ViCEPHEC17 roundup!

Another summer, another fantastic ViCEPHEC to provide a vital burst of excitement and ideas for the new semester. My third such conference, I’m starting to feel like I might be finding my feet a little – to echo Michael’s recent blog, I’m starting to put down the overwhelming feeling of wanting to implement everything I see.

Immediately before the conference, there were two great events – Labsolutely Fabulous, a showcase of laboratory experiments and practical work, which I was woefully late for but still managed to whoosh around a few demonstrations, including some great microscale work from Bob Worley of CLEAPSS, much discussed but never before met. I also came away with a pipe-cleaner molecular model of water from Kristy Turner, that graced my lanyard for the rest of the conference and my living-room from now on. We also had a satellite meeting of the Teaching Fellows Network, much-renamed and invaluable.

One theme that stood out for me at the Teaching Fellows Network, and across the whole conference, was difficulty in challenging signature pedagogies. I saw case after case where introducing too much innovative practice, too quickly, would result in student rebellion or poor satisfaction scores. Despite research indicating that teaching quality is unrelated to student satisfaction, we saw multiple cases of academics being punished and in some cases denied promotion on the basis of poor reception. Simon Lancaster even found himself in the position of potentially having to advise himself to reduce the extent of flipping in a course, pitting a direct inverse correlation of learning gain with student satisfaction – the peril of being a director of teaching which includes your own…

it’s become increasingly clear that setting the tone of the culture is important to elicit change – both within a department, but also in the places our students come from. It’s easy to blame “the system” for unhelpful student preconceptions, but when that’s a code for blaming secondary education, then it’s even more vital to listen to the intersecting experience of teacher-lecturers like Kristy Turner, David Read, and Sir John Holman. It’s hardly a problem unique to our little corner of humanity that we have a need of casting less blame and building more bridges.

My main new piece of good practice came right at the start of the conference, from Suzanne Fergus, who gives voice to a habit I’ve used haphazardly and accidentally – Put the why first. Give your lecture a context in day 1, minute 1. I’ve long argued that it’s far more important to spend time making your subject relevant and engaging than it is to cram another sliver of content in, and it’s great to have a voice with some weight that I can cite. Suzanne also spoke about Miller’s pyramid of competency in lab skills – things I’ll be looking into locally in the next year.

Continuing the lab skills theme, Robin Stoodley of UBC presented work they had done to categorise the cognitive tasks of the undergraduate teaching laboratory – revealing a real narrowness of experience, with many of the tasks being repeated across many experiments, and many only appearing in a single experiment – organic chemistry being a particular culprit for narrowness of experience. This framework would, I think, be useful to categorise experimental work from all families of Domin’s descriptors, useful to me as I begin to add elements of inquiry to my first year curriculum (very much following some unpublished work of Jenny Burnham in this area).

Finally in the lab theme, Jenny Slaughter presented an important observation that echoes what we already know to be true: student retention is directly linked to interaction with graduate teaching assistants! It’s a powerful reminder not to neglect the training of these students, as they represent most of the direct staff contact between students and the university, certainly in first year. also vitally important in the lab is safety education. Both Liverpool and Bristol deny student entry to the lab without a passing mark on a pre-lab safety quiz, and James Gaynor of Liverpool spoke of a robust and integrated approach to H&S that involves giving students access to official COSHH forms directly, as part of lab preparation.

Hopefully, in editing down my 10,000 words of conference notes into this single blog post, I’ve also managed to reduce my cache of new ideas for implementation down into something small enough to tackle before #vicephec18…

Bring on the next semester!

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