10 assessment myths?

I believe that the following 10 opinions on assessment are mistaken. Do you agree with me?

  1. For the sake of fairness, all students should be assessed identically.
  2. The more summative assessment there is, the greater the impact on learning.
  3. If a higher proportion of students achieve the top grade, standards must be slipping.
  4. Once a marking team has agreed upon essay criteria and standards, consensus will be achieved on grades for individual essays.
  5. There are no valid ways to assess transferable skills such as teamwork or communication.
  6. Formative assessment benefits all students in equal measure.
  7. It is not feasible to measure abstract qualities such as personal integrity or multicultural awareness.
  8. It is best to show students their grades before providing qualitative feedback.
  9. If a student has received quality feedback on a formative assessment task, they will be completely prepared to perform better on a subsequent, related summative assessment.
  10. Setting a summative assessment is the most effective way to motivate learners.

 

Needs analysis and action plan

Needs analysis

In the early stages of this Supporting and Leading Educational Change (SLEC) course, I composed a description of my professional roles and duties at the University of Reading in the UK. Then, I utilised a provided diagnostic tool to self-evaluate my perceived abilities as an educational developer. Both the description and self-audit are accessible on this website:

Description of my professional roles & duties

Diagnostic audit

On completion of these tasks, I expressed my current priorities for improvement as follows:

“I really need to appreciate the UK scene better and perhaps this could be achieved through more exposure at national events, e.g. participation in conferences. I need also to think on a grander scale, aim for wider impact. At the moment, I’m still mostly focused on helping individual lecturers, single departments or programmes.”

To rephrase more formally, my immediate development goals are to…

  1. become better acquainted with the UK learning & teaching in higher education landscape and increase my awareness of sector agendas to inform the work that I carry out in a UK higher education institution

Although I have worked as an educational developer in Singapore and in a related role in Hong Kong, and although both locales have historic connections with UK higher education, nonetheless they are distinct and sometimes have divergent priorities. Now that I am fully immersed in a UK institution, I need to engage more with the national scene to ensure the relevance of my efforts in promoting the quality of learning and teaching at the University of Reading.

  1. explore, select and implement strategies to increase the scope of the impact that I have on the quality of learning & teaching across my institution

I am accustomed to collaborating with and supporting relatively small teams, e.g. with a programme team renewing a specific degree curriculum. Now I am expected to contribute to initiatives at a larger scale, e.g. changing the culture of assessment and feedback throughout the whole institution. I found myself at a loss about how to proceed at first and really feel the need to become more knowledgeable and proficient in this area of expertise.

In addition, I have identified a third, longer term goal for my professional development.

  1. Specialise in the field of the internationalisation of higher education

I would like to be more knowledgeable about internationalisation of higher education, to the extent that I will be able to advise colleagues more confidently. This goal dovetails with operational needs in that my Centre is in the process of rolling out the Curriculum Framework, one strand of which is a higher education response to globalisation. My longer term intention is to add to what is known about the internationalisation of higher education by carrying out research into aspects of it.

Action plan

To reach the above goals, I have identified concrete actions for each, as follows:

  1. Become better acquainted with the UK learning & teaching in higher education landscape
    • Pay attention to relevant news articles about UK higher education, read SEDA mailing list, join HEA webinars, monitor updates on the Teaching Excellence Framework, etc.
    • Attend 1 relevant conference – SEDA Spring TLA Conference – in May 2018
    • Identify and contribute to 1 relevant conference in 2019
  2. Increase the scope of the impact that I have on the quality of learning & teaching
    • Read references from chapters 11 and 13 of Baume & Popovic (2016)
    • Plan a 2 day learning & teaching event in July 2018 involving 80 participants and several guest speakers with guidance from a more experienced colleague
    • Attend the second part of externally provided project management training scheduled for May 2018
    • Observe and note how a Dean manages a Community of Practice (for which I am the secretary)
    • Conduct a survey of undergraduate digital literacies during the 2018/19 academic year and disseminate findings via our T&L Exchange blog
  3. Specialise in the field of the internationalisation of higher education
    • Read the references from a 2014 Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that I followed on Coursera titled Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’ 
    • Arrange a learning and teaching showcase event in March 2018 with two Japanese guests who are experienced in forging international partnerships
    • Attend an information event in March 2018 for the EdD programme at Oxford Brookes University, which may be a suitable environment for me to pursue further studies because Oxford Brookes hosts the Centre for Curriculum Internationalisation 

Whether all the above goals and plans are sufficiently SMART will be subject to review by my line manager, as I intend to include them in my formal Professional Development Review. Doing that will also make sure that a retrospective evaluation will occur as well.

Reference

Baume, D. and Popovic, C. (eds) (2016). Advancing practice in academic development. Routledge.

Commentary on SEDA Values

V1 Developing our understanding of how people learn

Given my background as a language teacher before becoming an educational developer, both language and general learning theory influence my beliefs about the nature of learning. Naturally, I am also affected by my experiences as a learner and educator and my preferences as a learner, although I try not to let the latter dictate how I teach others.

A consistent theme throughout my career has been to regard interactivity in classrooms favourably. This is because, through engagement of learners together in focused activities, I have witnessed greater learner interest and improved grasp and retention of concepts. Furthermore, if learners are passive recipients, logically it is difficult to see how they may develop skills, be those skills generic, cognitive, linguistic or discipline-specific.

So, I find much that resonates with me in the literature on social constructivism, communicative language teaching (Canale & Swain, 1980) and constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011). Social constructivism enjoys considerable favour in educational circles and this encourages teachers to plan for active, collaborative learning. Vygotsky (1986) saw a central role for language in cognition. He emphasised that learning should take place in meaningful contexts. If no ‘real’ communication opportunities are provided in educational settings, conditions are not optimum for cognitive development. Interestingly for me, this coincides with CLT. A well-designed communicative task puts students in situations that include an information gap between them and this is important because it is by trying to clarify matters with and for others that we reach a revised understanding ourselves. Constructive alignment, as its label indicates, promotes a constructivist view of learning and advocates learning tasks that mirror measurable outcomes and forms of assessment.

A positive by-product of an interactive, student-centred approach is that lecturers have more freedom to monitor and actively listen to students. This can have benefits in terms of informing the lecturer about the progress of learners and their mood, whether divergences from session plans are required, and what feedback to learners would be timely and appropriate.

Saying this, I accept that direct instruction has a place as an efficient means to convey information to large groups, i.e. in lectures, when self-aware learners are armed with effective learning strategies and can adjust to didactic teaching in order to internalise content knowledge. Behaviourism too offers a partial explanation of learning. Repetitive practice (rather than rote learning) can be beneficial, particularly for the development of skills. Repetitive learning can involve understanding as well as habit formation, for example in the learning of Chinese characters by writing them down multiple times.

