Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Some teaching reflections

I suppose I like to be awkward and perhaps yesterday I was more confrontational than is useful but some people need to know some truths and to start thinking and not being comfortable. The powers that be in the place where I work have decided that we need to redesign all of our courses and module moving to 20 credits from 15 credits. This is also an opportunity to improve our teaching.

Where I start from

I am a progressive. I hate lectures as they are poor learning/teaching events. I want students to be good thinkers and creative. I hate restrictive marking criteria and inflexibility as it does not allow you to properly assess students and for a statistician I think that quantitative methods in education are over-rated and over used as these are artificial and actually destructive metrics. The actual measures of success if the futures that your students have. So for me the League tables with the national student survey is a pointless distraction. The doctor gives me cough mixture, if they ask me if I like taking it I will say no, but it doesn't mean I don't get better and like its effects. The same with students. You ask them about courses when they are taking the medicine not when they have a job and they have recovered.

I talked about an experience of teaching a flipped classroom to 100 students and said how well they had done. So I was asked if the students liked it. 10% hated it and so there were all the grumbles about the student questionnaire. When I said I do not care about the 10% hating it there were even more grumbles. But let me reflect on that does the student questionnaire doesn't say do you hate bioinformatics? It says do you hate the university teaching and they hate the boring lecture far more. I meet my KPIs and student performance is good. They if they reflect on it find that they enjoyed it more and got more out of it. The ones who didn't are the non-reflective students who want to be taught but not to learn. We are not educating if we dumb down to that level, and we are not making the most of our students. But this illustrates the current fear of student feedback, which will become worse as students become "customers".

Teaching Anatomy and Physiology

Talking to the students these are courses that they hate. They are facts, facts and more facts and memorisation. I am a chemist by training and at my university they wanted us to learn the periodic table. The question is why? What good does it do students? Knowing what it means, as in which are metals, which are most reactive which is functional knowledge matters but the actual names of elements in their right places is irrelevant when I can look it up. 

Almost all groups agreed to condense the course and make it less broad but deeper and more about getting students to understand the complex concepts. Except the traditionalists who are worried about professional accreditation and want the students to know all those facts. So I asked why and they say about people putting the liver on the wrong side of the body. Ok so why is that going to cause a problem? If you are a doctor and diagnosing it might but they aren't going to be doctors they are going to be bio-medics and work in diagnostic labs where the need to know where the liver is will not be a daily question, and if they do want to know they can look at an anatomy chart. 

Isn't anatomy implicit in the physiology? Everyone else teaches it this way rather than wasting 20 credits on the tedium of anatomy. No there are important details they say. So what is the difference between endothelial and epithelial cells. As a non-biologist I replied that one is inside and the other is outside which is their literal meaning. But no this is not good enough they need to know more for anatomy. Why? I cannot quite work out why you need to know anything about their anatomy when the main differences are to do with proteins used in their connective structure and that endothelial cells do not promote thrombosis. So that is the lesson the physiology of blood flow their anatomy is IRRELEVANT. When you do need it you can look up a picture of their structure and an article on their composition. The functional learning is about clotting.

The final argument for doing it the old way was that recruiting was solid. That is a fools argument. It might be now but if you can't make yourself distinctive and show why you are better than the same tedious rote learning in other institutions higher in the league tables, you are soon going to be out of a job. As the Red Queen tells us you keep running to stay still. 

Facts, facts, facts

I am strongly against fact based courses. My colleagues argue that you need to know some facts to be able to construct more complex models and this is true but often not the ones we identify as important and not at the level we think they need to know. 

One of my colleagues gave an example of adding 2+2 as a fact. They did this because I am the maths person here and it is not a great example but it actually illustrates my point quite well. In maths addition is a functional knowledge. I do not store as facts all of the possible numbers I could add together in my mind. I memorise the odd ones but then I know the functional knowledge of addition. The same is true of multiplication. People who do mental maths each have their own special ways of cutting up calculations mentally. Trying to teach these to others with these mental maths skills is a bit of a pointless exercise as everyone has a different way of doing it. But most of the time pattern recognition helps and functional rules like odd numbers and even numbers and multiples of 3 divide by 3 - a very smart person can see why this is true in a decimal system.

So maybe we need to know that the liver does a lot of catabolic functions and what catabolism is, or that the kidney does filtering and homeostasis functions but do we need to know the air-speed velocity of the unladen swallow?