Teaching Philoshopy

By , June 12, 2013 14:05

My Philosophy of Teaching

In 1982, not in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen that I would be attempting to write my philosophy of teaching 30 years later.  At that time I took up a position as a senior researcher in the Institute for Polymer Science at the University of Stellenbosch, having just registered as a professional chemical engineer.  During the ensuing years I established myself, nationally and internationally, in the field of membrane science, more specifically in membrane production and process research and development.

In 2003 I was promoted sideways from Chief Researcher to Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science.  This turned my life around because “professors have to lecture”, Prof Raubenheimer (Head of Department), declared at the time.  Because I was an engineer, it was an obvious choice (for him?) that I was the right person to start lecturing one half of the Engineering Chemistry module that the Department of Chemistry hosted at the time.

What a change, from R&D in a laboratory and field trials all over the Western Cape, to the front of classrooms packed with engineering students who could not at all fathom the logic of being exposed to chemistry. It was an unbelievably stressful time for me a researcher by nature and career, to be thrust into the field of pedagogy which I had no feeling for and the methodology of which I had scant knowledge or understanding.

Perhaps, in retrospect and in contemplating the events of the past few years, my being a researcher was more of a plus factor than a drawback.  I was able to evaluate situations without being burdened with the preconceptions of traditional or established lecturers.

I will be insincere if I did not mention that my first ever six weeks in front of a class was a daunting experience.  As the years went by lecturing became easier, but never stress free.  I learned much from honest student feedback and did my best to accommodate constructive criticism.  My learning curve was exceptionally steep and the torturous climb to achievement was an unbelievable personal experience.  But, when one compares student feedback of 2008 with feedback of 2013 one realises how steep the climb was.  In the end, one of the most fulfilling experiences was when academics from other faculties started taking an interest in the results of my classroom experience with engineer students.  It was an absolute thrill when a colleague from another faculty, who reported on her use of my classroom methodology during a winter school, won the prize for best oral presentation.  But I am jumping the gun.

What follows is not everywhere chronologically ordered, but it will, I hope, adequately tell the story of how PAGL (peer-assisted group learning) evolved.   I trust my philosophy of teaching will become apparent as we progress through the development of the methodology since 2008.  It was during 2008, after serious contemplation of first semester student feedback, that I realised I must put their chemistry education on a different tack.

Right up front, however, I have a confession to make.  I cannot take any credit without first acknowledging the efforts of Dr Hanelie Adendorff from the Centre for Teaching and Learning, who, over the years, provided sound assistance and support from the very first point of veering from the trodden path.  It was she who also introduced me to the world of scientific literature on teaching and learning.

Some of the approaches I adopted and adapted were paved by others.  The first to mention is Prof Eric Mazur, whose peer instruction model I adopted/adapted.  Then there is the jigsaw (expert) method of collaborative learning I adapted/adopted for my tutorial system, the peer-assisted learning (PAL) system I recently learned about and so forth.

What I can say about myself is that I am passionate about whatever I put my mind to, and I certainly have the interests of my students at heart.  I sincerely believe, and communicate to my students, that becoming educated is not equivalent to rote, mindless learning.  Hence, my approach to teaching is always this:  my students must be responsible for and accept the responsibility for their own learning and education, empower themselves and take initiative in their education.  I set high standards, not only for myself, and my students know exactly where I want them to pitch.

I already mentioned I came in cold when I started lecturing Chemistry and was made convenor of the Engineering Chemistry 123 module in 2004; the semester course was shared 50:50 with Process Engineering.

In 2010 I started teaching Chemistry 176 to students in the Science Faculty’s extended degree programme (EDP).  Chemistry 176 is a year module with three class groups of about 50 students each.  About half of the students in the two groups of English-speaking students are third language speakers.  One third of the students are prospective engineering students, and the remainder are about 50:50 prospective physical science and life science students.  The composition of the two class groups is pretty diverse, from both a linguistic and cultural perspective.

