Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Presenting online with free screencasting program

Example 1: Screencast using Movenote

Example 2: Screencast using Screen_O-Matic

Example 3: Screencast using Present.me

I have benefited a lot from following people on Twitter. Recently I spotted a twit by Robin Good on using Movenote and present.me to produce a quick and simple screencasting. I followed the link to his Scoop.it! page. I watched his sample presentation and I thought, ah...I can try this! Both Movenote and present.me are free, very easy to use and the quality is reasonably good (but judge for yourself). Both programs have limited features compared to the more established Screen-O-Matic but I guess it's quite sufficient. I would add these to my selection of free screencasting program to present my PowerPoint or Keynote.

I have been using mostly Screenr for screencasting and recently I use Screen-O-Matic (for longer screencast up to 15 min). Unlike Screenr, though, Screen-O-Matic and Movenote allow you to capture your face using a webcam. I'm not particularly camera shy, so I thought maybe better to include a talking head in my presentation. Movenote tagline is “Presentation with emotion”. The website is neat and simple with very minimum information. For some reasons even the sign up link is not very evident. Movenote approach in screencasting is different from Screenr and Screen-O-Matic in that you have to upload the file to be presented in the screencast to the cloud (Movenote server). In this respect Movenote is not very flexible in terms of capturing anything on the screen.

Here's my first testing with Movenote (Example 1 above). I uploaded only one PowerPoint (2010) slide for this test. The slide contain 2 animations. Movenote convert it to image but somehow the animated objects (picture) messed up. In the second test, I converted the PPT slide to pdf and that solved the problem. For this test, I used my Samson COU3 USB microphone and MacBook Pro. Movenote placed the 'talking head' on the left hand side of the slide. No option to re-position it. On the other hand, Screen-O-Matic overlay the 'talking head' on the slide itself, thus cover part of the slide. I wish there was an option to re-position it. The bottom line is, for a simple and quick screencast of your lecture Movenote is quite useful. The output is also looks quite good

Present.me is also very simple to use but I think need some improvement. The quality of the 'talking head' is not as good as Movenote. As of this writing (November 2011) present.me is still in beta stage. Like Movenote, present.me is designed mainly for presenting documents such as pdf or PowerPoint presentation. The free basic account allows up to 15 minutes recording and up to 10 recordings/month (50 MB per upload). If you want to capture animation and transition in your PowerPoint presentation you have to sign up for the Plus account (not free). You can capture the presenter with the webcam. I notice, however, the quality of the talking head is not as good as Movenote or Screen-O-Matic.

What do you think of the result?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Haven't Published Yet?

For those aspiring to publish their first research paper or article in the journal, watch this video to get some inspiration. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Reviewers and Editors Want?

This morning I gave a talk, "Getting Your Manuscript Published: What Reviewers and Editors Want?" to a group of 40 graduate students. The talk was organized by the Institute of Postgraduate Studies (IPS), Universiti Sains Malaysia as part of the Professional and Personal Development Programme. The programme aims to increase students’ knowledge, soft skills, ability and credibility in order to develop them to compete and progress both academically and in the future workplace. This talk is actually the fourth one this month on a theme of writing scientific publication (my previous talks can be found in my previous article).

Briefly, I covered these topics:
  • Duties of editors, reviewers, and authors
  • What is “peer review” and its brief history
  • Objectives & process of peer review
  • What editors & reviewers are looking for?
  • Surviving the peer review process
The presentation can be viewed and download from Slideshare (link below).

Getting Your Manuscript Published: What Reviewers and Editors Want

Monday, August 22, 2011

How to Write a World Class Paper

As promised, I have uploaded the second part of my presentation on the theme of publishing scientific paper. The first was posted in my earlier article (here). The title of the second presentation is "How to Write a World Class Paper". Yes, writing a paper that reports novel idea that would advance the frontier of knowledge. A well written article cannot make up for poor research whereas a badly written article can diminish good research! The rule of thumb is actually quite simple: clarity and brevity. Watch the presentation to learn more...

Choose one of the links below:

How to Write a World Class Paper (on Vimeo)
How to Write a World Class Paper (on YouTube)

Note of acknowledgement: The content of this presentation was modified and ‘repackaged’ from the original presentation by Wendy Hurp (Elsevier). I would like to acknowledge and thank Wendy for giving the permission to share the material with the world.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Publish or Perish?

Publish or perish OR publish and flourish? Getting your paper published especially in the premier/reputable journals is not an easy task. Most of the so-called high ranking international journals have more than 50% rejection rate. There's always something new to learn everyday about scientific writing. Resources to help authors to write and communicate their research in a presentable or publishable from are always available. For example, American Chemical Society (ACS) Publications has launched the Publishing Your Research 101 video series to assist authors and reviewers in understanding and improving their experience with the processes of writing, submitting, editing, and reviewing manuscripts.

The first episode in the series is an interview with Professor George M. Whitesides from Harvard University who has published nearly 600 papers with ACS Publications, and over 1100 articles overall, and has served on the advisory boards of numerous peer-reviewed journals. When asked how many drafts each paper undergo before submission, he said typically 15 drafts!

I enjoyed watching all the videos (ehem...on my beloved iPad). The videos are very informative and especially useful for budding researcher. Even experienced researchers would benefit and can learn one or two things. Supervisors should encourage their students to watch all the videos. Check out also another website on English Communication for Scientists.

Here's the link to all episodes:
Publishing Your Research 101 video series
English Communication for Scientists.

The Road to Successful Publishing

I was invited recently by the School of Physics (Universiti Sains Malaysia) to give a talk on strategies to publish scientific paper in peer-reviewed journals (the focus was on indexed international journals). It was well attended by graduate students and a number of academic staff. The talk was given in two parts—in the first part I emphasized on the reasons why scientists or researchers must publish their work in indexed journals to disseminate their findings to a wider audience. I hope I have managed to convince the audience (particularly graduate students) the importance of writing and publishing good, quality paper. The second part of the talk focused on strategies, tips, and 'tricks of the trade' of getting the paper (manuscript) accepted by the Chief Editor.

If I may summarize very briefly, writing a scientific paper is always very challenging—it's not an easy task, even for experienced scientist. However, I have made it very clear (hopefully) that writing a paper is part and parcel of a research process. Therefore, we can only write a good, publishable paper if we begin with good research. What constitute 'good research'? This is a topic that need further elaboration itself, but in a nutshell — novelty, well-designed with proper sampling and control (control sample or controlled environment), well-executed and validated. There's much more but perhaps I will give another talk just on this topic.

I would like to thank the audience again (if you are reading this article) for listening intently to my presentation and for actively taking part in the discussion.

You will find below the link to the first part of the talk. The second part will be uploaded soon. I have uploaded the presentation to YouTube, Vimeo, Slideshare, and Screenr. See which you is faster to access.

