Friday, July 25, 2014

What the evangelists get wrong

Wordpress This week, as the culmination of long running frustration at my ISP - who I've been paying good money to host my own domain - I finally pulled the plug and moved back to

And it feels like freedom. Freedom to concentrate on content rather than technology. Freedom to concentrate on what I want to say rather than how I'm saying it. Maintaining my own domain felt like an albatross around my neck. If Wordpress ever does anything I don't like, I'll simply move again. It's that sort of world now.

What the evangelists get wrong is technodeterminism.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Monday, June 30, 2014

An assessment arms race and the case for slow scholarship

"This research questions the impact of assessment on university teaching and learning in circumstances where all student work is graded. Sixty-two students and lecturers were interviewed to explore their experiences of assessment at an institution that had adopted a modular course structure and largely unregulated numbers of internal assessments. Lecturers rewarded student work with grades and controlled study behaviour with assessment. In some situations it was possible to experience hundreds of graded assessments in an academic year. Students were single-minded when it came to grades and would not work without them. These conditions contributed to competition for student attention and a grading arms race between academics and subjects. In this context, the spaces for achieving certain educational objectives, such as fostering self-motivated learners, were marginalised. Both students and lecturers were unsatisfied with this situation, but neither group could envisage radical change. Students were generally happy to accumulate small marks, while being irritated and stressed by frequent grading. Lecturers were aware of better practices but felt trapped by circumstances. The idea of slow scholarship is introduced to encourage a re-think of such assessment practices, support a positive shift in assessment culture and contribute to the theories of assessment."

Tony Harlanda, Angela McLeana, Rob Wassa, Ellen Millera & Kwong Nui Sima. An assessment arms race and its fallout: high-stakes grading and the case for slow scholarship. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 30 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/02602938.2014.931927

Student’s experiences:
  • Students were being assessed constantly and because of this they had no time to do any of the work required of them outside core-graded curriculum activities.
  • All students regularly missed teaching sessions in order to cope with assessment loads. They also cooperated in small groups to ensure that both assessment deadlines could be met, and that course materials were shared.
  • Students who had high expectation for their grades felt they were always working at sub-optimal levels and thought they could do better work than that handed in. These students seemed more stressed than those with lower expectations, so the impact of frequent summative assessment may not be equal across the student body.
  • Students were stressed by the lack of coordination of assessment tasks between the courses they were taking (up to four a semester) and even between sections of the same course. For example, they found that several assessments could be due at the same time and that lecturers were unaware of all due dates.
  • Students expressed a preference for having many small internal-graded assessments and felt that large assessments were too high stakes. None wanted to revert to a final examination carrying 100% of the marks.

Lecturer’s experiences:
  • Lecturers did not know how many assessments each student was subject to as there was little communication between lecturers, departments and programmes.
  • They were reluctant to reduce the number of assessments, despite experiencing high marking loads. The reason given was that students would then spend all their efforts on tasks that carried marks in other modules. This situation suggested assessment was being used to control students’ behaviour and resulted in competition between teachers and departments.
  • Lecturers felt that they were under student pressure to give marks for any submitted course work, even when they thought this might not be appropriate.
  • It was recognised that overall grades might not reflect overall performance when small marks were given for tasks.
  • Non-graded forms of assessment (i.e. formative assessment) were not considered.

"However, one lecturer suggested that frequent assessment was perfect preparation for a neoliberal world in which students would continue to be assessed, judged and accountable throughout their lives."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Say no mow! Your help needed

Say no mow

Help Plantlife persuade councils to manage "Bee Roads" better: Sign the petition

1. Road verges are the life-giving arteries of the countryside, linking habitats and acting as vital corridors for wildlife to thrive on. They also represent a remnant of our native grassland which has suffered catastrophic losses over the last century.

2. They can act as buffers to some of the most impoverished areas, be they six lane motorways or intensively farmed fields.

