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Horizons in STEM education conference 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 Sep 2019, 11:49

I’ve been to a couple of the HEA Horizons in STEM conferences. The last one that I went to was in Newcastle, which I found it to be an interesting event; it enabled lecturers and students to talk to one another about their experiences of teaching and learning. 

The event in 2019 was held at Kingston University, London between 3 and 5 July. I was looking forward to this event; I worked at Kingston for 6 months just over ten years ago on a contract to help develop some educational technology systems.

What follows is a rough blog sketch of points that I took away from the event. I’ve edited these notes together from the notes that I made in my analogue laptop (my work note book, and pen). Just as with many of these blogs, I’m sharing the post on the off chance that it might be randomly useful for someone (and so my line manager, and anyone else who knows me, can see what I’m doing with my time).

Just to put everything in one place, the hashtag for the conference is #UKSTEMconf19, where you can see pictures and opinions from delegates.

Opening and keynote

The conference was opened by Trish Reid and the opening keynote was by Nona McDuff, director of student achievement who spoke about: Closing the BME attainment gap through an institutional approach. 

Nona asked as an important question: why are the outcomes of some student groups so different? A part of her talk looked at the student journey. There are a number of arguments: BME students start university with different tariff points (points gained from various entry qualifications, such as A levels). There is evidence that suggests that the higher the entrance tariff points, the higher the degree classification. Looking at what is expected at what is expected and what is attained, it appears there’s a clear gap between BME students and white students.

Since there are many factors involved, an institutional wide approach was developed. I noted down the words that “equity considerations [are] being embedded within all functions of the institution and treated as an ongoing process of quality enhancement”. A part of this embedding has been raise awareness of diversity issues amongst course teams. Importantly, closing the attainment gap was considered as a university level key performance indicator at board level.

A publication that was referenced was “Inclusive curriculum framework” by McDuff and Hughes (2010), and I also noted down the words: “pedagogy, curricula and assessment that is meaningful and accurate”. This includes the importance of considering the broad concept of the teaching, its content, delivery methods, assessment, how to approach feedforward and feedback. 

There’s an obvious point in all this: considering diversity means using good practices for all students, since whatever is done or created appeals to a wider audience

A final note I made during Nona’s presentation was to another reference, a paper entitled: “Closing the attainment gap for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds through institutional change” (Kingston University research repository), McDuff et al. (2018), published in Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning  (Open University).

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 1

The first session I attended was by Rebecca Barnes from the University of Sheffield, who spoke about developing a “Sense of belonging in science undergraduates”. Her talk was based on a model that had been developed from research carried out for an MA in education dissertation. 

Sense of belonging can be linked to self-efficacy, goals, relationships with others. 150 students were surveyed, focus groups were run, and there was something called a ‘free working activity’. Rebecca looked at BAME students, interactions with staff and other students, and asked the question: “what do students’ value during their induction?” I noted down points about opportunities to meet with staff informally and opportunities to gain more detail about what academic work they will be doing.

Next was a presentation entitled: “Exploring differential attainment by assessment type in mathematics, chemistry and life sciences” by James Denholm-Price from Kingston. James presented a quantitative study that asked an important question: do students do differently when they take exams in comparison to other assessment approaches. I noted down the phrase “we didn’t find much”, but the following sentences in James’ abstract is interesting: “The sample data show statistically-significant differences in the attainment of certain groups of students in some assessment modalities, but not all”.

My colleague, Anne-Marie Gallen presented the next talk: “How to develop and embed a discipline-specific accessibility expertise in your teaching”. Disciplines are different, sometimes those subjects introduce barriers, i.e. mathematics has some very specific barriers for students with visual impairments. Anne-Marie was included with a mathematics and statistics accessibility working group which comprised of different members: academics, support staff, disabled student services. Anne-Marie also mentioned module accessibility guides and production of resources, policies, goals and even a video.

The final talk of this first session was also by another OU colleague. Chris Hutton and Julie Robson spoke about “breaking barriers, building community: improving student engagement with preparation for studying online science by distance learning”. They addressed a familiar topic: how to use forums to engage students to help them to prepare for first year modules. Chris and Julie introduced something called a S112 preparation site (S112 being an in interdisciplinary science module called Science: concepts and practice). A key idea was to encourage students to participate in a social activity before the start of the module. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 2

The first presentation during this session turned out to be a workshop entitled: “Exploring ‘belonging’ at university from the student perspective: what it is and how can we facilitate it?” facilitated by Daniela Dimitrova and colleagues from Kingston. We were presented with some questions: is a sense of belonging important? Also, is a sense of belonging important to all students? This led to a discussion that it can be thought of in terms of social group, module, societies, institution, discipline or subject, and that notion of personal identity could change over time.

