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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Awareness invoking positive change: Reflections on lecturing practice in Computer and Information Science

Patricia A. H. Williams
School of Computer and Information Science
Edith Cowan University

Tertiary teaching is ready for change. The push for widespread adoption of student centred techniques to promote deep and lifelong learning is gathering momentum. Further, teaching in the disciplines of computer and information science has additional challenges such as student motivation and the teaching of large classes. For the author, postgraduate study in tertiary teaching has encouraged the awareness of these challenges. In addition, it has exposed the importance of defining a personal teaching philosophy, and altering teaching practice to be consistent with this philosophy and with the objectives of a wider range of educational stakeholders. Entering tertiary education as a lecturer with an industry background brings the added accountability to monitor and improve teaching skills, which has been facilitated by professional development activities and undertaking the Graduate Certificate in Education (Tertiary Teaching) taught at Edith Cowan University (ECU). This paper describes a personal journey of awareness and reflection, prompted by education, leading to positive change and practical application of student centred techniques in the computer and information science disciplines.


Introduction

Tertiary teaching is ready for change as the push for widespread adoption of student centred techniques to promote deep and lifelong learning gathers momentum (Duke, 2004). Further, teaching computer and information science has added challenges such as student motivation and the teaching of large classes. For the author, postgraduate study in tertiary teaching has encouraged the awareness of these challenges. It has exposed the importance of defining a personal teaching philosophy, and altering teaching practice to be consistent with this philosophy and with the objectives of a wider range of educational stakeholders. Entering tertiary education as a lecturer, with an industry background brings the added accountability to monitor and improve teaching skills, which has been predominantly facilitated by professional development activities and undertaking the Graduate Certificate in Education (Tertiary Teaching) taught at Edith Cowan University (ECU). This paper describes a personal journey of awareness and reflection leading to positive change in teaching practice through education and practical application.

Teaching context

I teach units of study spread across all the School of Computer and Information Science (SCIS) undergraduate programs and some postgraduate programs. This teaching context is cross disciplinary, encompassing both computer and information science. My teaching ranges from generic skills in IT and basic computer networking, to decision support systems and medical informatics, with a student cohort predominantly consists of males aged 18-25, from Australia and overseas. Class sizes are large (commonly 140-250 students) with some units having over 400 students spread over two or three lecture events.

Current practice and philosophy

At ECU, academic staff with no formal qualifications in education are encouraged to undertake the Graduate Certificate in Education (Tertiary Teaching). This course promotes reflection on personal teaching philosophy and identification of key teaching issues. Deconstructing personal ideals is challenging, however it has revealed a personal, generalised philosophy that tertiary education should strive for three major objectives. Firstly, I believe it is to equip students to reason for themselves; secondly to teach them 'how to learn', and thirdly to enable them to adapt to an evolving professional environment.

Interpreting individual philosophy in terms of student outcomes requires defining the aims of student education within a specific discipline. For me these educational aims are translated as:

  1. Promote a deep approach to learning in the students in SCIS.
  2. Instil self motivation for lifelong learning.
  3. Promote the adoption of active learning techniques in lectures.
  4. Acquire thinking skills to enable adaptation of reasoning in the rapidly changing environment of computer science.
  5. Promote self awareness of personal learning capabilities and study skills.
The teaching strategies used, prior to developing a personal teaching philosophy, were developed from my own experience of learning. These strategies evolved by what 'felt' right and had no obvious underlying theoretical basis for their use. The techniques used were short in class tests to assist the students assess the extent of their learning; problem solving exercises to enhance the application of student knowledge and promote higher order thinking skills; and creation of workshops that students may choose to work on independently or within tutorials.

Drivers for change

Amid identifying the learning objectives for SCIS students, several drivers contributed to raising my awareness of the need for change in my own teaching practices. These included education in formal theory and stakeholder viewpoints, student feedback, teaching logistics, and personal aspiration.

