Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Working Smarter: Strategies for managing teaching workload while maintaining quality in a tertiary context

I met with a group of colleagues as part of our teaching advocacy work the other day and we discussed issues around teaching workload and how to work smarter, managing the time we spend on teaching-related tasks while maintaining quality pedagogy. Contributors to our discussion were teacher educators, curriculum experts, sport and leisure specialists and teachers of bridging courses for international students preparing for degree study.

While avoiding an exhaustive summary, this post gathers up a few key ideas and gems from the collegial discussion, particularly highlighting frustrations, ways of thinking about workload, and strategies for managing marking and feedback.

While not having enough time to do everything well is a frustration for most, colleagues are also frustrated by what might be called ‘the cult of busyness’ that permeates teaching in tertiary institutions. Colleagues constantly complain that they/we are all too busy, and we even meet over coffee to talk about how busy we are. It pays to stop and think about what it means to be busy and how meaningful our busy-work is. After all, busyness is relative and is fundamentally a choice that we make. We all have 24 hours in a day and we all make choices about time management.

As I listened to my colleagues, I was reminded of a favourite concept from my high school economics days – Opportunity Cost
That is, every choice has a cost in terms of other choices (opportunities) foregone.
  • If we choose to leave our marking until the last minute, we have to mark all weekend to meet the deadline.
  • If we take on extra work to help a colleague, we have less time with family.
  • If we sacrifice sleep for work, we have less energy to give to responsive and engaging teaching (or to anything else for that matter).

This is where the tough questions have to be asked:
What (Who) are our priorities?
Who are we serving? (or saving?)
Who is applying the pressure?
How productive and purposeful is our time?
Are we competing in a race?
And importantly, what messages are we conveying to students about learning and teaching? 

The latter is particularly important in a teacher education context, where as Loughran (2006) suggests, the manner in which we teach provides a model for students through which they learn about teaching. With this in mind, as a teacher educator I am doing a disservice to student teachers and to the profession if my attitude and behaviour communicates a sense of exhaustion, in effect teaching students that teaching is tough, draining and unrelenting. Who would want to do it!?

Even outside of teacher education, there is a risk of conveying hidden messages to students that risk impeding their growth as learners. For example, if we nurture dependence by encouraging students to seek our approval on every decision, and to look to us for every answer, we cultivate learned helplessness that is not conducive to lifelong learning.

If we respond to emails at weekends, we establish an expectation that we will always be available 24/7 to students and colleagues alike.

Doing things differently means thinking about things differently.

On to the Doing part: Interestingly, a great many of the strategies shared by those present coalesced around the challenges of marking student work and providing helpful feedback.

These include:
Taking a pro-active approach by front-ending preparation for assignments. That is, instead of presenting a vague and loosely articulated assignment, give clear and specific instructions, directions and work with students in class to understand requirements and criteria. This pre-empts ongoing confusions and reduces the number of student queries and complaints down the track. 

Is this teaching to the test? If the assessment task is an appropriately rich and engaging task, does it matter?

Is this encouraging a checklist mentality? Again, this comes back to the rich task. Teaching students how to critique an academic article is an example. It is important to look at what it means to critique, what critical thinking involves (and what it does not), and what a written critique might look like. It is helpful to practice formulating a critique. We did all of this in class with third year students on campus a few weeks ago, partly in preparation for upcoming assignments, and partly because the ability to critique is an expectation of graduates (which of course is why we assess it in the first place). Teaching to the test is not a problem if the assessment has been devised as a rich, authentic and worthwhile task.

Another strategy for managing workload associated with marking and feedback is to note repetitive feedback and devise shortcuts – e.g. by copying feedback statements or giving general feedback to the class based on common misunderstandings 
Keep in mind that marking is not editing. It is not necessary to edit a student’s work as they will not be resubmitting it for publication. Instead of correcting mechanics of writing or referencing, point out in general terms that there is a need for more careful proofreading, or to fine-tune citations, and refer students to sources of help in order to spread the load.  
Writing all over a student’s work so that it is bleeding red ink is conceived by some recipients as killing the assignment. Homicidal use of track changes is the same death in a digital format.

