I have sometimes heard comments from colleagues at universities who attempt to justify their lack of interest in teaching by explaining that they are ‘serious researchers’, and then evoke the assumption that research always trumps teaching. There is the unspoken criticism of teaching colleagues that they focus on teaching because they can’t hack it as researchers. In truth, many of the best teachers that I have observed over the years have also been excellent researchers. Whilst some of those who may be struggling with the teaching are also struggling with their research, evidently the best academics excel at both activities. One such figure is Carl Wieman – a Nobel Laureate who spends considerable energy on the development of university teaching (see Mervis, 2013). Wieman asks, why do institutions disregard decades of research that show the superiority of student-centred, active learning over the traditional 50 minute lecture? – see also my earlier post on this blog, “Why would a real scientist ignore evidence?“.
One of the barriers that if often raised to prevent meaningful change in university teaching is the exam. We have to prepare students for the exams. And while exams often remain tests of factual recall (the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy – see my earlier post, “Flipped classrooms: isn’t that the way around it should have been anyway?” ), then there seems no way to move forward in the development of assessment-driven programmes. Wieman and his colleagues have also thought about this, and they have come up with the idea of the two-stage exam (Wieman, Rieger and Heiner, 2014) as a partial solution. They write:
“The two-stage exam is a relatively simple way to introduce collaborative learning and formative assessment into an exam. Their use is rapidly growing in the physics department at the University of British Columbia, as both students and faculty find them rewarding. In a two-stage exam students first complete and turn in the exam individually, and then, working in small groups, answer the exam questions again. During the second stage, the room is filled with spirited and effective debate with nearly every student participating. This provides students with immediate targeted feedback supplied by discussions with their peers. Furthermore, we see indications that the use of this exam format not only ensures consistency across interactive course components, but it also positively impacts how students approach the other collaborative course components. This is accomplished without losing the summative assessment of individual performance that is the expectation of exams for most instructors. ”
Perhaps we should overcome our nervousness about tinkering with the exam system and try something that might trigger a revolution in higher education teaching? Wieman might ask if we care enough to make this happen?
Mervis, J. (2013) Transformation is possible if a university really cares. Science, 340: 292 – 296.
Wieman, C.E., Rieger, G.W. and Heiner, C.E. (2014) Physics exams that promote collaborative learning. The Physics Teacher, 52: 51 – 53.