During one of the very first meetings with the Dean about the education of EDP students it became apparent that we were to bridge-the-gap in their education, rather than make the students experts in the various disciplines they were taught.  When one analyses what was said further, one could make an argument that we had to help the students develop soft or life skills.  We therefore had to establish a learning environment which ideally would create opportunities for soft skills development. By soft skills one refers to basic or fundamental skills (literacy, using numbers), people-related skills (communication, interpersonal, teamwork, accountability, respect), conceptual/thinking skills (organize information, learn-to-learn skills, problem-solving, planning, rationalize), and personal skills (responsibility, flexibility, time management, attitude, building self-confidence and self-esteem).

In the study guide for Chemistry 176 the outcomes I listed are modeled very much along these lines:

“Respect – in Chemistry 176 you should begin to develop this, not in terms of attitude, but in terms of behaviour, because your behaviour will come to shape the attitude and discipline you will later have towards your education.

  • “In the Chemistry 176 module the responsibility for learning resides solely with the student. Successful completion of the module will furthermore enable the development and nurture of other outcomes in that it should naturally follow that you will:
  • Learn to solve problems using unfamiliar information and new approaches and procedures and in doing so improve your logic and reasoning skills.
  • Improve your attention and cognitive skills through regular practice in problem-solving.
  • Refine your social and emotional skills by being exposed to education through a process of co-operative learning, peer instruction and group interaction.
  • Be able to apply non-cognitive and cognitive skills and demonstrate attitudes that are essential to successfully participate in University modules and practices.
  • Improve your speech and language skills by learning to communicate effectively by using visual, symbolic and/or language skills in various modes.
  • Be able to demonstrate and practice elementary experimental skills.
  • Learn to apply concepts in elementary Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Biology as an integrated system of knowledge.
  • Understand the importance and position of science in society and, more specifically, in the South African context.
  • Experience science as a relevant and everyday phenomenon, and understand new material through a cognitive skills development process (thought and taught process of thinking, talking and integration of knowledge).”

A problem I have is that I do not have a measuring instrument to assess whether the PAGL methodology allows for the successful achievement of the above Chemistry 176 outcomes.  It is for this reason that I acquired the services of Mesure, a group who specialises in social science research and evaluation to develop a logic model for the evaluation of the PAGL methodology.  This will provide me with answers and guides and give me the confidence that I am on the right track with my teaching and approach to education.

The PAGL methodology did not happen overnight and is the result of many hours of critical self-evaluation, reading, contemplation, reflection and asking.  The first intervention was the direct result of severe criticism by the engineering students of the way our tutorials were conducted.  One could have been defensive and argued: “But that is the typical way tutorials are conducted within the Science Faculty!”  However, I decided to address what bothered the students rather than shoot the messenger; after all, “I do not wear cement shoes” (Luan O’Connell, maths teacher).

In 2008 the student cohort was typically 400 freshmen students, packed into three venues.  We had post-graduate students to assist with the flow of information, but it was a near impossible mission with ratios of 50:1 student to post-graduate demonstrators or assistants.  The tutorial set-up was not conducive to learning because students came unprepared and the demonstrators came unprepared and the seating arrangement made it difficult for the lecturer to get to students who sat in the middle of a long row of seats in the lecture hall.  There was anxiety in the air and tutorials were noisy and stressful events.  The demonstrators knew nothing – according to the students – who typically would give up and start cramming for the summative assessment which would follow later in the afternoon.  But, the students were sitting shoulder to shoulder in the venue and to take summative tests under such conditions made a mockery of the assessments.

By reading the student feedback responses it became apparent, rightly or wrongly, that many students felt they knew more and better than the demonstrators.  Question then was: “Why do we not make use of such (wise) students to support other students (peers) with their learning?”  When we consulted the literature we learned of Professor Eric Mazur’s peer instruction (PI) and the jigsaw expert method of co-operative learning.  Through our reading we realized that co-operative learning, which requires students to analyse and apply concepts are exactly what we seek in our tutorials.  The move towards collaborative learning and jigsaw model for our tutorials was a natural development.