The Road to Successful Publishing (YouTube)
The Road to Successful Publishing (Vimeo)
The Road to Successful Publishing (Slideshare)
The Road to Successful Publishing (Screenr)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hone Your Scientific Presentation Skill

This is the first article I write on my beloved iPad 2. I hope in the next article I can write about iPad 2 and how educators can leverage on its awesome features. I bought this amazing thingy on the day it was launched but I had to wait for another 2 weeks because it was out of stock (I came in the afternoon). Although Apple would not pay me any commission or offer any discount, I have to confess that this is simply the best buy of the year, worth every single penny! This iPad 2 has exceeded my expectation and now I can say that its value is worth more than what I have paid. Well, I hope to share with you soon 10 reasons why educators should get an iPad 2. Watch out!

For now, I would like to share what I was reading (of course, on my iPad) recently. Here I would like to share a page on Science website about scientific presentation skill. On this webpage you will find many useful links on various topics on presentation skill. This is one area where all educators and scientists should try to improve because communicating science requires not only deep knowledge of the subject (content knowledge) but also the skill to deliver it in a clear and engaging manner.

The link: Scientific Presentation

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Education in the Era of Knowledge Economy

 Recently I was invited by Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) as a panelist in a forum that discussed about the impact of curriculum on graduate employability. One participant (a student) raised the issue about the relevance of curriculum with the actual demand of the job market, i.e., whether what they learn in three or four years curriculum is adequate to prepare them for the real job. Another participant (a teacher counselor) also echoed the same concern of their students, especially at a point when the students are deciding which programme to take at the degree level. For example, if a student take a programme in Forensic Science, would he/she end up working as a forensic personnel?

I think in some professional courses such as medicine, pharmacy, law and perhaps engineering, it is reasonable to expect that the graduates would end up as medical doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and engineers because there is always a great demand for them in the government (public) and private sectors. Unfortunately the situation is different for other disciplines. So if a student has a degree in Chemistry, he/she might not end up working as a chemist but perhaps as an officer in public administration. What's wrong with this? Well, they might say that they are not trained to do administration because they were trained to become a chemist -- so what they have learned is wasted. I think this is a challenge for educators to make our students understand and appreciate the fact that whatever they have learned in their degree will become part of their knowledge, perhaps in this case, a specialized knowledge in chemistry. We have to educate our students to have a larger sense of purpose when come to education, that is to think of the tertiary education as a platform, or as a stepping stone, or as a launchpad for them to explore the 'real world' outside the comfort boundary of the ivory tower.

According to Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. In this regard, curriculum in any degree programme should be designed in such a manner that our graduate is equipped with various learning and thinking skills to make them more VERSATILE, FLEXIBLE, RESOURCEFUL, and ADAPTABLE. When our graduates posses these skills then they will be able to learn new skills and adapt readily to new environment. I cannot emphasize more the need that the innovative teaching approaches be integrated with appropriate student-centered learning environment so that the skill of "learn how to learn" can be imparted more effectively. Cognitive research on learning suggests that "how people learn is more important than what people learn in the achievement of successful learning" (OECD 2001, page 20).

We should take cognizant that we are living through a period of dynamic transformation in all aspects of our lives and this transformation is catalyzed by a profound change of economic model and rapid advancement in technology. We have seen the world moving from a resource-based (agricultural) economy to industrial economy (much dependent on labour and natural resources such as coal) and now rapidly into a so-called knowledge-based economy, in which knowledge is the key resource.

Knowledge economy has been defined as:
...one in which the generation and the exploitation of knowledge has come to play the predominant part in the creation of wealth. It is not simply about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge; it is also about the more effective use of  all types of knowledge in all manner of economic activity.
The knowledge economy increasing relies on the diffusion and the use of knowledge, as well as its creation. Hence the success of enterprises, and of national economies as a whole, will become more reliant upon their effectiveness in gathering, absorbing and utilizing knowledge, as well as in its creation (Houghton and Sheehan, 2000).

It is obvious that the emergence of the global knowledge economy present new challenges and inevitably will bring about a great impact on our education system. Furthermore, the application of knowledge is all aspects of the economy is being greatly facilitated by the rapid advancement in information, computing and communication (ICT) technologies. Therefore, it is imperative that the transformation in economic model and unprecedented pace in knowledge generation/dissemination be aligned to a similar transformation in education...but how do we go about it? What does our national education system need to do in response to knowledge-based growth? What can educators do to meet the challenge. Do we have to wait for some new policies in place or can we start something on our own initiative to bring transformation into our own practices in teaching and learning environment?

To deal with the new demands and challenges of knowledge economy, lifelong learning has been suggested as a new model to prepare human capital (in most literature the term 'skilled workers' is commonly used) to compete in the global economy.
"A lifelong learning framework encompasses learning throughout the lifecycle, from early childhood through retirement. It encompasses formal learning (schools, training institutions, universities); nonformal learning (structured on-the-job training); and informal learning (skills learned from family members or people in the community). It allows people to access learning opportunities as they need them rather than because they have reached a certain age. (The World Bank Report, 2003).
The next question is, how do we incorporate lifelong learning model into our existing educational framework? It is obvious that our educational systems can no longer emphasis task-specific skills but must focus instead on developing learners' decision-making and problem-solving skills and teaching them how to learn on their own and with others (The World Bank Report, 2003). Achieving these goals requires a fundamental change in the way learning takes place and the relationship between learner and teacher. Our graduates need to be equipped with the essential skills and competencies they need to succeed in knowledge economy era. These skills include mastery of technical, interpersonal, and methodological skills. Technical skills include literacy, foreign language, math, science, problem-solving, and analytical skills. Interpersonal skills include teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. Methodological skills include ability to learn on one's own, to pursue lifelong learning, and to cope with risk and change.

I believe that a systemic (thorough) reform of our education system is urgently needed. Education reform or transformation actually has been a recurrent theme not only in Malaysia but globally. So what are we doing about it and where are we heading? Yes, we have a seemingly comprehensive National Higher Education Action Plan (2007-2010). Here I cite some statements (verbatim) from the document with respect to teaching and learning:
"We must produce confident students with a sense of balance and proportion. While an individual may specialize in a certain area, his or her perspective should be enriched by other experiences as well. The Ministry of Higher Education will thus introduce a holistic programme that will cut across all disciplines and focus on communication and entrepreneurial skills. The programme, which is intended to build a balanced perspective in all students, will expose them to subjects beyond their area of specialisation. For example, students reading for degrees in the sciences such as medicine, engineering and chemistry will be exposed to courses covering literature and philosophy. Likewise, students in the humanities will be exposed to the rudiments of science and technology, and certainly, ICT."

"Dynamic and relevant curriculum and pedagogy are needed to ensure the health and strength of an institution. Inter-disciplinary approaches to the design of higher education curricula will build and stimulate creativity, innovation, leadership and entrepreneurship. Curricula must also equip undergraduates with appropriate skills to enable them to compete in an ever-changing market. Curricula must be reviewed, and courses that are no longer relevant must be removed. Peer review and industry collaboration must be enhanced in curricula development and evaluation".
Reading through the whole document giving me the impression that our educational reform is very much in line with the lifelong learning model proposed in the World Bank Report. In fact, lifelong learning was specifically mentioned (National Higher Education Action Plan [2007-2010], page 39) and has been identified as one of the Critical Agenda Projects (CAP). Other CAPs directly related to teaching and learning are "Teaching and Learning" and "E-learning". I want to be optimistic about the successful implementation of the Action Plan but having seen the detail of how the various CAPs are being managed and executed...I have my doubt. But again, I always believe that we don't really have to wait for the policy or strategic plan to come in place. The initiative can be taken by parties at different levels -- institution, faculty/department, and individual (educators).

