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Enhancing teaching and learning (and academic careers) in the sciences through scholarly activity

Professor David Read from the University of Southampton visited Queen Mary in January to give a talk on enhancing learning and teaching. Dr Rachel O'Callaghan, chair of the TIGER committee, shares her thoughts on the event.  You can also watch a recording of the talk below. 

Professor David Read gave a really interesting, hugely informative and inspiring talk - what more could we want from our second invited speaker! I could write pages about Prof Read's talk but I shall try to limit this to an informative, appetite-whetting summary.

Despite the standard lecture offering a platform for academics to inspire students (let’s hope we do that!), we are all aware of the many problems that exist when it comes to this style of teaching, one such problem being the poor staff: student ratio, an extra important factor to consider now that National Student Survey has opened. Prof Read emphasised the need to consider other ways to boost teaching but there are challenges to change that exist throughout academia. When you try to change things people want to see the evidence, as of course they should, but the difficulty with pedagogical research is that there is limited quantifiable research and people often need convincing through other means. Despite these challenges, Prof Read has managed to get many of his colleagues at Southampton on board to his way of thinking and has implemented a number of exciting changes over the years.

Prof Read described a number of methods that he has adopted to try and boost teaching; zappers (the Southampton term for clickers - a much better word if you ask me!), pre labs, video tutorials and lecture recordings, flip teaching, self-assessment exercises and skills portfolios. Although we may be familiar with some of these methods it is always interesting to see how someone else has used them and Prof Read shared many valuable nuggets while describing his own experiences - peer instruction with zappers, self-assessment using video mark schemes to share a few. He included some data with regard to self-assessment that showed students found it really useful, somewhat surprising you might think given it is more work for them. This type of learning involves 3 key steps that are believed to improve learning - the student completes an assignment, marks it themselves using a video mark scheme created by an academic that allows them to observe the academics thought process and reflects on their own thought process to better understand the correct answer. Self-assessment encourages the student to move away from rote learning and has also been shown to enhance their confidence, important benefits during early years at university - win win.

The discussion on flip teaching was also especially interesting - flipping facilitates better student engagement and allows us to cover more material but Prof Read uses partially flipped lectures, not something I had come across before. Many of us may be daunted by the idea of flipping lectures, especially when we are teaching groups of 100+ students but the idea of partial flipping seems much more manageable and some might argue, is potentially more effective. The idea is that you create a screen capture / video recording of the first 10 minutes of a lecture and students are required to download and engage with this material prior to the lecture. The first 10 minutes of the lecture then involves an open discussion of this material leaving the remaining 40 minutes of the lecture to cover more advanced topics. Although flipping lectures does place responsibility on the learner to engage in the pre-lecture content and some students may chose not to engage, Prof Read has found that if it is used routinely in lectures - as all new teaching methods, applying it as a one off will not make an impact - students do engage, knowing that if they don't, they lose out.

As I said, I could write pages but I'll close by sharing an important message. A key point that was emphasised throughout the talk was learning from others - there is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel, Prof Read says, as it is very likely that someone has already done something similar to what you are trying to achieve. Read the literature, see what people have already done and use their experiences to guide you. Then, when you have tried something new feed it back, share you own experiences so that others may learn from what you have done - this is how you create something dynamic. Scholarship should be a dynamic process; innovate, disseminate, reflect and repeat - it sounds a bit like a gym exercise but you get my drift!

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