News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Three

What the flip is flipped teaching?

I love lecturing. It’s awesome. I get that nervous excitement beforehand, like an actor or musician about to perform – it fires up my imagination – I think of new ways to say the same old thing. And then there is the lecture itself. The whoops of joy as I derive the equation for timber design – the ohhhs and ahhhs as it looks like my worked example has gone horribly wrong only for me to save it at the last minute with a daring leap of engineering logic (change the initial assumptions and post rationalising). And then there is the cheering – the standing ovation – as 2 hours later we come in to land. Everyone having been on an emotional rollercoaster.

Now I know what you are thinking, you think I am joking, but I am not (in fact I very rarely joke as I have a below average sense of humour – as my children like to regularly remind me). I am exaggerating – of course – but in my mind the above is how a perfect timber lecture would go.

And so, when I say “I am not lecturing on my timber unit this year”, it is with a heavy heart – and it’s important that you know that this was a hard decision for me to make, a costly one.

But I have another agenda, a more important one, I really want my students to learn about timber. I believe that the world needs more people who can design not just with steel and concrete – that we need engineers who can do more than just replicate the designs of the past – we need engineers fit for the future who can design with more materials. And however much I love lecturing I believe that by flipping the teaching my students will learn more[1].

Now let’s be clear. There is nothing new about flipped teaching. Back in 1997 when I was a green haired undergraduate studying Civil Engineering I decided to take an option on the philosophy of science. Every week we were required to read a book. And every week we would come not for a lecture but for a debate. Facilitated and led by our ‘lecturer’. The whole thing worked really well. Every week the chapter of the book would convince me that this was indeed the ‘philosophy of science’ only for this philosophical viewpoint to be slowly ripped to shreds over the course of an hours discussion and leaving me wondering why I had been so foolish to believe it in the first place? I would then read the next chapter, the next idea, which would respond to all the arguments from the discussion we had in class, only for that approach to be similarly reduced to rubble in the next discussion. Flipped teaching goes back way further than my own education. And yet in engineering it happens very rarely. We love to lecture.

But lectures are not the best way for people to learn. And so, this year, in ‘the office’ there are no lectures. No derivations. Instead I have gone for a different approach. But before I break this down maybe it would be helpful for me to describe my old approach. It goes like this:

Part 1 – Context

Talk about some projects that relate to the topic for this week for about 20 minutes. This achieves a number of things: It gives the learning some context – students can see why they are doing it. It also gives me, as their teacher, credibility – I have done it. Finally it gives them some technical language and understanding of why we do what we do – it helps them join the ‘community of practice[2]’.     

Part 2 – Theory

Next I reach for the notes. Personally I don’t like to use powerpoint for this I proffer to use a stack of paper, a pencil, and a visualiser and I will explain the theory of what we are doing – effectively teaching them what is already written in the notes. This will typically take place as two blocks of 20 minutes.

Part 3 – Example

Once the technical content has been delivered I will talk through a real example by doing it on the board. This will normally last about 20 minutes. I generally make these up on the spot – asking students for numbers. This way I have to think about what I am doing and as a result I find it easier to explain my thought process to students as I go through the example – it also slows me down (a good thing). But this also has a negative effect, for I find writing things down hard. I will say one thing and my hand will write something different. It used to make maths exams tricky as I would regularly think the right process but write down the wrong number, similarly for students my mistakes can be confusing.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Students are set a number of problems to work through where they build up and extend their understanding of the course materials: – This occurs both in example classes, where I am able to answer questions and discuss the content with them. But also outside of the taught time as students work on their own.

This year I have used the same model in many regards but rather than deliver parts 1-3 in a lecture with part 4 predominantly happening elsewhere I have flipped it (hence the term flipped teaching) so part 4 happens in my teaching environment with parts 2 and 3 occurring elsewhere.

So this is how it (hopefully) works:

Part 1 – Context

I no longer give a 20 minute talk on projects at the start of each week. Instead I have done a few different things:

  1. I have covered the walls with pictures of real projects – to give them a sense of what they are working towards
  2. I have included case studies and inspiring photos of projects in the course notes
  3. I have invited a number of practioners in to give lunch time talks (we used to do these when I was a practicing engineer) on real projects
  4. Finally I have authored books on timber, which I hope gives me credibility without having to talk about my projects

Part 2 – Theory

As mentioned in episode 2[3] I have slowly built up a set of notes which are highly detailed over the last 8 years. So now, rather than effectively read them to the students (and anyone who has witnessed me reading a bedtime story will know that that is a lot more engaging than it sounds – see my BoB lecture for evidence[4]) I let them read them to themselves. It’s that simple.

Every week I have a list of pre-reading which has been there since before the course began so that student can read it in their own time for the whole course.