Finally, for now, colleagues suggested that for assignments later in the semester, reduce the volume of feedback. Frontload the feedback at the start, scaffold the students’ learning early in the course of study, then fade the level of feedback as the semester proceeds. Feedback is only useful and formative if it is acted upon. At the end of the course, students want their grades in a timely manner and want to know why they received the grade they did.

Which of these frustrations and ways of thinking resonate with you?
Considering how you manage your teaching workload, what can you add to the strategies?

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Talking about teaching, learning and digital technologies

I had a really interesting experience recently, where I was teaching a group f2f that I normally teach online. This group is made of people from all around NZ who are learning to be secondary teachers and are doing so from their own homes, using local schools as their practicum contexts. This group covers as wide a subject area as you could possibly think of, so the conceptions about learning, about subject material and what needs teaching is very diverse.

I set a task where I offered them about 5 digital technologies to investigate in curriculum groups, asking them to focus on ones that were unfamiliar, then select one to apply the task to. With this task, they needed to outline what they learned about the tool (such as scoop.itvimeo or fakebook), including its strengths and possible obstacles to use. They then had to think how this tool could be appropriated for their subject, and then to design the outline of a lesson where this could be used. They also had to identify the key competencies that would be focused on, and the curriculum standards they were aiming for. The end point was to present their decisions to the whole group when we reconvened.

I then spent time moving from group to group to talk with them as they undertook this investigation. After a bit of targeted questioning and offering some suggestions, some groups got really stuck in. A science group for example, decided could be really useful for curating sites for specific topics, and they described how they found stuff on photosynthesis, including videos. I asked if they realised that people could comment on specific sites, and asked them to consider what value that might have for learners. They then became even more creative in their thinking about what their learners could do with it.

After that, I talked with groups looking at fakebook. This site enthused social studies and English groups, for they could see how this could be used to express different points of view about events or issues, or create profiles of characters from books or history. They then thought of ways to use it in their imminent  six-week practicum.

Next group was a large group of hard materials technology teachers. I spent quite some time with them, for they had trouble getting past the idea that kids should be making things in the workshops. I probed them to describe something that students would make and how they would learn to know how to make it. It took a while to probe this, but eventually they started to see that something like could be a good way for teachers to probe learners' thinking, especially if they required students to choose some site (video or otherwise) which best helped them learn something they would need to make their product, such as a table. By adding an comment to the sites they curated, students would need to explain what it was about their selection that particularly helped them. This set of sites could then be shared with everyone, so there could be a rich pool of resources for everyone to learn from, without the teacher having to do all the work.

As part of this discussion however, they said that data projectors in workshops don't work because of the dust. We then talked about chromecast and how much cheaper this might be with a tv screen. As luck would have it. we were close to one of the tvs in the cafe space on campus, so I showed them how it worked. Serendipitously, the manager of our faculty's Innovation and Technology group walked past, used his phone to take control of the tv, and joined the conversation. The group was highly engaged in that conversation, so I left them to it.

I guess the point I'm making is that anything can be a teachable moment: we need to grasp the moment when it's there and run with it. By asking this group of pre-service teachers to think more creatively rather than linearly, they were able to expand what they know and add ideas that might enhance learning for students they teach. The general feedback and recap session at the end demonstrated this clearly, for the whole group got to hear how specific curriculum groups might use specific tools new to them.

I can't wait to see what happens when they start teaching and have a go at including tools they might never have heard about otherwise.

And what about you? What digital tools are your favourites? Which ones might my students benefit from knowing about? I'd love to know.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Formative assessment in tertiary teaching

Having just finished my marking (Yay!), it is timely to pause and reflect on how marking intersects with teaching. At 100 level, I gave formative feedback on eportfolio entries, and marked online discussion. At 200 level, I marked discussion and 4 small module tasks. At 300 level, I marked students on their leadership of discussion and an essay. I also marked a masters dissertation. Whew!

As a primary teacher, I take it for granted that assessment is integral to learning, and that the point of marking student work is to give them feedback to help them to improve the work. (I do understand the summative and credentialling functions that sit uneasily alongside assessment for formative purposes).  Of course, feedback opportunities arise outside of a 'marking' context in everyday interactions, and this is well established and researched by key figures like Black & WiliamClarke, Timperley, Hattie, and Waikato's own Bell & Cowie.

