But wheres’s the data?

Last year I got a free CMAC conference dinner. I blagged a freebie for two reasons: firstly, I coordinate parts of the SIPBS/CMAC Advanced Pharmaceutical Manufacturing MSc course and secondly, they were looking for someone to play the bagpipes! My neighbour at the table was a retired senior director of a large global engineering company. After the polite introductions and somewhere between starter and the main course, we got down to talking about university students. In summary, he wasn’t impressed with graduates (and any level) preferring to recruit staff who’d come up through the tools because the skills set of the latter always trumped the (mainly intellectual) skill set of the former. I couldn’t convince him otherwise and for many of the issues he raised I had no real answers.

That conversation and others like it, drive me to the question: ‘what do I mean by a successful student’. For me it that ‘students finish a course with the depth and range of technical and transferable skills, to ensure they can move into effective, functional living in their chosen sphere of operation as adult participants in society’. If they need a scroll of paper to move into their ‘chosen sphere’, then so be it. That piece of paper might get their CV read, but it won’t get then through the interview, nor will it get an actual job done.

Sometimes I feel that  I’m no clearer to how I should teach and what the best way to teach is. I bugs me that most of my teaching is the same style as I was taught 30 years ago. Which wasn’t so different as the teaching styles 300, or maybe even 3000, years ago (although I suspect class sizes have increased!).

As I look around for a direction to drive my teaching style, I can’t see any clear route. New teaching strategies seem to be ‘trendy’ or ‘sound nice’ rather than ‘proven’. It struck me while reading Chapter 1 of University Teaching in Focus (Ed. Lynne Hunt, Denise Chalmers, Taylor and Francis, 2013) that the author got more excited about the ‘learning theories’ as the chapter progressed, but none of them seemed to get beyond the concept that they were ‘a logical series of sensible thoughts’, and driven by data into areas where the ‘theory’ is supported, modified or scrapped. There seems to be a lack of data about what makes a successful student by the definition I’ve adopted (or any definition really!)

Even the widely touted (and very cool looking) flipped classroom seems to have little evidence (as scientists would call it) to support the assertion that it is a successful teaching tool. Bishop and Verleger concluded that “…there is very little work investigating student learning outcomes objectively”, similar conclusions are made by Abeysehera and Dawson and most of the other links I tried in Google Scholar. It seems that students prefer it: and at one level that’s great, but is that enough to adopt it as a teaching model?. The Don Clark video below looks really cool: but lacked any real consideration of the costs and resources involved in his new strategies, or data on the real outcomes for students.

Technology is great, but the latest shiny VR/mobile/AI thingy isn’t what I’m looking for. New technology can also a curse with steep learning curves and precarious stability: both draining valuable time and resource for, again, no advantage that can be measured. (At one point the ‘solid’ Soundcloud was looking like it was going to evaporate!) This blog post by MK Smith had a paragraph title of ‘There is an intimate connection between knowledge and activity’ (italics added) , but this was based upon the tenuous link to ideas that Lindeman had ‘argued’. No data. No hard evidence. No proven direction. So, how do I design my teaching in a way that produces successful students and what will I have to offer to the conversation at my next conference meal?



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