My experience of teaching innovation

I will admit that I have something of a Norman on-your-bike Tebbit attitude to teaching and learning. I believe that while many aspects of education in the 1980s were truly dreadful (with no accountability), we have over-compensated and are now almost pandering to students in an attempt to make them ’engage’. I believe but cannot prove (linked book is worth a read!) that is not unreasonable to expect third level students – especially those studying at honours degree level – to bring some innate motivation and commitment to the party. If they don’t have these, then I would question whether they should be studying to that level at all. But we have a well-intentioned teaching and learning philosophy that frames the problem almost entirely as a problem with the way we teach – at least that’s my sense of things. For me, that is to miss out on a huge part of the problem – which is essentially social and cultural – and constantly ‘innovating’ will not achieve our objectives even if it is well-intentioned.

Naturally enough, many people disagree when I say these things, perhaps seeing me as some sort of Luddite who longs for the ‘glory’ days of the 1980s or earlier. That could not be further from the truth. But I believe in the core idea of third level education as a process that must be driven by the individual, inspired by his or her own commitment, determination and ambition. For me, that was the beauty of third level education. I wanted to learn – I didn’t want to be taught. There’s a difference.

Even if we are to think in purely utilitarian terms, it is essential that third level prepares students for the workplace and life where motivation, drive, ambition and independence are essential. But over the years I have seen third level go in the opposite direction. The demands placed on the system have driven it more and more towards a system where students are less free to develop and explore – bogged down by a system that if I were a student I would want ‘off my back.’

Anyway, to give some background as to how I have arrived at this position, I’m going to describe as briefly as possible my experiences of teaching innovation. Some things worked, some didn’t and some were just unsustainable if I wanted to do anything other than teach.

Open-end laboratory experiments

Back in the 1990s I decided that my third year students were doing their experiments ‘on autopilot’. I halved the number of experiments they did in my labs and doubled the allotted time from one day to two. The idea was that instead of ‘doing’ something, the students ‘investigated’ something. I stripped back the student manual, beefed up the manual for the demonstrators and tried to create a culture of inquiry. Instead of confirming what they already knew, the idea was that the students would actually do some research.

It was an initiative that had mixed results. The key problem for me was that the students didn’t really know enough to do meaningful experiments – they tended to do the obvious and word got around what the last group did and soon every group started doing the same thing. There was, and there remains, a large tendency among students, and people generally, to follow the herd. (Many years later I returned to this approach when I tried to make each group’s experiment part of a class project.)

After a number of years I concluded that the benefits of the approach – if any – were marginal so I have reverted to a more traditional way of doing things but I still design my lab experiments in such a way that the students are not simply trying to find out what they already know. I give them a certain degree of freedom, especially in final year, to pursue avenues that are not ‘in the manual’. The more often I can say “I don’t know” to their queries about the ‘correctness’ of their results, the happier I am.

Initiatives like the research-led approach require a lot of work from the academic and it is possible that my mini-project approach might have developed into something excellent with a bit of fine-tuning. But each academic has to carry out a sort of personal cost-benefit analysis of everything they do in their academic job. Do you put all of your time into your teaching or do you recognise that a big part of your brief as an academic is to do original research and scholarship in your area of expertise? I think research is important and I compromised.

Screencasts to support both laboratory and lecture modules

Screencasting is an excellent teaching tool and I use it for both pedagogical and logistical reasons. In the subjects I teach, computer-based calculations are common and there is no better way to explain how to do a computational problem – using Excel for example – than to record a screencast using Camtasia or equivalent software. Likewise, a screencast can give me the ability to bi-locate, so to speak. During a busy laboratory session when you may have to explain a number of different calculations to different groups doing different experiments (and I find that I have to do a lot of explaining, especially with junior classes), a screencast buys you time – time where the ‘neglected’ group can watch the screencast. Screencasting is an excellent example of where technology has a real and substantial benefit for education.