The next presentation had a title that presented a question that was central to an ongoing study: personal tutoring – is there one size that fits all? These questions were explored by Baljit Thatti and Nicholas Freestone, both from Kingston University who had designed a questionnaire study.

The Open University presenters in this session were Diane Butler and Cath Brown who spoke about “students as partners in scholarship in STEM open and distance learning”. Diane is an associate dean, and Cath is the president of the OU student’s association (the equivalent of the students' union). The benefits of including students are cited as being: engagement, commitment, ownership, opportunities for collaboration with staff, and contributing to an opportunity to make things better for future students. The benefits for the university includes: increased understanding of the student experience and access to authentic feedback, and the possibility of increased levels of student satisfaction and retention. There are, of course, some challenges; it’s hard to work with students at a distance.

Technology Enhanced Learning/Computer Science

Neil Gordon, from the University of Hull, began with a presentation about “Flexible approaches to teaching programming”. I seem keep bumping into Neil quite regularly; the last time I saw him was at a Computer Science education conference at the start of the year, and another time was at one of these HEA events. 

Neil made some interesting and important points: CS student numbers are increasing, but there is a poor pass rate in GCSE Computing. In Neil’s words, this represents a ‘leaky pipeline’. There are other concerns too, which are concerned with the relatively low employability rates of computer science graduates. One way to approach this is to look at the teaching of the subject. Neil introduced a CS teacher training case study that used something called Crumble https://redfernelectronics.co.uk/crumble/  (Redfern Electronics website), a programmable controller that could be used to simple robots and buggies.

A session wouldn’t be complete without an OU delegate. This session had two. The first presenter was Anton Dil, from the School of Computing who spoke about “Layered online feedback on code quality”. Anton is the module chair for M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming (OU website). Anton wants to improve the feedback that is given to students, since he mentioned that there is something that is particularly difficult about programming. Regular practice is considered to be important. How could we support tutors to test code that has been written by students? Two automated tools have been created which assesses different dimensions of code (or software) quality: whether code can compile, whether it meets the task requirement, whether it is efficient, and is presented in a way that can be read by fellow programmers (has good style). 

The second OU presenter was myself, where I spoke about “teaching interaction design teamwork at a distance”, where I drew on my experience of co-facilitating an event that is known as a Design Hackathon for TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience. If you’re interested, there’s a blog tag called Hackathon that might (or might not) be of interest. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 3

This third session took place at the start of the second day of the conference. First to present was Cristina De Mattels from the University of Nottingham, who gave a presentation entitled: “Come on into our research labs: promoting interactions of early-year undergraduates wit researchers to gain insights into the research community of practice”. Underpinning this was the idea of attempting to help undergrads to get more of an insight into what scientists actually do. One way to do this is to try to facilitate some interaction between undergrad students and researchers. I noted down that there was a programme of extra-curricular activities such as an invitation into the research labs, the making of films, and an activity called ‘sharing my bench space’.

Next was a presentation entitled: “how does a vocational qualification (BTEC) prepare students for a degree in biomedical sciences?” by Liz Hurrell and colleagues from the University of Central Lancashire. They reported that there were an increasing number of students taking BTEC courses. The consequences of this could mean a higher drop-out rate and a lower degree classifications (particularly at research intensive universities) for some students. We were told that widening participation students are more likely to take BTEC than A levels but the more applied nature of the courses can have benefits. During degree programs the point was made that some BTEC students may struggle with exams and revision in comparison to A level students, and some may have a sense of accompanying stigma if students have to attend additional classes for maths and chemistry.

I found Liz’s presentation especially interesting, since I used to be a BTEC student. I really enjoyed the course that I studied, and I felt that it equipped me well for the practical computer lab sessions that I had on my undergraduate degree. Although there was an excellent maths teacher during my BTEC, I struggled as an undergraduate. In some respects, the remedial maths classes that I attended felt as if they were an afterthought. There wasn’t much teaching. Instead, we sat in a room and worked through yellow worksheets (which I think I have kept hold of).

The next session was a workshop: what does an inclusive timetable look like in STEM? It was facilitated by Nigel Page and colleagues from Kingston. To be honest, when I saw the title of this session, I was looking for the door for the simple reason that I really don’t like planning my module timetables (and many of them are online). After five minutes into the introduction, I realised that there was no immediate escape without embarrassment for everyone. 