V2 Practising in ways that are scholarly, professional and ethical

When consulting with academic departments on a requested pedagogical topic, I attempt to provoke critical discussion with and between fellow educators. My objective is to make educational research findings digestible and to encourage reflection on the relatability of those findings to specific learning environments, thus supporting the principled adoption of evidenced strategies that synchronize with established successful practice in the disciplines. For example, colleagues in the Mathematics department were enthusiastic to explore the potential of questioning skills to develop higher order thinking. After reading a wide selection of relevant articles, I raised my colleagues’ awareness with findings about the discouragingly high proportion of questions observed to prompt lower order thinking (Dains, 1986; Dillon, 1988), the benefits of increased wait time (Rowe, 1986) and avoidance of ‘echoing’ students’ responses (Craig & Cairo, 2005), and the potential for individual, pair or small group interviews as an environment in which to develop lecturers’ questioning proficiencies (Moyer & Milewicz, 2002). I informed and participated in the discussion but left the decision about how to go forward to my colleagues because I respect their knowledge of their learning and teaching environment. I hope that this is a professional and scholarly approach. I consider it ethical practice not to impose solutions on fellow practitioners in a field as contentious and relativistic as education.

Besides disseminating research findings, I also engage in research. At the time of writing I am finalising a proposal for a research project. I hope to attract funding from the UoR’s Teaching and Learning Development Fund. The research is a joint venture between myself and colleagues in other support units and academic schools. It focuses on digital literacies and is therefore in line with strategic initiatives in the University. We need to adhere to ethical standards in conducting this research, of course, and those articulated in the University Guidelines for Research Ethics.

As another illustration of the legitimacy of my working practices, I am bound to standards in my role as convener of a credit-bearing masters-level module that culminates in HEA Fellowship. All relevant University of Reading policies must be adhered to without fail. The UoR is itself bound to observe laws of the land, for example SENDO. A fresh inclusivity & diversity policy has recently been introduced at the UoR and as a consequence my team has started employing Blackboard Ally to ensure that course materials uploaded to the VLE are fully accessible to participants. On the module, participants complete a group-research task and present their findings to peers. Under the University Guidelines for Research Ethics, research ethics approval is not required because the research is carried out solely for the purposes of teaching and learning. However, requirements for data protection and consent must be adhered to.

V3 Working with and developing learning communities

I contribute to several learning communities within the University of Reading:

My role for this community is secretarial, basically. I manage the members’ mailing list, confirm and distribute meeting agendas and note actions arising, etc. I believe that the chairperson of this CoP, a Dean, is content to have an academic developer for this role. I am free to contribute during meetings, although I rarely do, but I do understand the conversations about learning; the notes that I take at meetings probably reflect my insight. For me, being a part of this CoP is great exposure to higher level discussions about student satisfaction and engagement.

  • Engaging Students, Enhancing Curricula (ESEC) Steering Group

The purpose of this group is to promote student engagement in curriculum renewal processes, an objective in line with the University’s Curriculum Framework pedagogic principles. There are several academics in the group who have been seconded (0.2) to the Centre for Quality Support and Development (my department) and their roles are to take forward student engagement projects in their respective academic Schools. My role in the group, along with other academic developers, is to provide the secondees with advice and support.

I manage two learning & teaching themed blogs for my department. The T&L Exchange hosts funded project reports, so those entries are structured and evidenced, whereas the Engage in Teaching & Learning blog is quite informal, with anecdotal entries and think-pieces. Is a blog a community? Well, I’m trying to make it so. I have been learning the dark arts of building readership and connecting blogs with other social media with the aim of encouraging readers to react to and discuss the entries online. This is a challenging and ongoing project for me.

  • Assessment Catalyst Working Group

This is a brand new group and I am one of its founding members. The purpose is to promote good practice in assessment, particularly at programme level. This objective is also in line with the Curriculum Framework pedagogic principles cited above. My main role is contributor of ideas. In future, there will most likely be some hands-on tasks for me as well, for example facilitating assessment audits in Schools. Again, as with the CoP and ESEC, this group should provide me with excellent exposure. I should gain insights into assessment issues across the institution.

V4 Valuing diversity and promoting inclusivity

Catering for diverse needs has always been a challenge, whether my learners are students, teachers or academic colleagues.

At the beginning of my career, I thought that I had found a solution in Harmer’s (1991) balanced activities approach. His proposal is to vary methodology so that some learners are satisfied some of the time. I found that this approach was workable for a busy teacher but is a compromise. It is not informed variation, just variation in the hope that overall everyone will learn partially.

So, some years later, I was receptive to learn about Differentiated Instruction (DI), mostly through the writings of Tomlinson (2000). With DI the aim is to arrange learning experiences so that all students progress towards intended learning outcomes but reach them in ways that are personally suitable. While outcomes and content are fixed, processes and products are flexible. I introduced an array of DI strategies to staff at a Hong Kong college and they experimented for a year. They found that the most immediately usable DI strategies were varied questioning, tiered activities, concept-based teaching and minilessons. When diagnostic pre-assessments were added as a mainstay feature of their curricula, other DI strategies also became effective, i.e. flexible grouping and curriculum compacting. The usual protest against DI, that it is too laborious, did not apply in this environment because the college staff were never expected to apply the full DI model but were free to ‘pick n mix’ strategies according to their professional judgement.

Still, I have my doubts about the suitability of DI for higher education. A paper by Ernst & Ernst (2005) mentions both positive and negative points about the approach. The main problem for me is that DI assigns the decision making to lecturers when one would hope that university students will be sufficiently self-regulating to make their own decisions about learning processes and products. With a significant increase in the proportion of the population that has access to higher education in many countries, however, it is arguable that some students will not be ready, and that DI made explicit could scaffold the process of becoming self-directed.

Recently, I followed a MOOC from the University of Southampton on the topic of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Designing out the need for (the majority of) accommodations is an attractive notion and learning technologies have potential in this regard. However, most of the examples that I have seen of UDL in action were focused on making course content equally accessible. It was less clear to me how skills acquisition could be made equally accessible but I am still investigating UDL’s potential.

V5 Continually reflecting on practice to develop ourselves, others and processes

I regard informed reflectivity as a primary means for development. I feel fortunate that I was introduced to reflective practice (Schön 1983, Kolb 1984) at the outset of my career via a rigorous teaching practicum with self, peer and tutor feedback followed by identification of concrete action points and further opportunities to refine my teaching abilities and awareness. Many initial teacher training programmes around the world make teaching practice the central element. A series of observed lessons with quality feedback processes serves to enhance teaching skills such as classroom management techniques and inculcates habits of meaningful reflection with the objective that novice teachers will continue to develop long term. However, for reasons that I will not discuss here, I have observed little appetite for supervised classroom experiences in courses the aim of which is the professionalisation of teaching in higher education.

In the absence of observed teaching practice, there are alternative mechanisms by which reflective capacities of lecturers are developed in my current context of convening a taught module at the University of Reading (UoR) that leads from Associate to full Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Some participants on the module are well versed in reflective practice because it is a tradition in their academic disciplines, e.g. health professions. For others it is new. Participants are required to write case studies about innovations in module design that they have made. This task aims to forge a closer connection between pedagogic theory and practice in the minds of early career lecturers. A criterion for assessment of the case studies is as follows:

Demonstrate a critical and evaluative approach to professional practice

I am heartened by the quality of reflection in most participants’ accounts with some employing, e.g. Brookfield’s lenses (1995) overtly to structure their case studies.