I incorporated the jigsaw idea of an ‘expert’ into our tutorial model, by releasing a subset of the complete set of tutorial questions individually to each of the three members of the groups of students.  Each member can then, in his/her own time, work the relevant problems, consult with students from other groups who have the same subset of questions to prepare; this happens ahead of the tutorial.  At the start of the tutorial a complete set of tutorial questions is released to each student.  The difference between the PAGL tutorial and the previous model is that each group now has a member that is expert in one of the questions released.  During the tutorial that member of the group acts as the expert on his/her subset of questions that he/she worked ahead of time.  In this way the needs for demonstrators fall away.  This works fine if students do what is required, but more about that later.

Listening to students discussing possible solutions and strategies to solve the 4th Question during tutorial group-assessments, one came to realise that the students do not ask probing questions.  They lack the ability to draw their partners into meaningful and logical conversation aimed at solving the problem under discussion.  They divert, do not stay focussed and get lost.  In cases where they do stay focused it is amazing how the group slowly converges towards an appropriate solution to the problem.  This made one realise that we overlooked an important aspect of learning.  I expect of my EDP students to lead other students towards understanding, playing the role of a tutor, but I did not provide them with the necessary tools.  This oversight was discussed with the University Practice module co-ordinator who fortunately saw the benefit it would hold if the students would undergo some form of training as tutors in 2014.

But back to the 4th Question group-assessment:  During construction of the 4th Question we draw on aspects covered in the tutorial subset question releases.  We give the 4th Question a twist and pitch it at a slightly higher cognitive level.  We are raising the bar and we also let the students know that.  Being able to solve the 4th Question correctly is an achievement since solutions of these questions are never algorithmic.  Most are of a standard above that of a typical bonus question one would ask in an evening summative test.  I expect of my students to earn their spurs: marks are earned and worked for.  Success at university, and life, is the result of honest, dedicated hard work and not because you are friendly with your lecturer or your uncle is the boss.  However, one has to be fair during assessments and some clues towards solving the 4th question can be found hidden in some of the tutorial subset questions released earlier.  This is one of the incentives to get the students to do their tutorial preparation homework.  What is gratifying is the excitement and high fives of a group when they learn they managed to solve the problem correctly when they hand their work in for grading.

However, all of this does not suddenly happen and fall into place.  Co-operative learning requires a lot of planning and coercing to get the students into the right frame and acceptance mood.  At the very first contact session at the start of the first term (as a matter of fact, Group 1 had this lecture at 08:00 on the very first Monday of the term), after the normal niceties and introductions, the students were told about different styles of active and passive teaching and learning.  We do it in a way that leaves the students no option but to vote to go the active route when the question was posed to them.  The support for active learning has always been overwhelming.  (Just a thought: is this indicative that fresh students naturally want to be actively involved/engaged with their study material?  Must follow up.)

During this lecture the students are then informed that they will be working in groups of three and that they will have no say in the construction of the groups.  The groups are constructed to have maximum linguistic and cultural diversity.  For example, if a group had to have two isi-Xhosa-speaking male students, one would be from a rural school and the other from a city school.  Each group had one top matric maths-scoring student.  The philosophy behind this approach is simple: different people think differently and you want that richness of thought-idea assimilated into the dynamics of the groups.  But there are also pay-offs at the social level.  Students have admitted that they would not have become friends under normal unstructured class circumstances and that is rich.

However, where the students do have a say is how they expect their group to operate and what they expect of the other members of their group.  So each of the students is asked to list six rules they regard as non-negotiable behaviour for their group.  After their scribblings were collected they were asked to “turn to their neighbour”, a phrase they would hear many times during weeks to come, and decide between the two of them what they regard as non-negotiable if they were together in a group.  These notes were also collected.  Making use of the snowball approach, increasing numbers of students are drawn in, talking and discussing rules for collaborating groups, and in the process do exactly that.

The individual rules are categorised and distilled into one list that will become the contract for each group.  As soon as registration has closed and the groups have been finalised, each group gets one copy of the contract rules for them to discuss and negotiate and tick off which of the rules will be applicable to their group.  This signed set of rules is kept by the lecturer, acting as a contractual agreement between the members for when a dispute arises.  This has never happened over the last two years, but the exercise is rewarding as it gives the students some say and responsibility.  A lot is said about our youth, but what strikes one every time is how many times the word ‘respect’ features in the lists they compile.  I value respect and respectful behaviour to the extent that the Outcomes of Chemistry 176 starts with the word “Respect.”

