Sunday, 24 April 2016

Building students' research skills



Winners of the best overall poster on Elder Abuse

And so - it's finally been and gone. The past few weeks have been a bit of a nightmare but in the end I think we can say it was a success and definitely worth doing again.

So here's the low down - what we did and why, the outcomes, and the do's and dont's of organising an Undergraduate Research Conference.

The problem: students at Level 6 approaching their capstone dissertation show limited understanding of the basics of research methods, poor referencing skills and even worse skills in searching for appropriate literature.

The Level 4 introduction to referencing and literature searching and the Level 5 Research Methods are dismissed time and time again in students' module evaluations as boring and irrelevant. So for the past 4 years as a team we have been rethinking our approach. The problem seems to lie in students applying their skills so having an authentic assessment task at the end of the first year seemed like a possible way forward, and an undergraduate research conference that involved an audience of fellow students, teaching and support staff, local employers and colleges, seemed like a way of achieving this.

The task: students were required to produce a research poster related to a contemporary Health and Social Care issue. Students chose their own topics, worked in small groups, carrying out independent research and presented their final work as either a PowerPoint slide (templates are available in Powerpoint), as a Prezi or a Padlet wall. Independent research had to include a literature review (for the final poster) and could incorporate a small scale piece of primary research (typically a survey of fellow students or teaching staff).

As a formative task, in preparation for the final poster, students had to prepare a short presentation (5 minutes - 5/6 slides only) in which they pitched their research proposal. This was fairly structured with specific questions to be answered, including an early indication of the literature used so far. I was able to give feedback on referencing and quality of sources (see results) and used this as an opportunity to also discuss the appropriateness of proposed research methods, including ethical considerations.


The teaching methods: the module is supported by a team of teachers including our Subject Librarian (Emma Hayes) and Learning Support Coordinator (Sian Trafford), as well as a Post Graduate Researcher (Louise Griffiths).  Emma and Sian took charge of literature searching and referencing, Louise supported the students to produce an academic research poster and I taught a basic introduction to research methodology. The module is taught in the Scale Up classroom which really lends itself to interactive, group based activities, so traditional lecturing was kept to a minimum. Emma really livened up a potentially rather dull area by employing Socrative for competitive team quizzes on referencing and Padlet was used regularly to capture groups' ideas. As the task was group based, Scale Up (with round tables for up to 9 students and laptops available) makes the ideal environment for students to get on with tasks in class, with tutor support on hand. Sessions are typically 40% teacher input (mini lectures, tutorial support and directed activities) and 60% independent project work.


The results: The great thing about having a formative task mid-way through the process is that it allowed us to see what was going well and what the students were not quite grasping. Looking at the group presentations, it was clear that the messages about using good quality resources was not going in and many references were to news media (the Daily Mail ranked high in the list of publications!) and digest websites such as Psychology Today. In a tragic case of mis-timing I gave students the feedback on the same day they were asked to complete their module evaluations, so you can imagine how that went.... Whilst the proposals were imaginative and dealt with relevant issues, the level of research skills was not particularly great. Here are the stats for this particular criterion:




Adjusting the remaining teaching sessions, we went over literature search techniques, evaluation of sources and referencing once again and insisted that a short literature review of at least 3 peer reviewed articles be included in the final poster.

This time, we saw a real improvement:


The week before the conference, I ran a drop in session in which students were given detailed feedback on their posters and the winning submissions for the conference were announced. This session saw a lot of smiling faces - even those who hadn't been selected were really pleased with their results, as in the majority if cases they had seen an improvement in their grades.

Poster themes were very varied including several on mental health - one looked at Bipolar Disorder  in Children, another at Men and Depression; one contrasted postnatal depression in British White and British Pakistani women and 2 dealt with students and mental health. Men as Victims of Domestic Abuse, Elder Abuse, Workplace Bullying, Child Protection and Fostering were other topics studied.

For the conference, we simply selected the posters with the highest grades. The idea was to have visitors voting on their favourites and to award prizes for the three best -  best poster by college students, best undergraduate and best overall.


The conference: We were fortunate in having the support of our excellent Schools Outreach and Marketing teams to help with the logistics. We also had a ready made venue (our normal Scale Up classroom was big enough for the modest numbers proposed providing sufficient display space for the posters, as well as suitable seating arrangements for the discussion groups and presentations).

The half day event included short talks on post graduate research and careers in health and social care (giving our students an idea of what they can aim for) and discussion groups on independent learning and research skills (this latter session hosted by a 2nd year student, Sarah Swanwick) to help first year students think about their progression on the course and to give Year 12 students from local colleges an idea of what study at University is all about.