Microteaching is another (minor) feature on the module. It is deployed to develop participants’ interactive presentation skills and provides an opportunity to give and receive targeted feedback in a safe setting. I am in agreement with Amobi & Erwin (2009) who campaigned for greater emphasis on microteaching and intend to explore its potential further in my module.

Finally, I hope that I model reflective practice. The module that I lead is evaluated in several ways including formal and informal feedback from participants and their student representative, responses from the external examiner and discussion among my team of academic developers. Any proposed changes to the module must be justified formally because it is a credit-bearing masters module of the UoR’s Institute of Education.

References

Amobi, F.A. & Erwin, L. (2009). Implementing on-campus microteaching to elicit pre-service teachers’ reflection on teaching actions: Fresh perspective on an established practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp.27-34

Biggs, J.B. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. McGraw Hill and Open University Press.

Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass.

Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, Vol. 1, 1, pp.1-47.

Craig, J. & Cairo, L. (2005). Assessing the relationship between Questioning and Understanding to Improve Learning and Thinking (QUILT) and student achievement in mathematics: A pilot study. Appalachia Educational Laboratory (AEL).

Dains, D. (1986). Are teachers asking the right questions? Education 1, (4) 368–374.

Dillon, J. T. (1988). Questioning and teaching: A manual of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ernst, H.R. & Ernst, T.L. (2005) The promise and pitfalls of differentiated instruction for undergraduate Political Science courses: Student and instructor impressions of an unconventional teaching strategy. Journal of Political Science Education, 1:1, 39-59.

Harmer, J. (1991). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Moyer, P. & Milewicz, E. (2002). Learning to question: Categories of questioning used by preservice teachers during diagnostic mathematics interviews. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 5, 293–315.

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait-time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 43-48.

Schön, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. NY: Basic Book.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2000). How to differentiate in mixed-ability classrooms. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Thought and Language. The M.I.T. Press.

 

Word count V1 420; V2 456; V3 400; V4 435; V5 418

Total 2129

Description of my professional roles & duties and diagnostic audit

My job title at the University of Reading is Academic Developer in the Centre for Quality, Support and Development. The Centre has three sections: Quality Assurance and Policy (QAP), Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), and Academic Development & Enhancement (ADE). I work in the latter ADE section alongside seven other academic developers.

A key role for me is contributing to the University’s Academic Practice Programme (APP) that is designed for new staff. The APP is the taught route towards Higher Education Academy (HEA) recognition. My responsibility is to convene the second module of the APP that leads to full HEA Fellowship. The majority of participants on my module are probationary lecturers whereas on the first module the participants come from a much wider range of student-facing positions, e.g. disability advisor, graduate teaching assistant, lab technician, etc. Convening the module necessitates detailed planning with other module convenors and the programme director, making arrangements for face-to-face delivery days, managing assessment and moderation matters, and tutoring groups of participants.

Reading University is rolling out two major Teaching & Learning (T&L) strategic initiatives currently: the Curriculum Framework and the Assessment & Feedback Project. I act in support of both. The Framework articulates academic and pedagogic principles and makes explicit graduate attributes. It is used to inform the design, approval and review of curricula. One strand of the Framework is the internationalisation of higher education. It is my responsibility to work in partnership with colleagues across the University, sharing expertise, creating or sourcing resources and supporting them as they introduce and evaluate measures to internationalise their curricula. I am due to take up a liaison role, too, with a partner institution in China that has requested professional development provision for its academic staff. For the Assessment & Feedback Project I act in support of a fellow academic developer to enhance practice in this vital area of concern.

In addition to the above major roles, I manage and develop my department’s blog – the T&L Exchange. This blog hosts case studies, most of which are reports on internally funded teaching and learning projects that have been conducted by University staff and students, often collaboratively. Currently I am revitalising this blog through adoption of a fresh interface and by exploring ways via social media to increase readership and connectedness with a larger community of interested parties across the higher education sector in the UK and beyond.

Furthermore, I sit as an advisor on one committee, namely the Enhancing Student Engagement Steering Group and I am secretary of the Postgraduate Taught Programme Directors’ Community of Practice which focuses on the quality of student experience and engagement. These two relatively minor roles are valuable to me because they provide wider exposure to T&L developments across the institution.

Finally, I am in the planning stages of conducting a small-scale research project into international undergraduate students’ adoption and selection of productivity apps for learning. This venture involves my colleagues in TEL, the Student Success & Engagement Department and an academic School – the International Study & Language Institute.

In Week 2 of the SLEC, I completed a self-diagnosis of my confidence levels in areas of activity/awareness as an academic developer:

Diagnostic audit

What are my strengths?

Having worked in so many contexts, I think I am open to multiple perspectives on educational development issues. Everything else that I feel able to do to support colleagues and initiatives really stems from this openness, I believe. On a more technical expertise note, I suppose that I am strong in technology enhanced learning, diversity & inclusion and internationalisation of higher education.

What are my priorities for improvement?

I really need to appreciate the UK scene better and perhaps this could be achieved through more exposure at national events, e.g. participation in conferences. I need also to think on a grander scale, aim for wider impact. At the moment, I’m still mostly focused on helping individual lecturers, single departments or programmes.

 

Case Study: Initiating a Peer Mentoring Program in Higher Education

This case study is a critical reflection on the Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). My manager, the Director of the Independent Learning Centre, CUHK, tasked me to scope, research, plan, pilot, evaluate and refine the PMP.

Background to the PMP

The Peer Mentoring Program is a collaborative undertaking between the Independent Learning Centre (ILC), the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) Wellness and Counselling Centre and participating Colleges of CUHK. (To clarify, the College system in CUHK is reminiscent of Oxbridge, i.e. each College is a community with its own hostel and dining facilities, offering pastoral care and extra-curricular learning opportunities.) The pilot PMP ran during the autumn term of CUHK’s 2014-2015 academic year and has continued until the present academic year. The schedule for the most recent run of the PMP is published online at https://www.ilc.cuhk.edu.hk/workshop/pmp/#schedule

In 2014, peer mentoring was nothing new to CUHK. However, the objectives of the pre-existing CUHK Peer Mentorship Program and Shaw College Mentorship Program are more career-oriented; the mentors are alumni of the University and the mentees are senior students. By contrast, the PMP was aimed at supporting first year undergraduates as they adapted from relatively directed secondary education to relatively undirected tertiary education. In other words, the primary purpose of the PMP is to facilitate first year undergraduate students’ successful transition to higher education with an emphasis on learning to learn more independently. Mentoring by senior students is the means by which the transition is supported.

Mentors are prepared for their role by the ILC with support from the OSA regarding the development of student counselling skills; mentors are closely supported throughout the program by an ILC Lecturer. By engaging in the program, it is also hoped that mentors benefit by acquiring or improving a range of skills that are highly relevant to their future working lives.