The primary driver for change in my teaching practice has been study in the Graduate Certificate in Education (Tertiary Teaching). This has provided exposure to a broader view of education, and a perspective of individual teaching within the wider educational context. It has encouraged me to research the underlying concepts in tertiary teaching and to question how and why certain teaching techniques are used. The traditional 'teacher model' used in tertiary education, aims at imparting information and transmitting structured knowledge, whilst the student centred approach aims to facilitate understanding and promote conceptual change and intellectual development (Kember, 1998, p.23). The main aim of student centred learning is to promote a deep approach to learning by the student, and encourage lifelong learning. Therefore looking at the issues in ones own teaching should always be from the perspective of the students' learning and their outcomes. Further, teaching does not occur in isolation to organisational objectives. Investigation of the institutions' objectives is a key strategy in confirming an individual's alignment with their institution. This includes reflection on community expectations, strategic priorities (ECU, 2003), faculty objectives (FCHS, 2002), and institutional teaching and learning standards. This inquiry revealed the expectation of the stakeholders involved in tertiary education, and as such, a conceptual view of the position of an individual in tertiary education was obtained, as shown in Figure 1. Additionally, it allowed both a review and a mapping of personal contribution towards to the goals of each stakeholder group to be completed.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Conceptual view of university teaching stakeholders.

The second driver for promoting reflection and awareness is through formal and informal student feedback. Formal feedback is sought through the University's' Unit and Teaching Evaluation Instrument (UTEI). The UTEI reflects the students' perceptions of unit and teaching quality. These scores are compared to the university, faculty and school averages on an individual basis, and thus become another motivator to improve teaching practice. Whilst my scores for teaching and unit satisfaction are usually above the faculty average, one second year unit disrupted this pattern. A key objective this year has been to assess this unit, its content and the teaching methods used. The reflections and action discussed in subsequent sections specifically relate to this unit.

The third driver in altering teaching practice has been the logistical reduction in the number of teaching weeks per semester. In 2003, ECU altered its semester schedule from fourteen to thirteen teaching weeks, in line with other Western Australian universities (ECU, 2002a). The declining time frame available to cover essential content causes difficulties for tertiary educators to ensure that students cover the required curriculum, and gain a thorough understanding of the material. Research has shown that using technology to provide learning objects online can compensate partially for the diminishing contact time, and concurrently cater for various learning styles (Barnes, 2004; Karakaya, Ainscough, & Chopoorian, 2001). SCIS utilises its own content delivery system called eCourse to support its students' learning.

Finally, the personal aspiration to be an effective teacher is a strong driver. Commencing a new career in education, for a person previously entrenched in problem solving and dealing with the technical complexities of computer software and hardware, is in itself a great personal challenge. Possessing little experience in tertiary teaching processes has proven to be a powerful motivator to learn and improve my teaching skill.

Structuring change

In structuring change it is important to have a clear purpose for the modifications and to have clear expectations of the result. This section describes the theoretical underpinning upon which the identification of issues significant to my teaching has been based. The four issues identified are conceptual in nature, and are student centred learning and encouraging deep learning, lifelong learning skills, motivation and teaching large classes.

The theoretical viewpoint

In changing teaching practice to support student centred learning Biggs (1999, p.3) suggests that the differences in learning experiences are due to "the students' level of engagement, the degree of learning related activity that a teaching methods is likely to stimulate and the academic orientation of the students". Figure 2 describes this concept.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Biggs' factors influencing student learning. (McNaught, 2003)

To facilitate a deep learning approach by students and to promote higher level thinking requires active engagement with the student, and for students to seek a deeper understanding of the meaning of what they are learning (Biggs, 1999; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Ramsden, 2003). This is in contrast to this the surface approach which is characterised by task based learning, lower cognitive levels of thinking, lesser engagement and results in a minimum effort technique for learning. Student approaches to learning are multifaceted and are affected by:

Lifelong learning is another substantial issue to all stakeholders in education, and is specifically listed as a graduate attribute (ECU, 2002b). The use of real world problems is now an accepted method of promoting deeper learning and contributing to lifelong learning. In computer science problem solving skills are important and are promoted by problem based learning, and by inductive teaching methods (Felder et al., 2000; IEE, n.d.). Inductive teaching is an approach to learning derived from the authentic example to the abstraction of the concepts (Carbone, Conway, & Farr, n.d.). This is also called a 'bottom up' approach and is characterised by an open ended and exploratory analysis (Trochim, 2002). This can include using facts, application and observation, whereas deductive methods use theory and concepts; a 'top down' approach and commonly adopted for teaching in science disciplines. The objective is to encourage long term memory and therefore application of new knowledge which also contributes to lifelong learning.