The facilitators looked at a number of different factors, such as commuting patterns and differences in demographics between students studying different subjects. An interesting point was that BME students have to travel further to Kingston than other groups. One of the reasons for this might be the demographics of Kingston and the surrounding areas.

It was also interesting to note that they university had a policy where student’s couldn’t arrive in class after it had started. If classes start early in the morning, and last an hour, all these individual factors have a potential to create barriers for learning. The point was made that there’s a link between timetables, pedagogy and course design. Sometimes barriers might not be obvious. Unexpectedly, this session became one of the highlights of the conference. 

Professional practice session

The penultimate presentation was by Sonia Kumari and colleagues, who spoke about ‘Pedagogy through civic engagement: three case studies from geography’. Their case studies were about the intersections between academic study, practical experience and community involvement. Students went out into the community and carried out an investigative journalism project.

The final presentation had a very long title: how could teaching observation schemes adapt to meet students’ demands of what high quality teaching is expected to be in the STEM subjects? Penny Burden and Nigel Page’s presentation was about the context of the national students’ survey and the teaching excellent framework. We were given two activities: to define high quality learning, and what it might look like, and what does a good teaching observation scheme look like?

I made a note of top 3 points that you might want to look for: checking of learning, tutors and lecturers doing different things (running activities), and delivering materials that meet the needs and culture of student groups. A further point that I noted down was: look at the whole picture, beyond the four walls of the classroom; students may appreciate guest speakers who bring the outside to the classroom. 

Closing keynote

The closing keynote was by Samantha Pugh who spoke of Re-imagining Assessment in Higher Education. Samantha spoke a 12 month project about connecting assessments between programme learning outcomes (PLOs). I was curious about this concept, since I’m more used to the world of module learning outcomes. There was a link to graduate attributes and skills, such as critical thinking skills, able to work critically with knowledge, and effective communication.

We were presented with an example from Chemical Engineering. A phrase that I noted down was: “we need to demonstrate that learning outcomes have been meet at each levels, along with programme level outcomes, but how do we do this?’ We were all asked a question: “what assessments could be used to allow students to demonstrate achievement of programme learning outcomes for your subject?”

We were directed to something called a ‘research-teaching nexus’ by Healey and a report that had been written by Samantha and published by the Leeds Institute called Teaching Excellence: A compendium of assessment techniques in higher education: from students’ perspectives (PDF).

I made a note of some conclusions: assessment is an integral part of programme design; clear programme learning outcomes help with aligning assessment to study, formative assessment should inform teaching and help student success in summative learning, and students need opportunities to revisit learning.

Reflections

Nearly two months passed between attending this conference and writing these reflections. Since the event, my work has become muddied with interviewing, quite a bit of study, and taking on a new role in the university. 

I remember that a few things struck me: the extent to which diversity was featured and discussed throughout this whole conference, the number of university colleagues that I met there, and the clear opportunity of sharing (and discussing) practice with colleagues – which is, of course, one of the great benefits and advantages of this type of event.

Also remember being impressed by Kingston and the work that they’re doing. There was a time when Kingston used to be my ‘local’ university. Rather than choosing to study there (which I could have easily have done), I went to another university in another city. 

Unexpectedly, the session that I found most interesting was also a session about a subject that I find the most boring: timetabling. I took away the point that, when it comes to education and equality, geography really does matter and that it is really important to make the effort to get to know who your students are. You can’t fully understand diversity without taking some important steps towards understanding.

Addendum

When I was sorting out my papers a couple of weeks after writing this blog, I noticed a handout that I had forgotten about. It had the title "Taxonomy of 'high quality' teaching: the students' perspective". I'm not quite sure where I got the handout from, but I think might have been Burden and Page's session. Rather than recycling the handout and risk forgetting about it, I thought it would be both worthwhile and useful to summarise it here.

The taxonomy was split into three sections: attitude, methods and scaffolding. The elements of each are summarised below:

  • Attitude: respect; ability of relate to the student experience; high responsiveness; building a rapport; enthusiasm; engagement.
  • Methods: engage students from the beginning of lectures; design of reinforcement activities; connection of past, current and future knowledge; detailed explanations during lectures; PowerPoint slides as a guide, not script; workshops to support lectures.
  • Scaffolding: updated technologies; mandatory recording of lectures (voice); exams after every semester which counts for 25%; breakdown of workload for both parties; involvement of outside resources to supplement learning.

From my own perspective, the entries under attitude and methods are really familiar (and are important to remember).

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