SO1 : Identified goals for staff and for academic development processes and activities

These were the finalised outcomes of the pilot PMP:

Intended learning outcomes for mentees

  • Development of study skills that are appropriate for higher education
  • Knowledge about campus and virtual learning resources and facilities
  • Appreciation of ways to foster positive relationships with fellow students and faculty members
  • Awareness of campus activities that encourage student involvement

Intended learning outcomes for mentors

  • Initial development of training and counselling skills
  • Improvement of communication skills
  • Increased empathy through identification with challenges faced by mentees
  • Enhanced capacity for reflection on learning

In addition, for mentors and mentees alike, it is anticipated that the Program contributes to the following:

  • Increased confidence and motivation
  • Stronger sense of belonging to CUHK
  • Heightened intercultural sensitivity
  • Enhanced inter/intrapersonal abilities
  • Improved communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills

These outcomes and aims were synthesized from ILC/OSA strategy, ideas from relevant academic literature (that is cited below) and consultation with participating Colleges, as well as through reflection and discussion between myself and the ILC Director.

My involvement as an ILC lecturer in developing the PMP was in line with the mission statement of the ILC to “collaborate with teachers and units across the Chinese University of Hong Kong to provide resources and activities to support and encourage independent learning.” (https://www.ilc.cuhk.edu.hk/EN/mission.aspx) My Director had a long-standing interest in peer mentorships and gave me a direct instruction to develop the program.

The OSA Wellness and Counselling Centre’s interest in the PMP came from a concern to ensure students’ mental wellbeing (psychosocial integration) in the critical period of the first term of their undergraduate careers. As is stated on their website, the Centre “assists students to overcome adjustment difficulties, derive success and satisfaction from their university experiences as well as achieve personal growth and self-enhancement.”

At the University level, retention of first year students is a serious matter, primarily from the perspective of concern for students’ welfare but also regarding institutional financial health. According to statistics published by CUHK online at https://www.iso.cuhk.edu.hk/english/publications/facts-and-figures/index.aspx?issueid=1661 , tuition fees were 24.5% of total University income in 2014-15. Student numbers and retention are also factors in the calculation of government subventions for publicly-funded higher education institutions which, in 2014-15 accounted for 55.1% of CUHK’s income. So, the University has a vested interest in students progressing successfully from initial to second and final years of study.

Thus, it appears that the PMP was straightforwardly a top-down, strategic initiative. Although I had been instructed to proceed with the PMP, I still had a responsibility to verify that a mentoring program would be a wise investment of ILC resources and I needed inspiration on how to design such a program. So, bearing in mind ILC/OSA agendas, yet trying to remain unbiased, I turned to academic articles and reports on peer mentorships in higher education. From these sources, I sought to confirm whether, and understand how, peer mentoring could be an effective vehicle to carry forward the aforementioned strategic goals in the environment of CUHK.

Reassuringly, I found compelling evidence that peer mentoring in higher education is advantageous. For example, in 2011 Andrews [not me] & Clark produced a report on funded peer mentoring projects in UK higher education, arguing strongly that mentoring is valuable for student retention and success.

The same report also lent credence to my OSA colleagues’ belief in the timing of the PMP, “The first few days and weeks at university are widely acknowledged as being crucial to student success.” However, the report also promoted a longer relationship between mentor and mentee, so the decision was made to extend the PMP to cover the whole of the autumn academic term.

The ILC’s intention to cultivate self-direction in learning via the PMP seemed to be in line with the conclusions of Andrews & Clark. The transition from secondary to tertiary education can represent a genuine hurdle for some learners and that this is so has been well-documented, for example Smith’s 2004 case study focuses on British contexts but remarks that transition is a global concern because “many of the issues are fundamental to any post-school education system which is aimed at more than a small, socially selected minority of the population.” One viable means to facilitate the process of learning to learn in the new context of higher education is mentoring by students who are in their second or third years of study.

There is a theme running through the body of research that the value of peer mentoring programs is as much for mentors as it is for mentees. Colvin & Ashman (2010) found that the experience of “…mentoring allowed them [mentors] to reapply concepts into their own lives and helped them become even better students themselves.” A Beltman and Schaeben (2010) article highlights that mentors develop personal efficacy and employability skills, and the latter point is reiterated in the Andrews & Clark report. Such evidence supported the belief of my Director and I that we should have, as our secondary aim, the development of mentors’ transferable and employability skills.

By using scholarship, one of Bostock & Baume’s (2016) elements of professionalism, I had verified that the PMP could be a worthwhile project and was better informed about selecting appropriate outcomes and aims.

SO2 : Planned and led academic development processes and activities towards achievement of these goals

Meanwhile, my Director negotiated for the pilot PMP to occur within two Colleges – Morningside College and C.W. Chu College. This was achievable thanks to her infectious enthusiasm, networking skills and status in a strongly hierarchical institution. Without her fulfilling these leadership roles, I would not have been able to make the PMP happen. Also, it was good to start on a small scale, to test out the PMP in a manageable way and later expand it hopefully. It was also decided to leave the recruitment of the mentors and matching with mentees to the Colleges for the pilot run, the reasoning being that College staff knew their students better than the ILC and that a feeling of joint ownership of the Program would be encouraged. One College encouraged mainland Chinese first year students to participate as mentees since there were concerns about their potential isolation in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.

For the successful conclusion of the above negotiations, the Colleges and OSA required formal proposals. The readings that I had consulted informed the PMP proposals.

For instance, valuable advice on the specification of learning outcomes for the PMP was gained from Corella (2010). Two of the learning outcomes for mentees, namely ‘knowledge about campus and virtual learning resources and facilities’ and ‘appreciation of ways to foster positive relationships with fellow students and faculty members’ were derived directly from this study.

A practical suggestion from Beltman & Schaeben (2010) that my Director and I incorporated was to recognise and reward mentors with a Certificate of Completion. From their respective Colleges, mentors also received a modest financial thank you for their service.

Terrion & Leonard’s (2007) meta-survey of peer mentoring journal articles helped to identify positive characteristics of mentors with more certainty. A list of mentor characteristics was useful both to inform the recruitment of new mentors and to identify objectives for further development of mentors’ attributes during the PMP. Examples of mentor characteristics are academic achievement, ability/willingness to commit time, communication skills, flexibility and empathy.

Two handbooks on peer mentoring and four descriptions of established large-scale peer mentorship schemes on other higher education institutions’ websites also influenced the specification and design of the PMP. As an example of such influence, Utah University explains that their mentors are trained, not merely experienced students, which struck a chord with me.  I reflected upon the significance of thorough preparation for mentors and opted to make it a central element of the PMP. (These less formal sources, like Utah’s webpages, are acknowledged in the reference list below.)