3. Combined with railway edges they are the single most viewed habitat in the country, giving millions of people every day direct contact with the changing seasons and colours of the countryside

4. When managed correctly road verges can support remarkable diverse collections of species. The good news is that good management often involve simply doing less, allowing the verge to develop and plants to set seed before cutting takes place.

5. Road verges can be genuine community reserves, people form close relationships with them and there is an army of volunteers who with training can act as the guardians for them.

Monday, June 23, 2014

What do students know?

Epistemology First year undergraduate courses in higher education tend to be designed based on assumptions of students’ prior knowledge. Almost 600 undergraduates at five UK universities, studying biological sciences, were given an MCQ test in their first week at university, based on biology A-level (pre-university examination) core criteria. Results demonstrated low-level retention of basic concepts. There was variation between subject area and examination board and an inverse correlation between MCQ score and time since taking A-levels. By discovering what students remember from their pre-university learning, undergraduate courses can be designed to be more student-focused and so develop a deeper-learning teaching strategy. The results also suggest that, if A-levels are to be redesigned to enhance their impact for students entering higher education, creating programmes which encourage retention of key concepts should be a key factor to consider.

Harriet Jones, Beth Black, Jon Green, Phil Langton, Stephen Rutherford, Jon Scott & Sally Brown. Indications of Knowledge Retention in the Transition to Higher Education. Journal of Biological Education 20 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/00219266.2014.926960

Friday, June 20, 2014

Barriers To Biology Fieldwork

Quadrant This paper considers a range of factors that may contribute to an unwillingness or inability of teachers to participate in the teaching of biology through fieldwork. Through a synthesis of the views of both pre-service teachers in training and primary school teachers in practice we explore the relative importance of a wide range of potential barriers and potential responses to them in the context of the wider literature. We conclude that although fieldwork may be impeded by the interaction of a wide range of individual barriers, including an individual’s predisposition towards the outdoors, it is possible to group interacting barriers into two main areas: school culture and teacher confidence. It is also apparent that barriers may assume different levels of significance when considered in general terms rather than when applied to a particular context and that the significance of barriers may change through time. Encouragingly, we have also shown that in-service teachers have a willingness to overcome these barriers.

Scott, Graham W., Margaret Boyd, Lisa Scott, and Derek Colquhoun. Barriers To Biological Fieldwork: What Really Prevents Teaching Out of Doors? Journal of Biological Education ahead-of-print (2014): 1-14.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What has taxonomy ever done for us?

"If taxonomy and systematics have a range of educational benefits, why have they been squeezed from university curricula in many countries, including the UK? Thirty years ago, most first year biology undergraduates would have been able to identify a range of common animals and plants, skills which their degree courses would expand on. Nowadays this is typically no longer the case, many courses failing to develop identification skills, despite their continued requirement in a range of professions, including environmental consultancy. Some of the reason behind this shift is the fact that fewer staff with a research interest in systematic biology have been recruited to university positions in recent decades, something which at least partly results from the increased use of citation metrics such as journal impact factors to evaluate science quality. Since impact factors reflect the number of workers citing a paper, they are much higher in fields with large numbers of active researchers. With such a scheme a ‘top’ taxonomic journal, of the kind which actually includes species descriptions, might have an impact factor of 3, whilst in cell biology, for example, a similarly prestigious journal may have to score 10 or above. Since impact factors form a key component of exercises to assess university research, such as the UK Research Excellence Framework, they inevitably influence hiring and funding decisions. Taxonomy loses out in this process, and indeed the citation index has been identified as an impediment to the description of the world’s biodiversity. A simple step towards a solution, which makes use of citation metrics, is obvious here – and that is whenever a species name is used in the scientific literature, the author(s) of that name are included, and reference made to the work in which the name was first published. Taxa are hypotheses, after all, and in what other branch of scholarship would one fail to cite the originator of an idea? Bad referencing is something we frequently bemoan of our students, so perhaps it is time for the rest of us to tighten up?"

David Bilton What have taxonomy and systematics ever done for us? Journal of Biological Education 48(3) 17 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/00219266.2014.926653