Further readings:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Teaching or Research?

This topic on teaching-research nexus has always been at the back of my mind for some time. I wanted to blog about this topic, so I started some research to find out whether teaching and research are intertwined or otherwise. Wow, what did I find? I didn't realize that hundreds of researches have been carried out on the research-teaching nexus and how it relates to ways in which research supports teaching and vice versa. The verdict? Hmmm...interesting...but I will try to summarize the research findings in my future article. Anyway, Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Chemistry Nobel laureate, remarks: “Why do today’s university faculty so rarely apply the same innovation and energy to their teaching that they invest in their research? There is no mystery here. Good teaching may be appreciated, even applauded, but good research is at the heart of the reward structure” (Science 299, 165, 2003).

So is this about monetary or material reward? Can we get more great teachers and educate more lifelong long learners by giving material incentives to teachers? Hmm...Everything seems to be driven by money. Ah, well...reality of life. But wait...read the latest research on the impact of giving incentives to teachers. Daniel H. Pink (author of the book 'Drive') has written an article "Does giving teachers bonuses improve student performance?" based on the latest research finding. Go ahead and read the gist of the finding - you can download the original research article as well.

To start the ball rolling, I have interviewed two of my colleagues, Professor Fong Soon Fook and Associate Professor Mahamad Hakimi Ibrahim. Fong is a Professor of Multimedia Education at the School of Educational Studies and Hakimi is a lecturer with Chemical Engineering background from the School of Industrial Technology.

1. What is your idea about “transforming higher education”? Is it really necessary?

PROF FONG: Quality of Public Higher Education in Malaysia is dynamically being redefined again and again based upon the changes in the top-down policies of the Government and The Ministry of Higher Education.  I am of the opinion that the players in the Public and Private Higher Education are compartmentalized and playing their own local R&D game. Such an “inbreeding” might sporadically bring in some surprises once in a while by some individuals. Such a pattern has been going on and will continue with poor return-of-investment.

Is transforming higher education necessary? YES! We need an aggressive and dynamic transformation. The talents in the Malaysian higher education institutes are plenty. Let us tear down the “territorial” fences & slogans and be governed by a corporate-consensus of one vision and one goal to bring this small but dynamic nation forward. As we blend and cross-breed academically, I strongly believed that the “hybrids” and synergy generated by like-minded researchers and academics will result in a “tipping-point” to suddenly transform the landscape of higher education in Malaysia. 

DR HAKIMI: Yes, current higher education seems to serve the market forces/hegemony, where our students are basically ‘manufactured’ for a conveyor belted society. Some called it academic capitalism.(By the way do you think people are on the same wave length as to what constitutes education, higher education and hence transforming higher education?).

2. Do you think there is a conflict between teaching and research at a research-intensive university like Universiti Sains Malaysia?

PROF FONG: Research ought to complement teaching. There are plenty of researches conducted in the Public Universities. The findings and implications of the studies are more often than not, resting on the shelves in the libraries and resource-rooms.  USM as a research-intensive university should take the initiative to conduct an annual “review and upgrading” of the course curriculum.  Such current curriculum with added values from research findings will be a great advantage to our main key stakeholders – our graduates.

DR HAKIMI: No. Both are complementary.

3. In the context of USM, do you think research has been given special attention at the expense on teaching?

PROF FONG: As long as the promotion criteria give more emphasis to publications and conference presentations related to research, it will be more than natural that academics will be inclined towards spending more time and efforts in research at the expense on teaching.  At this point, I suggest that the administrators of higher education help academics balance their management of time and efforts. To this effect, the paper chase for KPIs needs to be reviewed. Let us be reminded that our core-business is indeed “teaching and learning” and raising a breed of 21st century skilled graduates to help realized the growth and vision of our nation.  Alvin Toffler phrased it very well – “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.  May we be willing to learn, unlearn and relearn the art of balancing teaching with research.

DR HAKIMI: Not quite. In fact the so called attention has arrived rather late. The acceleration in research activities goes together with the greater accessibility to internet based research materials and better staff global networking. We are responding to the changes happening globally.

4. Do you think research can enhance the quality of faculty’s teaching and students’ learning?

PROF FONG: On one hand, university graduates must be grounded with basic foundations of various disciplines.  On the other hand, our undergraduates should be kept in pace with the latest in research-findings related to their core disciplines. For all you know, such graduates will stand above the crowd and is “market-ready” to lead with the latest findings from the faculty’s research. I am always reminded a quote come from John Dewey “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow”.

DR HAKIMI: Of course.

5. Do you think we should have a separate track for teaching and research? I mean a staff can opt to focus only on teaching OR on research.

PROF FONG: In the university, teaching and research ought to be in the same track. Having been a  school teacher for 20 years before joining the university,  my first love and passion have been teaching. Since joining USM as a lecturer-cum-researcher, my teaching contents have been frequently upgraded with current findings which in turn help upgrade the competency of my students in various aspects. Teaching and research should indeed go hand in hand.

DR HAKIMI: Possible. But the choice is up to the lecturers – to do singly or both.However we should allow the lecturers to ‘discover themselves’ and not to force a track to ‘manufacture’ an automaton in teaching or research or both. Part of research is the staff ‘researching’ into themselves. To discover their raison d'ĂȘtre. It is to answer the quranic question ‘fa-aina tazhabun’ – where are you going? Part of teaching is to know that we have to learn for knowledge and wisdom. All these should bring us to the One with knowledge and wisdom – AlAleem and AlHakeem. This is where the transformation of higher education should bring us to. Bringing us back to the realization that Allah is The Lord and we are His servants and caliphs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Learning – from cradle to grave

"Knowledge does not narrow, knowledge only adds...and without knowledge many experiences in life remain very narrow and very shallow..." - Professor Walter Lewin, Professor of Physics, MIT.

While browsing the internet recently, I came across a picture of the giant mainframe computer of the early '80s. While staring at the picture, I was reminiscing the time back in 1988 during my time as a master's student at the University of Reading, England. For the first time in my life, I had to use a computer to prepare a linear regression plot using a software called Lotus 123. That was still the early days of computer and it marks the beginning of my exploration into the wonderful creation of modern time  computer. It was indeed an exciting and thrilling experience for me to be able to plot a graph and derive the equation so easily. I remember using a software called 'Chi-Square' (if I'm not mistaken) as word processor as well as for drawing a simple flow chart. To draw a simple rectangle or square, I had to press the keyboard key several times horizontally and vertically  just to get a simple box shape! Then Word Perfect came to the fore and later became a very popular word processor (apart from Word Star). It has very basic features, just enough to get your work done. It doesn't have What You See is What You Get (WYSWYG) interface but rather what you see is totally different from what you actually get when printed. So on the screen you see yellow text to represent underlined text, green text to represent bold text, etc.  and you have to memorize a few key commands (so rote learning has its role!).