With all the gathered information, I crafted formal proposals to OSA and the two Colleges, which were accepted. A sample proposal is available below as Appendix A. Furthermore, I set about compiling the PMP Handbook, excerpts of which are downloadable below as Appendix B. I reproduce the contents page here for readers’ convenience:

  • Intended Outcomes of the Program
  • Mentors and Mentoring
  • Guidelines for Mentors
  • Guidelines for Mentees
  • Roles of ILC Lecturers
  • Confidentiality Statement
  • Mentor-Mentee meeting form
  • ILC Lecturer-Mentor meeting form
  • Mentor Training sessions
  • Mentee Preparation sessions
  • End-of-Program Mentor review form
  • End-of-Program Mentee review form
  • Mentoring References

The handbook was intended as an introduction to the PMP for all stakeholders, a scaffold of the process for both mentors and mentees, and a handy reference to procedures. Besides the confidentiality agreement in the Handbook, mentors were also asked to sign a research participation agreement in case the ILC decided to publish an article or present findings about the PMP at a conference. The agreement is available below as Appendix C. Promotional posters were made for the Colleges with design and publishing assistance from an ILC colleague. A sample is included below as Appendix D.

With the pilot PMP schedule agreed (Appendix E) and recruitment on track, my colleagues in OSA and I jointly prepared for the face-to-face mentor and mentee preparation sessions.

SO3 : Facilitated and led processes and activities to achieve the agreed goals

The mentors attended four preparations sessions that took the form of interactive explorations of mentoring concepts and skills facilitated by myself, my Director and two professional counsellors from OSA. Separately, I visited Colleges to brief mentees, also in a participative session.

It was important that the mentor preparation sessions were participatory and reflective to give the participants the opportunity to start developing skills and to acquire relevant knowledge. An earlier edition of Petty (2014) was a source of ideas for session activity design. Should ideas and advice on mentoring have been ‘transmitted’ in a traditional lecture format, I would have been less confident that session content had been absorbed or could be applied successfully. The intention was for there to be constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011) between the session outcomes and the training methods. Fortuitously, the OSA counsellors were of a similar mindset, coming as they do from a profession that, like education, recognises the importance of strong connectivity between theory and practice.

Appendix F is the handout for (half of) the fourth preparation session. This part was delivered by me. It focused on the topic of learner motivation. As can be seen from the handout, the session was activity-based. The objectives were for mentors to understand categories of motivation and factors that influence it and to become familiar with reflective strategies that can encourage persistence in studying. In the same session, OSA training followed and their objectives were as follows:

  • Start to develop communication skills essential for interacting successfully with mentees
  • Raise your awareness of possible difficulties for mentees and identify ways to provide support

Although my OSA colleagues are professional counsellors rather than educators, they did a great job of writing appropriate learning outcomes and facilitating their parts of the sessions. I remained present and was there to provide support, although that did not prove to be needed.

To future proof the preparation sessions, in case there were a change of personnel, I designed PowerPoint slides that contained activity instructions so that other ILC lecturers would be able to facilitate them with greater ease. Sample PowerPoint slides for the second session are included below as Appendix G. (In the event, this was fortunate because I left the employment of CUHK in 2015.)

As part of the preparation, participants were introduced to the mentor-mentee meeting form (Appendix B), a straightforward template to focus and record discussions and action points. Example, anonymized notes from a genuine mentor-mentee meeting appear in Appendix H.

Once the preparation phase was completed, the actual mentoring began. During the first term of the academic year, mentors performed their roles and I was available to support the mentors. My role is described in the PMP Handbook (see Appendix B). During October and November, I scheduled weekly meetings with the mentors. At these meetings, the mentors were free to discuss any issues with which they had dealt. However, they were not to disclose any confidential information about their mentees. In advance of meetings, mentors could identify specific areas where they require more knowledge and request direction from me. For example, to help their mentees, mentors may have needed to know more about term paper writing or examination revision strategies. I also responded to requests for additional meetings at reasonable notice. Where a mentor or mentee had a cause for concern that they wished to discuss privately, they could contact me during office hours. OSA staff also provided contact details in case referral to a counsellor was deemed necessary.

To be frank, there was minimal participation in the weekly meetings and I was not called upon for one-to-one support frequently. I discuss this more in the section below on evaluation.

SO4 : Monitored and evaluated the effectiveness and the acceptability of the development processes and activities

As can be seen in the Handbook (Appendix B), there are two evaluation forms for the PMP, one for mentors and one for mentees. The questions on the forms are designed to gather quantitative feedback on participation rates in the mentoring process and an indication of satisfaction with the quality of preparation and support. They are also intended to prompt students to reflect on the value of their experience of mentoring or being mentored and thus serve a formative function.

To check whether the ILC’s objective of fostering learner independence was being met, mentors were invited to try the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS) before and after the PMP. This online questionnaire is a self-reporting instrument that “measures the complex of attitudes, abilities, and characteristics that comprise readiness to engage in self-directed learning”. It was decided that it would be administered following the first mentor preparation session and again after the conclusion of the Program. A set of SDLRs anonymised results for mentors may be seen in Appendix J below.

After the pilot PMP ended in December 2014, I reflected on the evaluation data and the experience of the Program as I interpreted it, and made the following summary:

Promotion and Recruitment

The promotion of PMP to two colleges was handled very well. Everything was well-organized and in place by the commencement of the program.

College X appeared to be more successful in recruiting mentees than College Y. In some cases, mentees may have been “volunteered” without a clear perception that they were in need of a mentor. On the other hand, some mentors were content with the situation because they considered that one mentee was as many as they could manage properly.

Training for Mentors

The mentors participated in four workshops facilitated by ILC staff and OSA professional counsellors. Feedback on the workshops was mostly positive. The content seemed appropriate. The third workshop, which focused on time management skills, may need more development. Alternatively, the ILC training materials could be redistributed between the sessions so that there is more equal content quantity.

One issue with the training was that not all mentors attended all sessions.

Mentoring Phase

As this was the pilot program, participation was deliberately limited to students from C.W. Chu College and Morningside College. According to feedback from mentors, this was advantageous in that mentors and mentees could find each other easily, although some mentors still expressed difficulties in arranging regular face-to-face meetings. I would suggest more structure for this phase with a commitment from the outset of the program for mentors to meet their mentees a minimum number of times and to document all meetings.

It was also intended that mentors would visit the ILC lecturer once a week. For reasons unclear, this did not happen.

The mentoring phase may have been too short. Mentors commented that they spent the first few weeks just getting to know their mentees and building good relationships. It might be better to extend the program into the second semester.

SDLRS

This online inventory was easy to administer, and the results were conveniently reported with some statistical analysis. Unfortunately, there was a security issue with SDLRS which cannot be resolved through further email communications. However, it may be worth risking and trying it again with the mentors. I believe that the use of SDLRS adds weight to the argument to extend PMP into semester two, so that there would be more of a gap between taking SDLRS the first and second times. In this way, the results may become more meaningful.

SO5 : Identified any appropriate follow-up development process or activity

As is mentioned above, there were problems in administering the SDLRS a second time. However, that issue was resolved, and the instrument could be used twice on every run of the PMP, to see whether mentors reported increased self-regulation after experiencing the Program. I was keen to retain the SDLRS because it provided a means to cross-reference with related questions on the mentor evaluation form (Appendix B). Moreover, results from a more objective instrument such as the SDLRS, should they positive, would be helpful in promoting the PMP to additional Colleges.