Workbooks for teaching basics

This innovation is not an innovation at all because a workbook is something we associate with primary school! But when I get students into second year and I teach them Fluid Flow, I find that their basic skills in algebra and doing basic calculations (even with a calculator) are bafflingly poor. So I have adopted the primary school approach, turned my module into continuous assessment, enforced attendance and made them plough through the workbook for two hours per week. The other hour I devote to a ‘keynote’ lecture which I obviously try to make as engaging as possible, showing the odd YouTube video in the process. I find it fundamentally depressing – although paradoxically it’s quite enjoyable, being a break from lecturing – to teach this way and maybe I’m wrong to do so, but my gut instinct is that it at least forces the students to work on solving problems – to practice in other words.

Video podcasting for laboratory modules

I have dabbled a bit in producing video podcasts and while I originally did it as part of a teaching innovation project, promising all sorts of benefits in the process, the real benefit from podcasts is logistical. If my labs are a little light on demonstrators, I can get a group to watch a podcast which plays the role of a virtual demonstrator until I can get to the students myself. It seems to do the job although it is a little bit embarrassing to watch and hear yourself on-screen.

Make no mistake, though, producing decent podcasts takes a lot of time. Recording your voice or speaking to camera without fluffing your lines is not easy. A sloppy podcast is easy but a professional one is not. Again, the academic has to decide whether the time and effort put into developing these things is worth the effort both in terms of the benefit to the students and in terms of the benefit to the academic. You might say that is cynical but if your job spec demands that you do research then you need to leave time to do that research. Teaching, especially if you want to explore new methods, has the nasty habit of expanding to fill the available space.

Problem based learning (sort of)

I have never subscribed to ‘real’ problem-based learning. I think that too much time is lost for knowledge acquisition and knowledge is important. But I do believe in active learning, especially in quantitative subjects that are inherently of a problem-solving nature. Engineering is the perfect subject for active learning. So my typical lecture will involve the students solving one or more problems – usually computational – as well as the standard information transfer.  The upside is that students get some practice while the downside is that the actual content of my courses is much reduced.

Peer Review of laboratory reports

This was quite successful in that students realised that their attention to detail – at least when it came to their own reports – was much less than it needed to be. They found themselves spotting flaws in other people’s reports when their own reports were littered with the same flaws. The whole process was a bit of an administrative headache and created extra work for me in that I assessed both the reports and the reviews. In the end I decided that the benefits were not much better than simply ensuring that I gave the students rapid feedback on their reports and that is what I try to do now. Giving rapid feedback requires a large time commitment but it is essential because, as with basic mathematical skills, I am baffled by how poorly students (third year) write. It is not just the poor grammar – the meaningless sentences etc. – or the unscientific language – “the graph was fairly linear” – it is the general sloppiness of their first drafts. I am talking about a failure to use Spellcheck, unlabeled graphs, failure to supply units for quantities etc. These are not things we should have to deal with in senior classes at third level. How can this be? Whatever the causes, feedback has to be given otherwise there is no hope of rectifying things.

Group Work

The idea of learning in groups is something of a hot topic in education with many claims made as to how it can improve learning. But ‘group learning’ is like continuous assessment – it can be anything. I’ve done two types. The first type is simply task-oriented and is a routine part of laboratory work in the engineering laboratory modules that I teach. We normally have groups of four students working together. In third year, we make no big deal about it – it’s just the way we do it – and we let the group dynamic evolve organically. In final year we run a module in bioprocessing in which an experiment can last up to four days. In that case, our group has a Leader who is supposed to manage the group. We’ve been working this way for years and have no reason to change it. It is simply a natural way of running those modules.

