Highlights from #NAIRTL11 (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Ireland for the NAIRTL 5th Annual Conference & Galway Symposium on Higher Education, hosted at the National University of Ireland at Galway. This was a joint conference between the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at NUIG and NAIRTL, the National Academy for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning.

I presented one of the conference keynotes, “The Wisdom of Crowds: Clickers, Crowdsourcing, and Educational Technology,” and it went over very well. Fortunately for me, my keynote was early on the first day of the conference, allowing me to spend the rest of the conference learning from colleagues from Ireland and the UK. I was very impressed with the conference, particularly in the variety of keynote speakers and the quality of the Twitter backchannel (hashtag: #NAIRTL11).

I wanted to share a few highlights from the conference here. Since I did all my note-taking via Twitter, I’ll use some tweets here to do so.

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Lesley Gourlay (with an “a”, not an “e”) of the University of London was the first keynote speaker, and she offered a provocative critique of the notion of student engagement. Her comments about pre-networked-age notions of student engagement resonated with me. Someone with that view of student engagement, upon observing me using my smartphone during Leslie’s talk, might have assumed I wasn’t paying attention. In fact, I was taking notes in a way that allowed others not present at the conference to read them live. Indeed, the tweet above was retweeted by two colleagues not present at the conference–and separated from me by at least five time zones!

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This comment from Lesley struck me, as well. (And I got her Twitter handle correct this time!) I think it’s easy to assume that all students looks the same when they are actively engaged in learning. But students aren’t all the same, and individual students may express their engagement (or lack thereof) in different ways.

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Another keynote speaker was Elisabeth Dunne of the University of Exeter. She described an initiative she’s led to empower students to gather data on their peers’ perspectives on teaching. Elisabeth cited several examples of curricular changes that have resulted from this student advocacy work, including the adoption of classroom response systems (“clickers”) across the entire business program. We’ve just started including undergraduate students more intentionally in our work here at Vanderbilt, and I found Elisabeth’s talk inspirational.

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I was glad to see a couple of grad students, including Niamh McGoldrick of Trinity College Dublin, present at the conference. Niamh (pronounced “neev,” as I learned) described a semester-long, inquiry-based learning experience for chemistry majors. Students worked in groups to learn about various everyday applications of chemistry, and they presented their findings to outside experts in a competitive round of 18-minute talks.

I was reminded of a similar approach to introductory science taken here by Steve Baskauf in his biological sciences lab course. Letting student pick their project topics is motivational (since it taps into our desire for autonomy), as is having students present their work to a real audience (an example of a social pedagogy). The open-ended nature of the tasks in both of these courses makes for more authentic learning, too.

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Martin Fellenz, also of Trinity College Dublin, shared some interesting findings on student engagement from a study he conducted with his colleague Yseult Freeney. They surveyed a large number of students, asking question about both behavioral notions of engagement and attitudinal notions of engagement. As the tweet above mentions, attitudinal engagement measures were much better prediction of persistence and performance.

Martin argued that this is a problem because faculty typically attend to behavior, not attitudes, when assessing student engagement. Are students in class? Do they seem to be paying attention? Do they ask questions during class? These are reasonable questions to ask, but students’ motivations for learning are, according to Martin, more highly associated with student success. Martin also argued that influencing attitudinal engagement requires paying attention to intrinsic, not just extrinsic, motivation.

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about student motivation recently, particularly about ways to tap into students’ intrinsic motivations, it was great to see some research that supports that line of inquiry.

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Barry Ryan (@CBS_Lecturer) of the Dublin Institute of Technology shared some ways he uses clickers in his biochemistry labs. Although clickers are used extensively in science classrooms around the world, I’ve heard very few reports of their use in lab settings. I suspect the main reason is that clickers support synchronous learning (since all students are asked to respond to a clicker questions at the same time), whereas science labs tend to be more asynchronous learning environments (since students work through lab assignments at their own pace).

Barry uses clickers to quiz students at the start of labs, since the pre-lab lecture is indeed a synchronous learning experience. But he also uses clickers at the end of labs to have students share their lab data with each other. Moreover, he requires students to respond to their peers’ lab data in their lab reports, giving them plenty of motivation to stick around to the end of lab to access that peer data. The assumption that students have that it’s okay to leave lab when you’ve finished your lab activity is a tough challenge for lab instructors, one that classroom instructors don’t have to face. Barry sets the expectation from day one that his students should plan on staying the entire time set aside for their labs. I really liked this model for clicker use in the lab!

I’m not about halfway through my tweets from NAIRTL, so I’ll wrap up this blog post here. Come back later in the week for part two of my report!

Image: “NUIG Quadrangle,” by me

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