The third significant issue is student motivation. Factors which promote positive motivation are constructive timely feedback, providing context, establishing relevance, and creating a relaxed learning environment can promote increased motivation to learn (Gross-Davis, 1993). These strategies require identification of student learning needs and interests; active participation; clear expectations; teacher enthusiasm; varying teaching methods; formative learning emphasis; prompt, supportive feedback; the use of reading/recall questions and tests; and the creation of a supportive learning environment (Angelo, n.d.; Biggs, 1999; Gross-Davis, 1993; TRACE, 2002).

The final issue is class size. The student population is changing from the once homogenous, full time, young and academically select few to a more heterogenous group with diverse backgrounds, experience abilities, and expectations (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001). Thus, large class size is a part of university teaching for reasons of economics and resourcing (Ramsden, 2003, p.147). As a result there exists a belief that university standards are dropping as the number of students entering tertiary education increases (Teaching and Educational Development Institute, 2001, p.1). Whether or not this is due to the subsequent larger class size is unproven. Research into the connection between class size and student performance is inconclusive (Schleck, Kinicki, & Webster, 1994), however there is evidence to suggest that larger class sizes limit the opportunity for higher level student learning (Karakaya et al., 2001; Schleck et al., 1994).

Personal research into these issues has resulted in a greater appreciation of the educational objectives that university teaching strives for. Students choose surface, achieving or deep strategies to their learning and the literature has provided me with the knowledge to correlate teaching strategies with these approaches. It has confirmed my philosophy as consistent with the ideas of Biggs, and the premise that university teaching is to teach help students to 'learn to think'. Further, it has challenged me to look at student learning through the background of the student and their motivation. These elements have resulted in the derivation of a personal teaching framework to guide changes in my teaching practice (figure 3).

Reflective investigation into potential change

Reflection on educational theory has revealed five areas of potential change in my teaching practice. These areas are associated with student expectations, student experience and background, inductive teaching methods, content quality, and student engagement in large classes. This reflection, whilst related to general teaching style, was undertaken with the second year unit CSG2331 Knowledge Computing in mind. This unit discusses decision support systems and aims to challenge student thinking. It is this unit that has been the focus of the changes in teaching practice described below. In examining each of these potential areas for change, a series of tactics were identified as important. These tactics are not exhaustive for the each issue, however they are identified as ones that may bring about change in student learning.

In relation to student expectations, my personal understanding of what constitutes 'learning' may differ from that of the students'. For many students learning is nothing more than an accumulation of knowledge about a particular subject with or without any deeper understanding, sustaining a surface approach to learning. It is important that students learn specific subject matter and develop lifelong learning skills, which requires patience to enable students to develop at their own pace. This is particularly pertinent to CSG2331 because the unit is about 'thinking' and it takes time for the students to adjust to the unit principles. It is important to help students understand that learning is the process of furthering their existing cognitive awareness.

The second area is acknowledgment of student experience in the subject area. Gaining an appreciation of the experience that a student brings to the unit is important. There is a need to provide contextual examples from their sphere of experience rather than from mine. Further, explicit linkage of concepts to their reality is required to assist students who do not make these links for themselves.

Thirdly, the method of teaching is crucial. As a computer scientist and proficient problem solver I predominantly use a deductive logic methodology. This approach stems from a natural inclination to problem solve from general theoretical principles to a specific instance. This approach works well when the content is already known and good reasoning and cognitive linking are apparent. However, an appreciation that looking at simple, real examples then abstracting these to the concepts (inductive methodology) may be a better way for the students to learn in some circumstances.

Another issue is a lower than average pass rate and comparatively lower UTEI scores for students in CSG2331. The written student feedback suggested that this was partly attributable to the amount of subject material presented. The perception of an excessive workload can result in selective reading or skimming of vital material and concepts (Ramsden, 2003, p.153), and hence more defined boundaries of the content was required.

Lastly, student engagement in my larger classes and the low level of interactivity I was achieving were seen as compelling aspects for change. It is important to make the lectures and material interesting and fun. Active engagement is important. At the commencement of teaching at ECU I adopted a teacher centred approach, however, recognition of the need to develop my skills in student centred approaches has promoted me to investigate this area further.