These sessions all evaluated really well. Undergraduates tended to prefer the session on independent learning whilst the college students were most interested in the talk on careers. Other interesting feedback from the college students was that they came to the event not having considered this as a degree subject (even though they were all studying a Health and Social Care A level or BTEC award), tending rather to think in terms of a nursing or social work qualification, but they ended the day having far greater insight into available careers in the field and even considering applying for this course!

For the college students, the highlight of the event was meeting current undergraduates and teaching staff whilst our undergraduates enjoyed looking at one another's posters best of all. They were also interested to meet teaching staff they had not yet encountered (those who teach primarily on the 3rd year dissertation module came along to vote in the best poster competition) and at least one of our first year students has acquired a work placement with the local health and social care organisation that was represented on the day.


The final verdict and some notes to self: The hardest part of the whole conference was getting people there. Timing was tricky - we could not run the event any earlier because of the assignment deadlines (set for the last week of Term 2), but as it fell after Easter, it clashed with mock exams in colleges which reduced the participation from that quarter. Some of our third year students had originally asked if they could be involved running discussion groups in order to get feedback they needed for a project evaluation but pulled out at the last minute (one less than 8 hours before!) when they suddenly realised this was the week their final dissertation was due to be submitted.....

Most disappointing was that three groups who had had their posters selected for the final conference and competition did not send any representatives on the day. Interestingly these were also the only groups that had submitted Prezis, so with no one at their displays to press the buttons and talk visitors through their work, they were largely ignored and attracted only a handful of votes in each case.

I don't really know how to solve these problems. With a bigger venue and budget and more support from the rest of the course team, I think this could become a display of ALL posters (about 30 in total). With potentially 150 students involved, drop outs would be less of an issue. As for the college students - we had applications from 20 but only 8 made it on the day - starting recruitment earlier and providing more support to the colleges could help, but timing is probably still likely to be an issue.

For those who came, it was definitely worthwhile: staff were impressed at the quality of the work, our local authority visitors were really engaged talking to students and delighted to have been invited, those students who turned up gave us a big thumbs up in their satisfaction ratings (yes - much better than the module evaluation!!) and the poster competition and presentation of small prizes and certificates made for a great celebration of their efforts.

The next step is to try and bring this level of engagement into the second year module.  I would like to have both years involved in the same event, perhaps as part of a summative assessment task. And eventually all 3 years.  My hope is that this becomes part of our normal academic year, with conversations about research theory and practice between all students and staff seen as both a normal part of teaching and learning and also something to occasionally get excited about.



Saturday, 26 March 2016

Celebrating student research



There are number of problems in getting students to engage with research: it can be quite difficult for first year students in particular (but not first years exclusively!) to "get" the point of research; it can be a challenge for them to design their own research projects and it is even more challenging for them to read academic research articles. Nonetheless, I think it is a nettle worth grasping for all sorts of reasons - and as early as possible in the undergraduate life-cycle.

This year I have been engaged in a year long project trying out a new way (for me) of encouraging first year students to engage with research - one that is to culminate in a few weeks' time (18 April 2016) with an undergraduate research conference.

The process began back in the first term with an open door conversation between first and second year students on the significance of research in their studies and the sharing of ideas about possible research themes. I then invited library and learning support staff and a couple of early career researchers to come in to my classes and teach basic skills. I also provided an introduction to research methodologies, methods and ethics, and devised various activities around constructing surveys and interview questions.

Since Christmas the students have been working in small groups to investigate a topic of their own choosing - firstly outlining this in a five minute presentation to the rest of the cohort, and secondly, designing a research poster which has to include a literature review and some primary research of their own (mainly based on surveys of their fellow students).

On the whole - judging from the results so far - the students seem to have enjoyed this activity and are certainly showing evidence of beginning to "get" research. Some of the primary research has been creative: one group surveyed a small group of social work lecturers to get a professional's eye-view of child protection; others sent out survey invitations via the course Facebook group. Similarly, the approach to poster design has allowed many to show their artistic and technical flair with a number using Prezi, and many incorporating really eye catching visuals.

The skills the students acquire during this process are multiple: information searching; evaluation of literature and research results; managing group work; presentation of information in graphical form; writing concisely; citation and referencing; finding, downloading, inserting and editing copyright free images; communicating ideas verbally and in public..... and probably lots more.

And yes - if you are thinking this all sounds like really hard work - it is. Students constantly complain to me that the whole business of working in groups is painful (and I empathise to some extent: it's damned painful for me sorting out squabbles and no-shows!); they extol the virtues of lecturers who simply give them handouts and essay questions to turn in at the year end; I get dispirited by the rubbish module evaluation results I get as a result ... and on top of all that I have a bloomin' conference to organise! I have to keep telling myself  - and them - that it will all be worth it in the end: and now the posters are being submitted for marking - you know what? I almost believe it is!

