Group dynamics

The focus of the session today was on ‘Planning to Teach’.    The buzz term throughout was ‘Constructive Alignment’.  The students (again, as is the philosophy of the whole approach within this course) went through the triad of : ‘this is what you are going to do; now do it; this is why you did it’.

I came away from this session today reflecting even more on my thoughts from last week – this Spring course is such a different experience from the Autumn course.   I suggested some reasons last week and I’ll summarise them again here, with some additions and embellishments:

  • In response to the feedback from the Autumn cohort, the course has been substantially modified – both in content and delivery.  And, most importantly, in its design.    The more specifically STEM orientation (recall, it is a STEM cohort of participants) is much appreciated.    Excitingly, the opportunity to do this will feed directly into the quality of the OER to be made available.
  • There is not any of the negativity that emanated from the Autumn cohort.  I posited last week that this was in part (a big part) because of the adjustments that have been made to the course.  But also, I think it is because the participants are further along in their own journey.    Many of them are new to Exeter, new, even, to the UK.    They are now getting into their stride.
  • We have changed our strategy to obtain verbal feedback.  Rather than the approach used in the Autumn, when we had a ‘formal – informal’ focus group, which came with a free lunch but was recorded, we now conclude the session with an informal time over coffee and (rather boring) biscuits.   We talk about the weather (inevitably) and much other trivia but surreptitiously steered conversations to our agenda.    The exchanges are more genuine and authentic.   In one such conversation it transpired that an Astronomy PhD student was in the process of creating some YouTube resources and releasing them under a CC licence!

Posted under Focus Group

This post was written by Tom Browne on February 11, 2011

A new year, a new cohort

Today we had our 1st session of the Spring Term course. It was also the 2nd iteration of this course, the first being in the previous Autumn Term.

It seemed like a different course! Marge and Barrie had revised substantially this session taking into account the feedback from the earlier cohort and it definitely showed. The theme was ‘Teaching for Interactive Learning’. The participants were introduced to various theoretical models and a range of interactions or interventions that could be used across a range of scales, e.g. from a large lecture to a 1:1.

It was a very busy and lively session. From my observations, the participants really appreciated the following:

1. The various activities resonated much more with the circumstances that the GTAs find themselves in – recall the angst pouring out of the blogs from last Autumn.

2. Having activities that are distinctively more STEM oriented. So much so that on one occasion conversations got sidetracked into querying whether the correct mathematical model was being used, rather than focusing on the merit of a particular teaching method. But this contributed to there being so much more engagement than at the equivalent stage last Autumn.

3. Explaining more clearly why a particular activity is being employed in a particular context. As before, it was ‘learning by doing’, i.e. experiencing an approach to learning through the medium of some activity, but now they knew why they were doing it! Obvious really, but easily undersold.

Recall that as before, the participants are primarily from STEM disciplines. But there was much less (though there was still some) initial resistance to ‘engaging’, and ‘participating’ than there was last Autumn. I suspect this is again because the relevance of the activities and the resources used won them over.

We have recently had a workshop proposal for ALDinHE accepted. The various resources that are being developed for a range of activities will be trialled there. So , if you want to have early sight of them, see you there!

Posted under Focus Group

This post was written by Tom Browne on February 4, 2011

Cohort comparisons

This is the last week of teaching on our HEA-accredited programme for teaching assistants (mapping to “Associate” status of the HEA) and we finished with a session on evaluation and reflection (although we have discussions each year as to where this session “fits” in the course narrative).

This year, alongside our OER project focussing on producing discipline-specific resources for mathematics and biosciences teachers, we have split the participants broadly into STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, Medicine) and HASS (Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences) cohorts (with a third “Cornwall campus” group).  There are certain benefits to this (and corresponding disadvantages), one of which is that I assisted this week with the HASS session, in addition to leading the STEMM version.

I find the comparison between the two sessions fascinating, although the potential for overstating and exaggerating differences should be acknowleged.  The sessions were very different in many ways, but I am drawn to two distinctions in particular.

The first was a reflective task, which in the HASS session took the form of students choosing an object from a box of assorted paraphernalia (a sponge, a mirror, an alarm clock, a toy doll, …) and being asked to write about a teaching episode that was “like” the object in some way.  This was a really fascinating way of drawing out personal thoughts and reflection about teaching – simply by “choosing” an object, the participant is connecting with the event on a personal level.  My own STEMM version of this personal reflective writing task involved the students picking a couple of UK PSF “professional values” out of a bag and writing about an occasion in their own teaching experience where these values were being evidenced in some way (or if they preferred were in conflict with the author’s values and practice – we want to encourage critical reflection on “values”, not be dogmatic about them!).  I gave them a possible structure for the reflection using the STAR acronym (Situation – Task – Action – Result) together with an example.  What I would love to explore is whether or not this was a suitably differentiated (albeit slightly different) set of tasks for distinct audiences, or whether either task would work equally well (or should be offered as alternatives, say).  To what extent does the thinking behind the teacher’s plan for each session “reflect” tangible differences between STEMM and HASS subjects or do these create a “false dichotomy”?