A personal teaching framework

Based on the issues identified by my reflections, I developed a teaching plan consisting of two components. The first component was the creation of a personal framework for lecturing in computer science. The second looks at activities in large class teaching and promoting positive motivation.

The first component was the construction of a lecturing framework. In a discipline such as computer science much of the theory is separated from actual practice and subsequently, one important educational aim is to augment the students' ability to combine computing knowledge into their future practice. Surface approaches to student learning make this aim difficult to achieve, therefore the framework identifies aims and techniques to assist in creating a positive student learning experience.

Figure 3

Figure 3: A personal teaching framework.

Figure 3 encapsulates the desired educational aims and overarching techniques identified as important in my teaching practice, with the student as the focal point of the framework. The solid concentric lines of the framework reflect the overall educational aims, whilst the text within these lines shows the primary strategies supporting these aims. The translation of these into practice is given in the following section on implementing change.

The second component of the teaching plan is the inclusion of proven strategies for enhancing student learning in large classes and for improvement in student motivation. These strategies include problem based learning to link knowledge concepts to real world situations and contexts that are familiar to the student; cutting down on content quantity to promote quality; small group reviews to encourage the required reading prior to the lecture; and collaborative class work.

Implementing change

In translating the personal teaching framework (Figure 3) into actions, the following changes have been implemented. At the commencement of each unit, I have explained my personal teaching philosophy, the significant educational aims for the unit, and the techniques that I will use to help students achieve these aims and their own outcomes. Further, a teaching journal to record class experiences, thoughts and issues is written. This assists with ongoing unit review and personal teaching reflections.

In order to create a safe learning environment, a number of strategies are used:

As an overarching aim, attempt is made to engender a 'spirit of the discipline' by encompassing attitude, methodology, outlook and enthusiasm based on the discipline fundamentals (Carbone et al., n.d.). This requires structural linking of the concepts and signposting of the content. Assisting students to make cognitive links between their experience and the new knowledge is necessary when differing abilities and maturity of the students is taken into account. This is addressed by conceptually mapping the unit content with the students.

The discipline based approach is further supported by well structured lecture plans. This has been implemented in CSG2331 using a variety of techniques to change the pace of the lecture. These include group discussion, constructing examples with the class, videos, paired work and question/answer written activities. Each activity (student or lecturer driven) is limited to twenty or thirty minutes in duration, and is interspersed with lecture content. To complement this I now incorporate inductive methods in addition to deductive problem solving. One particularly successful example of this has been a group snow survival activity to demonstrate group human decision making processes, which is undertaken prior to the discussion of the processes themselves.

Finally to create a cohesive and holistic unit view for the student, discussion of the assessment structure, choice and marking is undertaken. To foster an attitude that promotes learning from the assessment process rather than focusing on its outcomes, the assessment is authentic and incorporates formative learning strategies, with feedback opportunities provided on a weekly basis. This innovate approach provides a constructive framework for the development of knowledge and caters for different levels of capability among the students. In addition, students are asked to reflect on their own decision making and link this to formalised subject theory as part of the assessment. This has proven challenging and constructive for the students.

As I implemented the framework this semester a further realisation occurred: that to promote critical thinking in students it is necessary to teach these skills by example, particularly when expecting students to display these skills in examinations. (A prior assumption that second year students had developed these skills for themselves was incorrect.) To facilitate the outcomes being sought, learning skills in critical analysis and how to answer examination questions have become part of my teaching methodology. This has also been an effective method of reinforcement of the unit content, and has assisted in making clear my expectations of the students, particularly in examinations where the opportunity to learn from feedback is limited.

