a feedback. They had at least to pass to get permission to take the written exam, but all got a more informative feedback on how well they did compared to their peers. Unfortunately, I do not know how well their oral performance correlated with their written performance at the end of the semester. It will not be a perfect correlation, but those who started early to learn and took it seriously (no procrastination or minimal effort for the oral part) most likely did better than those who gambled on passing the oral exam. This is in agreement with literature on students’ metacognition and confidence judgment, i.e. knowing how much they know and hence have to put effort into filling the gaps (Dunning et al. 2003).

 

Ethical aspects in academic teaching and supervision

Last year I signed a contract with a PhD student. Beforehand I fully enclosed my academic competence and research field, stating clearly what I can and cannot supervise him. He took on the challenge, co-supervised by an IT-professor. Having a PhD student is a huge responsibility. It is not for me that he or she is doing the research. It is foremost for science and for the student him/herself. One grows through taking a PhD. This responsibility also means that I have to educate in a very strict sense what ethically good research is; i.e. ranging from teaching about plagiarism to avoiding fraud, stealing ideas, incomplete lab reports, fluffy-minded thinking or writing and so on. I had some really good discussions with my PhD student on all these topics and we both re-assured us that we interpret the way new knowledge is gained similarly. There is no short-cut if it is ethically questionable. The responsibilities of the superviser and supervisee are explicitly stated at UiTs website (http://en.uit.no/utdanning/art?p_document_id=347820&dim=179017). I used them and can highly recommend going through them even with a Masterstudent and Projectstudent. The 1 hour invested in discussing this topic is well spent. If one figures out a major disagreement, one should not supervise this student. Similarly, a student should know her/his rights and duties.

But ethical aspects also emerge in the teaching of students. Here I can think of gender issues, minority issues and disabilities that can influence how I see a student and hence bias my teaching and supervision. As I mentioned in previous paragraphs, there is a deal between students and lecturers. Students pay for their education (indirectly through paying back studielån) and we get paid for providing this service (to society in general but the student in the case situation). I am not a big fan of consumer market approached to education, but some truth lies in this view. Good education is transparent, open-minded, flexible and importantly has no fear for being evaluated from the outside. Being aware of being a “somewhat public” figure as teacher helps in providing a good teaching environment. Easiest is to apply Kant’s axiom: behave to others as you want others behave towards you (free translation of the core meaning of: “Handle so, daß die Maxime deines Willens jederzeit zugleich als Prinzip einer allgemeinen Gesetzgebung gelten könne.”). I still remember being a student, and this is my guideline on how to behave towards students (see also my teaching philosophy).

References

Allern , M (2012). Vurdering med vekt på summative vurdering – eksamen. UiT,

Dahl, T I (2006). When precedence sets a bad example for reform: conceptions nad reliability of a questionable high stakes assessment practice in Norwegian Universities. Assessment in education 13(1), 5-27

Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83.