For logistical reasons, it was decided by senior management that the PMP would continue as an autumn term offering only. ILC lecturers’ attention would be needed elsewhere during the spring and summer terms. Although from my perspective I would have preferred extending the PMP into the spring term at least, I had to bear in mind the operational priorities of the ILC and remind myself not to become frustrated. As one of my peers on the SEDA Supporting & Leading Educational Change course has pointed out, though, a viable way forward would be to make the PMP self-sustaining, and for the ILC to gradually recede as College staff took over. Shifting the responsibility for mentoring the mentors, currently assumed by an ILC lecturer, to the Colleges, may also make it easier to keep in touch with mentors during the actual mentoring phase. CUHK has a large campus on a hill and it may have been an inconvenience for mentors to visit the ILC once a week.

Although I would have liked to develop the PMP more, the fact is that I left CUHK in January 2015. Fortunately, my colleagues at the ILC have persevered and succeeded in attracting  S.H.Ho College to participate in the Program, too. Another innovation that they have made is to include a final session for mentors during which they can all reflect together on the experience, which should be fruitful. To celebrate mentors’ completion of the PMP, Certificate award ceremonies were photographed and uploaded to College websites. Doing this also served to promote the PMP across the University for the next run in 2015/16.

I now work as an academic developer at the University of Reading (UoR) in the UK. The experience of developing and implementing the PMP at CUHK had convinced me of the value of peer mentorships. As a result, I was delighted that a briefing on peer learning and mentoring is included in the UoR’s Academic Practice Programme (APP), a taught route to Higher Education Academy Associate and full Fellowship. Last year I invited the coordinators of the University’s Student Transitions at Reading (STaR) mentor partnership and Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme to address APP participants, who are mostly probationary lecturers, in order to raise participants’ awareness of the value of peer mentoring. The coordinators’ presentations were also mapped to the Higher Education Academy’s UK Professional Standards Framework. Appendix K evidences the invitation with an email thread.

Currently, I am recommending the extension of UoR’s STaR mentor scheme to students who come from a partner institution in China to spend one or two years of their undergraduate programmes in the UK. Mentoring could act as a catalyst to engage both UK and Chinese students in internationalisation. My promotional activities are also evidenced in the Appendix K email thread.

Reflective commentary

Composing this case study, receiving peer feedback on it and reading chapter two of the set text for this course (Neame & Forsyth, 2016) have been valuable exercises for me to make explicit and to question the roles that I adopted as an academic developer in the development, implementation and review of the Peer Mentoring Program. I identify my Director’s orientation as principally managerial and political-strategic whereas my approaches were a combination of interventionist and democratic. I was given a clear mandate to create and run the PMP and I had most say in the design of mentor/mentee preparation sessions, but I also collaborated with OSA counsellors, crafted an evidenced proposal to persuade collaborators and was flexible about incorporating local environmental considerations.

Given that, I think it is fair to say, the culture of CUHK is such that staff are comfortable when initiatives are led by those in authority. Hong Kong lies somewhere between Western and mainland Chinese higher education institutions in terms of the autocracy of its administration (Postiglione, 2017). It was therefore appropriate for me to fulfil the roles that I did, rather than attempt to assume the roles that my Director had adopted. In another higher education environment, I may have had more leeway to instigate a novel program or project. The lesson learned is that I should pay close attention to the working culture in which I operate when selecting suitable and feasible roles. I am now aware of a range of roles and in future intend to adopt and combine roles in a more informed and explicit manner.

Writing this case study also made me realise that earlier experiences in one’s career as an educational developer can inform later ones. Although I regret that I could not develop peer mentoring further at CUHK, at least I was exposed first hand to its potential. With my awareness raised, the topics of mentoring and peer learning were obvious choices when the opportunities arose at the UoR in the UK to inform the practice of early career academics and to endorse the extension of mentoring to international students.

References

Andrews, J. & Clark, C. (2011). Peer mentoring works! How peer mentoring enhances student success in higher education. Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/what-works-student-retention/Aston-What_Works_Final_Reports-Dec_11

Beltman, S. & Schaeben, M. (2012). Institution-wide peer mentoring: Benefits for mentors. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 3(2), 33-44.

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. McGraw-Hill Education and Open University Press.

Bostock, S. and Baume, D. (2016). Professions and professionalism in teaching and development. In: D. Baume and C. Popovic, ed., Advancing practice in academic development, 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.32-51.

Corella, A. K. (2010). Identifying college student success: The role of first year success courses and peer mentoring. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 202. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/305183569?accountid=10371

Colvin, J.W. & Ashman, M. (2010). Roles, risks and benefits of peer mentoring relationships in higher education. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 18: 2, 121-134. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13611261003678879#.UzPbnk3NvIU

Neame, C. & Forsyth, R. (2016). Needs and opportunities for development. In: D.Baume and C. Popovic, ed., Advancing practice in academic development, 1st ed. New York, Routledge, pp.17-31.

Petty, G. (2014). Teaching today: A practical guide. Oxford University Press.

Postiglione, G.A. (2017). Education, ethnicity, society and global change in Asia: The selected works of Gerard A. Postiglione. Routledge, p.153.

Smith, K. (2004). School to university: an investigation into the experience of first-year students of English at British Universities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 3, 1, 81-93.

Terrion, J.L. & Leonard, D. (2007). A taxonomy of the characteristics of student peer mentors in higher education: Findings from a literature review. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 15:2, 149-164. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cmet20

Mentoring programs

Ottawa University, Canada http://www.sass.uottawa.ca/mentoring/undergraduate/study-skills.php

Utah University, USA http://orientation.utah.edu/first-year/mentors/

Curtin University, Australia  http://mentoring.curtin.edu.au/

Aston University, UK http://www.aston.ac.uk/current-students/get-involved/mentoring-at-aston-university/peer-mentoring/

Mentoring handbooks

Fletcher, S. & Mullen, C. (Eds.). (2012). The SAGE handbook of mentoring and coaching in education. London : SAGE.

Sanft, M., Jensen, M. & McMurray, E. (2008). Peer Mentor Companion. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Appendices

Appendix A – Proposal

Appendix B – Handbook Excerpts

Appendix C – Research Participation Agreement

Appendix D – Promotional Poster

Appendix E – Schedule

Appendix F – Preparation Session Handout

Appendix G – Session Notes on PowerPoint

Appendix H – Mentor-Mentee Meeting Notes

Appendix J – SDLRS Results

Appendix K – StaR Mentoring and PAL Email Thread

Word count

Introduction 311

SO1 871; SO2 667; SO3 631; SO4 608; SO5 567

Reflective commentary 350

Total 4004

 

Does Differentiated Instruction belong in higher education?