Measuring change

Formally measuring the effects of change in teaching style is not easy. In response to feedback in semester 2/2002 and 2/2003, changes were made to the content structure in CSG2331. Whilst feedback on my personal lecturing style was positive, the students could see little relevance of the unit within the degree structure. A new text was adopted for the next year and the relevance for the unit was established. The UTEI scores improved marginally however further comments reflected that the perception of the quantity of material was excessive. A more realistic goal for the content quantity was implemented this semester, as theory suggests that student learning is limited by a perception that the content goal is not attainable. Yet, again several students reported that they found the volume of content hampered their learning. The score this semester for overall satisfaction with the unit has improved by 10%, and my personal lecturing evaluation score has risen by 5% for undergraduate students and by 10% for postgraduate students. In reflecting on these results I must take into account that whilst certain aspects of my lecturing style were altered, I also demanded more of the students in terms of thinking and reflection.

Based on student feedback, participation in class has been beneficial. For instance students made comments such as; "lecture tasks were engaging and relevant to the content"; "the best aspect of the unit was the interactivity"; and "the manner of communication really helped my learning". Engaging students in large classes is more difficult, yet when well managed it can prove rewarding as these comments suggested. One challenge in engaging students is to change their perceptions of their own learning. Introducing group work on the reading at the beginning of each lecture, at first meant that only a few students did the work, as the semester progressed more students were motivated to read before the lecture.

Attendance at lectures has increased in comparison to the previous year. In 2003 only 28% of students were consistently attending lectures (assessed as attending two-thirds or more lectures). This is compared to 2004 where 51% of students are attending consistently. Informal feedback from the unit evaluation has shown that students report this as two-fold. Some report this as a perception that the unit is hard, due to the thinking involved and therefore attend to gain a better understanding of the material. However, the majority report this as a reflection on the fun energetic lecturing style, with good participation and interactivity resulting in a more interesting lecture. The inclusion of 'useful' examples was also mentioned several times. These comments reflect both the increased enjoyment of the lecturer in implementing the changes and the use of the techniques researched and implemented. The pass rate in the unit has also increased from 58% in 2003 to 76% in 2004.

More awareness, more challenges and more change

Postgraduate study has taught me how to enhance student learning. It has also provided an opportunity to develop a personal teaching philosophy and to gain a broader view of tertiary education from multiple stakeholder viewpoints. It has prompted the development of a plan to improve my teaching and to augment student outcomes, which has resulted in a better appreciation of learning from the students' perspective. This awareness has resulted in changes to my teaching practice and an appreciation of my responsibilities towards the quality of the students learning, their outcomes and their educational experience. It is challenging yet stimulating to improve student outcomes and to change student perceptions of their own learning responsibilities. These challenges have promoted personal growth in teaching. Ramsden (2003, p.157) sums it up well, that "university teaching must encourage students to experience dynamic and responsible learning within a cooperative, clearly structured and accommodating environment". This encourages coherence between teaching activities and student learning focussed pedagogical change.

Awareness is a motivator although it does not necessarily invoke sustained change. Awareness coupled with learning and action is the effective answer. My personal journey has at times created a burden of desirable change, which lack of time and resources have hindered immediate implementation. I require more time to devise interaction and implement changes in lectures. Planning change is therefore essential. The use of a personal framework and incorporating large class strategies, I can improve facilitation of student outcomes. This in turn results in a more beneficial and enjoyable learning experience for the students. Persistent self reflection is an essential part of the change process.

Whilst confirmation of the success of the changes implemented are subjective and anecdotal from informal discussion and unit evaluation within class, feeling and enjoyment of both the students and the lecturer indicate that something has changed for the better. Whilst not a definitive indicator, the positive increase in UTEI score for this semester and the increased pass rate have provided the formal feedback on the constructive changes made in this specific unit. Awareness has prompted an increased desire to learn which has in turn created change in my teaching practice. I believe I am learning more now than ever before. Is this lifelong learning in the extreme?

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Author: Trish began lecturing at Edith Cowan University in 2001 after 17 years in the medical and pharmacy computing industry. Trish lectures in networking, medical informatics and decision making, and has a keen interest in developing generic student skills. She is also completing a PhD in Medical Informatics.

Patricia A. H. Williams
School of Computer and Information Science, Edith Cowan University
2 Bradford St, Mount Lawley, Western Australia 6050.
Tel: +61 8 9370 6092 Fax: +61 8 9370 6100 Email: trish.williams@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Williams, P. A. H. (2005). Awareness invoking positive change: Reflections on lecturing practice in Computer and Information Science. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/williams.html

Copyright 2005 Patricia A. H. Williams. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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