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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