Thursday 5 December 2013

Today I introduce our first guest bloggers who this year introduced a mobile learning exercise for environmental science students.  Welcome Ailie Gallant and Vanessa Wong!

For students, having a smartphone is as normal as having clothes. Used for social networking, web browsing, taking photos, texting and occasionally calling, smartphones have become an integrated part of the lives of young people. In the U.S., mobile phone use by university students is estimated at around 90% with a recent study showing students at two U.S. universities checked their phones 60 times per day on average.

Students check their phones 60 times per day on average (Image source:

Two major benefits of smartphones are their portability and app functions, which are small programs that share and store information with ease. As teaching and learning are also forms of information sharing and knowledge gaining, the smartphone lends itself strongly to being employed in a classroom environment. The fact that smartphones can be taken anywhere also means that learning can be taken outside the lecture theatre.

It was the above benefits, as well as the familiarity students have with the technology, that we decided to exploit when we trialled smartphones as teaching tools for a first year environmental science class in Semester 2, 2013.

Using the portability aspect, we employed smartphones in a self-guided field trip. Student feedback from previous years suggests that field trips are a big drawcard for students and are often the highlight of their study. Engaging students on field trips (regardless of the use of smartphones) encourages learning through inquiry-based activities and experiential learning. It allows ownership of an intellectual problem by students as they make their own investigation with only peripheral instruction, thereby better engaging them in activities. 

Using these ideas, we trialled the use of a smartphone app called “Locacious”, which took students on a self-guided walking tour of a bayside suburb in order to examine the potential impacts of sea-level rise. Multiple stops on a map, which students were guided to via the inbuilt phone GPS, had pre-recorded commentary from the lecturers. For those students without iPhones, a podcast of the same commentary and Google Earth .kmz file was also provided.

The start of the self-guided walking tour (Photo credit: Adeline Tay)

The activity was undertaken in groups and students were given three weeks to complete it in their own time. The tour took the students along the foreshore at Elwood and upstream along the canal. As well as listening to the provided commentary, students were directed to make observations about the natural and built environment to understand the potential impacts of sea-level rise in the area. Following the tour, the student reflected on their observations and knowledge in class, and prepared arguments for a mock debate about adaptation to sea-level rise.

Informal feedback received at the end of semester via a survey suggested that the students enjoyed the walking tour component of the course and appreciated the flexibility that it provided. They stated they found the format engaging and appreciated being able to contextualise a relevant environmental problem by being in the relevant physical space while receiving the information. Another important, but often overlooked benefit, was that a sense of cohort was established in this series of activities. Student engagement was further reflected in the exam, with many students answering the exam question using direct observations from the tour.

Overall, we found the format has strong potential to be used for teaching purposes in the field. Despite some technical glitches, the student experience was very positive overall. There are a number of benefits in integrating smartphones into teaching. They allow us to deliver more field-based teaching in a flexible manner. The evidence so far suggests that smartphones can provide a vehicle for implementing innovative teaching techniques, which allows students to better contextualise the information provided to them. 

Ailie Gallant and Vanessa Wong are based in the School of Geography and Environmental Science. Follow them on twitter (@SafariPenguin and @DrVanessaWong)
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Wednesday 27 November 2013

We all know that increasing engagement and providing real-life context in lectures are important ways of helping students to become more enthusiastic and understand the lecture material better.  There are many different ways of doing this - and it's fairly easy in a small class - but it's a bit trickier with larger groups.  I teach a number of units in biology in which I have used games as a way of illustrating the lecture concepts and that are the starting place for discussion.  Games are fun on their own, but when combined with the discussion and contextualisation they are a very powerful teaching tool that anybody can use.  'The fishing game' is one I use in a third year Marine Biology unit.  I modified it from a simple activity for school kids, that I developed further to incorporate specific scenarios of fisheries activity and their effects on sustainability.  

Games can improve educational outcomes. Image credit - Flickr Glamhag
I developed the fishing game to illustrate the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons in the context of modern fisheries. In this game we explore the concept that a rational decision by all parties results in the detriment of the shared resource. The Tragedy of the Commons is a term coined in an important scientific paper in the 1950’s that describes how use of a shared resource that no party ‘owns’ (global fish stocks in my example) leads to a rational decision to overexploit it, because the benefit of the increased fisheries catch is gained solely by the individual doing the overexploiting, but the loss (reduced sustainability) is shared by all parties that use the resource. 

