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I used to fly kites. Now I grow vegetables, teach chemistry and try to convince people (myself included) that spending time online is productive.


4 min read

The 2015-16 academic teaching year has been a challenging one. The Teaching Excellence Framework is coming and my institution won funding to look at the thorny issue of measuring learning gain. My contribution to the bid was focussed on Concept Inventories. Our goal was to compare their indications with those of classic grades and self-efficacy measures. My arena was our first year inorganic chemistry module. Ethical clearance revolved around this being beneficial to the students and the added focus on confidence in answering conceptual questions was a relatively small modification of my usual teaching practices, which used flipping techniques to faciliate active learning.

Perhaps it was a small increase in the number of questions posed. Quite possibly it was resentment at the less-than-obvious benefits of recording confidence with clickers. Maybe this was the most exam-obsessed cohort I have ever taught. In practice it was inevitably some combination of all of these. Whatever, it was, I lost the confidence of too many of them; as has just been revealed by the module evalutation. Oh, they still thought I was knowledgable, they still thought I was enthusiastic. However, the fact that I provided screencasts in advance of my contact and spent the lecture time trying to help them understand was not catering to their perception of my role and that of the lecture in providing something to cram. Indeed, the more students learn and the less they feel they have to rote memorise for an examination the less valuable they seem to regard the course. What lunatic ideology has created an education system that looks like this? In my case the effort invested in teaching is inversely proportional to the module evaluation scores. Is it any wonder I lack faith in the TEF?

What has this got to to with ? Well, imagine trying to introduce the methodology to this cohort, on this module, between the end of the year long teaching and the examination. I invited all the class of over 100: 12 expressed interest; 6 turned up. We discussed the idea of informed consent and 3 were prepared to sign the forms. I had decided to focus our session on fuzzy problems. The sort real scientists face every day, not the sort you encounter in exam papers. I tried to tie them loosely to the syllabus and the examination but I had already done a dedicated revision session and had no intention to repeat it. 3 fully engaged, 1 played a disproportionately large role. 0 thought it was an appropriate use of their time at this juncture of the course. I cannot help sympathising with them, perhaps this was a touch self-indulgent. In compensation I promised yet another pure examination question walk through and about 25 turned up. On this occasion, I think I gave them just what they expected from me. No doubt those survivors from my 6 cohort wondered why I did not simply do this the first time round.

Whatever the merits of the pedagogy, and I thought was great, this was the wrong module and definitely the wrong time of year. Indeed the repercussions of this yearlong module experience have rendered me averse to any further pedagogical experimentation with similar cohorts. It's tempting to reflect on what these experiences mean for Higher Education where the least common denominator is student satisfaction and the hardest thing to demonstrate is real learning. promises to deliver something I believe our students really need but unless it features in an exam I am not sure I will be able to convince them no matter how passionate and enthusiastic my delivery.