So the conference will be a chance for the students to show off all their hard work: students from local school and colleges will make up the audience. There will be short, themed discussions; presentations from post graduate researchers and final year students; and I am hoping the course budget will stretch to tea and cake .....

I promise there will be a full report here on my blog, with photos and examples of students' work, just as soon as I have recovered! In the meantime - here's a short video I created for the schools and colleges we have invited to participate, explaining how to create a research poster.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Engaging with Feedback


It's a common complaint of teaching staff that they spend hours carefully crafting feedback only to have students ignore it - especially first and second years. I know in my own team we have discussed this endlessly, raised it in course committees, berated students in class, introduced the topic into tutor groups....

This year I think I may have accidentally hit on something. Students in year 1 have just finished a group presentation which is worth 30% of their final grade and is the precursor to a more in depth piece of work that results in an academic research poster (and undergraduate mini-conference: more of that later!)

Feedback on their presentation was virtually instantaneous: I typed it up as they presented and published the feedback on the VLE a couple of hours later. Naturally they all immediately looked to see what grade they had received.

Then in this week's class I gave them an exercise to do on using Gibbs' reflective cycle. Principally, my intention was to get them to think about how they had performed as a team. I know the process of working in a group was very difficult for some individuals and I wanted to get some feedback from the majority on how it had gone. However, in their reflections they also took the opportunity to READ THE FEEDBACK I had given them and to use that to think about how they could improve their presentation and communication skills going forward.

A key factor in this is that I had given them another two weeks after their presentation to work on and formally submit their PowerPoint or Prezi, thereby potentially improving their grade. This has also stimulated them to read and understand the feedback they have been given. I think another factor not to be ignored is that they performed their presentations in front of one another and they were able to learn from this how other groups had approached the task. One of the problems with tutor/student dialogue is that it is most often private: other students rarely see how their peers perform and don't know how to judge themselves against any benchmark other than the grading criteria. As well as socially constructed learning at the level of knowledge and understanding, these types of group based public assessments can help to construct a shared understanding of practical approaches and skills.

I have done an activity along these lines with the final year students for the past couple of years: following on from their student-led learning activities, each group reflects on a) the group process b) the feedback from me c) the evaluations provided by their peers and d) their own evaluation of how the session went, and they then present this evaluation as an assessed submission.

The reflective exercise I did with the first years was not assessed but it certainly yielded some interesting comments:

On "what I would do differently next time", they said:

"do more research"
"have note cards instead of reading from the screen"
"less text and more images on the slides"
"use our personal experience to give examples"
"add citations"
"speak slowly and loudly"
"use academic journals instead of websites"
"include statistics"
"be more organised and don't start at the last minute"
"arrange more team meetings"

Ah! music to my ears......now lets just hope they put it all into practice!


Saturday, 9 January 2016

#melsigntu My takeaways

http://img.docstoccdn.com/thumb/orig/6584122.png 

Yesterday was my first ever MELSIG event and - apart from presenting my own work on digital storytelling - I got a great deal out of it, as always at these type of events, by chatting with lots of like minded souls and catching up with Twitter buddies.

My three takeaways are:

1) from Chris Thomson at JISC - that though it is true that stories are a part of our everyday lives, not everyone knows how to write/construct one.... so....
2) the Story Mountain (see above) could be a brilliant framework to share with students (I missed this session but picked up the idea on the Twitter stream)
and
3) that I should be brave and revisit DS106 as, after Viv Rolfe's fascinating talk, I found there much to get inspired by!

OK - one more: I really should go back to Storify and use it with my students on curation and research tasks, as Sue Beckingham advocated so eloquently.... making and telling a good story with storify 

I was also asked a very interesting question about the previous academic experience of my students and whether it made any difference to their approach to the digital story format. The hypothesis - which I plan to test - is that those from a BTEC background were more comfortable with a non-traditional assessment than the A level students. I have the data - just need to get rummaging through it.

Monday, 4 January 2016

#melsig #melsigntu Digital Narratives

It seems only fair that I finally put together my own digital story! So here are my slides for the #melsigntu event, complete with voice over.

 


And here are just the slides:
 
Other useful links referred to in my video:

Jenny Moon's Map of Learning:conference hand out or to buy the book

Digital Storytelling in Education website

21C Skills video (animation - in Spanish): 

Go Joven Project - Health Education Digital Story (in Spanish with English subtitles)

Digital storytelling from the students' perspective

My previous blog posts outlining the process I went through with my students - and their examples/feedback: Digistory posts

And finally, an example of a digital story produced by one of my final year students (and a far better one than than my attempt!) :