Kevin is a Professor in the School of Biological Sciences. He is course coordinator of BIOL325 Global Change Biology.
The focus of BIOL325, a third year course with around 90 students, is current issues that affect ecosystems as a result of human intervention. Kevin is one of several lecturers who teach into this course. The course attracts a diverse range of students from many disciplines, such as law, chemistry, geography and biology. This makes it challenging but exciting to teach because there is not a common base of biological knowledge to draw on.
Kevin cares about teaching and is driven to innovate by a desire for novelty and to try new things in order to engage and motivate students. He describes being dissatisfied with didactic approaches to teaching, so uses a range of strategies to develop skills in critical thinking in relation to the course content.
The innovative approaches described here relate to assessment and teaching strategies. Rather than having an exam to assess course content, Kevin has introduced learning journals to explore bias in science by critically evaluating scientific literature. He sees this as a more relevant way of engaging with this key aspect of the course. The learning journals are completed weekly and relate to key readings and the students’ evaluation of these. The marks awarded for the learning journals are nominal, but the journals are then used in the completion of the main assessment which is to present two sides or viewpoints (using journal articles) about a current issue in relation to course content/focus. Students have choice about the topic and how they present their work. Creativity is encouraged, but clear communication is a key criterion.
The second innovation is the use of a ‘flipped’ approach to teaching so that class time focuses on discussing the articles previously read rather than delivering new content. A clear process is used whereby the students have choice about what articles they read and respond to. They make notes in their learning journals of their critical response to the articles, and use these to guide small group discussions during class time.
These innovations, with the provision of choice and the focus on creative ways of communicating learning, increased student engagement. This was evident in the positive and creative responses by students to the assessments and content. In particular it was noted that students who may not have scored so well in other parts of the course or in other courses, were able to achieve highly in this assessment. They were able to utilise their strengths and submitted work that took the form of podcasts, comic strips, videos, interviews, raps as well as the more traditional essay. Creative approaches to presenting the content encouraged extra effort and seemed to help some students to engage more deeply with course content in order to effectively communicate their critical understandings in interesting ways.
Constructivist pedagogy underpins Kevin’s approach to teaching and learning. A student-centred approach is central to constructivism and central to Kevin’s approach. By giving students choices, they are effectively included in the development of the course content, and are encouraged to make connections to the topics and concepts.
Kevin actively seeks and uses ideas, approaches and tools for teaching from a range of sources including colleagues and CAD. He collects and adapts ideas demonstrating confidence in the process of trial and error that informs his approach to innovation. Factors that inform Kevin’s choice and implementation of teaching approaches include the cohort size and level, and the design of the teaching space.
Kevin’s innovative approaches to teaching are grounded in a desire to engage and motivate a diverse student cohort, as well as a desire to maintain his own enthusiasm for and interest in his teaching. The learning journals and focus on discussion in class time supports students and scaffolds their understanding of course concepts and critical thinking skills.
This case study was written as part of the Innovative Pedagogies research project.