The second distinction that stands out for me was in the narrative of the sessions.  That of the HASS session seemed to be much more complex (and no less clear for that) drawing on a web of connections between professional values, shared values in a community, evaluation and reflection, whereas my own narrative felt much more linear, returning frequently to the assessment for the course.

Do these and the fact that I have picked them out say more about me as an individual and a teacher, or do they say something much more general about STEMM and HASS?  In what direction, if any, is there a causal link?

A lasting memory from my own STEMM session will be the parting words from one participant: “We’re not all ‘scientists’, you know – we’re not a homogeneous bunch!”, which is exactly what the Open STEM project is about.

Posted under Uncategorized

This post was written by Barrie on November 26, 2010

Uureka (well, it wasn’t too bad)

Last Focus Group for our Autumn cohort took place today. What new to say?

The theme of the session was Evaluation and Reflection and the participants undertook an array of quick-fire activities. Arguably, this was a case of ‘more for less’ but the focus group did not over-dwell on that aspect. With some tweaking, most of the activities are sufficiently robust to be released as OER.

As we were now coming to the end, our focus was on the bigger picture. Purely dispassionately (though of course it never can be) I felt that my colleagues who had primarily run the course were ultimately vindicated. By no means totally and there are many points of detail they know they will need to address, but the participants that contributed to all the focus group sessions (and the numbers have been decreasing [note: must improve inducements]) could now see more clearly the ‘journey’ that they have been taken on.

Part of the session today was on guidance for their assignment that they will need to submit next year. It’s amazing how assessment concentrates minds and motivates engagement! Some of the focus group acknowledged that the assessment ‘helped’ them pull all the disparate pieces of the course together. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

The course will run again next Spring with a new cohort of students. We will have a new focus group who will then comment on our new, improved array of material, resources and activities. As noted in my previous blog entry, the focus groups have been recorded and will be transcribed in due course.

Posted under Focus Group

This post was written by Tom Browne on November 26, 2010

Dawn is breaking

We didn’t have a focus group last week, so today we dealt with both last weeks and this weeks session.

Just a note to any new readers that this blog is merely recording some of the ‘mood music’ from a focus group that meets directly after the face to face learning session on our Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LTHE) programme. Participants are primarily graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and successful completion of the course will lead to Associate Fellowship of the HEA. The focus groups are being recorded and formally transcribed and will be written up elsewhere.

The twin issues of their apparent powerlessness to influence anything and their perceived lack of any suitable subject specific training within their Colleges still permeated much of the discussion but there was a discernible sense of being further on the journey.

Last weeks session focused on marking, and the participants had to mark an essay without any guidance, then again with specific criteria then get into groups to agree a common mark. This week they engaged in micro-teaching whereby in groups of 4, they took turns to give a brief presentation then receive feedback from the other members of the group. These latter sessions have been recorded and we hope to make some of the available.

Not just because of the improvement in the quality of the free lunch, but the focus group said they really enjoyed the activities they participated in, in the last two weeks. They felt they had much greater input and responsibility to each other. Resources developed around these activities look as if they might fly! They were quite substantial activities and the focus group valued ‘more of less’, rather than attempting to cram a lot of material into a session.

The focus group participants also began to outline how they were, in effect, further long their journey of experiencing being a GTA within their Colleges and they now had more anecdotes to share and this was gradually helping to bring to relevance some of the earlier programme material. The lesson taken on board here is to match the timing of the delivery of the LTHE programme to the experiences being acquired ‘on the job’ within their Colleges and thereby to provide a supportive ‘as it is happening’ framework. Needless to say, trying to develop a generalised programme that chimes with the timing of individual needs will be more than a little challenging, but any nod in that direction should enable a greater appreciation of the activities and accompanying resources at a much earlier stage.

Posted under Focus Group

This post was written by Tom Browne on November 19, 2010

Materials development

We seem to be at a pivotal moment in the project – and in our thinking about the LTHE programme.  The project has made us rethink the content of every session.  How can we contextualise all the activities we have already developed to make them STEM- (and Biosciences and Maths in particular) specific?  How can make sure these are all IPR cleared and in a publishable format?  In parallel, the focus groups seem to be telling us that they want something different from the course – more hints and tips geared to their current [limited and relatively powerless] role. 

