This blog is also published at functionalecologists.com, the official blog for Functional Ecology
On the 27th of April I travelled north to participate in the 1st Symposium of the Teaching and Learning Special Interest Group of the British Ecological Society – Advancing the synergies between Teaching and Research –, hosted by the University of Birmingham. The event attracted around 30 participants for a full day of discussion on inspirational teaching though fieldwork.
If you think of the modules in your Department, would you say the teaching is research-led, research oriented, or research-based? A perfect kick-off questions to instigate debate by Alice Mauchline, co-organizer of the symposium. How many lecturers in ecology, geography, or environmental sciences, amongst others, struggle with the catch-22 to deliver content and achieving deeper learning of their students, whilst also juggling the timetable to perform their research? I do, certainly! So why not combine the two? Students enjoy the opportunity to get involved in research-based teaching, and it is good for their learning and employability skills.
The class to the field, or bringing the field to the class
I am normally not the coldblooded type of person, but having students working in a UK river in mid winter would have never crossed my mind. Rachel Stubbington, however, passionately tells about her module where students research the health of a river using different sampling techniques … in bleak mid-winter. Everything to reinforce theoretical concepts and help them apply these in a ‘real-world’ situation. Despite the cold, students love the module, and appreciate the support of “nerve dropping” tutorials on taxonomy and statistics that Rachel brings in to help them answering their research questions. Anna Mc Gregor takes a similar stand in her ‘research mini-projects’ module where she aims to fill the gap between the research-led teaching in the first year in the undergraduate programme and the research-based last year of the programme. In her six-week module, learners tie experimental set-up and hypothesis testing to ‘real-world’ experiments, supported by feed-forward tutorials. Students are also allowed to fail getting data, as it all belongs to the process of learning.
Also Ian Thornhill underpins that a good synergy between teaching and research is advantageous for student learning. At his university he builds a student-observation driven data base that can be used in ecological teaching. A great idea, with lots of potential perhaps even to be rolled out across institutes.
Thornhill is in the lucky situation that his university is situated in a perfect (semi-)natural setting, but how do you teach ecology on a subject which is not directly around the corner and demonstrate concepts in a ‘natural environment’? Some go far to bring a field component in their classes. Whilst setting up the module on Wetland Ecohydrology, Dr Nick Kettridge was struggling to find the right time to introduce a field visit to link theory to practice. Not having a field site directly around the corner, Nick invested in bringing the field to campus. He orders buckets, and found a company prepared to bring in peat soils form Ireland that he inoculated with Sphagnum moss from the local pet shop, enabling him to fill the “awkward” 15 minutes breaks between lectures with a visit to the ‘field’, where he demonstrates that a “piezometer is just a pipe with holes in the bottom”, and a “lysimeter just a plastic bucket filled with soil”.
And there was more! Why not make use of natural phenomena to speed-up the time that ecological experiments naturally take? Following a first-authored short communication that postulated the mechanisms of algal ball formation on an Australian beach, Dr Julia Cooke designed a module where students test this hypothesis using exactly the same approach Cooke and her colleagues took to underpin their theory. This method actually made me think of my own undergraduate modules where we used modelling approaches to learn about inter- and intraspecific competition. Perhaps I should dust off some of my old syllabi to get some inspiration. Perhaps we can put long-standing ecological theories to test again with research-based teaching.
Alternatives to cover content
The main stage was for Prof Jeremy Pritchard with a though-provoking lecture on flipped learning and assessment. Being bored with lecturing the same subject year after year (“and the student were probably also bored”), he decided it was time to take a radical, for him time consuming, change and give students a bit more ownership about the content of the lectures. I am not yet sure if I dare to take the hit and flip all my lectures (see also this blog for a discussion), but I see some clear benefits for student learning. Pritchard challenge the audience to think about what we are doing when we lecture. Should we not need help our students demonstrate that they achieved levels of knowledge that align with the LOs. For that we need to be prepared to the help students prepare for what we test. In his module, Pritchard makes students even write their own questions, some which re-appear in assessment. Still a good discriminator for student performance, this method helps students think about the anatomy of exam questions.
Institutional strategies for excellence in teaching and research
The last part of the symposium was not on teaching per sé, but on ways to excel on teaching and research at an institutional level. After getting back to the central theme of the theme of the day by splitting teaching strategies in silos (research-led, -informed, -oriented, -based), Sara Marsham plead that student learning improved when programmes are driven by research excellence. Anne Tierney reinforced that message with referring to research that shows that microcultures of excellence make a great deal for institutes, for teaching and research. Essential is how we value teaching and research, and how do we facilitate knowledge transfer between teaching and research oriented staff (especially important at institutes where that division is very clear). Good, but informal, communications between staff separates successful institutes from the less successful, and support for a brokering system is key. An eye-opener to me was the importance of the Head of Department in this all. Those institutes where the HoD values league tables and rankings over clear vision or interest in the needs of their staff, ultimately will see the negative effect of their staff feeling undervalued, potentially leading to vicious circle. A message to think about!
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