Although there were teething problems, the engineering students were in general not nearly as critical of the jigsaw tutorial approach as was the case with the traditional tutorials.  This exceeded my expectations at the time because I did not have any demonstrators in the first year of introduction and a demonstrator to student ratio of 1:100 in year two in Engineering Chemistry 123.

However, many students are poor managers of their time and come to tutorials unprepared.  Let us first explain how the tutorial question sets are released and second how we addressed the issue of unpreparedness.  We constructed a very large test-bank of MCQs on Respondus (Question Development Software) from where we uploaded individual tutorial tests to WebStudies.  A tutorial test would typically contain 100 questions of which 10 are released when a student signs on for a test.  The questions are released one-at-a-time randomly and no back-tracking is allowed.  The time is limited and after submission of the test, a particular subset of tutorial questions is released to the individual.  The tutorial test commences at 12:00 on a Friday and runs until 18:00 on the Tuesday.  The tutorial is on the Thursday.  This gives students some practice with their time management because we typically have 4 tutorials per term.

Tutorials start promptly at 14:00 on Thursday.  Before 14:00 the students must staple their worked solutions to a cover sheet.  The worked sheets leave the lecture hall at 14:00 for grading.  Any sheet that is handed in after 14:00 gets a penalty mark.  Any missing subset sheets incur a negative tutorial mark for that individual, but do not affect the marks of the co-workers.  Sheets are also graded for neatness and layout of the worked problems.

It is very interesting to note how the deduction of 3 marks out of 20, even though it has virtually no effect on the class mark, affects the time management and punctuality of students.  I hope that this effort will lead to an awareness of the importance of time management and punctuality.  Finally, one question from each subset is graded and the total mark obtained is allocated to each member of the group.

When I became convenor of Chemistry 176, I decided to introduce the jigsaw tutorial and 4th Question formative group-assessment methodology piloted in mainstream Engineering chemistry 123.  I was encouraged by the Chemistry 123 students’ attitude towards the PAGL tutorials and co-operative learning in general.  Further, I was so encouraged by the findings and pioneering work on peer instruction and co-operative work of others in the field of education that I decided to break away from the traditional passive way of instruction.  The peer instruction approach I adopted one could say is teaching by questioning and not telling.  In my approach to “flipped” instruction, to use a phrase coined by Prof Mazur, the students are given text book reading assignments. This reading they must do before a contact session.  I also upload vodcasts to WebStudies for those that want to listen rather than read about the assigned work.  The vodcasts cover some of the concepts covered in the prescribed reading.  The idea is for students to come to class with prior knowledge of the material that will be covered in the next contact session.

During contact sessions the students sit in their respective groups, armed with their low-tech clickers, or coloured flash card response systems.  During class the material that will receive attention is first put into perspective and then the cross-examining starts.  Their knowledge and conceptual understanding of the work is tested by way of MCQs.  The students discuss the question, come to a consensus agreement on the answer, which they must be able to substantiate to each other, and then vote by raising the colour card of their choice.  The distractors on the animated PowerPoint slide are also colour-coded.  The students receive immediate feedback since the correct answer is next displayed and a quick discussion may follow.  Sometimes an animated worked solution will be provided.

What is exciting from a lecturer’s perspective is that no two lectures on the same slides are ever the same.  The questions or issues that are raised differ from class to class.  What is rewarding are these quick, impromptu lectures on the black board on aspects of the work if it becomes clear that there is some knowledge gaps.  Although I have a tablet notebook, I prefer to do such explanations on the chalk board because it stays there for longer.

In 2012 I introduced low-tech tablets (LTTs), in addition to the colour flash cards, as a means to further communication in class.  LTTs are simply white ABS plastic A3-sheets that the scribe, the student that sits in the middle, also spokesperson, writes on with a whiteboard marker.  Now the students can be primed with MCQs and open questions, respectively responded to with either the flash cards or LTTs, depending on the situation.  The LTTs were a hit with the students as all three can now work openly and collaboratively towards solving a problem.  This further fosters social interaction around the subject matter and exposes students to ways of thinking and doing things.  It is even of greater help for the lecturer because he/she can immediately spot where conceptual mistakes are made and remedial action can be taken immediately.  Many misconceptions have been spotted and addressed in this fashion. It regularly happens that short impromptu lectures follow from misconceptions that have been spotted during LTT exercises.  That is also the teaching style we adopt during tutorials.  In that sense the tutorial classes have become an extension of the lectures.

