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Something is bothering me about teaching at university: we are leaving the most important teaching to chance.

In most tutorials, there is an opportunity to try out things with a tutor there to talk to about it, or deep discussion of course content, or at the very least worked examples of using the ideas in practice with a higher chance of asking questions. In a lot of ways the tutorial is the place where the majority of the classroom learning actually happens in a university course. Indeed, students often say that tutorials are the most important part of their learning at university and will go to them even if they don’t go to lectures. I talked to a student just the other day who was still catching up watching the lectures online from two months ago, and yet has been able to do his assignments because he has been attending the tutorials.

So, if the tutorial is the most important class for student learning, then you would think that the tutorial would be the class where you put the most effort into making sure it was as good as you could achieve. Yet in so many disciplines in so many universities, the tutorials are given to their current postgrad students to teach, with minimal or no training. (Not to say the postgrad students can’t be great teachers, just to say they don’t have much teaching experience yet.)  By not carefully considering our tutorials and training the tutors, it’s like we’re leaving the most important teaching to chance.

Even more than this, most initiatives to improve teaching at university focus on the lecturers. We give support for designing what happens in lectures and online, but somehow we don’t provide any time or resources for training the hundreds of tutors running the thousands of tutorials. Again, we spend all this effort improving lectures, but leave the most important teaching to itself.

This really surprises me, and I really wish there was something I could do about it. What I wish for is a funnelling of funding into designing effective teaching in tutorials, and even more importantly, funnelling funding into training tutors in effective teaching in tutorials. I think this might have a huge impact on learning at university.

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I love reading and writing, and the way that people use words to express ideas fascinates me. So it is no surprise that when I was in Year 12, I studied the highest level of English available. My English teacher was called Mr Johnson and I hated him. (It wasn’t really, Mr Johnson — I’ve changed his name to write this.) The reason I hated him is expressed in this poem I wrote at the time:

MR JOHNSON’S RAINBOW

The afternoon sky was fretted
With cotton shades of blue
And the rainbow came, inspiring us all
And on some old scrap paper
My thoughts and feelings grew
Some lines of verse upon the page did fall

And then I took the poem
A work all of my own
And to my English classmates did I show
That my poem was Quite Good
To me it was made known
Because my fellow classmates told me so

But the teacher, oh my teacher
Said: I know it is Quite Good
But it is not what I would call My Way
Your verses on the rainbow
Are not the way I would
Ever say the things that I would say

For I, yes I my student,
Am like the poet Donne
As you are like the other poet Keats
You like to write, like he,
On emotion by the ton
Where I do so much higher mental feats

He went on by relating
All the things that he would write
And prattle from his open mouth did flow
He said: the rainbow is
All the colours making light
So there must always be thingy, you know

And I was quite inspired
By this brilliant oratory
And thought:
Why don’t you write your own bloody poem if mine isn’t good enough for you?

The same theme appeared in all of his feedback about all of my creative writing: he disapproved of the content I chose to write about, often saying that it wasn’t clever enough. He never gave me feedback on my expression of those ideas — no discussion of flow or characterisation or word choice or metaphor — only ever that the ideas themselves were not to his taste. One notable example was when we were asked to write a short story about a Far Side comic involving butterflies from the wrong side of the meadow, and so I wrote about the flowers sending rogue butterflies to attack the flowers on the other side of the meadow. I was marked down because I didn’t instead do something more clever, like write about some completely other thing only tangentially related to the theme of the comic. As you can imagine, I did not choose to study creative writing at university, and to this day I still have quite a fear of sharing my writing.

Thinking about how this applies to my maths teaching, I wonder how often we tell students in maths “but it is not what I would call my way”. For example, those times when a student does a perfectly wonderful and correct solution to a problem, but then we tell them it has to be done this way instead. Or those times when we discount their excitement of maths applying to something that interests them to tell them they should be interested in the beauty of the maths itself. Alternatively those times when we get annoyed at the student who wants to understand the ideas behind a method and tell them to just do it and not worry about that. When a student asks me to check their work, do I critique their execution or do I criticise their ideas? What about all those times when I ask the class for what they notice/wonder and then wait until I get the one I was really hoping for? I am worried about students choosing to stop studying maths because we always judge them on their ideas.

