t&l conference 2015

How to connect the life science curriculum

Feeling slightly lost without a poster on exon skipping, this week I attended my first teaching and learning conference.  The theme was connected curriculum and this week’s post was inspired by what, for me, was the key take home message:

“Teaching and research belong together and we are going to reunite them.”

 

I should state that I went along to this conference very much as a learner for my own professional development and that this is just my collection of thoughts and inspiration from the day.  I am at the beginning of my journey as a teacher (as alluded to previously), and was inspired to think about how we could move from a research-led to a research-based curriculum in the life sciences where traditionally undergraduate students don’t encounter a real research environment until their final year.

The connected curriculum aims to connect not only students and researchers but also different year groups, departments, employers and alumni.  I’d like to share a quote from Tansy Jessop’s (The University of Winchester) keynote speech which was taken from ‘a student’s lecture to professors’ by Austin Fitzhenry:

“When broad, over-arching connections are made, education occurs. Most details are only a necessary means to that end. Once the Lethean river has eroded the details, [the] bedrock of concepts remains.”

In the life sciences we already do a pretty good job of offering students conceptual research experience through placement years and final year projects etc.  The missing connection is with first year students who are all too often loaded only with facts; but aren’t these students the ones we need to inspire the most?

Drawing on my own experiences as a biochemistry undergraduate I remember – well no actually that’s the point.  I do not remember what I was doing in lab practicals besides jotting down spectrophotometer readings or running agarose gels in hypothetical ‘do this, see that’ experiments.  Yes I learned the technical theory and yes I learned x, y and z, which to be fair was the point; but did it give me a realistic insight into research?  No.  That is something I gained from my (optional) placement year in industry and my final year project.  So my questions are:

  1. Is there still a place for teaching laboratory practicals in a research-based education?  I certainly don’t envisage we abolish them completely, but do they need to be so far removed from the research labs in both space and concept?
  2. To what extent is factual knowledge a prerequisite to research and creativity?  The basics first, concepts later approach is tried and tested in the life sciences but do students lose inspiration and motivation along the way?

Perhaps we could link first year practical’s to cutting edge research seminars by postdocs, have the students shadow them in the lab and get them to blog about it.  Whatever our ideas, this week has taught me that they must come from the perspective of the degree program as a whole in order to build meaningful connections and achieve effective assessment.

I learned a lot about assessment after hearing Tansy tell us that it is in fact broken.  The very thing that drives student learning, broken.  There was talk of degree courses being too modular and suffering from a high summative assessment load, and that providing students with feedback must be a two-way complicated conversation rather than a one way commentary.  Engaging students in research right from the beginning would dictate a more formative approach to assessment throughout the degree course; but we must ensure that it is high quality and task-focused, and that it is not subjective.

Moving towards a research-based education means that researchers must also be teachers.  Yet currently, researchers have little time and incentive to sufficiently develop themselves as teachers; and, for early career researchers in particular, decreasing research activity would have a detrimental consequence on academic job prospects.  We heard from the Provost that it is easy to be good at researching and easy to be good at teaching, but very difficult to be good at both.  If we are to be good at both we must be trained to do both and equal priority and reward must be given to both.  Perhaps most importantly of all, this needs to begin at the early career stage and not just be for permanent ‘tenured’ staff.  In my experience it is the postdocs who are charged with everything from writing/designing research projects to supervising and assessing them.  We are the primary/sole supervisor in all but name due to our plight as non-permanent staff.  In fact, is it even correct for undergraduates to be taught by postdocs who haven’t undergone any formalised teacher development?

I would argue that the best researchers are not necessarily the best teachers and we need to offer flexibility in job roles to reflect individual interest, passion and talent.  Indeed, there are increasing reports on the need to give equal weighting to research and teaching, for example, The Open University have launched parallel routes to senior academic promotion.  I was therefore delighted to hear from the panel at this conference a commitment to rewarding teaching excellence as well as research.

So how do we connect the life science curriculum?  How about we begin by connecting the staff.  I really enjoyed leaving my research lab to immerse myself in a day of teaching and learning, but many research staff are less enthused.  If we are to reunite teaching with research then we must address the issue of career progression and engage more staff in conversations about teaching and learning.

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