However, it sometimes seems as if this thinking is quite new to a tertiary context, where there are still some strange ideas around what constitutes teaching and what the point of assessment is. At the same time, there is a dawning realisation that teaching is NOT a 50-minute lecture once a week, or a block of transmission followed by a slightly more interactive lab or tutorial (often involving explaining assignments to students, aka teaching to the test). It follows that the most effective approach to assessment for learning does NOT involve 2-3 assignments, graded with (sometimes minimal) written comments, and/or perhaps an exam at the end of semester.

A shift in thinking has teachers experimenting with flipped classrooms, but I am still unsure what needs to be flipped in a primary school classroom, or in our online classes for that matter. Perhaps we have always been topsy turvy! Does our assessment need to be flipped?

Our institution is currently engaged in a curriculum enhancement project, working through some of the issues around quality tertiary pedagogy and assessment that supports student learning. One of the important points made by our DVC is that we need to be assessing formatively and we need to be finding out what students need help with at an earlier stage in their study.  I am encouraged by these developments.

I am reasonably happy with my approach to formative assessment and am pretty confident that I do this well online in particular. Of course there is always room for improvement so this post looks at what I am doing with formative assessment in my online tertiary teaching at this point, and what I need to consider and change for the future, as well as raising questions I am still pondering.

Some ways my colleagues and I integrate feedback opportunities are:
- working in a blended fashion where possible, combining f2f meetings with online classes, and asynchronous discussion with synchronous and multi-media opportunities to converse and clarify ideas
- teaching through online discussion - using discussion as an forum for challenging misconceptions, prompting further thinking, and reassuring students who are desperate to know they are 'on the right track'
- importantly, encouraging students to join this effort by promoting discussion as a tutorial opportunity, where students can voice uncertainties and actively seek and give feedback
**For this to work, both staff and students must be active in online discussion, but this can be managed**
- arranging sharing of eportfolio entries prior to grading and alternating between teacher feedback and peer feedback
- requiring students to self assess pieces of work, and then giving feedback on their self assessment
- sharing criteria with students, and looking for opportunities to co-construct criteria with students
- breaking the criteria down into skills and practising those skills on campus - e.g., higher order skills like how to critique can be demonstrated, rehearsed and scaffolded in class
- responding to student work in a timely manner, with clear written feedback, individualised and designed to explain a) why the work received the grade it did; and b) how to improve upon the work for next time around
- taking time to follow up with students who are at risk - via extra reassurance, advice, points to address next time around, opportunities for resubmission, and individual appointments
- podcasting general feedback. Following an assignment, I am trying to summarise key areas of concern and to present a mini-lecture targeting those aspects, via Panopto
- directing students to other sources of help - e.g., library tools in particular

What could we do better?
- It is easy to get trapped in a mindset where we think we can only assess the students after we have taught them some content, but this delays the opportunity to give formative feedback. As our DVC noted, most courses do not assess student work until 6 weeks into semester and some students do not know they are failing in their studies until 9 weeks on. We need to see what students can do at an earlier point in time, to teach and guide their progress and to direct them to extra help where needed. To some extent we do this in our 100 level class where the students give a very early presentation in class. I am happy that the early sharing of eportfolio entries also makes this particular class a good example of formative assessment. In other classes, I can see how students are developing their thinking via their early discussion contributions.
However, in some classes, I think I need to require earlier submission of an assessment task so that I can give feedback at an earlier point in time. I'm going to shift one of the 200 level tasks to the end of week 3, to build earlier feedback into our communication technologies option paper.

Some of my colleagues give oral feedback by meeting with each student f2f to discuss assignments, or by podcasting feedback to each student. I am mindful of the workload implications of this, and of the danger of creating over-dependence. Similarly, inviting students to submit drafts for feedback can be a time-consuming game of mastery learning, in my experience.

  • How do we reconcile the desire and imperative to support students with the equally powerful desire that they learn to think for themselves?
  • How do we provide fair and transparent criteria without falling into a reductionist checklist mentality?
  • How do we create manageable assessment for learning?

I'm interested in hearing what you do - in a tertiary context, or in any other sector, and I welcome input from students. What kind of assessment do you need to support your learning?