I became very interested and fascinated with computer, partly because I had to use it to analyze data from my research work. So my acquaintance with computer was partly by default but it was also by choice because somehow I could sense the potential of the technology and how I could leverage it for my work. I started to 'indulge' in computer and tried to get my hand on any form of learning materials (mainly book and magazine which are very scarce). My other learning resources include a few very helpful technical staff from the computer centre. There's no formal training  it's mainly learning by reading, asking and DOING!

What's the point of telling this story? Well, there are a few points relevant to knowledge and learning...

First, all of us are learners  and lifelong learners. We learn new things every day. In a publication of the World Bank entitled, "Lifelong Learning in the Global Knowledge Economy: Challenges for Developing Countries", lifelong learning is defined as follows: "A lifelong learning framework encompasses learning throughout the lifecycle, from early childhood to retirement. It encompasses formal learning (schools, training institutions, universities); nonformal learning (structured on-the-job training); and informal learning (skills learned from family members or people in the community).  It allows people to access learning opportunities as they need them rather than because they have reached a certain age".

According to Hargreaves (2004), "Lifelong learning should mean what the term plainly says: learning lasts for life – cradle to grave – and so begins when we are born and embark on the adventure we are well programmed to pursue: learning. The principal function of formal education, therefore, should be to help people to learn, embracing both content (knowledge, skill and understanding of various kinds) and process (the motivation and ability to learn successfully)".

My experience of learning about computer fits in the definition of lifelong learning. I didn't learn computer as a subject in the curriculum but rather it was through informal learning. I constructed my knowledge and skills on using computer practically from zero and build up or accumulate the knowledge over time. I applied my computer skills in my work (as a research student at that time), so I have the opportunity to hone the skills. Soon I became quite good and knowledgable and I spent many hours to help (basically teach) fellow students using computer. All educators would agree, 'the best way to learn is to teach'. Every time when we teach, the knowledge become deeper and deeper and the knowledge expanded. As Professor Walter Lewin said, "Knowledge does not narrow, knowledge only adds...". The learning process continues because now I have to learn not only about computer but also new development in various forms of educational technology.

In the context of teaching, teachers have the advantage over their students because they are more experienced learners. Teachers are supposed to have the skills of searching for the right information in the large pool of knowledge in various domains and constructing that knowledge for meaningful learning. It is important that we pass on the skills to our students. The students of the 21st century are going to need the skills of inquiry  of research  if they are to be able to investigate and to learn and hence be employable in the future. The greatest challenge would be to make our students understand that learning new knowledge is not for the sake of getting good grade in the examination. It's easier said than done especially in the examination oriented systems that are prevailing in most institutions but I guess we have to try very hard to change their mind set. We have to convince our students that they need to have a larger sense of purpose beyond personal achievement in examination. Students have to understand that it is the learning skills that they have to develop to prepare them for a future in which learning will occur in a greater range of contexts.

I believe our role as educators goes beyond transmitting knowledge  our role is to nurture our students to become lifelong learners  to teach them the skills of 'learn how to learn' and to teach them the appreciation and the love for knowledge. This is the essence that would enable our students to become successful lifelong learners. Before we can do this, however, we have to be honest and truthful with ourselves  are we a real lifelong learner? Educators must set examples for students by becoming lifelong learners themselves. They have to keep up-to-date with new knowledge, pedagogical ideas, and technology. If students are to become better learners, it is essential for teachers to become better at what they do. As teachers, we should not sit in our comfort zone but we should continue to grow by challenging ourselves to new skills and new knowledge. This can be achieved through a continuous professional development programme or through own initiative to learn through reading, attending short courses and workshops, etc.

Further readings:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Waiting for 'Superman'

"In almost every area of human endeavor, the practice improves over time," says Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. "That hasn't been the case for teaching." This is an excerpt of his interview by PARADE – read the full interview on the Parade website. In the interview, Gates shares his insight about the crisis of American Education system and the movie Waiting for ‘Superman’, a documentary from An Inconvenient Truth's Davis Guggenheim. I have not watched the movie yet but I would surely try to get the DVD and hopefully learn a few things. In the meantime, have a look at the trailer and reviews.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Climbing Bloom’s Ladder of Learning

A Google search on “Bloom’s taxonomy” recently returned an impressive 1.63 million results! Apparently the literature available on the internet is replete with resources about the famous Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. I don’t intend to repeat what Bloom taxonomy is about and how it evolves because I believe you can find wealth of information on various aspects on the topic among the 1.63 million results in the internet. I have selected a few articles (link at the end of this article) for those interested to know more about the various domains (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) in the original and the revised Bloom’s taxonomy. What I’m interested to talk about in this article is the issue of implementing and infusing the various domains in the curriculum. I’m aware that certain facets of Bloom’s taxonomy have been challenged (for example the hierarchical cognitive domain) but to me this is more of intellectual academic arguments that do not reduce the overall value of the concept. For educators, to teach and not be aware of the value of Bloom’s taxonomy (original or modified from) will do injustice to our students because the taxonomy provides important perspectives that could improve the quality of teaching and learning at all levels.

So what’s the fuss about Bloom’s taxonomy? In a nutshell, Bloom’s taxonomy of learning focused teachers on the educational (learning) outcomes – what students should know and be able to do. How does the taxonomy relates learning outcomes to teaching? For any given curriculum, knowing the intended learning outcomes determine the what, how, and when of teaching. The focus of this article is on the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy although affective and psychomotor domains are equally important. The six components in the original cognitive domain are arranged in hierarchical manner that form ‘a ladder of learning’ that moves stepwise upwards in terms of levels of complexity, i.e., from simple to complex and from concrete to abstract. In this hierarchy form, it is assumed that abilities or competencies needed at the lower levels are also needed as prerequisite to the mastery of skills at higher levels. 

Each step in cognitive domain involves a specific kind of competence that supposedly can be tested with appropriate questions, each of which requires some “action” to demonstrate mastery of the material. The six-tiered steps are:
  1. Knowledge – recall of information, remembering facts and information; tested by questions asking that a student list, define, tabulate, name or identify who, what, when, where, and so on;
  2. Comprehension – understanding of information (considered as the lowest level of understanding), tested by questions with verbs such as summarize, contrast, interpret, estimate, discuss, predict and the like;
  3. Application – use of information to solve problems, ability to apply information or concepts in a new situation; tested by requiring students to demonstrate, calculate, illustrate, examine, show, modify and classify;
  4. Analysis – recognition of patterns, components, organization, both manifest and latent meanings and functions, with verbal cues such as explain, connect, compare, separate and classify; 
  5. Synthesis – generalization and integration of knowledge including generation of new ideas from old ones, relating knowledge across disciplines, drawing conclusions and predicting, according to instructions such as combine, integrate, modify, plan, create, design, generalize and rewrite;
  6. Evaluation – assessment and decision making in response to demands to discriminate among ideas, test hypotheses, appraise theories, construct arguments in support of, or in opposition to, various propositions, verify evidence and recognize bias and subjectivity.
The first three components constitute ‘lower order thinking’ and the last three constitute ‘higher order thinking’ abilities. The original Bloom’s taxonomy has undergone various modifications to reflect new development in cognitive research. The new (modified) Bloom’s Taxonomy was based on the work of Anderson and Krathwohl who incorporates knowledge from contemporary research on learning and human cognition into its model. The components in revised taxonomy are: Remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, and create. The major differences are the revised taxonomy modifies the original vocabulary to make each word more consistent with how it should be used; the new levels are now listed as verbs. For example, the term ‘synthesis’ was changed to ‘create’ because in order to demonstrate synthesis then there need to be a new creation. 