The ‘Tragedy’ is that when all parties come to the same rational decision, the resource collapses and everybody loses. This is precisely the situation with modern fisheries and so, informed by experiential learning principles, I designed the game with a role-play where the students are the fishers and chocolate frogs are the fish. The fish have a minimum sustainable population size and the fishers have a minimum economically viable catch. 

Under several different scenarios (small-scale subsistence fishery, unregulated commercial fisheries, regulated fisheries and privatised fisheries), students ‘catch’ fish without regard for the success or otherwise of their classmates. Their motivation is that they get to keep the ‘fish’ – chocolate is a great incentive – and after each round we assess the total catch and the sustainability of the fish. 

We graph the results in and have extensive discussion about the consequences and motivations for their actions. Without regulation or ownership of the shared resource, students always behave in a rationally selfish manner and the fishery collapses within a few rounds of the game. During the game the students enthusiastically adopt their roles and there is genuine outrage when they feel that their competitors are taking selfish actions. 

Monash University Science Student undertaking role plays in lectures. Photo credit RH Brookes

I encourage them to express their thoughts as they play and it is always useful to hear the intellectual process they go through and how they put this into the context of wanting to ensure that they don’t ‘miss out on what remains’ when it becomes clear that the fish stocks are overexploited. They perfectly articulate the fundamental problem of rational selfishness in fisheries and can connect this behaviour with the outcome that the game is designed to illustrate. 

Their ability to transfer the thought process from ‘I did this because…’ to ‘Fisheries do this because…’ shows that they understand the lesson of the Tragedy of the Commons, and recognise that it is difficult to learn from it by changing their behaviour when there are other players involved. 

Students demonstrate higher-order thinking by being able to clearly explain how they behave a certain way even when they know what negative impact it will have, because during the game they continually assess the actions of others, forecast likely consequences, re-evaluate their own actions and adjust their behaviour accordingly. 

Students always enjoy this game and its use as an example to answer exam questions on the impact of fisheries also demonstrates its effectiveness in giving real-life context to the material. I know this because students who explain their answer to the exam question by drawing upon their experience of the fishing game usually answer the question very well, but those who don’t draw on the game in their explanation tend to struggle. 

The energetic benefits of hopping are easily demonstrated by students. Photo credit
I use a number of other activities and games in different units to similarly contextualise difficult material. For example, in Biology of Australian Vertebrates, I have students wear heart rate monitors and some jump up and down on exercise trampolines (the ‘kangaroos’), while others jump up and down on the floor (the ‘humans’), to illustrate the advantage given by elastic energy storage in the leg tendons of kangaroos in the work that those animals have to do while hopping. The sweaty faces of the ‘humans’ versus the smug expression of the ‘kangaroos’ perfectly illustrates the concept and stimulates discussion about the ecological advantage of this form of locomotion in the food-poor Australian environment.

So, while games may not be possible in every situation, with a bit of imagination and some chocolate it's possible to get even less enthusiastic students involved and actively learning.

Associate Professor Richard Reina is the Director of Education in the School of Biological Sciences.  He is a marine biologist with primary research focus on the ecophysiological responses of marine vertebrates such as sharks, turtles and penguins to environmental and human-mediated impacts.  He strongly believes in creative teaching informed by research and has won numerous faculty, university and national teaching awards.

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Thursday 7 November 2013

For many students, the first year of university is tough! The learning curve can be steep regardless of whether you are straight out of high school or you are returning to study.  The Science Faculty at Monash University recognises that each individual faces different challenges and provides a variety of support services to address those needs.

In 2011, the Science Faculty received Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program funding from the Government to support low socioeconomic status (SES) students in their studies at university. We saw this as an opportunity to supplement our existing learning centres (all providing free tutoring) and create new ones so that we could provide this service to all 1st year students in each of our five schools.

Photos of our Geosciences learning centre in action
Importantly we also wanted the tutors in the learning centres to provide pastoral care offering further support beyond assistance just with academic content (figure 1). Pastoral care is especially important for low SES students because these students are often the first in their family to attend university. These students may lack social and cultural capital in the university environment, which can negatively impact their success in their studies.

Figure 1. Academic support and pastoral care provided through our science learning centres 

I want to share a story that illustrates how our free tutoring service can help distressed first-year students in their transition to university.