The arguments for…

  1. In higher education, learners are predominantly adults with a clearer idea of what they wish to learn compared with children. According to the adult learning theory devised by Malcolm Knowles in the 1960s that popularised the term ‘andragogy’ (vs ‘pedagogy’), one characteristic of adult learners’ motivation is the willingness to learn when the subject matter is relevant to their perceived needs. In this regard, differentiated instruction (DI) offers an advantage in that, amongst the repertoire of DI strategies are some which differentiate content of learning for individual students. As an example, following a pre-test of relevant knowledge, lecturers can ‘curriculum compact’, i.e. excuse a learner from studying particular content because they have already exhibited sufficient mastery, thus buying time for them to acquire other knowledge. A second DI strategy that applies here is the ‘learning contract’, the negotiation of which factors in a student’s needs and interests. So, DI does offer a range of techniques to tailor courses for individual adult learners.
  2. At colleges, polytechnics and universities, student populations are often highly diverse. Besides readiness, interest and learning profiles (Tomlinson, 2005), there are numerous other factors that distinguish students from each other:
  • nationality
  • physical disability
  • specific learning disorder, e.g. dyspraxia
  • age
  • gender
  • socioeconomic status
  • ethnicity
  • religion
  • mode of study, e.g. part-time
  • etc.

In this situation, it can be argued that the question is not whether such diversity should be catered for but how it should be catered for, and DI is a rare example of a systematic yet versatile response that is available to higher education lecturers.

  1. Educators in higher education can draw confidence from the insights gained by researchers who have looked into the impact of DI in school-level education. There have been positive findings about the effect of DI on motivation, for example. (For a list of key findings about DI, see my blog entry on the topic.) Although it may be retorted that primary and secondary level education is not sufficiently relatable to higher education, it is interesting to note that in other areas, research discoveries from elementary and high school education are highly respected at university level, e.g. Black & Wiliam’s seminal work on the effectiveness of formative assessment.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with positive results. As an example, Ernst & Ernst (2005) reported that “students generally responded favorably to the differentiated approach, reporting higher levels of intellectual growth”.

The arguments against…

  1. Another assumption about adult learners in Knowles’ andragogy theory runs counter to the one of the main tenets of differentiated instruction. Adult learners, says Knowles, need to be self-directed in their learning whereas in DI, the person making decisions about learning is usually the instructor, with some input from learners. Since DI was developed for younger learners, the element of control by teachers is stronger than one would expect to encounter in university settings.
  2. There have been some experiments with DI at tertiary level with negative results. In the same paper, Ernst & Ernst (2005), flags were raised about the increased time commitment needed to implement DI and it was reported that “instructor’s concerns related to the fairness of the approach”.
  3. There are alternatives to DI such as Universal Design for Learning and the increased use of Technology Enhanced Learning in order to accommodate individual learning differences.
  4. Compared with school teachers, university lecturers may not always know their students that well. This is because student cohorts may be large, contact hours may be lower, and students may go AWOL from time to time. If the lecturers are not that well informed about the learners, then any attempt at differentiated instruction would be based upon assumptions. By contrast, primary/elementary school teachers will have much greater opportunity to find about their learners and therefore apply DI more meaningfully.

So, what to do? Adopt or ignore DI?

As I have proposed in another blog entry, entitled Can differentiated instruction lead to self-directed learning?, I suggest that DI could serve as an interim measure in higher education. There may be many university students who are already self-directed but, given the increased access to higher education compared with a generation ago, it is reasonable to suppose that a more directive approach such as DI could be appropriate on occasion and for particular learners.

References

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

Ernst, H.R. & Ernst, T.L. (2005) The promise and pitfalls of differentiated instruction for undergraduate Political Science courses: Student and instructor impressions of an unconventional teaching strategy, Journal of Political Science Education, 1:1, 39-59.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2005) How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Key research findings about Flipped Learning

Students supplied with video lectures came to lessons better prepared than when they had been given textbook readings.

(DeGrazia, Falconer, Nicodemus, & Medlin, 2012)

Students preferred live in-person lectures to video lectures, but also liked interactive class time more than in-person lectures.

(Toto & Nguyen, 2009)

According to Bishop & Verleger (2013), who conducted a meta-survey on research into Flipped Learning, there has only been one empirical study on the influence of flipped classroom instruction on objective learning outcomes:

Students in the flipped environment scored significantly higher on homework assignments, projects, and tests.

(Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, 2009)

There is a need for a scientific research base if Flipped Learning is to be taken seriously by decision-makers in schools, colleges and universities.

Additional support for Flipped Learning comes from Clintondale High School, Michigan, USA, which took the extraordinary step of converting to a Flipped School, i.e. Flipped Learning is the sole method employed:

The failure rate among freshman math students dropped from 44 percent to 13 percent in one year’s time.

Finkel (2012)

References

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. (2009). Criteria for accrediting engineering programs effective for evaluations during the 2010-2011 accreditation cycle. Baltimore, MD.

Bishop, J.L. & Verleger, M.A. (2013). The Flipped Classroom: A survey of the research. 120th ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

DeGrazia, J.L., Falconer, J.L., Nicodemus, G., & Medlin, W. (2012). Proceedings from ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition 2012: Incorporating screencasts into chemical engineering courses.

Finkel, E. (2012). Flipping the script in K12. District Administration. Retrieved from www.districtadministration.com/article/flipping-script-k12

Toto, R. & Nguyen, H. (2009). Proceedings from Frontiers in Education Conference 2009: Flipping the work design in an industrial engineering course. San Antonio, Texas.

Reflections on STEM education

Definitions of STEM

There is no single, agreed definition.

In higher education institutions, STEM seems to be a convenient way to refer to 4 major academic disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The faculties of Social Science and Medicine are usually regarded as distinct from STEM.

From the perspective of government ministries, particularly immigration and labour, STEM refers to professions including scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians but also occupations that necessitate some STEM knowledge and/or skills. These days, that means many types of workers including people in social scientific and medical disciplines.

From the perspective of educators, the definition of STEM that I favour is “An interdisciplinary approach… that removes the traditional barriers separating the four disciplines… and integrates them into real-world, rigorous and relevant learning experiences” (Vasquez, Sneider & Comer, 2013). Integration is the special characteristic that marks out STEM as distinct from traditional subject teaching.

Origin of the term ‘STEM’

The acronym first appeared in 2001 and is associated with the National Science Foundation in the USA where STEM is perceived as a national priority. The reasons for this go back to the 1950s. The USSR’s launch of Sputnik and early lead in the Space Race precipitated heavy investment and promotion of science and engineering by a panicked America. Since that time, there have been successive top-down interventions from government to promote development of this vital economic sector. For example, in 2011 Congress passed the Race to the Top bill. Gradually, use of the term ‘STEM’ has spread around the world and many other national authorities have instigated top-down STEM initiatives or rebranded prior, similar initiatives as ‘STEM’.