As mentioned earlier, the decision to adopt/adapt peer instruction as a method of instruction with EDP students was not taken lightly and we monitored the performance of the students with some anxiety.  To our great relief the performance of the EDP students in Groups 1 and 2 (PAGL-instructed), supported the theories of peer instruction: the students performed excellently.  What is interesting though is that the weaker student seems to benefit more from PAGL instruction.

One of the problems one is faced with in chemistry education is the negative attitude many school leavers have towards the subject.  There may be many reasons for this resistance, but the problem is that it poses as a barrier for learning which makes mastering of the subject material even more difficult.  One way of circumventing this is to make the subject material more tangible or concrete; take the classroom into the lab or the lab into the classroom.  One has to create an atmosphere of excitement around the subject, call it the wow factor, the fun factor, the stimulus for wanting to know more, the learning factor.  For this reason the PIC project was invented.  PIC is the acronym for ‘pet inorganic compound.’

In this project, which runs over the duration of the course, each student must choose a unique PIC.  As new concepts are introduced, tasks (problem statements) are released in which the PICs feature, for example:  Is your PIC soluble in water?  If it is, write its dissociation equation in aqueous medium.  If it is sparingly soluble or insoluble, find its solubility product constant at 20°C or 25°C.  Calculate its solubility in aqueous medium at the reference temperature.  All of this data and calculations must be kept in a portfolio.  A final scientific report must be submitted at the end of the year.  A cash prize will be awarded for the champion PIC, chosen by the students.

At the start of the second term of 2013, one of the stronger students wanted to opt out of his group.  He was feeling he would do better on his own.  From experience one knows that he would be depriving himself of other learning opportunities by taking this step. Fortunately, the students are presently being lectured on group dynamics in the University Practice module (at the request of Chemistry 176).  Rather than making a ruling, I asked him to rethink his decision in the light of the group dynamics lectures Dr Adendorff is facilitating and we released some publications of Eric Mazur’s, my role model, on WebStudies.  We alerted the student of the publications.  The day thereafter the student came back and asked whether I had more ‘scholarly’ articles (sic), because he found the reading easy going.  He has now decided to take the role of controller in his group and is actively driving the group.  He also indicated that he is involved with some research project and that he decided to change his project to research on teaching styles. Another convert, as Eric Mazur said?  It seems we are getting the chemistry right here.

Dysfunctional groups pose an obstacle to learning and one constantly has to be aware of this possibility.  Towards the end of a term, during a tutorial, one would address this issue and encourage students to talk about their group experience.  Typically one would introduce the discussion by first releasing a ‘memo’ from the CEO of the fictitious Maximum Learning Co.  This encourages students to talk about their group dynamics and the performance of their respective groups.  As yet, no groups have ‘fired’ members from their groups, but the talking does alert them to their responsibilities.

Chemistry is a difficult subject.  Chemistry concerns intangible, unseen, microscopic ‘things,’ which requires also all sorts of maths?  Different people see and experience ‘things’ differently and one has to get the students to talk about their learning experience in relation to the subject.  I think it was Calvin who said that “chemistry is like religion, it’s all about faith.”  I would say faith in oneself, yes.  That is what we want the students to develop, faith in themselves.  I want them to learn to talk chemistry, explain chemistry, give them opportunity to get to grips with the unseen, and learn about themselves.  And, by allowing them to play a leader-role during a chemistry tutorial and lectures, we expand and challenge their cognitive ability without them even realising it.

As a last comment:  one cannot go wrong by expecting EDP students to accept responsibility for their own learning and education.  However, the system one puts in place must provide them with the necessary soft and hard skills to achieve this goal.  If the lecturer that facilitates the learning is accessible, approachable and very well versed with the subject material, PAGL, I think, will contribute to our goal of sustainable learning.

Comments are closed

Panorama Theme by Themocracy