Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rick Snell on improving your teaching

Yesterday I attended a very interesting talk by a visiting academic named Rick Snell that I would like to share. Mr Snell talked informally on a few aspects of both Freedom of Information as well as the teaching of law. I thought I would share some of his thoughts on the teaching component and do a second post on freedom of information.

Mr Snell is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania. He is a leading authority on Freedom of Information in Australia and the British Commonwealth, and was given an award as the best law Teacher in Australia last year (2009).

I have listed some of his key points in the order that I imagine people would like to read them.

Eight steps to improve your teaching:
  1. Get constant intelligence about your students. Work out what your students are thinking using things like surveys and informal/formal class discussions.

  2. Use reflective journals. Get all your students to keep their own records and reflections. Students must then hand in a selective reflection journal (3-4 pages of their thoughts) that they can present in whatever format they wish. Popular ways of organizing them included using themes and timelines. Students could also use other less traditional methods like video, poetry or audio blogs.Students are encouraged to reflect on any of these areas: the readings, the lectures, the teaching and/or their own learning style. Students often then find their own model.It is also advisable to keep reminding students to write their journals. Sometimes it helps to set them a reading that they can reflect on. To ensure that students actually do these it is advisable to assign a grade to them. Mr Snell initially assigned a 5% grade to these but has increased it to 20% over the years. This part of the talk was probably what we spent the most time on and Mr Snell couldn’t emphasize enough how useful the journals had been in improving teaching and learning in his classes.
    The purpose of these journals is to:
    a. Engage the students with the subject and the process.
    b. It provides a great source of information your students’ needs and their, often insightful, views on the subject.

  3. Build an evidentiary portfolio of your teaching. Include things like student surveys, testimonials, personal reflections and the like. Alumni reflections on your course in light of their subsequent careers can be particularly useful. This portfolio is useful both in your professional reflections and when you applying for teaching awards.

  4. Get experts/ colleagues to sit in on your lectures. Often fellow lecturers can point out things that you're doing wrong that you would never pick up and your students are too shy to tell you.

  5. Join a teaching network. Get a group of fellow lecturers with whom you can meet up and chat about teaching.

  6. Attend workshops and seminars on teaching. These are often very useful.

  7. Write about your teaching. There are a number of non-reviewed journals that publish short pieces and anecdotes on teaching. These are useful sources of knowledge and over time if you wish you can move onto peer reviewed journals that have a greater emphasis on the studying teaching and learning.

  8. Personal reflections are key. Personal and professional reflection ensures that you make far more of an effort to keep updating your course, emphasizing what worked in the past and discarding what is not working at the moment.
Some key insights that changed Mr Snell's teaching
  1. The difference between deep and shallow learning. Shallow learning is cramming, cursory reading, engaging at the absolute minimum required to pass a subject. Shallow learning is encouraged by current examination techniques which focus on large exams that cover all the material. Deep learning is when the student engages with and thinks about the subject. Often this requires using fewer exams and focusing instead on alternative examination methods.
  2. There are different learning styles. Some people use conceptual learning, others use kinetic learning (theater, debating and the like) and still others are good at detail learning. A good lecturer will recognize which of these she is better at teaching with and, more importantly, what her students respond to the best. Further, its important to include different kinds of teaching that cater to different kinds of ways of learning since that will increase the ability of all students to engage with the material.
  3. The importance of looking at all aspects of a course and getting these aspects to align. So, if you want to teach law in depth your assessment methods should encourage that as should the readings you prescribe. Often elements of the course (exams, teaching, students, readers etc) don't work in harmony. Importantly, students are the variable that you as a lecturer cannot control. Every year you will be exposed to different students with different needs and you need to vary your teaching once you become aware of these differences.
  4. You need to reflect critically on your teaching and research.
If you want to see information on Rick Snell visit his website at www.ricksnell.com.au

You can also check out these two papers written (or co-written) by Mr Snell on teaching:

See the following for further reading suggested by Mr Snell:

Brookfield, Stephen. “What it means to be a more critically reflective teacher” in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco 1-27.

Ramsden, Paul. (1992) Learning To Teach In Higher Education,Routledge.

Biggs, J. (2003), Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2nd ed, Maidenhead, Open University Press.


  1. I have to agree that something like the 'journal' would be great to use to teach students. I think that one of the problems we face in SA, though, is a resource constraint that is much starker than in a country like Australia. For example, I regularly speak to developed country colleagues and a 'big' class size in, say, Germany, France or The Netherlands would be a few hundred. I've lectured a few hundred in one lecture of four in a day for Intermediate Microeconomics in SA. As much as I'd love to read the reflective journals of students about the processes they've gone through in learning economics, it's just not feasible because of the resources (or the econ dept doesn't pay enough to its lecturers to warrant them spending hours reading journals about Intermediate Micro from 1100 to 1200 students). But, I do believe that these kinds of evaluation methods could be fantastic at an Honours or graduate level where you have closer interaction with students and much smaller classes.