As usual, I don’t know what to do about this other than just be aware of it. Just yesterday when this was on my mind I was careful to say to a student how awesome I thought their Quarter the Cross solution idea was, before talking to them about how they might be more precise in their execution so other people could also be sure it was a quarter. I only hope I can have it on my mind a bit more often as I work with students on the everyday stuff in the MLC.

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Making a big difference to student learning is a tricky business. Here at my university, there are a certain number of (wonderful) teaching staff who are champions of innovation, always making big changes to the way they do things and jumping onto any innovation as soon as it comes around. Yet the students not in those classes don’t see much benefit from it. Indeed, those staff who are not champions of innovation may do nothing for fear of having to adopt all at once All The Things they see the champions doing. A student who seeks regular support for their learning may make spectacular gains, but there are literally thousands of other students who don’t seek such support on a regular basis, and thousands of students who don’t really need spectacular gains but just a little bit extra. I have started to think that perhaps the best way to make a big difference is to find some way of encouraging a large number of small differences.

This is essentially the way Public Health works. In Public Health you are concerned with whole population health initiatives, which are often of necessity a large number of small differences. For example, you may not cure the flu, but you might encourage 20% more people to wash their hands and so prevent the spread of infection and stop so many people getting the flu in the first place.

Imagine the benefit that might happen, not if a few lecturers rub out their courses and start again with flipped learning, but just if every lecturer simply labelled everything in Canvas/Blackboard so the students could easily find stuff. Imagine the benefit, not if a few course coordinators completely changed their tutorials to be about group discussion, but if every classroom tutor asked one “what if” question in every tutorial. These are not big things to change, but if a lot more people did them, I think the overall effect would be far-reaching. And they might seem like something you could actually do, as opposed to the big changes that are the usual fare of innovation.

Personally I am trying to do more Public Health approaches to student support too. Instead of just visiting lectures to tell the students how to seek one-on-one support, I’m visiting with a five-minute message about interpreting assignment questions, or choosing to put in more explanatory working, or what a standard deviation is. If I can reach even half of a lecture of 500 students with one of those little messages, then I have made a big difference by making a lot of small differences.

Unfortunately, Public Health doesn’t make for spectacular stories. Giving one person brain surgery to save their life after a horrific traffic accident is a spectacular story. On the other hand, lowering the speed limit in urban areas in order to make horrific accidents less likely is not a spectacular story, but it can be argued that it saves a whole lot more lives. I only hope I can convince the Powers That Be that my Public Health approaches to learning and teaching improvement are worthwhile, if not spectacular.

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Statistics is the cause of a lot of fear. There are thousands of students studying psychology, sociology, economics, biology, medicine, animal science and education who thought they would be free of mathematics and suddenly discover they have to deal with statistics. In the case of psychology it is absolutely everywhere: both in whole courses about statistics, […]

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I met with some lovely Electrical and Electronic Engineering lecturers yesterday about their various courses and how I can help their students with the maths involved. And of course complex numbers came up, because they do come up in electronics. (I have not the slightest clue how they come up, but I am aware that […]

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My first post of 2018 is a record of some rambling thoughts about remainders. I may or may not come to a final moral here, so consider yourself warned.
What has prompted these ramblings today was reading this excellent post by Kristin Gray about her own thoughts on division and remainders. In that post, I saw […]

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This post is about a game I invented called Home in One Piece. I invented it in 2014 specifically to play outside at student barbecues, after years of trying to think of an effective game using play dough. I’ve taken the physical version with me to various places to play it, including to Twitter Math […]

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Last week, I had one of those days in the MLC Drop-In Centre where I was hyper-aware of what I was doing as I was talking with students and by the end I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things I had thought about. I decided that today I might attempt to process (or […]

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There is a Twitter account that tweets the prime numbers once an hour in sequence. (The handle is @_primes_.) Since before I joined Twitter, it’s been working its way through the six-digit primes and some of them are very nice. A lot of other people think they’re nice too, based on the fact that they […]

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This post is about my reaction to the book “Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning” by Peter H. Jonston. I was lent the book by Amie and I am very grateful to her because it really is a good book (though it was tough to read with the forest of sticky notes marking […]

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