Many students don’t proactively seek support from our tutors, but one student that stands out to me had been waiting for an opportunity like this after failing some of her first units. This student was very hard-working, but despite her best efforts she found studying at university much more difficult than her preparatory TAFE courses and she started to doubt her abilities. Being a refugee, this student often expressed how lucky she felt to be able to attend university in Australia. She also showed an enormous passion for learning and because of this it was inspiring to see how much she wanted to make a difference in the world. She felt that her education was the key to achieving her dreams.

After an initial conversation she decided to attend one and eventually all three of the learning centres for her science units. After a lot of hard work from her and the tutors who assisted her, she passed all of her units that semester. That was a huge confidence boost for her to know that she had the capacity to achieve her goals. Perhaps an even greater success was the fact that while she was reluctant to speak to her lecturers in her first year fearing she would be wasting their time, her attitude changed during her second year. She realised people wanted to help her to succeed and her confidence enabled her to talk to her lecturers regularly and seek help when needed.

This is one of many success stories of the learning centres but this one (perhaps because it was one of the first) continues to inspire me to work in education. From the feedback we receive each semester we know the tutoring service is helping hundreds of first-year students in small ways and in large.

If you are interested in learning more about the logistical side (costs, format, hours of operation etc.) of how our learning centres work please contact me.

Further reading:

Devlin, M., Kift, S., Nelson, K., Smith, L.,& McKay, J. (2012) Effective teaching and support of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds: Resources for Australian higher education. Retrieved from

Carmen Yan is the HEPPP Project Officer and Student Experience Coordinator in the Faculty of Science. She is the coordinator of the Faculty of Science Learning Centres and works closely with academic staff from each of the science schools to support first-year students and in particular those who from a low SES background. Carmen can be found on Google+ and invites you to add her to your ‘circles’.
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Friday 25 October 2013

 I’ve always been a bit of a technology junkie, but if I am going to use technology in my teaching, the most important question is “does it work?” The answer will depend on what each of us is trying to achieve. Here I describe 3 ways to use interactive whiteboards for you to try: as a monitor, for group work and as a presentation tool.
Student annotating a poster on one of the smartboards.

First, a bit of background. A few years ago Monash set up an educational technology sandpit. After using it a few times with my small (35) class of BSc (Advanced with Honours) students, it was really hard to go back to plain walls and PowerPoint in the mainstream core science tutorials. But with 500-600 students in tutorials of about 20-25 students, how could this be achieved economically?

The answer was to install 4 of the simplest smartboards, a large old-school white board across the back, and some new furniture. It turns out the hardest thing was to get all the different University services to all work together and I am really grateful for Reynold Dias for his efforts in this. It took a year, but with plaster still on the floor and wet paint on the walls, the rooms were ready to the first day of semester 1. 

The new set up in the science tutorial rooms ST1 and ST2. Students work in table groups. Here they are accessing and discussing types of scientific literature.

Electronic whiteboards are not new technology. They are in almost every primary school – in fact if you are unsure about how to use one, I’ve found that at least one student in every class has a parent who is a primary school teacher and knows all about them. I use them to do the same things we used to do when we with traditional whiteboards and one simple screen at the front of the room, but better and then some.

 Prior to these new teaching spaces being developed we adopted ‘Notebooks‘ (HP2760s if you like specifics) to encourage student collaboration (Allie Ford organised this). These notebooks worked well, and Allie Ford and KirstiAbbott creatively applied the technology to other things we did such as analysing posters, inking PowerPoints and so on. 

 There were several problems with this technology: Even though I arranged for the Wi-Fi signal to be boosted and additional power outlets to be put in all over the place there were still issues with flat batteries and signals dropping out. Sure, we could ask students to bring their own devices but that doesn’t promote collaborative learning and it can disadvantage those without them. Other technologies may be as good or better for certain activities but I like the Smartboards because they can are flexible. Here are three.
(1) As a monitor. The touch screen is a great way to be more involved in the subject matter and promotes discussion and group decision-making. Students can use the computer and board next to their table to access primary literature or the Web of Science. When using the experimental space, I had noticed that students were reluctant to type in their passwords up on the big screen, so in the new rooms each group have a wireless mouse and keyboard as well. In another workshop they might use the Web to find out about some new ‘health’ product, highlighting aspects that indicate it might be really be pseudoscience. Students can also download the materials from the learning management system in real time, saving printing – and paper and the environment and time.