The other type of group learning is what you might call ‘brainstorming’. Occasionally and just to mix things up a little, I will replace a lecture with a problem-solving session in which I divide the class into groups and each group sits around a table to solve a challenging problem that I present to them. I intervene occasionally if I think they are floundering but in general I use the session to observe the students and get a sense of the level at which they can operate. The main advantage of this approach is that students (second years) actually get to speak to each other for once – they often don’t know each other even though the class is small. But apart from that I can’t really conclude anything except to observe that the efficacy or otherwise of this type of ‘brainstorming’ is very much dependent on the attitude and personality of the individual students. The latter is particularly important and if our goal is to achieve better learning we have to recognise that some approaches to teaching which might be superficially appealing may not in fact suit certain personalities. (I’m not talking about learning styles here.) One could argue that attending lectures doesn’t suit certain personalities either and shouldn’t we make the same argument there as well. That is true but my superficial reading of the ‘group learning’ literature is that many great claims are made for it whereas nobody really makes any great claims for the efficacy of lectures. Furthermore, lectures are pretty inoffensive things and even though many people might find it hard to concentrate during a lecture it is difficult to imagine a lecture causing a student much angst. However, group work can do such a thing especially when students are introverted and need a bit of personal space to think. The group approach can actually impede learning.

I suppose my general philosophy would be that nothing will suit everyone so we should have teaching methods that suit as a many people as we can. We should provide some variety – which we do. Furthermore, and this is an important part of my philosophy of teaching, we should keep ‘off the backs of students’ as possible. So when I break off my lectures to do a class problem, some choose to work alone (that suits them and it would suit me to be honest), and some tend to collaborate. Some choose to stare into space. It’s an organic process.

Group project on the design and construction of a heat exchanger

One of the best things I’ve ever done is to design a mini-project in which students worked in groups to design and actually build a device called a heat exchanger. The students loved it. It involved quite a bit of plumbing and it was completely different from everything else they were doing. But did the students actually learn anything from it? I’m not so sure but it is good to put the occasional bit of fun into learning. The danger though in this kind of thing is that one can equate student engagement with good learning and one can be somewhat seduced by methods that are enjoyable for yourself without asking the hard question as to whether the students are actually learning better.

Unfortunately I don’t run this project anymore because the person who did all the real work – one of our technicians – left when his contract expired (therein lies a tale!) and so the whole concept died. Such is a price of staff recruitment bans.

Technical Innovation

Those were just some of the obvious innovations I’ve tried but one of the areas that I think is neglected in education is that area that is on the cusp between research and teaching. In a technical subject like chemical engineering that I teach, there is a huge amount of scope for constantly evaluating how the technical aspects of our subject are taught. What happens is that a standard explanation for a particular topic emerges and then everyone simply copies it. There is a large degree of overlap and repetition in textbooks. One of the areas that really interests me is the idea that one can go back to basics, re-examine standard presentations and explanations and recast them in a way that is clearer, simpler and more in tune with modern thinking and methods – computer methods for example. But doing this requires a very good knowledge of your discipline and also the confidence to go beyond the textbooks and look at subjects with new eyes. One of my favourite journals has always been Chemical Engineering Education and it was always a great source of new ideas about how to explain the technical aspects of chemical engineering. Nowadays, it has become ‘infected’ by ‘soft’ Teaching and Learning research in which some innovation or other is introduced and almost without fail it is “well received” by students.

Costs and Benefits

One thing we fail to do in many areas of third level is to use cost-benefit analyses in a more rigorous way. This is a not a call for more negativity all around but a plea for a recognition that most innovations will have negative consequences. Whenever we make any kind of change, we need to be aware that as well as having benefits the change may have costs. I gave the example above of Problem Based Learning where the potential benefits of better thinking skills have to be offset against the cost of reduced knowledge acquisition. In research, the potential benefits of an approach to funding that is based on the idea of centres of excellence need to be balanced with a recognition that this approach can fail to take advantage of the talents of individual researchers who do not fit into the neat pigeonholes that are deemed to be strategic. In the organisation of the third level system, we need to balance the perceived benefits of clustering institutions with the inevitable increase in bureaucracy that will result.

Overall, the last couple of decades have been interesting and while we all have an obligation to constantly evaluate what we are doing – and I try to do this – my over-riding sense is that the education system is battling with social and cultural forces that make educating young people increasingly difficult. I have become convinced that there is only so much influence we can have on young people – we are only one input amongst many and they have been bombarded with powerful inputs of all kinds before they come to us.  We will not innovate our way out of this. Better and more effective education needs a buy-in from society.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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