I take heart from our management group ‘focus debriefing’ session on Friday.  Our participants are saying that it really matters to them that our materials are subject-specific, hence their engagement with our video of a Biosciences lecturer working his way round a real lab, using just the kind of questioning techniques we have been promoting … and their engagement with the session plan analysis activity, based on real session plans developed by our bioscientists and mathematicians.   They are telling us that they’d like even more granularity – real session plans for microbiology, ecology, bioethics etc.  The only way we’ll achieve this is through intensive work with academic colleagues, which I think we can do more of for the next cohort, within limits.  We will at least have a model where this granularity can be developed over time, which is one of the aims of our project.

I also take heart from previous experience.  It’s not until later on in the participants’ experience that that light dawns and they realise how helpful the course has been.  We know this from the assignments they produce and the tutorials we have with them, perhaps 6 months after the course has finished.  This mirrors my previous experience with teacher-education courses and indeed with my own experience.  As a novice teacher, it was only when I applied some of the techniques I had learned that it all started falling into place.  We definitely need to run another focus group next May or June to ensure we have a longitudinal perspective.

My other preoccupation is with IPR.  We are certainly getting into the habit of thinking ahead when developing materials.  Questions rumbling along at the back of my mind while I’m developing or repurposing.  ‘Can I use this?’ ‘Exactly what permissions do I need?’  ‘What kind of licence applies?’  ‘Will we have to edit this all over again before making it available as OER?’  Awareness has been thoroughly raised, thanks to Tom, but not all questions are answered yet.  I hope the Web2Rights session I’m going to at UCL on 24th November will help.  I think it’s good that Caroline Cash from UCF, who’s managing a ‘sister’ project and with whom we are ‘buddies’ because we’ll be able to compare notes, knowing that we have reached a similar level of understanding.

Overall, I’m really excited about the materials-development aspect of the course.  It’s the best part of my job, and I really enjoy watching our participants interest and energy levels rise as they engage with activities  about teaching in their subject.

Posted under Materials

This post was written by mlc209 on November 6, 2010

Hesitantly glimmering light bulbs

Another extremely lively conversation – so much so that we overran our allotted time. Formally, we planned to discuss their evaluation of various activities that had been employed in our earlier LTHE session, which focused on aspects of assessment and which we wish to refine before they are released as OER. However, there was again much subversion of our initially anticipated agenda, with the participants reconfirming their desire for more guidance on useful interventions they can apply in their ‘here and now’ world, which is an environment in which they have minimal influence to change things. And they also wanted such interventions to be much more subject specific. Nevertheless, there was some recognition that the course is providing essential meta-level guidance, even though they have no means to currently apply it. Some had that light-bulb moment when, after they had taken part in some activity and it was then explained what the point of it was, they bought into its relevance and liked the approach as a practical means of explaining quite complex ideas.

What was most evident was that the focus group is providing a very important space in which the participants can discuss their role as (primarily) graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). The LTHE meta-level approach should complement the training the Colleges provide the GTAs in e.g. their role as assistants in a laboratory session. However, the participants commented that the latter training is invariably of the ‘sink or swim’ approach.

So the ‘activities’ the participants really wished LTHE could offer focused around ‘how to’ interventions they encountered in their current role as GTAs. They would value ‘reality videos’. Even a ‘talking head’ from a GTA in a relevant discipline, talking about their experiences was thought to be a useful resource and several participants were very happy to take part in them. Both scenarios raise some promising OER opportunities.

An interesting conversation took place around the lack of respect the GTA’s consider they experience from the students they assist, despite the fact that they are constantly called upon to interpret ‘instructions’ etc from more senior staff. This was again thought to be, in part because they had minimal control but were merely there to enforce a scripted approach to some activity. We discussed an interesting idea whereby once a GTA had obtained Associate Fellowship of the HEA (which is obtained following successful completion of LTHE) then this should be a gateway through which the College within which they study/work allows some ‘space’ within which the GTA is enabled to exercise some control.

Finally, we had a discussion around the professionalization of teaching within HE. That made Dearing / Browne more relevant and they understood better the implications of LTHE being an accredited course and that they would obtain a transferable and credible qualification. Might that have been another light-bulb moment?

Posted under Focus Group

This post was written by Tom Browne on November 5, 2010

Unintended consequences

On 29th Oct we held our 1st focus group.

‘My’ agenda was to tease out from the focus group as to whether the activities / resources etc ‘worked’ for them, how they could improve them or even replace them. By such reflection, the resources could be improved before being released as OER. However, it very soon became clear that ‘their’ agenda was somewhat different!

All of the participants in the focus group are postgraduate assistants (GTAs). They operate in a very prescriptive environment, i.e. they have minimal flexibility regarding what they can influence. So they need help e.g. not so much on how to create a lesson plan but how to extract maximum value from a lesson plan they HAVE to use, even when they don’t think it’s very good.