(2) To promote group work. We ask the students to analyse good and bad features of conference posters. We used to project examples on a screen at the front and have a class discussion – something particularly intimidating to the quieter students, or those whose English is not that good. Now students download examples from Moodle, and annotate them (as a group of 4-5) around the board. They also brainstorming their essay topics. This is not rocket science and educationally is the same as using sheets of A3 paper, but being bigger everyone can have a go. An added bonus is that they save it and email it to themselves.
Student presenting their conference poster on their research project. The format promotes discussion and interaction between students as they move around the room.

(3) For Presentations. Each week we try and get students to present something to the whole class such as their analysis of the posters or what they have discovered about dodgy products. There is no need to throw the image to the front – students can just move around the room. Students still give one formal presentation from the front, but that is clearly a different skill with a specific learning outcome. The BSc (Advanced) group go one further, and have a mock conference with posters on each screen. The resolution isn’t brilliant, but they don’t need to spend money getting their posters printed, as in the past. Electronic posters are becoming more common anyway, whether we like them or not.

The Monash Educational Technology fair this past week was a good moment to reflect on what has and hasn't worked as I’ve tried out different technologies.

At the beginning of this journey we all had a lot of fun trying out all the bells and whistles in the University’s experimental teaching space. The lights were funky, the beanbags were well used, the side-lit glass walls were great for making notes (one reason why I wanted to keep a large old-school white boards in the new tutorial rooms). But when I really thought about it, some things were just fun whereas others had become integral to the way I wanted to teach.  It was the multiple interactive whiteboards that I really missed. It hasn't been all that expensive to install them, and they can be integrated pretty simply into whatever you might be doing already.

I am now so used to using the smartboards that I can't imagine running our classes in any other way. They make all sorts of things we used to do easier and more fun. But this has been just the next step along the road from printed materials, to whiteboards and projectors, to computer labs and notebooks.

I wonder what will come next?

Enjoy the journey!

Associate Professor Ros Gleadow is co-ordinator of the core science program at Monash University and has taught SCI2010 “Scientific Practice and Communication” for 8 years. In her other life she is a plant scientist in the School of Biological Sciences studying the effect of climate change on plants that kill, and the immediate past President of the Australian Society of Plant Scientists. You can follow her on Twitter @RosGleadow
Post updated 27 Oct 2013 to fix broken links and change video format

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Friday 18 October 2013

‘If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly’ 
(Ausubel, 1968)

The complex and abstract nature of Chemistry tends to result in students holding a variety of alternative conceptual ideas that differ from the commonly accepted scientific consensus. In the literature, these are generally referred to as misconceptions or alternative conceptions.

I am undertaking an education focused MSc degree investigating how Chemistry students’ alternative conceptions can be exposed and challenged. Alternative conceptions can be exposed using diagnostic tools such as student -generated drawing tasks and concept inventories, both of which I will discuss in more detail below. To challenge students’ alternative conceptions, I am investigating cooperative learning as a pedagogical strategy.

Concept inventories

A concept inventory is a multiple choice instrument composed of non-mathematical conceptual questions. One answer is correct while the other answers (called distractors) are alternative conceptions derived from research.  

Below is an example of a concept inventory question.  First year Chemistry students at Monash were invited to answer this particular question at the start of semester 1, 2013. Before reading further, what answer would you choose?

Students with a good conceptual understanding of what happens during a phase change would have recognized that (e) was the correct answer. However, only 45% of students who responded chose (e). Therefore, more than half of the students thought that when water evaporates it results in the formation of oxygen and hydrogen atoms or molecules. Or worse still, rather than just being spaced further apart, the molecules disappear altogether!

Student generated diagrams

Knowledge and understanding of Chemistry is generated, expressed, taught, and communicated at the macro, submicro and symbolic levels of representation (Johnstone, 1991). These three levels of representation are briefly described in the table below.

Research data I have collected to date highlights the diversity of students’ submicro representations for the same substance. Below are examples of first year Chemistry students’ drawings of water molecules.

However, does a student-generated drawing that lacks detail or is inaccurate mean that they hold an alternative conception? Maybe they have an understanding of a concept that they have chosen not to include in their diagram or maybe they were just being ‘lazy’?
Chemistry is a visual science, and chemists have developed a variety of representations to help understand and communicate information that may not be easily understood otherwise.  I believe it is of pedagogical significance for Chemistry students to generate their own submicro drawings and use them to facilitate a shared understanding with their peers.