Part 3 – Example

So the biggest change for me this year has been that I have created a series of worked example videos. These go through the core concepts for each week. There are many advantages to this approach (rather than doing it live in class) students can pause – rewind – re-watch – jump ahead to where they are stuck. And more importantly I don’t make mistakes! The casual feedback from students has been very positive. The down side is that each 15 minute example takes about 1-2 hours to produce. And I need to find a silent location with no interruptions to make them in.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Which brings us to the purpose of all of this. By enabling students to learn about the subject for each week before they arrive at ‘the office’, we can use the working day to apply the information. I have created 4 projects which they will work on over the course of 10 weeks. Each designed to challenge them in a different way. Each designed to build up their engineering understanding. I have also provided a map to show how everything links together.

Having run the office for two weeks it really seems to be going well. Students come ready to learn. As I sit and work on my own projects I listen to the buzz in the room. The hum of conversation. And much of it is around the technical details of timber design. The students are discussing their work together. Working together. And I do get a good and steady stream of questions – but good questions. No one yet has asked me to give a mini lecture. So whilst there is still a long way to go (8 weeks) at this stage it feels like it is working.

Why don’t we all do it

So the obvious question is, why doesn’t everyone do this? The honest answer is for me that it is so much more work. I can see that in the long run, once it is up and running, it will be less work. But if you are time strapped now it is so hard to invest in the future – despite the reward.

I also fear it is more work for students. Not that they will spend longer working – but that it feels harder. That lectures seem easy – information being delivered in accessible bite size chunks and that somehow this is more challenging. And coupled with this, I fear that they won’t love it as much as they love my lectures – that my ratings will drop!

Another challenge is space. Physical space. Working in collaborative groups – with easy circulation and easy access for students and staff to ask question – takes up more space than lines of desks all looking towards the screen. I have been lucky in that I have got a small enough group (36) where it works. But I also understand just how big the space challenge is.

Plus a little bit of me is missing the excitement of standing up and giving a lecture!

Next week’s episode – Space…


[1] G. Gibbs, ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’, http://owww.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/20reasons.html, last accessed 11/10/19

[2] See Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[3] The Office: Episode 2 – https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-two/

[4] ‘How to change the world in three simple steps’ – Jump to minute 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

Head shot of Sian Bayne

Near Future Teaching

Abstract

Within universities there is a growing trend to apply futures and design thinking to our teaching and learning, often as a way of understanding how digital shifts are affecting education. These initiatives tend to be characterised by their focus on speculative, big ideas, and by collaborative approaches which engage with as wide a group of people as possible.

At The University of Edinburgh we are applying ‘futures’ work to digital education: our aim is to enable a wide conversation to take place among students and staff around how we would like to see digital education grow over the coming decades, and from that to build a vision for the university which balances technological change with the values of our academic and student body.

In this talk I will describe how we are going about this project, and will share some of the project outputs and ideas. I will explore some of the key themes which are emerging – including the ‘hollowing out’ of the campus, automation of teaching, creativity and diversity – and speculate on the implications of these for how we plan our digital futures.

Bio

Sian Bayne is Professor of Digital Education and Assistant Principal for Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh. Based in the Centre for Research in Digital Education, her research is currently focused on open and distance education and the application of theory from the humanities and social sciences to digital education. More information about her work is on her web site at: http://sianbayne.net

An interview with...

An interview with… Michaela Borg

Michela Borg is the Educational Development Manager in the Centre for Academic Development and Quality at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). She has been involved in our SCALE-UP work from the beginning. As they embarked on a pilot of the approach (2012/13), she worked with Jane McNeil (Executive Dean of Learning and Teaching) to recruit and prepare colleagues for teaching using SCALE-UP and she led the evaluation of the work.

In 2017, Jane led a successful bid for Catalyst funding, with partners Anglia Ruskin University and University of Bradford, to increase the use of active learning pedagogies at the three institutions as a strategy to address attainment disparities. She two roles in the project:  she is the evaluation lead for the project overall and she leads NTU educational development support for SCALE-UP.

What inspired the SCALE-UP project?

Back in 2012, Jane visited the United States on a study tour with several other senior colleagues from NTU. She met Physics Professor Robert Beichner at North Caroline State University and returned with great enthusiasm for an approach he had named SCALE-UP.

SCALE-UP offered a number of benefits: it enabled the use of enquiry-based learning with larger cohorts through the careful design of both the learning space and the activities; it challenged the dominance of the lecture, providing an accessible framework for tutors who wanted to take a more active, collaborative approach to their teaching. Finally, it was underpinned by a rigorous evaluation that evidenced impact on problem-solving skills, engagement and attendance, reduction in failure rates—particularly for gender and ethnicity—and, better performance for ‘at risk’ student on later modules (Beichner et al 2007).

What are the main elements of SCALE-UP?

SCALE-UP stands for Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies. It is an active, collaborative mode of learning in which lectures are replaced by problem-solving and enquiry-based activities that are carried out in strategically-assigned groups. To foster collaborative learning, the re-designed classroom environment incorporates circular tables and technologies to enable students to share their work in small groups and in plenary. These elements are supported by rotating group roles and ‘upside-down pedagogies’ such as flipped learning and peer teaching. The shift away from lectures frees up class time for students to focus on challenging aspects of the material, to work at their own pace, and to receive on-the-spot feedback on their work from peers and the tutor.