To give one example. In the previous week, the participants were given several lesson plans to evaluate. One of them was for a laboratory class in Biosciences and one participant recalled having to endure what he considered was a mere recipe when previously an undergraduate. Cue, I hoped for a meaningful discussion on how it might be improved. However, the conversation that then ensused was a request for guidance (e.g. hints and tips, scenarios) on how to work with the ‘given’ material etc.

Other scenarios on which the participants said they would value guidance were e.g. how to deal with a student who ‘over’ contributes, is too quiet or is disinterested. Theseare their practical realities and situations over which they may be able to bring some influence to bear.

In response to participant feedback from previous years, two separate LTHE streams are being run for the first time this academic year – for STEM and HAAS. However, a thought provoking conclusion from this focus group was that a more meaningful split might be around the extent of power or influence a participant is able to exercise in their L&T contexts. GTAs have minimal/none, Teaching Fellows a little and lecturers the most. So should this be acknowledged and reflected particularly in the UK PSF accreditation for Associate Fellowship of the HEA?

The views noted above are a snapshot of opinion very early in the course. In devising such courses, the BIG tension is between providing the participants with supportive interventions in their ‘here and now’ situations’ and helping them raise their sights to subsequent horizons on their academic journey. Currently, they have no sense of that journey. Evidence from previous cohorts of participants suggests that they are in a very different place at the end than they were at the beginning. It would help in our pursuit of the original objectives of the focus group if we can enable the participants to see a greater relevance in what they are currently experiencing within the course to the journey they are on.

Watch this space!

Posted under Focus Group

This post was written by Tom Browne on October 31, 2010

Open Stem focus groups

As Barrie outlined in is blog introducing the project, Open STEM is running in parallel with and is also embedded within our LTHE  programme.

As part of the project, we have invited participants who are from the Mathematics and Biosciences disciplines to take part in weekly focus groups.     I trust that it is not merely the inducement of a free lunch that has encouraged a critical mass of students to participate.

These focus groups will take place most Fridays and just after they have attended (nay, participated in) the LTHE session for that week.

The LTHE sessions will be ‘road testing’ a variety of material, including lecture capture, activities, question/answer exchanges etc that we ultimately plan to make available as OER.    The focus groups will provide us with an evaluation on how effective the session was in its own right but more importantly, how the resources we introduced the participants used could be improved so that we can improve them prior to release as OER.

I’m delighted to say that participants who are not within Maths and Biosciences and indeed are not even with the strict definition of STEM subjects wish to participate.  It will be interesting to observe whether all participants share a common view generically or whether any subject differentiation appears.

I’ll aim to provide a brief summary of the exchanges that take place.

Posted under Focus Group

This post was written by Tom Browne on October 22, 2010

Welcome to the Open STEM project!

Hello all!

It is with great excitement that you find me completing the first blog entry for the Open STEM blog at the University of Exeter.

Open STEM is a HEA/JISC-funded project that aims to release Open Educational Resources (OER)  promoting reflection and engagement with the UK Professional Standards Framework (PSF).  We particularly intend to release resources tailored to mathematics and biosciences lecturers, because we feel that in order for academics to engage effectively with the UK PSF, it is essential that wherever possible the resources speak to them “in their own language”.

Let me introduce you to the Open STEM project team:

I (Barrie Cooper) am the principal investigator for the project.  My “day job” is as a teaching fellow and Assistant Director of Education in Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Exeter.  I am seconded by the Education Enhancement team for one day a week, primarily to promote staff development and to teach on our two Academy-accredited programmes: Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LTHE) and the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PCAP).

The project manager is Marge Clarke, who is an Education Adviser for Education Enhancement and is the Programme Director for LTHE.

The final member of our project management group is Tom Browne, who has a national profile in relation to OER and will also act as a critical friend.

Andy Pye is a teaching fellow and Assistant Director of Education for Biosciences on our Cornwall campus at Tremough.  He is also seconded for 1 day per week by Education Enhancement to help deliver LTHE at Tremough.

Karen Leslie is an e-learning Adviser for Education Enhancement and is also teaching on LTHE this year.  Karen’s experience with TEL will be invaluable to the project as we decide which resources to release and how we can exploit appropriate technology to make them as effective and accessible as possible.

Dilly Fung is the head of Academic Development and Programme Director for PCAP and was previously Programme Director for LTHE.  Dilly’s experience and boundless enthusiasm for education will be incredibly important to the team.

If you want to get in contact with us about this project then please leave a message on our blog, or contact the team directly via me:

I hope to hear from you – enjoy reading our posts!


Posted under Intro

This post was written by Barrie on October 22, 2010