Ausubel, D. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Johnstone, A. H. (1991). Why is science difficult to learn? Things are seldom what they seem. Journal of computer assisted learning, 7(2), 75-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.1991.tb00230.x

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Sunday 13 October 2013

On the ground floor of Building 27, at the Clayton Campus, an NGLS is under construction. The new space is known by the acronym PACE (Physics and Astronomy Collaborative-learning Environment)... notice the hyphen, it indicates the significant effort required to fit appropriate wording to a snappy acronym!

It is not just “new labs” or “new lecture theatres” it represents a new paradigm in a variety of ways. The most significant change is our intention to stop delivering lectures, stop delivering labs and combine all of this teaching into the Studio spaces being constructed in this area.

The approach is most closely based on SCALE-UP where classes are run with a maximum of around 100 students. Students are seated at circular tables, 2m in diameter, each seating nine students in teams of three. There is no front to the classroom. The instructor controls the room from a podium near the centre and tries to minimise the amount of time they are talking, and maximise the amount of time students are working. It can support theoretical and hands-on (lab) activities. It provides an environment in which to indulge in (and that naturally encourages) a variety of pedagogical strategies such as: student-centred learning, blended learning, flipped classroom, team-based learning, peer-instruction, just-in-time teaching.

Existing physics "Studio" at MIT.

The School of Physics is hoping to have its NGLS up and running for Semester 1, 2014. However, as the excitement builds, nerves increase. A space alone does not awesome teaching guarantee (apologies Yoda). When we inhabit PACE we will be faced with practical hurdles related to the daily running of the space and a myriad of obstacles to the teaching methodologies we wish to introduce. It will not be simple. Many challenges face us:

  • Finding the time to create new activities - the new space will require the creation of new teaching activities. How will we resource this when staff are already time poor?

  • Increased staffing requirements? - you cannot fit as many students into a Studio as you can into mega-lecture theatres. So, we will be adding to the problem of time poor staff by increasing the number of teaching sessions that need to be staffed!

  • Timetabling - to introduce an increased number of novel sessions into a Faculty timetable which has just been recently updated will be tricky, to say the least.

  • Intransigence of existing practices - while many in the School are keen to embrace new teaching practices, there are still questions to be answered (and rightly so) about the efficacy of whatever pedagogical changes are introduced. What advantages do they bring, what evidence is there of improved outcomes?

  • Sustainability – however much everyone is on board with embracing innovative teaching practices, it is always much easier to regress to the comfort of the familiar. There are examples of similar approaches taken at other institutions where, as soon as key people have moved on, business as usual resumed.

  • Student expectations - students have been known to challenge simple changes such as required pre-reading and the introduction of interactivity in lectures through such technology as clickers. This will be a whole new ball-game.

  • How do we assess any improved outcomes related to the use of the new space; and the challenge here is not just trying to find suitable assessment tools to do this, but also finding anyone with the time to do this!

... and that is just to mention a few of the challenges we face.

We will likely fail many times and in many ways; but each time we will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. So why would we want to put ourselves through this?

Computer render of how one of the new PACE "Studios" will look.

Since the dawn of time educators have known that simply telling someone something is not teaching, and students have known that simply listening to someone is not learning.

Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand
Step back and I can lead
My adaptation of other people's adaptations of an old Chinese proverb?

So as responsible educators we refuse to persist in the notion that to stand-and-deliver at the front of a lecture theatre is making the best use of the valuable, limited face-face time we have with students.

Many others have shown this sort of model can work. MIT topped the 2013 QS World Rankings and this is how they deliver Physics teaching. If they can do it. So can we.
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Thursday 3 October 2013