What do you think are the biggest challenges when implementing SCALE-UP and what advice would you give for tackling them?

From the beginning, our introduction of SCALE-UP at NTU has been very strategic so while developing the estate and thinking through implications for timetabling are challenging, I’m going to pick course planning and redesign as the biggest challenges. Academic colleagues who adopt SCALE-UP need to get their heads around how the approach works and is different to what they do already. Then there is the redesign element—introducing new tasks into teaching and perhaps rethinking how the module is assessed. In our experience at NTU, we have found that this works best when a course team have considered how SCALE-UP will be used on the course—which module (and preferably more than one), who is teaching it, etc. This increases the coherence and support for students and helps them to see that this is a considered approach to their learning. It also provides support for colleagues using the approach and for new people joining the teaching team.

How can universities help students understand the benefits of SCALE-UP?

I think on one level the answer to this question is simple—talk to them! Of course, it isn’t really quite that simple as for many of our students, this form of enquiry-based learning which centres on groupwork and problem-solving tasks is quite a break from what they have experienced in their past learning and not what they may be expecting of study at university. So, we need to articulate the benefits of SCALE-UP, both in terms of their performance while at University and in terms of the skills that they will hone that will support their employability in the future. We need to help students to understand that while it may be more challenging and a little strange early on, their persistence and engagement will be rewarded.

Is there a specific piece of feedback/statistic you have that would encourage a member of staff to adopt SCALE-UP?

I’ll choose feedback—a quotation from a lecturer who wonderfully articulated the benefits that we intended for SCALE-UP:

“The main thing with SCALE-UP is capturing how students learn because I think years and years of evidence have shown that students do not learn the way we teach so what we need to do is to start teaching the way they learn and that’s what SCALE-UP does”

We are working on establishing an evidence base at the moment as our Catalyst funding includes a substantial evaluation. We are looking at a range of areas: how SCALE-UP impacts on the unexplained disparities in student progression and on student engagement, how it is experienced by students and their satisfaction with the approach, and, which elements of SCALE-UP tutors are most commonly using (or not using) when they use the approach.

If universities could invest in one furniture/ technology to promote active learning, what would you suggest?

Without a doubt I’d recommend round tables. I’m a complete convert and have learnt a lot over the years as I’ve had to explain (and at times justify) their importance in a SCALE-UP room. I think that anyone who has sat in a meeting knows that rectangular tables can make eye contact and conversation a challenge—you end up talking to the people opposite you or at the end of your table rather than those sitting either side of you. And don’t get me started on sitting in rows! It isn’t just something that I care about—students and module leaders involved in piloting the approach were also very positive about the tables. One lecturer commented:

“For me the real positive was the room and Professor Bob Beichner was dead right when he said the most important technology in the room was the round tables, the round tables worked really well for discussions”

Interestingly, Prof. Beichner evaluated the impact of different shapes and sizes of tables on student interaction (Beichner and Saul, 2003). They tested tables of 7, 8, 9 and 10-foot diameter and found that although students preferred the larger tables, these didn’t facilitate communication between the groups. They concluded that 7-foot tables were the best compromise between giving students enough personal space without reducing communication with students who were further away. At NTU, as our estate is at a premium, we had to go a little smaller than 7-foot but the principles remain important.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

As many people reading this will be aware, there are unexplained disparities in attainment and progression for particular student groups, even when you control for grades on entry. At NTU we are working hard to ensure that all of our student have an opportunity to excel in their study and to reach their potential—to transform themselves and their lives and to contribute to transformation in our wider society. Our work to close these gaps has led to a range of creative projects and innovations that support student success. However, this is an on-going challenge.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

I studied Geological Sciences in University of Birmingham for my undergraduate degree and we had a professor who taught quaternary studies and palaeontology, Professor Russell Coope. He was a wonderful teacher—funny, thoughtful and had the most infectious enthusiasm for his subject. All of my best experiences were in his classes. I remember washing beetle wings out of sediment to better understand paleoenvironments and, probably best of all, carefully cleaning the bones of a newly-discovered woolley mammoth. It was such a privilege and a thrill that has always stayed with me.

References
Beichner & Saul (2003) http://www.ncsu.edu/per/Articles/Varenna_SCALEUP_Paper.pdf
Beichner et al (2007) http://www.per-central.org/items/detail.cfm?ID=4517

Designing and Creating Digital Materials (DEO)


The increased availability of mobile devices gives teaching staff an opportunity to allow guided and self-paced learning to continue outside of traditional settings. This workshop will help you to get started in creating digital materials, moving from the initial idea through to creation and publishing the final content. The course will give you hands on experience with content creation tools and approaches and is intended for anyone wanting to create their own online or electronic resources. 
 
By the end of the workshop participants will be able to :
  • Develop a concept from an initial idea
  • Select appropriate tools
  • Design to improve materials ‘flow’
  • Storyboard content
  • Work through the development process
  • Implement the finished content

If you have any queries or would like to discuss further whether this course is suitable for you, please contact Martin Nutbeem.