  2. Ja, we did ask Rick about that because it just doesn't seem plausible for a class of 300 (which would be about the size of the first year classes in law). He teaches admin law to a first year class of the same size and thinks the marking is possible (especially if you are asking students to condense their reflections to 3-4 pages). However, I would agree that in a class of 1100-1200 that just isn't feasible. It may be that the Commerce Faculty could introduce that for their students on the academic development program. Or, require students to do the marking.

    Something I considered is having students write a journal that they are rewarded full marks for if the journal evidences an attempt to reflect on the course. This reduces time spent reflecting on what mark a journal requires but also means that students may spend less time writing the journal.

  3. UCT law really needs to look into it's examination techniques, as shallow learning is rife...

  4. Nick - I would agree. Teachers need to calibrate examinations to tailor to the type of learning they want to engender. Especially since everyone claims to be promoting deep learning but the majority of courses still promote shallow learning. Bleaks me out.

  5. On Nicks point:

    Its not just UCT law. The way that UCT in general and most other academic institutions teach and test rewards parrot learning, opinion mimicking and a sycophantic writing. It blocks out original thought and is a serious blow to the confidence to good engaging students who are very often punished for going deeper into the work than the memo allows.

    As Albie Sachs says (yes dave this is just for you) passing exams is all about repeating eloquent textbook phrases and reciting well thought phrases coined by lecturers in classes. It was like that when Albie was keeping it real at UCT and its like that now.


  6. Caveat emptor (see, I can use Latin too): I don't know how to follow Tim's rhetorical talent.

    Thanks for the post, Dave. Snell’s getting anyone to think about *teaching* in *higher* education is great. As we should all have recognised long, long ago, good research doesnt necessarily correlate with good teaching; and good teaching is really hard - but rewarding - work. I'll leave that there for now, else it's likely to turn into a little rant.

    What actually caught my eye was Snell's advocating "learning styles". Because as far as I know the evidence just isnt there for individual learning styles (in the sense of modalities by/through which individual students learn better in general).

    Quoting from the abstract for a 2009 review of the research gives what seems to be the state of "learning styles" science:

    “We examine the argument that teaching will be more effective if adapted to individuals...What is likely correct about this hypothesis (but needs more research) is that modality of instruction may need to be adapted to certain types of *content* (e.g., geometry vs. literature) or to *domain of objectives* (e.g., cognitive vs. psychomotor). What is also correct (and has much empirical support) is that instruction needs to be adapted to the learners' *prior knowledge and experience* vis-avis the material to be learned. What is **incorrect** is that instruction should be adapted to *learners' styles*." (my emphasis). ("Adapting Instruction to Individuals: Based on the Evidence, What Should It Mean?" Lalley & Gentile 2009: Int’t J of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education").

  7. And here is the bulk of the abstract for another recent review, which outlines the problems with the scientific evidence for "learning styles" ("Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence" [Pashler et al 2009: Psychological Science in the Public Interest]):

    “The learning-styles view has acquired great influence within the education field...The authors of the present review were charged with determining whether these practices are supported by scientific evidence. We concluded that any credible validation of learning-styles-based instruction requires robust documentation of a very particular type of experimental finding with several necessary criteria. First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style. In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.

    Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis. We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice."

    As the authors admit, though, they couldnt test *all* of the versions of the learning styles hypothesis. But as they point out, the problem here is really that so many versions of the idea have been proposed (and taken up in education circles) without any testing at all.

    And for those sick and tired of my awfully academic-sounding diction, Latin, Justinian :P and journal articles, check out University of Virginia psychologist Dan Wallingham's "Learning styles dont exist", at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk.

  8. @Jon - thanks very much for those fantastic posts. I am certainly going to have a look at the papers you mention. I think that all the teaching methods I have ever adopted for tutorials were probably based on anecdotal evidence with very little by way of scientific substantiation.

    I must admit, I am still very interested in the journaling idea that he proposed. I wonder whether there is any information on the usefulness of these as a teaching aid (will look later today - I have been tutoring for 3 hours each day and its killing my time). His anecdotal evidence was quite compelling as were the stories from another lecturer who used them for her masters course.

  9. Jon,

    Thanks very much for these posts and pointing out these critiques. Very helpful.