Saturday, September 5, 2015

Tutorials come pre-flipped. Stop flipping them back.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London
Physics tutorials come pre-flipped. Here I present an argument, in the interests of better undergraduate engagement and learning, for discouraging GTAs from flipping them back.

What is flipping? And what is it, exactly, that gets flipped? If the concept of the flipped classroom is familiar feel free to skip over the next two paragraphs.

In the flipped classroom, instructional content is accessed prior to and outside of the classroom and 'flips' or swaps places with instructional activities that take place in teaching contact time, inside the classroom. Classroom can be interpreted as any teaching space e.g., lecture theatre, tutorial room, teaching studio, teaching lab.

A definition from the Flipped Learning Network: ‘‘Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.’’

In essence the tutorial session is already flipped. The instructional content has been delivered in the lecture and the tutorial is the instructional activity. You may already have a inkling about where this all goes wrong but we'll set off from this point with as much optimism as we can muster.

In my previous blogpost, Chalkboard, I suggested "[GTAs] shouldn't be spending much time, if any, [...] in front of a chalkboard..." The post arose from a number of requests for advice on the best use of whiteboards, chalkboards and flip charts. Other comments and requests received recently add to my concern that there is a belief, possibly a growing belief, that the TA's job is to give mini lectures either to supplement the main lecture or, more worryingly, to make up for the deficiencies of the course lecture or even the lecturer.

My main point is that the tutorial (or studio workshop or lab) is about undergraduates actively developing expertise through thinking and therefore should not become a presentation of what the TA thinks. Saying it all again in smaller chunks in a different room isn't effective and the undergraduates are telling us this by not turning up to tutorials. This is a key battle in the War of Engagement because currently the bums are not staying on the seats (good title, I feel another blogpost coming on). The TAs are foot-soldiers in the line of fire.

What should TAs do? In addition to chalkboard training requests, TAs are also asking for induction workshops addressing the fundamental question of what it is, exactly, TAs are expected to do in tutorials/labs/teaching studios and the institutional instinct is to go tribal: to direct the questioner to the academic in charge of the course because he/she presumably knows what the TAs should be doing. My view is that this just panders to the hegemony of traditional practices and leads us back to the chalkboard. Institutional structures and traditional beliefs are known to be major barriers to change even when GTAs are willing to change own their beliefs about teaching and learning based on cognitive research.

So how do we both change TAs beliefs and convert the try by achieving permanent changes in practice? As I explored in my blogpost Academic Coaching it will take more than an induction workshop. We need to take a long term approach and, crucially, to work in the the individual learning space of the each TA rather than treating this valuable and expensive resource as an amorphous group. But mostly, we need to teach TAs how to teach.

Monday, August 31, 2015


A graduate teaching assistant has asked for training on how best to go through a proof on the chalkboard. This is a little troubling because, while we ask and expect TAs to do many things in tutorials, workshops and labs, they shouldn't be spending much time, if any, on their hind legs in front of a chalkboard (or whiteboard or flip chart for that matter). On the other hand, when talking to a group of more than two or three, and the flip chart and marker pen is there, perhaps it's a sensible choice. And if they're going to do it I'd rather they did it well. So I did a search and found a few blogs and web sites offering advice which I'll hand on to the students with the suggestion that they make their own mash up. I could do it for them, but then I'll have learned more than the students. I'm generally against that sort of thing.

The problem is a pervasive belief in the transmission model of teaching. How do we challenge this belief and replace it with knowledge from the PER evidence base? We can, and we do, present the logical case against the empty vessel model but research shows that even if we change the beliefs of early career teachers they can't change their practice. Although early career teachers, given the opportunity, are more likely to change their beliefs about teaching and learning than colleagues who have been teaching for a long time they are less likely to change their practices. The barriers to change are inflexible institutional structures and the traditional beliefs of colleagues (Metastudy by Henderson et al, 2011). In addition, TAs cling to intuitive beliefs about UG learning that stem from their perceptions that they themselves were 'typical' undergraduates and yet at the same time are toe-curlingly negative about their UG students' motivational levels and abilities.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Academic Coaching

I think academic coaching is an idea whose time has come and I’m seriously thinking of giving it a go.
Two physicist friends and colleagues already offer academic coaching online: Marialuisa Aliotta offers support with academic writing through her blog Academic Life’ and Olga Degtyareva’s blog ‘Productivity for Scientists’ has helped many researchers ‘overcome overwhelm’. It makes sense to me to that academics, and those aspiring to be academics, should seek specific professional development of this kind and for it to be as normal as paying for counselling or life coaching or for a personal trainer.
My interests are in PER (physics education research) and in supporting graduate teaching assistants as they learn to teach. This is not the fashionable arm of the galaxy. While dusting my blog today I came across this quotation:
“Academic culture favours analysis over action; institutions have placed a high degree of importance on their reputations rather than on improving the academic performance of their students.” (Norris, 2008).
We know that TAs and early career researchers with teaching duties are more likely than established colleagues to examine their beliefs about teaching but we also know they are less likely to convert changes in belief into new teaching practices. The barriers are granite-like institutional structures along with the ever-present potholes of existing beliefs about undergraduate learning including misperceptions of undergraduate motivations and abilities. Institutional approaches to the professional development of its teaching staff are often general and short when they need to be discipline based and of sufficient length to cover a complete design cycle from belief change to the change and evaluation of teaching practice. Academic coaching may offer a way around the roadblocks. Blogging as mentoring for professional change may be about to have its day in the sun.
This post was inspired by Occam Typewriter's blogpost 'Now I am Five'

Journal Club, lack thereof

It's ages since we had a journal club and I really miss it. I miss the weekly discipline of reading a paper knowing that I have to be able to say something intelligent about something new. I miss the chance to practice of critical thinking skills. I miss the differing viewpoints. I miss the opportunity for synthesis. I really miss picking holes in other people's data  analysis techniques. The p-value problem. The "What does the line mean?" problem. The conclusion versus discussion problem.

The world has changed. Opportunities to talk in real life have faded away. Shame.