Thoughtful application of Bloom’s taxonomy could serves as a useful structure for writing measurable learning objectives and learning outcomes (LOs). The taxonomy helped to establish a shared, common language for academic assessment and the construction of clear and consistent learning objectives. In fact, detailed schemes and impressive schematic diagrams are available to help educators to write the LOs using specific verbs for each domain. (Fellow blogger, Zaid, has written an impressive and comprehensive article on his blog here). The LOs of the course with all the glory details (matrices, etc.) look nice and impressive on paper but the BIG QUESTION is whether teachers/lecturers are well guided and trained to implement teaching strategies that will help students to achieve the highest cognitive skills. From my discussion with colleagues and educators the general feeling is that the process of writing LOs now has become very mechanistic and to some extent trivialized because now almost anyone can do it without understanding the underlying philosophy that Bloom and others originally intended to achieve in terms of students’ learning. My main concern is that when any process becomes too mechanistic and standardized, there’s a tendency for ‘automation’ and the attitude of ‘just follow the template’, a practice that add little value to either instructional design or the assessment of learning.

I believe that most educators would like their students to function at the highest cognitive levels (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) because these would make them successful lifelong learners (successful beyond the examination hall, hopefully). However, in practice and in reality we have to honestly examine whether our students have enough opportunity to develop these cognitive skills or we (educators) have provided the environment that help to promote the skills. We have to examine and reflect on the way our curriculum is designed and how it is structured and delivered – can we really achieve the higher order learning/thinking or is it barely rising above the comprehension level? I don’t have a definite answer and I’m just throwing this question here for the sake of discussion – if the answer to this question is YES then obviously there is a disconnection between teachers’ sincere hopes and the actual expectations and we need to address this issue.

Let me paraphrase the question to ponder upon: How do we help students to climb the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy to reach the high order cognitive skills? How do we design/approach the teaching and learning process to create an environment that would go beyond the comprehension (understand) and ‘apply’ levels? How do we operationalize the different learning stages into at curriculum and course level? 

I think a good point to start is to change the mind-set of educators that learning involves a simple acquisition of knowledge. Mayer (2002) argued that when taking a knowledge acquisition view of learning, teachers sometimes emphasize one kind of cognitive processing in instruction and assessment—what we call ‘Remembering’. This is basically the lowest level in the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. He asserted that any education system should be based on a broader vision of learning that includes not only acquiring knowledge but also being able to use knowledge in a variety of new situations. 

If I could offer my humble opinion on the issue of ‘climbing the Bloom’s taxonomy ladder’, I would suggest that we take a close look at suggestion by Paulsen (2001) and Shulman (1986) that teachers should master three types of knowledge and competencies: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term coined by Shulman (1986) to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline. I believe that any teacher equipped with these three elements would be able to help students climbing to the top of cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy. 

Specific examples on strategies to incorporate and infuse high order cognitive skills can be found from the work of educators from various disciplines. I didn’t do exhaustive search but a few that I found are listed in the reading list at the end of this article. One interesting article that I read with interest was “Teaching Introductory Organic Chemistry: ‘Blooming’ beyond a Simple Taxonomy” by Pungente & Badger (2003). This article provides detailed approach that other educators can take as an example of best practices that can be adopted and adapted in their own classroom. Let me quote two paragraphs (verbatim) from this article:
Our primary goal when teaching introductory organic chemistry is to take students beyond the simple cognitive levels of knowledge and comprehension. We take a mechanistic approach to teaching organic chemistry. This is reinforced by connections to fundamental chemical principles emphasizing a unification of knowledge. Once students begin to appreciate the explanation of organic reaction mechanisms, they start to see these fundamental principles reappear regularly throughout the study of organic chemistry. True connections emerge and students begin to view organic reactions and interactions from a basis of understanding—using skills of synthesis and analysis—rather than rote memory. This ability to understand the connections between general principles and how they unlock the seemingly complex and confusing reactions in organic chemistry is an empowering experience for students. As empowerment replaces the fear, student confidence grows”. 
Like learning a new language, introductory organic chemistry typically begins with the grammar or taxonomy of organic chemistry. This introduction allows the instructor to speak the language of organic chemistry, re-examine principles, and lay the groundwork for advancement into reactions and mechanisms (applications and analysis). However, too often when the instructor kicks into “higher-level cognitive gear”, and begins delving into applications, the students are still functioning at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels, memorizing seemingly unrelated facts. This discrepancy between the instructor’s expectations and student performance becomes painfully obvious at exam time. Often, unintentionally or unknowingly, the instructor teaches at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels but examines at the higher analysis and synthesis levels while the students’ exam expectations remain at the lower knowledge and comprehension cognitive levels. The results: students complain that the exams are too hard; the instructor concludes while marking the papers that the students don’t “understand” basic concepts”.
I believe there are more things we can do to help students to achieve meaningful learning in align with Bloom’s taxonomy educational objectives. As I have written in my previous article in this blog, we need to facilitate a paradigm shift from teacher-centered teaching to student-centered learning throughout the curriculum, such that students obtain a deeper learning experience, improve their understanding and ability to apply learning to new situations, enhance their critical thinking and experimental skills, and increase their enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

Comments, views, and suggestions from fellow educators on the questions/issues raised in this article are most welcome.

References and further readings:
  • Use of Bloom’s taxonomy wheel for writing learning outcomes 
  • Bloom Taxonomy (A nice introduction to Bloom Taxonomy; Slideshare presentation) 
  • Kinetic connections: Bloom's taxonomy in action 
  • A picture is worth a thousand thoughts: inquiry with Bloom's taxonomy – nice demonstration of Bloom’s taxonomy in action. It takes you step-by-step through the analysis of a photograph at progressively higher levels of thinking.
  • Green, K.H. (2010). Matching Functions and Graphs at Multiple Levels of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy. Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies – PRIMUS, 20(3), 204–216  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Mayer, R.E. (2002). Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 226-232  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Nentl, N. and Zietlow, R. (2008). Using Bloom's Taxonomy to Teach Critical Thinking Skills to Business Students. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 15(1),159-172  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Paulsen, M.B., “The Relation Between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol. 86, 2001, pp. 19–29  (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Pungente, M.D. and Badger, R.A. (2003). Teaching Introductory Organic Chemistry: ‘Blooming’ beyond a Simple Taxonomy. Journal of Chemical Education, 8(7), 779-784 (Note: you need a subscription).
  • Spencer, J.N. (1999). New Directions in Teaching Chemistry: A Philosophical and Pedagogical Basis. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(4), 566-569  (Note: you need a subscription).

