A public health approach to improving teaching and learning

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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