Archive | November, 2014

My two biggest drivers of web traffic: Jeremy Clarkson and ‘The Flipped Classroom’ !

12 Nov


In the three years that I’ve been using social media to further my teaching two things have driven more web traffic that any other. About a year ago I innocently replied to a tweet from an ex-student suggesting that Jeremy Clarkson might not be ‘a paragon of journalistic virtue’, and was deluged with some fairly abusive replies, and two weeks ago a blog post on ‘the flipped classroom’ produced a week and a half’s worth of web traffic in one day ! For those who have not come across it before, the flipped classroom is the fairly simple idea of asking students to consume material in advance of a particular class such that class time can be used for something more productive than the transmission of information.

I should confess at this point that I have always used blogging as a ‘quick and dirty’ means or recording what’s going on in my head at any particular moment, and thus what I write isn’t that deeply considered before it’s published. However, the responses to my post about the flipped classroom have made me think rather more deeply about the topic, and I’ve set these out below:

1) The first thing I’ve learnt is to be very careful with the language I use. I have the habit of referring to any session in which I am in a classroom with 200+ students as ‘a lecture’. However, having now read the literature than many correspondents sent me (including a huge meta-analysis of studies of ‘flipping’) ‘a lecture’ seems to be defines as ‘continuous exposition’ by an academic. I’ve always attempted to break up my teaching with material designed to encourage students to think about what I’ve said, and employ the skills I’m trying to impart, so I guess I don’t ‘lecture’. I’ll thus try to stick to ‘class’ and ‘teaching’ to replace ‘lecture’ and ‘lecturing’.

2) I maybe overly naive, but I find it depressing that any academic is still indulging in ‘continuous exposition’ as a teaching method, surely we’re all established by now that ‘deep’ processing of information is necessary for learning, and that’s hardly likely to happening if all that occurs in a class is the academic imparting information and the students writing it down frantically. That said, this seems to be to be more of an issue of ‘poor practice’ than necessarily a reason for ‘flipping’ a class.

3) Leading on from this is a point that was made by more than one correspondent, that learning is about ‘the construction of knowledge not the transmission of knowledge’, and by flipping the classroom you free up time for working on the ‘construction of knowledge’. Now, being a pedantic psychologist I’d argue that learning is about BOTH ‘the construction and the transmission of knowledge’, in that one would have little to construct if something first hadn’t been ‘transmitted’. One can, of course, argue about the weighting of these two components. Having thought about it a lot this week, I think that my real worry about the ‘flipped classroom’ is that whilst it seems an excellent method for facilitating the ‘construction of knowledge’ it may have neglected the idea that ‘transmission of knowledge’ needs to take place somewhere, and that the quality of that ‘transmission’ is important for the subsequent ‘construction’. Indeed, I wonder if in ‘flipping’ we aren’t, in some cases, abdicating responsibility for ‘transmission’ to textbook publishers. At a ‘Lecture Capture’ conference I attended recently the ‘Keynote’ speaker on ‘flipping’ had used lecture recordings from previous years as his vehicle for ‘transmission’. This suggests either that ‘lecturing’ IS a good vehicle for transmission or transmission is of vastly secondary importance.

It’s clear from the literature that, at least in STEM disciplines, flipping does improve academic performance but I wonder a little more focus was put on how best to facilitate ‘transmission’ this improvement might be even bigger.

My resolution for the next academic year is to try out ‘flipping’ a class, but to focus on how transmission will take place before I do so.

Lots of sexual partners is apparently good for you !

5 Nov

Even by the standards of the British media this is a very strange bit of reporting. Last week a number of usually fairly conservative parts of the British press reported on a study suggesting that having more that twenty sexual partners could reduce a males chances of developing prostate cancer !


Each of these newspaper stories is reporting a paper by Spence, Rousseau and Parent called ‘Sexual partners, sexually transmitted infections, and prostate cancer risk’ published in the journal  Cancer Epidemiology.

As a teaching example, this story has two great things going for it. First, as I’ve previously written about, ‘sex’ stories are a great way of engaging undergraduate students, and second you don’t have to be a urology expert to start demolishing this story. A moments thought about what hypothesis might be being tested here is worthwhile. Initially you might imaging some sort of ‘exercise’ theory, but of course we’re not talking here about frequency of sexual intercourse, but number of sexual partners (one could have had 21 sexual partners and only had sex 21 times, or one sexual partner and sex many hundreds of times !), which leaves me to think that we might be talking about a ‘promiscuous personality’ in some way inoculates against prostate cancer. As you might imagine, what you actually find is only post-hoc theorising about causality !

When you actually delve into the paper itself two things emerge, firstly that the 19% reduction in cancer risk reported in the newspaper stories wasn’t statistically significant, and secondly that the effect reported only appeared with 20+ sexual partners, 19 partners made no difference at all.

As the wonderful NHS Choices websites speculates, you do wonder if this isn’t an example of just recycling the press release, rather than actually reading the original paper, and whether those writing these stories have and ‘science’ knowledge to back up their work. I shall try this out with my students next week, and report back on the impact !


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