Friday, February 18, 2011

The continuing quest to be a better teacher

I remember when I joined the university about 17 years ago (it feels like only yesterday!) I was given the task of handling a laboratory class. I already had some experiences as a graduate assistant during my time as a Ph.D. student so it was not very difficult. I think I did quite a good job designing new experiments, interacting with the students and helping them with the experiment and marking the lab report. During the first few months, I had to attend induction courses including one or two sessions on teaching and learning. I don’t think I learn much on the learning theory or pedagogy then but I still remember a session where I had to give a mock lecture that was recorded and later commented by the facilitator. That was how much the training I received to become a teacher (lecturer) and I was supposed to be ready to carry out the task of educating the adult students. Without sufficient knowledge in pedagogy and teaching techniques, I was forced to use my intuition and developed my own approach based on my limited understanding of what good teaching is all about.

Now fast forward and looking back, I think I am a better teacher now than I was 17 years ago—but without seeking new knowledge via self-study, my pedagogical approach and teaching skills probably would not have changed very much. Obviously the task of preparing teachers for the profession is a complex and challenging one. Teachers, especially lecturers in higher educational institution should not take it for granted that the basic training in teaching is adequate to help students to learn effectively. Knowledge is not static – indeed it should expand, honed and enhanced. I believe educators at all levels, from kindergarten to university, should always seek new knowledge not only in their area of specialization but also in other disciplines. I always believe that we can only get better, provided we are willing to learn! As someone who is not formally trained as a teacher, I always on the lookout for good resources (books, websites, blogs or courses) on teaching and learning. My motivation is to enhance my teaching based on sound pedagogical principles and ultimately this hopefully would benefit my students’ learning.

In view of the dynamic progress in the 21st century learning environment and the changing needs of our students, teachers (lecturers, faculty) should strive to seek new knowledge and skills through a continuous professional development programme. According to Grant "Professional development ... goes beyond the term 'training' with its implications of learning skills, and encompasses a definition that includes formal and informal means of helping teachers not only learn new skills but also develop new insights into pedagogy and their own practice, and explore new or advanced understandings of content and resources”. In other words, professional development involves activities or programmes that develop an individual’s skills, knowledge, expertise and other characteristics as a teacher.

The development of teachers beyond their initial training can serve a number of objectives (OECD, 1998), including:
  • to update individuals’ knowledge of a subject in light of recent advances in the area;
  • to update individuals’ skills, attitudes and approaches in light of the development of new teaching techniques and objectives, new circumstances and new educational research;
  • to enable individuals to apply changes made to curricula or other aspects of teaching practice;
  • to help weaker teachers become more effective.
What kind of new knowledge, skills and competencies that teachers should equip themselves? In this regard, Paulsen (2001) proposed that teachers should master three types of knowledge: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term coined by Shulman (1986) to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline.

It goes without saying that mastery of the subject matter (theories, principles, and concepts) is essential to help students learn the subject. Assuming that one has mastered the subject content, one also has to understand how their students learn – the learning process. In this regard, a teacher should have some basic understanding of learning theory, Bloom taxonomy, etc. Next, according to Shulman, a teacher should also have a pedagogical content knowledge. It represents “the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction”. In other words, teachers with good pedagogical content knowledge are able to explain and transfer the knowledge of content to their students with clarity and meaningful. This means that the teacher would design the teaching approach in such a way, using appropriate techniques (e.g., demonstration, graphic representation, video, factory/site visit, etc., interview, role play, games, etc.) with ultimate aim to make the subject comprehensible. For example in my course, I always use demonstration in the classroom to illustrate certain concept. In designing a suitable demonstration, first I need to have in-depth understanding of the concept myself. Then I would think of a way to demonstrate it in the simplest possible manner. In my classes you might learn why the tomato sauce flows more readily than the plum sauce, why the chocolate bar melts in your mouth, why the soft margarine is spreadable but the block margarine is hard, etc. There are at least two reasons for such an approach. First, it lets the students see the relevance of the information. Second, it helps the students own the knowledge; they can see with their own ears and eyes what the concepts mean for them. Apart from demonstration, I frequently used analogy to illustrate certain abstract concept.

How do teachers seek new knowledge in their subject matter (content knowledge), pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge? This can be achieved in several ways and here I’d like to share my own approaches:

Attending short courses – Attending short courses related to the discipline or subject matter is a good (and faster) way to improve knowledge and gain in-depth understanding of the subject. By attending these courses, I get to learn something not normally found in the book. I remember many years ago I attended a certification course in Australia – it was a five-day intensive course conducted by an instructor with more than 25 years practical experience in the field. He shared his real industrial experiences and most of the examples given were from his consultation work with industry. Those were very invaluable knowledge that cannot be found in a standard text book. The knowledge I gained from these courses has benefited the students’ learning significantly and adds value to the course. With respect to pedagogy, I have participated in a workshop on using technology in the classroom, leveraging learning management system such as Moodle to develop e-learning courses, developing module, introducing active learning into the classroom, etc. The idea and knowledge I gained from the workshop led me to make significant modifications to my teaching approach, experiment with problem-based learning, new pedagogical approaches, and new tools to help enhance my students’ learning experience. These efforts, taken together, result in continuous efforts to refine, change, remove, and add both to the content of my courses and to the methods I use to deliver that content.

Reading – I constantly look for interesting resources (books, articles) and ideas to incorporate into my lectures and classes. The reading fuels both my teaching (as well as my research), as I am constantly exposed to new ideas, techniques and points of view. On the pedagogy aspect, I’d like to recommend a few books to get at least basic pedagogical knowledge:
  • Alan Pritchard (2009). Ways of Learning – Learning Theories and Learning Styles in the Classroom, 2nd edition. This book presents basic theories on learning, followed by the two major schools of psychology that have dealt with learning: behaviorism and constructivism. I like the simplicity of the presentation – good introduction for the novice teachers (non-education background);
  • Susan A. Ambrose and others (2010). How Learning Works – 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. [Excerpt from the website: “It introduces seven research-based principles of learning and addresses issues such as prior knowledge, knowledge organization, motivation, and metacognition. Written to be accessible and practically useful, this book helps to explain why certain teaching approaches do or do not support student learning and provides faculty with a framework for generating effective approaches and strategies in their own teaching contexts”].
  • Barbara Gross Davis (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd edition. [Description copied from the preface: “Tools for Teaching provides new and experienced faculty in all disciplines with practical, tested strategies for addressing all major aspects of college and university teaching, from planning a course through assigning final grades”].
Of course, there are more books that you can read but let’s start with a small step if you haven’t started at all.

Educational website and blog – This is another useful (or shall I say VERY USEFUL) source to obtain information and new knowledge in subject content and on pedagogy. For example in my area (food science and technology), Institute of Food Technologist (USA) website publishes latest information on various aspects of food science and technology (processing, ingredients, nutrition, food safety, etc.). As for pedagogy and teaching/learning, there are plentiful of good websites such as Faculty Focus, Edutopia, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, etc. Often some websites, such as Faculty Focus, provides free articles that are downloadable as PDF file. Over the years I have amassed a huge collection of articles from various websites. Unfortunately I have not read all but I know there's a pool of knowledge on my computer waiting to be tapped.

We should not forget blog and social community network group where educators meet to discuss and share their thought on various issues. One example is Classroom 2.0 (social network for those interested in Web 2.0 and Social Media in education). If you are into using technology, there are plentiful of expert blog such as The Rapid E-learning blog and informative blog such as ZaidLearn.

