Tag Archives: british higher education

Lectures aren’t as bad as people say

5 Jan
Debconf5_lecture
I’ve been teaching in higher education for over ten years, and in that period the one point I’ve seen made about teaching more than any other is that lectures are not a good means of teaching. Indeed, the phrase ‘ chalk and talk’ has almost become a synonym for ‘poor teaching’. For someone like myself who is interested in good teaching it is therefore more than a little ironic that my teaching now consists entirely of lectures delivered to 200+ students at a time.
This paradox came to mind recently when I read an excellent article in praise of lectures, that chimed with many of my opinions. I’ve always been of the opinion that the best examples of ‘teaching’ that one sees are invariably ‘lectures’, from the Xmas Lecture Series of the Royal Institution to Richard Feynman’s celebrated lectures on Physics. Indeed, even in the world of television, work from documentary makers like Ken Burns or naturalists like David Attenborough are essentially just very well-illustrated lectures. Against this it seems very odd that educationists will advocate almost any teaching method above lectures.
It’s interesting to contemplate how we might have arrived at this paradoxical situation. My own view is that when educationists talk about lectures being the worst way of ‘teaching’ in higher education what they are actually talking about are ‘poor lectures’. Anyone who has spent any time in higher education will know the sense of depression that sets in when you are trapped in a classroom with a lecturer who doesn’t seem interested in the material, is reading reams of text direct from the Powerpoint slides and is barely audible as they fail to use microphones correctly.
Now, or course I’m not saying that there aren’t teaching situations where a small-group tutorial wouldn’t be a much better solution than 200+ lecture, but I am saying that the ‘anything but lectures’ approach is just ridiculous. So one of my new years resolutions for 2014 is to interrupt anyone who ‘chalk and talk’ is bad, and ask them for their evidence.

Assessing rational thinking (How should I do it ?)

8 Aug

As we move towards the beginning of another academic year, and the department in which I work starts to contemplate a rewrite of our undergraduate programme, my mind has moved to thinking about how rational thinking can be assessed. I’ve written elsewhere about developing a rational thinking curriculum/syllabus, and the obvious corollary of this is the necessity for a measure to determine whether my teaching is being successful in delivering my curriculum/syllabus.

As I teach as part of an undergraduate degree programme, I am limited by the degree awarding regulations (and in the past by the traditions of university assessment). I current use a combination of essay, presentation and multiple-choice questions to assess my course. I’ve always worried about the use of an essay for my course. UK universities have traditionally used essays as their main form of assessment but my concern has always been how easy it is, when marking, to be swayed by the quality of English rather than the content of the essay itself. I should say that I’m not advocating removing essays from university assessment. Clearly graduates ought to be able to write well, my concern is more that in my particular case I may not be assessing exactly what I want to be assessing.

Some of my colleagues use debates as a form of assessment, but again these rather worry me. Rhetorical skills seem to be completely add odds with rational thinking. I don’t want my students to be skilled in finding good ways to argue the wrong side of an argument. I want them to be able to evaluate the evidence so they know which side of the argument is right !

I don’t have any obvious answers to these questions, but I do now have an incentive to think about them. The degree programme that I teach on will be rewritten over the next year, So by this time next year I need to have settled on what my assessment will look like for the coming years.

A rational thinking curriculum / syllabus

4 Dec
The_Thinker_Musee_Rodin
I presented my work at a recent university conference, and it led me to think about how what I do could be developed. I’m a psychologist, and teach psychology students but the more I think about it the more it seems that what I do has a broader relevance. There is a long tradition in British higher education of the generic nature of graduate skills. One of my favourite quotations about the nature of graduates comes from one of John Henry Newman’s lectures in 1852, where he suggested ‘to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant’ were the key characteristics of graduates. One hundred and forty years later Newman’s quotation crops up in another attempt to define ‘graduateness’ in the HEQC’s 1985 paper ’Clarifying The Attributes Of ‘Graduateness

I’ve written elsewhere about my dislike of the traditional critical thinking literature, and thus I’m not convinced that it has much to contribute trying to contruct a rational thinking curriculum. However, psychology’s own empirical literature does offer a number of areas that can offer a start. At the end of his book ‘What is Intelligence ?’, that offers an explanation of the strange phenomena of ever-increasing IQ scores, the brilliant Jim Flynn proposes a list of ten concepts that might result in continuation of IQ growth:

1) Market forces

2) Percentages

3) Natural Selection

4) Control Groups

5) Random Samples

6) Naturalistic fallacy

7) Charisma effect

8) Placebo

9) Falsifiability

10) Tolerance school fallacy

I would add to additional concepts of my own to Jim Flynn’s list :

11) The importance of historical context

12) Heuristics and biases

I’d suggest that you can group these items into three broad areas:

1) The scientific method (4,5,8 & 9)

2) Useful concepts (1,2,3,11 & 12)

3) The structure of logical arguments (6 & 10)

As my rational thinking course has evolved over the last five years I’ve covered many of these concepts, but given that I’ve always taught psychology students I’ve tailored the examples I’ve used towards psychology. However, I’m now thinking that it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to recast those examples to appeal to a generic student audience and the address the basic curriculum I’ve outlined above. Over the next few months I’m going to try to put together generic examples that fit into the framework I’ve detailed above. I’ll post the examples here as I progress.

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