The outcomes of any innovative teaching and learning practice should be real-world competence, the ability to apply acquired knowledge and the ability to problem-solve using creative skills, thereby enhancing competitiveness in the global marketplace. It should not be the ability to regurgitate facts.
This belief manifests itself in the context of our specific teaching environment. In the World Economic Forum's Global Information Technology Report 2015, South Africa was ranked last when countries were ranked based on the quality of mathematics and science education they provide, and 139th out of 143 countries when ranked according to the overall quality of school education. This presents a daunting challenge for the higher education system, with students increasingly struggling to master university subject content.
As lecturers in the field of mathematical statistics, we have first-hand experience of this problem. Students often view statistics as an unfamiliar, insurmountable challenge. This is partly because it has only recently been made a compulsory element of secondary school mathematics. In the context of teaching this subject to extended programme students, this is even more evident.
Our students come from a variety of backgrounds, both advantaged and disadvantaged, and enter the programme in a variety of subject fields, all with different aims and objectives. Students in the commerce, IT and physical science fields tend to focus on application of statistical techniques, with very little interest in the underlying theory. However, students in the mathematical science stream require insight into the application as well as the theory of statistics. The desire to teach the same content to this diverse set of students creates a unique set of challenges.
This challenging yet rewarding attempt is described in the attached teaching portfolio. This was compiled and recently submitted following a nomination for a national teaching and learning award.
In the South African context, in which most undergraduate degrees are obtained over a three year period, the four-year extended programme makes provision for students who do not meet the entry requirements for mainstream programmes. In many cases, these students are deemed academically unsuitable, a problem often resulting from the poor quality of secondary education in many schools. The programme not only recognises this disadvantage, but also the hidden potential of many of these learners. Students who are willing to work hard are prepared for their specialist studies through an additional year. In this year, the gap between school and higher education is addressed.
The programme aims to develop students holistically, improving both their grasp of content and their professional skills. This builds a solid undergraduate foundation and aims to enhance student learning and employability. It provides dedicated support to students who need assistance in their development of critical thinking skills and focuses on the value of deeper conceptual understanding and practical skills.
Our teaching philosophy revolves around facilitating active learning, resulting in self-regulating, independent students. We aim to achieve this by means of a variety of innovative teaching methods, which are purposefully structured through constructively aligned processes.
'Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.'
In line with our constructivist philosophy to learning, we believe that a student's learning approach should be considered as an additional dimension to the usual triangulation of outcomes, instruction and assessment in the teaching and learning environment. This approach is positively influenced when students are exposed to tasks that encourage deeper levels of thinking, allowing for them to make mistakes from which they can learn.
Whilst innovative teaching methods and the quality of tasks can enhance learning, grading of these is a crucial component. Although some students have a strong intrinsic motivation for learning, the majority have achievement as their primary goal. Grading can therefore be considered as the currency that determines students' learning. By attaching grades to purposeful tasks that are carefully aligned to the desired learning outcomes, students interpret what is valued. Our learning outcomes are structured to include a balanced mixture of ideas, connection and extension levels of thinking across a set of teaching and learning activities enveloping both theory and application.
Basic concepts are introduced during interactive lectures, the necessary opportunities to apply these are created in Excel-based practical sessions, and concepts are reinforced along with the development of critical thinking and reasoning skills during tutorial sessions. These activities in combination serve to scaffold student learning towards the final aim of completing an authentic enquiry-based project of their own choosing in a real-life setting. The details of how this is achieved are expanded upon in the attached teaching portfolio.
Due to the nature of the extended programme, students receive approximately 7 hours of contact time per week from lecturers. This consists of four lecture hours, two tutorial hours and one practical hour. In addition to students arranging face-to-face consultation sessions with lecturers, assistant lecturers or tutors, an on-line discussion forum is used as a platform for e-tutoring activities.
In this blended learning environment, students are expected to prepare for lectures by reading prescribed materials and doing Blackboard based assessments. The results of these assessments, as well as on-line discussions, are used by lecturers to pinpoint areas of concern and structure sessions accordingly. During lectures, students are engaged through the use of a Classroom Response System and focused buzz-group discussions. This transforms the classroom from a static to a dynamic student driven learning environment.
In the tutorial setting, a flipped classroom approach is followed. Students are expected to prepare basic worksheets and need to present their results to their peers for discussion. Additional challenging tasks are facilitated through a peer instruction process and students are encouraged to share their perspectives in a safe, low-risk, high-reward environment.
Through the implementation of this hybrid model, Excel-based practical sessions have proven to be highly successful in addressing the technological disparities between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds (see attached Practical Guide). More than half our students have no prior knowledge of Excel, and in some cases, personal computers. The application of statistical concepts in this setting is a basic requirement for enquiry-based project work and has proven to be particularly challenging to students. Students are however empowered to overcome this obstacle and do so with a great sense of accomplishment.
The implementation of project work has proven to have a very positive impact on students in both their studies and careers. Skills developed through these tasks, such as independence, time management and communication, is transferable to other subjects and essential in the work environment. Anecdotal evidence is provided in the attached teaching portfolio.
Highly satisfactory student results have been observed with pass rates in our modules exceeding those of most other first year statistics modules. Our external examiner recently rewarded us with the following commendable report on students' ability to handle extension level questions in an final summative assessment setting:
'I was pleasantly surprised in how most of the students answered these types of questions. They showed confidence in approaching these questions and I can only ascribe it to the project work that they conducted during the semester. These are qualities that I, as employer, would look for in an aspiring employee.'
Healthy retention rates have been observed with, for example, approximately 80% of our 2012 student intake being retained after three years, in stark contrast to the corresponding 24% retention rate in our faculty.
Overwhelmingly positive feedback from current students confirms the positive impact our teaching methods have on their approach to learning. Students have the freedom to comment on the methods employed and know that their opinions are valued and will be considered. We are constantly re-evaluating our own teaching practices based on this input.
Feedback received from former students also indicates the impact that our module has had on their personal and professional development. Evidence of this in the form of reports from former students employed in industry forms part of the attached teaching portfolio.
At the centre of our innovation is enquiry-based project work - an activity culminating in almost only higher-level responses through constructively focused input from interactive large-group lectures, student-driven small-group tutorial sessions and computer-based practical sessions. A scaffolded and deliberate approach is implemented to develop students' confidence in achieving the set goals. Students are empowered to:
-respect and nurture intellectual diversity
-build trust with and among their peers
-share their ideas comfortably with one another
-develop critical thinking.
This approach has proven effective in providing students with rewarding, worthwhile and relevant learning experiences that not only build their confidence and self-efficacy but also integrate skills explicitly with content. This provides the first important steps towards realizing the priorities and implementation strategies set by our institution:
'The crux of the University's teaching and learning strategy will be to deliver independent learners who fit the profile of a research-intensive university, wherever their future career trajectories may lead - replenishing the human capital for the University, or as high-level skilled professionals entering the public or private sectors.'
Through informed reflection over an extended period of time, a project work guide (attached) has been refined. It now provides students with clear phased assessment guidelines of standards and expectations. We are currently collaborating with the academic literacy and student support departments to enhance language and interpersonal skills. However, we perceive the need for students to showcase their final project presentations to the broader department as well as representatives from the private and public sector. The potential for professional interaction and networking opportunities emanating from this will provide students with invaluable exposure.