Journals – If you want to read the latest research in your discipline there’s no substitute for reading peer-reviewed journals. Generally there are two types: Review journals which publish review articles and research journals which publish original research findings. Some journals are only accessible if your institution has a subscription. Others are accessible free of charge through open access. There are a number of open access journals in education, for example the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. To find the open access journal simply go the extensive online catalogue, Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Here I copied the description about DOAJ – “This service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals. We aim to cover all subjects and languages. There are now 6175 journals in the directory. Currently 2631 journals are searchable at article level. As of today 510028 articles are included in the DOAJ”.

To improve the so-called 'pedagogical content knowledge', there are journals in certain discipline that focus on the pedagogical aspect of teaching/learning the content of the discipline. Just to mention two examples, in chemistry there is Journal of Chemical Education (copublished by the ACS Publications Division and the Division of Chemical Education) and in food science we have Journal of Food Science Education (available free online), co-published by Institute of Food Technologist, USA and Wiley.

Well, there’s so much teachers/lecturers/faculties can do in terms of their own professional development. The bottom line is continuous professional development of teachers can no longer be viewed as an option but as a necessity, if we were to enhance the standard of education at all levels.

References and further readings:
  • Paulsen, M.B., “The Relation Between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol. 86, 2001, pp. 19–29.
  • [Grant, C. M. Professional development in a technological age: New definitions, old challenges, new resources [Available online]. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Do you over teach your students?

I always share my enthusiasm with my colleagues about my teaching approaches and very often one of the issues raised during our discussion is “spoon-feeding” or “over teaching”. “Don’t you think you are spoon-feeding your students by putting your hand-outs, notes, PowerPoints slides, etc. for them to freely download?” “Don’t you think we over teach our students?” – These are the questions commonly asked by my colleagues and also when I give a presentation related to teaching-learning issues. Hmm....actually these are difficult questions to answer because to me there is no fine line or clear demarcation as to what constitutes spoon-feeding or over teaching and what is not.

Well, this is what the dictionary says about spoon feeding in the context of teaching-learning:
"If you spoon-feed someone, you do everything for them or tell them everything that they need to know, thus preventing them from having to think or act for themselves. There is a tendency to spoon-feed your pupils when you’re teaching because it is quicker and easier" (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary). So apparently the result of spoon-feeding in the academic context is the inhibition of the development of the capacity for independent thinking and learning.

I posted a question about this issue in my e-learning portal (title: Spoon-feeding: Are you being pampered?) and asked the students to give their response. Here is one of the responses (verbatim):
Here is my two cents' worth. Honestly, it is not only me that has been spoon-fed, in fact "all" of us will have to raise up our hands and own up! (Please don't sue me for defamation because I think that this is true) Ha ha.... From young, we have been fed with a silver spoon by our biological parents and in school, the same goes with our dedicated "second-parents". The spoon feeding practice is part of our Malaysian education culture which has long built its warm nest and is still very much alive and breathing. That is why we turn out to be pampered passive learners...” (Chan Lai Ean).

I think providing our students with basic learning resources (within reasonable limit) do not mean we spoon feed the students. What’s important is how we design the learning activities - it should be designed carefully in such a manner that it would require the students to construct and scaffold the knowledge, individually or as part of their group assignment. In doing such activities they will acquire the essential skills such as using databases to search the literature and summarizing the information. After all, in this information era students can easily access and download various learning resources related to the subject, sometimes with better quality than those supplied by their teachers. For my course, I do provide students with basic hand-out and all my PowerPoint slides but they know that they cannot find the answer for the assignment without doing further reading and find more learning resources on their own.

What about “over teaching”? Is it possible to over teach? This issue is perhaps relevant and could happen in a traditional teacher-centered classroom when teachers try to deliver and transmit subject content to their students as much as possible. Enthusiastic teachers prone to do too much (rather than too little) during the 50 minutes lecture – very often they talk more than students do. According to Paula [1] this happens for several reasons: teachers are so anxious for students to learn that they try to shove as much information during the set time period, more than the students could effectively comprehend. It boils down to teachers making themselves feel good, thinking that they have covered the essential information on the topic/subject without much thought as to what the students are actually learning.

In student-centered learning paradigm, the role of teacher is shifted from merely transmitting the knowledge passively to students to one involving more students’ participation and responsibility in a classroom. However, one of the teachers’ concerns about student-centered approach is the notion that more time need to be allocated in a classroom for student-centered activities, taking away precious lecture time to cover the syllabus. Obviously in order to create a successful student-centered environment, teachers should change their mindset from “more is better” to “less is more” approach to classroom teaching. Instead of trying to cover everything in the subject, concentrate on fewer major (core) topics and spend more time on those. This approach would promote deep conceptual understanding rather than just a superficial or cursory knowledge of the subject. To facilitate learning and discussion, relevant learning resources can be uploaded in advanced on the learning portal and students can be instructed to read the materials before the lecture. Using this approach, class time can be used more productively to cover conceptually difficult material, leaving the students to cover the rest for themselves.

References and further readings:

  1. Evans, C., Gibbons, N.J., Shah, K. and Griffin, D.K. (2004) Virtual learning in the biological sciences: pitfalls of simply "putting notes on the web" Computers & Education, 43, 49-61.
  2. Felder, R.M. and Brent, R. Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction
  3. Paula, E. (2009). Be a more effective teacher: How to avoid over teaching in the collegiate business classroom. Proceedings of ASBBS, 16(1), 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Quest for Teaching Excellence

"Teachers should not be predictable in their teaching practices or approaches – in fact, in my view all great teachers are not predictable because they always surprise and excite their students with different “tricks of the trade” up their sleeve" - A. A. Karim.

In this posting I will share some of the 'open secrets' of being great teachers and their attributes that provide the environment for teaching excellence. In fact, I put the original title as "Open secret recipes of great teachers" but I changed my mind and instead use the current title. The main points actually are based on the article “The Quest for Excellence in University Teaching” written by Sherman and others [1]. It was published more than 20 years ago but I think the idea is still very much applicable and relevant when we talk about the characteristics of teaching excellence, be it in school or in higher education.  Some might argue whether it is still relevant to talk about teaching excellence while the trend now is towards changing the paradigm from teaching to learning paradigm (teacher-centered to student-centered)? In my view, teaching and learning have to go hand-in-hand – it is inseparable. The student-centered paradigm simply means an increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student but the role of the teacher is still vital although not so much as a provider of knowledge but more as a facilitator.

Five characteristics have been identified by the authors to constitute excellence in teaching: enthusiasm, clarity, preparation/organization, stimulating, and love of knowledge.

ENTHUSIASM – Without doubt, enthusiasm is a critical element for good teaching, and believe me students have a sixth sense for it! If students see a teacher who demonstrates a passion and exude enthusiasm for the subject he/she is teaching, inevitably they will be affected by this energy and will engage themselves actively in the learning process. The enthusiasm that teachers bring to the classroom helps to create an encouraging and supportive atmosphere. I firmly believed that teachers, who share their passion for teaching, and teach with enthusiasm and empathy, are more likely to both connect with learners and increase learner performance. Numerous researches have affirmed that students respond favorably to enthusiastic teachers and this trait has always been associated with teaching excellence, so it is highly desirable to remain enthusiastic. Having said that, enthusiasm has been regarded by some people as a natural part of the individual teacher – the intrinsic attribute – one either "has it" or "does not have it."