Purposes of STEM education

  • Economic
    • To foster interest in STEM careers
    • To cultivate future innovators and inventors, and hence…
    • To remain globally competitive and to be able to participate in international endeavours.
  • Societal
    • To help citizens participate and thrive in a highly technological world
  • Educational
    • To deepen conceptual understanding
    • To develop valuable transferable skills

STEM educational approaches

Papert’s Constructionism is worthwhile reading about if you are a STEM educator. Although his approach is consistent with the more well-known Constructivism, Papert shifted the focus from internal construction to external creation. LEGO’s Mindstorms robotic products are a good example of the application of Papert’s ideas about learning. In fact, Mindstorms is named after one of his seminal texts. A word that sums up his approach is BRICOLAGE, translated as tinkering, i.e. playing about and making changes until one gets it right. There is even a newly-appointed Professor of Play at Cambridge University, as evidenced by this job advertisement:

LEGO job

International comparisons of STEM – Attitudes and relative success

The table below shows % of respondents who agreed with positive statements.

Picture1

Australian Council of Learned Academies http://www.acola.org.au/index.php/stem-consultants-reports  [STEM Education in the USA]

Positivity towards science and technology appears to vary considerably. For example, Indians seem to be less optimistic than South Koreans. (Please bear in mind that these are not results from a single survey but collated results from several surveys conducted between 2001 and 2010.)

With reference to two example developed economies – Japan and the UK – the output of STEM-related research differs considerably.

Capture3

Australian Council of Learned Academies http://www.acola.org.au/index.php/stem-consultants-reports  [STEM Country Comparisons: Japan]

The above table shows that Japan’s researchers produced almost 70,000 papers in one year. The figure for the UK was even higher at 75,914. The latter was achieved with just 200,000 research staff in the UK compared with 650,000 in Japan. Moreover, the citation impact of British research articles was greater. So, it might appear that the UK was more successful. However, Japan’s efforts were much more fruitful in terms of turning research findings into patent applications and eventually into viable products. To me, this shows the complexity of the challenge of promoting a national STEM sector. There are more variables than just getting young people interested in STEM careers and providing quality STEM training opportunities.

Technologies for STEM projects

Currently trending technologies include 3D printing, robots, drones and inexpensive computers like the Raspberry Pi. In future, may we expect to see VR, virtual labs, and the Internet of Things coming to the fore?

However, STEM projects can be achieved with much less expensive resources if the following definition of technologies is accepted:

“Any modification of the natural world made to fulfil human needs or desires” [US] National Research Council

For instance, a freely downloadable STEM lesson from Young Engineers (www.youngeng.org.uk) requires only cardboard, paperclips, corks, fabric and toilet rolls.

 

Flexible design of self-access learning centres for longevity

This article is not a discussion about the efficacy of self-access learning centres. (In recent years, some universities have backed away from physical centres, switching to online resources instead.) Instead, my assumption is that there is value in making available spaces for independent learning equipped with suitable resources. Moreover, my focus is on the secondary/high school level of education rather than on tertiary.

My concern is how relatively small educational institutions can maintain and develop quite costly self-access learning centres in the long-term. Initially, when an institution establishes such a learning facility, its novelty value stimulates student participation. However, this enthusiasm tends to peter out. Therefore, I suggest a way to keep such facilities well-utilised and worth the investment.

That way is flexible room design.

Some physical learning centres are beautifully designed, with sculpted furniture, carpets, etc. and work well as inviting environments. Here is an example:

picture-7

On the down side, rooms like this usually have fixed furniture and are space-inefficient, in other words there are relatively few seats and computers. (With the increased use of tablets and other mobile devices, however, a low number of networked PCs is becoming less of a concern.)

Another common room design is almost indistinguishable from a traditional computer lab; desktop computers are arranged in rows or in clusters, like this:

picture-6

The room can accommodate many learners but is not that enticing and restricts interactions. Yet the main problem, to my mind, is both designs’ static nature. Compare this learning centre:

picture-1

picture-2

The computers are around the edge of a large space. The furniture is movable and can be flexibly arranged. At the front of the room is an interactive whiteboard. So, this room can easily double as a classroom that is ideal for, e.g., project classes, enquiry-based learning or academic writing lessons.

Such versatility means that more use can be made of these expensive facilities. The room still operates as a self-access centre during lunchtimes and after school.

Here is an alternative design that is also flexible:

picture-3

In this room, the desks and wheeled-chairs can be moved easily and there are power sockets in the floor for laptops and tablets. Some paper-resources and a few desktops are present on the edge of the room. Again, there is an interactive whiteboard and other AV aids at the front.

Finally, here is a smaller space that is very versatile:

picture-4picture-5

This room is intended for small group work, consultations, meetings and club activities as well as individual self-access learning.

In sum, flexible room design is one measure to  make it more likely that the facilities will continue to be genuinely useful for learners and schools.

Motivation for secondary/high school students

During my years in schools, it has been my observation that motivation is a particular challenge for students aged 14-16. This view is based upon my experience as a teacher and teacher trainer in Japan, the UK, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. Whether learners are in secondary or high schools, this age group must study a broad range of subjects, some of which they enjoy and others not, according to individual interest and other factors, e.g. the syllabus, the learning and teaching methods but perhaps most importantly, the qualities of their teachers. Twelve and thirteen year olds, by contrast, are still fresh to the “big school” and seem more content to follow a prescribed diet of studies. Seventeen and eighteen year olds are focused on school leaving examinations. Of course I am generalising but I do think it is worthwhile to reconsider how to stimulate the enthusiasm of 14-16 year olds.

Option 1 is to tell them to be motivated, basically. It has not failed to amaze me that many teachers act like motivational speakers and assume that pep talks work. Maybe they do, I do not have data to contradict that assumption. However, I have observed this approach meeting a stony silence from many adolescents. They may be at an age when it is just not cool to follow adults’ advice. However, in some environments this is the accepted way to encourage learners.

Option 2 is for teachers to strive to make their subject as fascinating as possible. For some disciplines, for example language arts, there is flexibility over choice of content. So, some teachers work hard to research their learners’ interests and select, e.g. reading texts that are more likely to be engaging and provoke a reaction. Skilled teachers of all disciplines can also spice up lessons through clever task design, making the learning interactive and fun in spite of the students’ indifference to the lesson topics. This is basically my approach, too, but I admit that it doesn’t always work.

Therefore, I wondered whether I could get learners in this age group to reflect upon different types of motivation and come to the realisation that a particular school subject may still be worth applying themselves to even if they don’t have interest per se. I put together a session for learners with some tasks to complete that hopefully led them to this realisation. My workshop was entitled Motivating yourself to learn and its objectives were as follows:

  • Realise what motivates you to study
  • Understand definitions of types of motivation
  • Become aware of connections between subjects studied and types of motivation
  • Find reasons for positive attitudes to studying all subjects

The description of four types of motivation is debatable, of course. There are rival theories of motivation with different categories but I felt that these 4 types were accessible enough to 14-16 year olds.

I attach the learning materials Motivation_HO1 Motivation_HO2 Motivation_HO3 Motivation_HO4 and PPT show Motivating yourself to learn from that workshop for your consideration.

Do you think that these reflective exercises could positively impact on teenagers’ motivation to study?