The 1st Symposium of the Teaching and Learning Special Interest Group of the British Ecological Society: Advancing the synergies between Teaching and Research (hosted by the University of Birmingham, 27th April 2018) attracted around 30 participants for a full day of discussion on inspirational teaching though fieldwork.
If you think of the modules in your Department, would you say the teaching is research-led (curriculum structured around teaching subject content), research-oriented (curriculum emphasises teaching processes of knowledge construction in the subject), or research-based (curriculum emphasises students undertaking inquiry-based learning or low key research)? This question, asked by Alice Mauchline (University of Reading and co-organiser of the symposium) was the kick-off to a lively discussion on how to unite teaching and research, and how to use research in your teaching. How many lecturers struggle with the time needed to deliver content and help their students achieve deeper learning, whilst also juggling their own research? We certainly do! So why not combine the two? Students enjoy being involved in research-based teaching, and it is good for both their learning and future employability.
Bringing the class to the field, or bringing the field to the class
We’re not normally coldblooded people, but having students working in a UK river in the middle of winter would have never crossed our minds. Rachel Stubbington (Nottingham Trent University, @rstubbington), however, passionately told us about her module, where students research the health of a river using different sampling techniques… in the bleak mid-winter. Everything reinforced theoretical concepts and helped students apply them in a real-world situation. Despite the cold, students loved the module, and also appreciated the support of what Rachel called “nerve dropping” tutorials on taxonomy and statistics– tutorials designed to calm the nerves of students and help them answer their own research questions.
Anna McGregor (University of Glasgow) takes a similar approach in her ‘research mini-projects’ module, where she aims to fill the gap between the research-led teaching in the first year in the undergraduate programme and the research-based last year of the programme. In her six-week second-year module, learners tie experimental set-up and hypothesis testing to ‘real-world’ experiments, supported by tutorials that focus on future outcomes and student achievement. Students are also allowed to fail at getting data, as it all belongs to the process of learning.
Ian Thornhill (Bath Spa University) discussed how good synergy between teaching and research underpins improved student learning. At his university, he builds a student-observation driven database that can be used in ecological teaching. A great idea, with lots of potential to be rolled out across institutes.
Thornhill is in the lucky situation that his university is situated in a perfect (semi-)natural setting, but how do you teach ecology on a subject which is not around the corner and demonstrate concepts in a ‘natural environment’? Some go far to bring a field component in their classes. When setting up a module on Wetland Ecohydrology, Dr Nick Kettridge (University of Birmingham, @nkettridge) struggled to find the right time to introduce a field visit to link theory to practice. Not having a field site right around the corner, Nick brought the field to campus. He ordered buckets and found a company prepared to bring in peat soils form Ireland that he inoculated with Sphagnum moss from the local pet shop, letting him fill the “awkward” 15 minutes breaks between lectures with a visit to the ‘field’, where he can demonstrate that a “piezometer is just a pipe with holes in the bottom”, and a “lysimeter is just a plastic bucket filled with soil”.
And there was more! As a researcher, Dr Julia Cooke (Open University, @CookeJulia) first-authored a short communication that postulated the mechanisms of algal ball formation on an Australian beach. The algal balls only formed under specific hydrological conditions, and certainly not regularly, making it difficult to test her hypothesis. Following this, she designed a module where her students did the work for her. Using exactly the same approach Cooke and her colleagues took to underpin their theory, Cooke’s students study at algal ball formations across the globe and link these events to hydrological conditions. A great example of involving students in your research, and likely very effective in teaching students to think as an academic. This method actually reminded me (Bjorn) of my own undergraduate modules where we used modelling approaches to learn about inter- and intraspecific competition. Perhaps I should dust off some of my old syllabi to get some inspiration. Perhaps we can put long-standing ecological theories to the test again with research-based teaching.
Alternative ways to cover content
The main stage was for Prof Jeremy Pritchard (University of Birmingham, @drjpritchard), with a thought-provoking lecture on flipped learning and assessment. Bored with lecturing the same subject year after year (“and the student were probably also bored”), he decided it was time to take a radical, and for him, time-consuming, change and give students a bit more ownership over the content of the lectures. I (Bjorn) am not yet sure if I dare take the hit and flip all my lectures (see also this blog for a discussion), but I see some clear benefits for student learning.
Pritchard challenged the audience to think about what we are doing when we lecture. We must help our students demonstrate they achieved the required levels of knowledge, i.e. levels of knowledge that aligns with the learning outcomes. For that, we need to be prepared to the help students prepare for what we test. In his module, Pritchard even students makes write their own questions, some of which re-appear in assessments. Still a good discriminator for student performance, this method helps students think about the anatomy of exam questions.
Institutional strategies for excellence in teaching and research
The last part of the symposium was not on individual teaching, but on ways to excel at teaching and research on an institutional level. After getting back to the central theme of the day by splitting teaching strategies into silos (research-led, -informed, -oriented, -based), Sara Marsham made the case that student learning improved when programmes are driven by research excellence. Anne Tierney reinforced that message by referring to research that shows that microcultures of excellence are of great importance for institutes, for teaching and research. Essential for successful institutes is how we value both teaching and research, and how we facilitate knowledge transfer between teaching and research oriented staff, which is especially important at institutes where that division is very clear. Good, but informal, communication between staff separates successful institutes from the less successful, and support for a knowledge-exchange system between research- and teaching-staff is key. An eye-opener to me was the importance of the Head of Department in this all. Those institutes where the HoD values league tables and rankings over clear vision or the needs of their staff will ultimately see the negative effect of their staff feeling undervalued, potentially leading to underperformance in teaching and in research. A message for all institutions, and certainly those people in higher management, to think about!