What attributes define enthusiasm? These include vocal delivery that is rapid and excited, eyes that dance, facial expressions that show surprise, word selection which is highly descriptive, and an overall energy level that is explosive and exuberant. Hmm…”overall energy level that is explosive and exuberant?” Yes, this factor is actually very important, at least for me. I’d rather cancel my lecture if I were not mentally or physically prepared. This is because I always want to be seen energetic and enthusiastic when delivering my lecture. Of course, it’s hard to maintain the same level of enthusiasm every time but teachers have little choice if they expect the students to reciprocate and if they want to make the classroom comes alive. “A sound mind resides in a sound body” – so we (teachers) should keep reminding ourselves to maintain a healthy mind and body, keeps fit and be energetic to keep the fire burning!

Dr Patrick Allit in his book “The Art of Teaching: Best Practices from a Master Educators” shares many tips and strategies to master the art of teaching. He raised this interesting statement and question (page 58) – “In the early days of your teaching career, you were no doubt filled with excitement and energy but what happens after 25 years down the road, when you’ve been teaching for so long that every class seems like a rerun of one you’ve done before? Every vocation can become dull through repetition and familiarity, teaching included, but the best teachers find ways to prevent a sense of monotony from ever setting in”.

CLARITY – A good teacher is one who clearly explains themselves clearly so that their students understand exactly what is being taught. Teachers should have an excellent grasp and the mastery of the subject they teach. Teachers should be able to articulate their ideas succinctly without any ambiguity. However, even though teachers are the subject matter expert, sometimes they need to try a few different ways of explaining before they find one that is most effective for their students. In my view, when a teacher is able to explain something in more than one way, it shows that they have a complete understanding of the information they are teaching. That not only gives validity in what they say, but it makes their students believe them too! According to Wallen [3], the effective teacher is one who appears to be able to explain concepts clearly and such that the students seem to be gaining understanding.  The bottom line is that teachers should strive to embrace and immerse themselves in the subject matter to achieve an expert level and this would benefit both teachers and learners immensely.

Personally in my classroom, I spend more time on introducing and explaining important concepts. The approach in presenting the material in the class is of utmost important to achieve this objective. Typically, before delivering a new concept to students, I articulate the background information, and ask them to find out the solution. Along the way this approach would reveal the depth of their prior knowledge and their grasp of fundamental principles. Then I introduce the theory I wanted to communicate. This approach creates curiosity to learn about the concept. It enables the students to remember the subject forever and also stimulate them to look for other approaches for that task.

PREPARATION AND ORGANIZATION - Preparation describes the types of activities the teacher performs to ensure that a lesson or course can be conducted as planned. Organization refers to the way the teacher organizes or structures the subject matter [1]. A good teacher put considerable effort, energy, time and even money to organize and prepare their teaching materials. Typically, this included: constructing detailed course outlines, establishing course objectives, and defining evaluation procedures.

STIMULATING - Boredom can be a teacher’s greatest enemy! Thus, it is important that teachers create a stimulating environment that captures and captivate the interest of the students. Stimulating teaching includes elements such as entertaining, motivating, captivating, engaging, interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking. According to Sherman and other [1], stimulating teachers appear to create interest and thoughtfulness in students resulting in closer attention.

Making learning fun and stimulating is easier said than done – it is an art as much as it is a practice. This is the part where teachers can be creative and use any “tools” or techniques available at their disposal. Teachers should be aware of the various pedagogical options and techniques so that they can “mix and match” as appropriate to suit certain learning environment and different learning styles. It’s just like a buffet lunch with a variety of foods to choose from to suit your taste. With all the teaching repertoires, teachers should not be predictable in their teaching practices – in fact, in my view all great teachers are not predictable because they always surprise their students with different “tricks of the trade” up their sleeve. If you recall my previous posts about MIT’s physicist Walter Lewin then you’d understand what I mean.

KNOWLEDGE – Sherman and others divided knowledge into two general categories: the teacher's grasp of the subject matter and the teacher's love of and passion for the subject matter. I guess this is the “disciplined mind” as Howard Gardner explained in his book, “Five Minds for the Future”. Gardner asserted that one needs to know how to do at least one thing really well - not only superficially – not a generalist – not that of Jack of all trades but master of none! In other words, a disciplined mind refers to the ability to focus and develop a deep knowledge and mastery of any subject matter, be it music, photography, quantum physics, etc. So if teach about food chemistry, I should have the in-depth knowledge of the subject so that I can guide my students in their exploration appropriately.

Paulsen [2] suggested that teachers should possess three types of knowledge: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline.

Five attributes of great teachers as mentioned here are by no means definitive. To be one of the best teachers, one has to make a systematic and reflective appraisal of own teaching approaches and strategies. Knowing what make great teachers is not enough – what’s more important is practicing and infusing the best practices of great teachers in our teaching consistently towards achieving the teaching excellence.

References and further readings:
  1. Sherman, T.M., Armistead, L.P., Fowler, F., Barksdale, M.A. (1987). The Quest for Excellence in University Teaching. The Journal of Higher Education, 58(1)1, 66-84.
  2. Paulsen, M.B.(2001). The Relation between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 86,19–29.
  3. What are the dimensions of teaching excellence?
  4. Suggestions For Producing Teaching Excellence
  5. A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence

I hope to add more resources and links for this posting (when I can find the time!).

    Saturday, February 5, 2011

    The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

    Here I'm just sharing Carmine Gallo's presentation he posted on the Slideshare. Carmine Gallo is the author of two international best-seller books, "The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience" and "The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs", which reveals the principles that have driven Steve Jobs’ success and that can help readers achieve incredible breakthroughs. I have not read the books but looking at the points presented in the slides, I'm sure the books contain wealth of good tips and strategies for speakers/presenters.

    For those who's doing a presentation is your bread and butter, then I would highly recommend you to spare a few minutes of your precious time to view the slides. If you can't make it, below I have extracted some important quotes and points from the whole presentation (verbatim).

    "A person can have the greatest idea in the world. But if that person can't convince enough other people, it doesn't matter" - Gregory Berns

    "The single most important thing you can do to dramatically improve your presentations is to have a story to tell before you work on your PowerPoint file" - Cliff Atkinson, Beyond Bullet Points

    In the nutshell, to create and deliver a captivating, effective and memorable presentation, you have to:
    • Create the story
    • Deliver the experience
    • Refine and rehearse
    Steve Jobs presentation is strikingly simple, highly visual and completely devoid of bullet points.

    Researchers have discovered that ideas are much more likely to be remembered if they are presented as pictures instead of words or pictures paired with words. If information is presented orally, people remember about 10% of the content 72 hours later. That figure goes up to 65% if you add a picture. According to John Medina, your brain inteprets every letter as a picture, so wordy slides literally choke your brain!

    "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" - Maya Angelou.

    Check out other great presentations below: