Take-home messages from “Practical Pedagogy”

On Monday 13th September I joined several hundred academics for the “Practical Pedagogy” conference. The virtual event (held using Teams) was organised by Chris Headleand from University of Lincoln. The programme was jam packed with interesting stuff.

With three parallel sessions all day (and no scheduled breaks) there were inevitably choices to be make about which sessions to attend. However, for the most part, I was pretty pleased with the selections I made. What follows are some reflections/notes on a few of the stand-out presentations.

First up, Liz Mossop, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Student Development and Engagement at the University of Lincoln, offered us Some New (Academic) Year Resolutions. These included:

  • Cast the net wider – in terms of engagement with broader demographics, and ensuring that we are in listening mode not just broadcasting to them.
  • Rethinking decision-making – one ‘bonus’ of the pandemic was the need for institutions to be agile in adapting to the new circumstances. Let’s not slip back into the mire of “university treacle” in which even minor changed get bogged down in bureaucracy.
  • Evaluate communication approaches – clear communication (Centre to staff, Centre to students, staff to students, etc) is vital, but was not always a strength during the pandemic.
  • Influence what I can, let go of what I can’t – this is a crucial one for me. I can only change the things that are within my sphere of influence, to try and alter other things is a waste of time and saps our emotional energy. If we focus on the things we can change, sometime the impact will percolate to the things we could not initially affect.
  • Focus on *who* we want to be, not *what* we want to be – this is true at both the institutional and the individual level. Our values are ultimately more important than our activity.

Assessment

From the next session I attended, on Assessment, the stand-out presentation was Balancing Pedagogy with Quality Enhancement: a review of our recent changes in process and thinking by Laura West-Burnham, Curriculum and Academic Development Specialist at Cardiff Metropolitan University, and her colleague Gaby Tobin. I think the thing that really struck me from this was the importance of dialogue between academics and those in the central team responsible for Quality Assurance and Enhancement. At Cardiff Met, this has been a literal merger, in the same physical space, but many institutions could learn to ask questions of those at the chalkface (interactive whiteboard-face?) and actually listen to their responses. Kay take-homes from this presentation for me were:

  • Will Quality Assurance procedures allow ongoing use of innovative teaching and/or assessment post-pandemic?
  • Whether QA teams and admin are asking questions at the right time in the academic cycle
  • QA should only be asking academics for information that has the potential for positive and timely change
  • Phraseology is important, even changing “Annual Monitoring” to “Programme Enhancement Planning” can create a more healthy dynamic
Some of Laura West-Burnham’s key points

Honourable mentions from the same session to Sue Morgan (Birmingham City University) for raising the spectre of the stifling effect of the interpretation of Competition and Marketing Authority rules in some institutions, and to Elizabeth Hidson (University of Sunderland)’s reminder of Henry Ford’s old adage that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.

Feedback

The next session I dropped into was on Feedback. There were only two speakers in this session but it was the one that I was most looking forward to, since one of the speakers was my brother Sandy and I don’t recall ever hearing him give a conference presentation previously. Before him, Ian Davis from the University of South Queensland spoke about a project in which he has investigated the development of “Wise feedback” for students. The Wise Feedback model, is based on the premise that human nature predicates us to focus in on the negative aspects of feedback, In consequence, the popular “feedback sandwich” model in which a negative is positioned between two positives does not work in the way we might hope.

The Wise Feedback model builds on insight drawn by Claude Steele who identified both Imposter Syndrome and Stereotype Threat (aka Internalised Oppression) as causes of our tendency to latch onto the negatives. Readers of this post are likely familiar with Imposter Syndrome, the self-belief that we are not worthy of the some status or achievement we have received, and are at risk of being expose as a fraud at any moment. I was not previously aware of the term Stereotype Threat, but this is seen as another internal battle, in which an individual is worried that they are conforming to a cultural stereotype in, for example, their inability to excel in certain type of task. To challenge this, Wise Feedback looks to acknowledge the recipients potential and abilities, and promote a sense of belonging.

So, onto the presentation by my brother. Sandy’s talk Redesigning assessments to better support the development of effective student engagement with online feedback reported on an intervention in which he had encouraged students to make better use of feedback on their work. He began by investigating the existing engagement of students with their feedback delivered via Turnitin/Grademark. Within the system you can tell (a) whether a student has looked at the feedback at all [this triggers a change of icon on the assessment page] and (b) when they have last looked at the feedback. Sandy acknowledged that these were relatively crude metrics; they do not tell you how closely the student engaged with the feedback (a cursory glance or a careful examination of the comment would appear the same), and “most recently accessed” does not tell you how many times they had looked at it before that date.

Despite these limitations, the data were sufficient to show that the a priori engagement with the detailed feedback was disappointing; some students were not accessing the feedback at all, others only did so shortly after the release of marks for the work, and were not actively integrating it into the planning for subsequent assignments.

To tackle this, Sandy added a requirement for students to demonstrate engagement with their earlier feedback into preparation of a later task. This is not an entirely novel development, Sandy noted the more detailed work on student engagement with feedback has been undertaken by Naomi Winstone at Surrey and to David Boud and Elizabeth Molloy. He readily acknowledged that this is on the “quick win” end of the spectrum of educational interventions. Sandy was, nevertheless, able to demonstrate that the additional step produced an increase in the level of engagement with feedback (everyone opened it at least once) and a shift in the time profile for accessing the earlier comments (recognising, once more, that this only logs the most recent access).

Sandy Willmott added two steps to the assignment, to identify the particulars of the feedback the student was addressing, and to describe their specific actions in response to that feedback in the next piece of work

However, the most exciting affirmation of the benefits of the intervention was not so much the increased engagement with feedback by students completing the second task in the same year (which cynics might put down to the fact fulfilling this step was an explicit requirement in the assessment). Instead, the most promising evidence that real culture change had occurred came from the fact students were still accessing their feedback in subsequent years of the degree programme (and at least one example of a student who had progressed onto a Masters course looking back at their undergraduate feedback).

Diversity and Inclusion

By this stage in the day, a combination of hunger, square eyes and the relentless pull of other start-of-term commitments rendered my involvement in the conference rather more sporadic. I found myself bouncing back into the session on Diversity and Inclusion. Unexpectedly, this was to include my most profound “penny drop” moment of the day, courtesy of David Tree from Brunel University. Like myself, Tree is a bioscientist. Like myself, he teaches at an institution where students come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Like myself, he had struggled with “decolonisation” of the curriculum, because it stands as a fact (whether we like it or not) that many of the pivotal experiments in the history of molecular biology (certainly from the 1950s to the 1970s) were carried out by white dudes. How do you make the curriculum more inclusive when you cannot change history?

Here’s where Tree’s insights come in. They’re simple, but effective: prioritise a sense of belonging in the rest of the curriculum. He took as a principal example the genetic basis of disease. Many genetics modules have traditionally prioritised discussion of the molecular causes of cystic fibrosis (an important disease in Caucasian populations) and/or the occurrence of haemophilia in the European royal families. These conditions carry little lived resonance with BAME students. Why not instead prioritise discussion of sickle-cell anaemia, which is more prevalent in people of African heritage. It doesn’t even mean dropping CF and haemophilia completely, but use them only after picking examples that will spark familiarity for students from non-Caucasian backgrounds. Similarly, make sure your case studies are intentionally inclusive.

This was only really the backdrop to the rest of Tree’s work. The rest of his presentation Partnering with students to investigate awarding gaps and cultural representation in the curriculum reported a study in which he and colleagues, including students, examined the content of modules with the largest BAME attainment gap. The analysis seemed to indicate that modules with the largest attainment gap were the least culturally diverse. Tree encouraged delegates to undertake a similar cultural analysis of their own content in the light of the ethnic profile of their own students. Similarly, he not only advocates partnering with students in the research, but also encourages then to conduct qualitative reflections on their own experience.

From the same session, it’s worth briefly mentioning an activity described in a presentation about the Lincoln Education Toolkit for Student Success (LETSS) project. The toolkit provides a set of resources and activities for promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. The task that caught my eye was simply but effective – asking participants to produce a personal coat of arms with four segments (and a motto) that describe aspects of their self-identity. For example, Rhianne Sterling-Morris, one of the presenters of the talk, had sectors featuring the Union flag in Jamaican colours, to reflect her dual heritage, a cross to reflect her Christian upbringing, a female symbol for her gender and an equals sign to show her commitment to equality.

Online platforms

At this point, I really was flagging. However, Sandy encouraged me to listen to the presentation Virtual Environment — do these really work? by Omer Rana from Cardiff University. The talk began with reflection on the pandemic and our sudden switch to delivery of teaching via online tools such as Teams and Zoom. Rana moved on to reflect on some of the emerging technologies, such as Gather (which, as far as I can tell is not the same as Gatherly, despite similarities) and Mozilla Hubs. Although these looked interesting, my two overriding impressions were (a) there’s quite a large investment initially in setting up your environment for the teaching ‘event’ and (b) I know my own institution is always uber-cautious about new online tools and so, although these may have potential, we won’t be allowed to use them for many years to come!

Final reflections

This was a really enjoyable and informative event. Chris Headleand had done a terrific job putting it all together at short notice and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that the choice of #PracticalPedagogy1 as the hashtag for the event is an indication that future conferences in the series are to follow.

2 Comments

  1. […] C. (15/9/2021), Take-home messages from “Practical Pedagogy”, Journal of the left-handed […]

  2. […] C. (15/9/2021), Take-home messages from “Practical Pedagogy”, Journal of the left-handed […]


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