I had the pleasure recently of chairing a forum on Education-Focused (EF) academic roles at the Australian Conference of Science and Maths Education (ASCME) at the ANU in Canberra. I currently hold one of these roles myself - “Lecturer (Education-Focused)” - but across the country these are known by many other titles (Teaching-Focused/Teaching-Professionals/Teaching-Only).
Approximately 70 people attended the EF forum at ASCME (including EF and T&R staff as well as several Associate Deans) which in itself was telling about how much interest surrounds these positions. And put simply, this room probably contained the highest concentration of passion towards science and maths education that I have seen in a single location simultaneously. I’ve been in fuller rooms, but these guys were the die-hards and once we got rolling, people were wearing their heart on their sleeve!
In the Monash Faculty of Science we currently have ~5 EF academics, from Level B Lecturers to Level D Associate Professor (and hopefully soon a Level E). Some were once T&R staff, others are direct EF appointments, and there have already (since 2011) been several EF promotions, including up to Level D!
Are EF staff still ‘Researchers’?
You bet. The burgeoning volume of education research being done in Australia by both EF and T&R academics is impressive and routinely published in internationally peer-reviewed education journals. Amongst scientists, education research often gets a bad rap for not being particularly rigorous, evidence-based, or relevant for real teaching at the coal-face. (If you’re not sure what I mean, try using the word ‘pedagogy’ in a room of scientists and watch the response!).
Yet what I have seen in two short days at the ACSME conference has been quite the opposite. Most projects are thoughtful, longitudinal, and comprehensively evaluated studies of innovative teaching – all based on the experiences of real students. What’s more, many papers in this area are based on many years of data and analysis, and often take over 12 months before being accepted/rejected for publication.
A strong history of science education research exists of course, most produced by normal T&R academics. But this field is increasingly occupied by EF staff, who have both the passion, but also have academic probation and promotion criteria driving them to excel in this field.
Exciting, Innovative Teaching
As with research, normal T&R staff make fantastic contributions to great teaching. Yet the pressures of research output, and the emphasis on pursuing high-impact papers and research grants mean many academics simply don’t have the time to dedicate to their teaching.
In contrast, EF staff have been given the explicit responsibility of reforming our classrooms and our curricula. Now that these roles are officially recognised in many institutions, true reward and recognition exists for those whose ‘laboratory’ is the classroom itself.
These academics now have the capacity to develop, nurture, implement and evaluate big picture ideas, and publish in quality education journals. Take for example the “IDEA Experiments” which have been introduced across three schools in our Faculty of Science, now described in one paper (Rayner, Charlton-Robb, Thompson & Hughes, IJISME, 21(5), 1-11, 2013) two Good Practice Guides, and likely to be subject of at least two further publications.
Frustration & Uncertainty
At the ACSME EF Forum, the general feeling in the room was positive, but at the same time there is a mountain of anxiety amongst this group. In fact it seems perhaps that Monash has one of the better frameworks, with many delegates from other institutions describing the frustration and uncertainty of short-term contracts, enormous workloads, and little recognition. Each university, and the sector as a whole, seem to be feeling their way through this period with varying levels of commitment to EF roles, despite the clear and ubiquitous need for dedicated teaching and learning experts.
In case there is any confusion, let me put one thing straight - EF folk work hard! Good learning outcomes are hard. Running inquiry-oriented, problem-solving classes are difficult. Keeping up with changes in eLearning is exhausting. Our one-hour, open Forum heard that loud and clear from probably 40 different voices. Yet this cohort remain completely dedicated to this challenge.

Leadership & the Future
In the past, ‘teaching-only’ staff may have lacked recognition in many Schools, but EF-status is now yielding the next leaders in science education. In my personal case, many of my T&R colleagues now turn to me for ideas and inspiration. At ACSME, our keynote Nobel Prize speaker Prof. Brian Schmidt spoke of being mentored by his EF colleague in Physics at ANU to improve his teaching! I predict in our own Faculty we might see our next Associate Dean of Education come from the ranks of EF staff – beyond which, who knows?
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Tuesday 24 September 2013

Is anybody else getting tired of the discussions about raising the standards of our teaching?  I am!  Not because I don’t wholeheartedly agree that we need to improve teaching and learning through better delivery, but because I think this only tells half of the story.

To have educational impact teaching improvements need to be coupled with a change in our approach to assessment.  Brown et al. (1997) strongly emphasize that “if you want to change student learning then change the methods of assessment”.

Image Credit: Flickr UGL_UIUC CC
In research intensive universities we have traditionally focused on developing assessment relating to research skills.  This focus is reflected and encouraged through the research skills development framework.  If we had the available jobs in research science for all our graduates (coupled with a student desire to actually follow a research career) there would be nothing wrong with this approach, but this is clearly not the case.   The majority of our students will follow alternative pathways and we need to develop authentic assessment to reflect these pathways.

