Talking about teaching: using devices for learning

Students tell us they want more contact – what do they do with it? Learners have mobile devices, pen and paper are less visible, but how are the devices being used for learning?

Discussions within the university have suggested that students start with more contact to develop skills for more independent learning later in their study: a session led by Dr Sue Greener, Course Leader for our new Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship and Digital Marketing Module Leader, Asher Rospigliosi, recently discussed with fellow lecturers about how we encourage student learning in and out of class. Sue talks us through the discussions.

Where do you start? A big topic but the discussion in this staff seminar (8 February 17) proved there is nothing so good as making explicit to other teachers how you teach. Asher and I ran through some key issues we wanted to share and discuss, especially as institutionally the cascade is starting to lay down some patterns and priorities such as increasing contact with students in early levels and setting up skills for more independent learning at higher levels. Asher pointed out that it is only in the last hundred years that research has become a part of what we expect university students to do. Now it has become the norm at least at level 6.

We got very practical – can we problematise what happens between the production and offering of learning materials, activities and references from the perspective of the teacher and the output of a version of that material into assessment by the student? We know that interactive sessions are much more useful for learning than boring lectures. But this begs a question – what is it that we expect the students to do in the session, and when they are reading material outside the session? I wondered whether students were increasingly “outsourcing” memory, by accumulating information in devices rather than trying to attend, rehearse and remember within their own brains (more ideas on this at https://goo.gl/P2DWUP).

Is note-taking cool anymore?

Phones have replaces notepads and laptops for note-taking in class

My expectations have grown from my experience of learning and teaching and involve some form of note-taking. Lately I have become worried that note-taking is no longer cool or acceptable for students, no matter how much they are encouraged to use familiar digital devices and software in class. Asher pointed out that he continues to give much handout material in printed form to students, but students neither seemed to own nor brought pens and therefore were unlikely to write notes, and phones tended to replace laptops in class, but were used for images, not words and notes. At best we were able to encourage students to take images of discussions on a smart board.

The value of lectures

We had quite a discussion about lectures and their value, where we considered them sub-optimal. While there was a strong feeling that they were not the best way of sharing information at uni, there were advocates for a shared time and space in which ideas could become a focus – whether for interaction, problem-based learning, diagnostics, inspiration – all of which were likely to be facilitated by flat room spaces rather than tiered ones. A colleague from the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences also raised the issue of pace – too slow for interest if a suitable pace for note-taking?

Interaction in learning

We agreed on the huge value of interaction in learning, and Dr Sushil Mohan, Finance Subject Leader, was concerned that some over zealous students wrote down too much, missing out on meaning and focussing on words at a superficial level. When they interact, how do they retain information which might be useful later for their assessments? Without taking at least basic notes, or voice recording and then taking summaries, how does the student take the learning to a level which allows reflection, review, further reading and analysis?

Building on knowledge

We discussed brain-compatible learning (van Niekerk & Webb 2016 at https://goo.gl/FCLQrU), which is showing increasing evidence of the basics we believe to involve good practice: finding out where the student’s knowledge level and experience is and building on that, rather than starting from the lecturer’s standpoint, promoting attention, rehearsal to get stuff moved from short-term to longer-term memory (especially episodic memory which emphasises the other sensory inputs around the content learned). Jela Webb noted that physically writing can help rehearsal – some have great keyboard skills but writing by hand was powerful. Julie Fowlie, Deputy Head Teaching and Learning, and others agreed this could be encouraged by simple means such as handouts with space for notes, short learning summaries on blogs, learning journals as part of the learning design.

We also shared ideas on more structured approaches to enable, particularly level 4 (pre-first-year), students to learn how to read for academic purposes. Wallace and Wray’s five critical synopsis questions (see https://goo.gl/gW1pII ) and Shon’s use of reading codes for annotation when reading articles were some examples. Shon’s work can be found here: https://goo.gl/279VsL and my review of the book can be found here: https://goo.gl/s3vk5E.

Note-taking devices

Asher stressed the need to physically demonstrate and role model the use of note-taking, and devices. This including thinking seriously about the note-form which is encouraged by PowerPoint, meaning that students rarely get directly introduced by teachers to well-formed sentences and logical argument except verbally in class – making it unsurprising if they were unable to produce arguments in assessment. Designing their own assessment questions and arguing what was being assessed in them was another option.

Evernote – a cloud-based note taking app.

We discussed using Evernote (note-taking with cloud backup and multi-platform ubiquity), Zotero (research collecting, citing, organising), mind-mapping etc to enable expectations of recording and retrieving information as the norm. We finally shared ideas based on work by Tom Bourner and Phil Race (How to Win as a Part-Time Student 2nd ed. 1995) originally produced for mature part-time learners which focussed on the activities learners were expected to do – all involved activity, and much involved note-taking. One of the well-favoured ideas for note-taking during and after sessions was to encourage blogging by students or as Alison pointed out – simply asking for notes to be handed in from time to time. This could be done privately or shared where needed with tutors or students.

We shared the same issues, and there is no reason to believe we can’t solve them. The seminar excited discussion – let’s have more of this!

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