I think I took my PhD at Leicester at almost exactly the right time — if you ignore the catastrophic downturn in education funding. The reason is I’ve had the opportunity to work with a few people who have been inspiringly innovative in their teaching. Derek Raine introduced me to Problem-Based Learning, when he built a new degree in Interdisciplinary Science around it. +A.J. Cann also help by letting me help out on some of his numeracy / study skills courses for Biological Sciences and that’s what he’s blogging about today at Of Schemes and Memes and on his own blog at Science of the Invisible.
I’m sure I’ve had plenty of study skills training but I don’t remember much of it. At its worst it was a part of the first year course teaching how to use various systems I might want to use in the third year. By which time the system might well have changed or else I would have forgotten it through lack of use. I don’t do well if I have do something in order to learn how to use a system. I work better if I learn how to use a system in order to do something else.
Alan Cann has a focus on how and why students want to learn something. To explain the difference, when I was taught I might be shown how to use PubMed. Fill in all the boxes and that’s a pass. In contrast Alan sets tasks that have a purpose and explains PubMed or Web of Knowledge are the easiest ways to get the information students need. The cleverest part is that this is wrapped up with social media icing.
Getting cohorts onto Google+ gets them thinking about privacy, but also makes communication online a more natural act. Students can build their own support structures. These become more important as the students move toward independent study later in their degree. Another clever thing working through social media does is it helps dissolve barriers between modules.
In my first degree what I learned in module A applied to module A. What I learned in Module B applied to Module B. I wasn’t making connections between the two. On Google+ the work their is for Alan’s module, but students discuss more than that. They’ll talk about other modules and make connections about why something puzzling is happening because we know from this module that this occurs so when you apply it to that lab experiment you should expect that and so on.
Another feature is that Alan doesn’t give the same course twice. He’ll drop what thinks doesn’t work and come up with something better. This shouldn’t be radical. I’ve been on countless courses as a post-grad that talk about the importance of reflection in teaching. Usually this reflection in the sense of “how can you better guide students along the path to enlightenment?” Alan and Derek have both taken the approach that questions if the path is right in the first place. Even if it’s basically sound, do we need all these wiggly detours to destinations no one visits anymore?
This post is a good entry point to some of what Alan is doing with teaching. Science of the Invisible is the place to go if you want to read more.