Authentic assessment described simply is the development of ‘real world skills’ in our students.  Using authentic assessment principles we need to first decide on who’s ‘real world’ we are thinking about.  Given only a small proportion of our students will become researchers, I believe that science assessment should enable the development of generic skills used by the wider workforce. When I talk about the real world I mean the one outside of academia. 

The research 

If your thinking about how to develop authentic assessment, I find the seven propositions in the OLT project Assessment 2020 provides useful guidance.  

Taking the ‘Assessment 2020’ propositions one step further is a recent paper by Ashford-Rowe et al. (2013) which defines eight critical elements of authentic assessment.  These elements suggest that authentic assessment should:
  • Be challenging enough so that it reflects real world situations and tasks with a requirement to do more than just reproduce knowledge.
  • Focus on the creation of a product (or performance) that demonstrates the application of skills and knowledge.
  • Develop knowledge, skills or attitudes that are more widely applicable and transferable to situations outside of the assessment task. e.g. the knowledge should not be domain specific.
  • Produce a product or performance that accurately reflects the needs of the real world.
  • Use tools and tasks during the assessment that are reflective of real world situations.
  • Give students the opportunity to receive sufficient feedback throughout the assessment process and provide feedback to the teacher.
  • Give students the opportunity to collaborate with each other.
  • Give students the opportunity to develop their own metacognition through self-reflection and evaluation.
Providing authentic experiences? Image credit: Flickr GlacierNPS CC

Putting it into practice

Using the principles of authentic assessment I developed an assessment task for my environmental monitoring unit.  In this assessment, the students had to contribute to citizen science projects of their choosing and then critique the scientific methodology and design of the experiment.  This gave them the opportunity to contribute to real science projects across national and international boundaries. The assessment task wasn’t perfect first time around, but the students seemed engaged and they made significant contributions to community projects.

While developing research skills is an example of authentic assessment and undoubtedly provides many useful skills in science students (e.g. critically evaluating information and developing arguments), I think that we need to get real about where our students end up and ensure that we pay appropriate attention in the curriculum to develop skills for them to succeed.


Ashford-Rowe K, Herrington J & Brown C  (2013)  Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education doi: 10.1080/02602938.2013.819566                   

Brown, G., J. Bull, and M. Pendlebury. 1997. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. London: Routledge

Rowan Brookes is a lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences.  She coordinates the Bachelor of Science Advanced - Global Challenges and the Bachelor of Environmental Science.  You can find her on Twitter @FutureSciEd or her webpage
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Wednesday 18 September 2013

I write from the perspective of a physicist who works closely on a range of research projects at Monash University. All of my research activities are collaborative, involving ongoing discussions with the small groups (say, three to five researchers) in which I work most effectively.

My discipline-based science research collaborations can all be viewed from an education perspective as a form of peer learning. This is the topic I want to examine in today's post.

Working on research problems in small groups is like a small student cohort setting and then completing its own group assignment by coming up with an important and interesting unanswered question, and then solving it.

These research discussions involve individual members of the “study group” throwing up an idea for progress on the given problem, which is then critiqued by other researchers in the cohort.  A particular individual’s understanding of a given idea, whether or not the said idea is their own, is deepened by the peer-learning process of seeking to convince the individual’s colleagues of the correctness and relevance of their idea.  The idea may stand the test of such dialectic, in which case it is incorporated into the “group assignment” and possibly developed further.  If the idea fails the test of the group dialectic, it may be discarded entirely in favour of another competing idea, or aspects of the broken idea may be incorporated into a new way forward. Ultimately, the group assignment is written up as a research paper.

David Boud defines peer learning as “students learning from and with each other in both formal and informal ways” (This quote is taken from , which also outlines some benefits of peer learning).  If "students" is replaced with "researchers" in the above quote, then you have an accurate description of most of my research collaborations!

Perhaps viewing peer learning in the classroom as an extension of peer learning in research groups may assist discipline-specific researchers in strengthening the effectiveness of their teaching by incorporating peer learning into their classroom teaching?  Better still, perhaps those discipline-specific researchers who have yet to enter the classroom may derive additional confidence to do so by recognizing parallels between the peer learning within their research groups and peer learning in an undergraduate setting?

NB: Thanks to Rowan Brookes for pointing out the peer learning link above, for feedback which improved this post, and also for pointing me to the open-access journal on peer learning at .  Thanks to Rowan Brookes, Rebecca Adam and Amelia Grevis-James for getting this blog off the ground!

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