Around Campus: Engaging Students with Technology

physics.fwOn Wednesday, Prof. Andy Gavrin of Purdue University, Indianapolis, delivered a seminar in the School of Physics with the title “Engaging Students with Technology”. He outlined two initiatives that he and colleagues have been using in Physics teaching – Just in Time Teaching, and Course Networking.

Just in Time Teaching is a version of the flipped classroom approach, although it began far earlier (in the mid to late 1990s) and goes much further than the “self study” type of flipped classroom. The basic premise is that students are assigned pre-class reading, and an associated online quiz, which closes two hours before the class begins. The quizzes, crucially, are not simply multiple choice. They require students to write reasoned responses to tutor-provided examples, or to describe what is happening in a figure or diagram. The tutor then uses the two hour timeslot to prepare what will happen in the face-to-face class and adapt material accordingly. The class then becomes a dialogue based around tutor-selected excerpts from the anonymized quiz responses (both strong, and weak). The tutor, especially with large classes, does not have to read every response, but as a rough guide, if 10% of the students have a misconception about something then that would be flagged as something to address in class. The process is a constructive one: although both strong and weak responses are used, the emphasis is on improvement and development. Questions can be reused in future classes as Clicker questions, or form the basis of exam questions. Interestingly, data from a class micro-survey showed that the “warmups” (as the pre-class activities are known) have the effect of giving  students of all abilities confidence that they are keeping up with the material – and even decrease the number of able students who “cram” for exams. An archive of warmups can be accessed at

andy_gavrin2The second, more recent, initiative described was Course Networking – an in-house social network which runs on an internal reward system based on Anar (pomegranate) seeds. It offers the usual facebook-like features such as posting, liking, polling and commenting, but in a secure institutional environment. Students can amass Anar seeds throughout the year based on their interactions with peers, and can use these for extra credit. This has proved popular with students. One example given was one of a student who started a series of “Gym Physics” videos – testing out his calculations by carrying out and videoing experiments using gym equipment. More information on Course Networking can be found here and more information about Andy himself can be found here.



Workshop > Data Visualization in the Humanities

events.fwThe Library, as part of its Digital Humanities remit, hosted a workshop on Data Visualization in the Humanities led by external presenter Mia Ridge.

Mia began by outlining the historical development of visualization – starting with examples such as John Snow’s Cholera Map (1854), Florence Nightingale’s Petal Charts (1858) and Minard’s map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 (1869); and highlighting the power of the visualization in enabling the viewer to understand data easily on multiple axes at the same time. She then moved on to show more recent types of visualization – mashups, infographics, text analysis, visualizing images and video and network visualizations.

Visualization needs to be approached carefully, with proper consideration given to audience and purpose. For example, will your visualization be a product, or a process – will it be used to explain, or explore your dataset?

Some risks of visualizations were highlighted to help contextualize their use:

  • Over-emphasis of one aspect of the data may de-emphasise another, for example, Beck’s tube map of 1951 emphasises connections but de-emphasises geographical proximity.
  • Some visualization tools and softwares may have inherent bias built into them depending on what audience they were designed for. The algorithms used may not be transparent, for example with Google’s N-gram tool.
  • Visualizing “sentiment” analysis is not an exact science. Current algorithms can work with words, but take no account of tone or register (or even emojis!).  For an example of “sentiment” analysis, see the Twitter visualization of the Olympics in 2012.

As well as the time to get hands-on with and evaluate various visualization tools, it was great to see and hear about the work already being done in this area by colleagues around the University, for example Kathryn Rudy from the School of Art History – and of course the exciting digital humanities projects taking place in the Library.

For more information on digital humanities at St Andrews, contact Dr Alice Crawford in the Library – or catch up with her blog.

Event > Learning & Teaching Open Forum, University of St Andrews

events.fwWednesday afternoon saw the second of this year’s biannual Learning & Teaching Open Forums at the University of St Andrews. The theme for the afternoon was Inspiring Learning through Research-led Teaching. Opening remarks by Proctor, Professor Lorna Milne, set the scene for three interesting presentations by academics on their approaches, and two presentations by students undertaking the Laidlaw Undergraduate Internship Programme over the summer vacation. Professor Milne indicated that much of the literature around research-led teaching focuses on the separation of these and how this has become institutionalised practice. In reality, however, they were interdependent – as the good practice about to be highlighted would show.

Paula Miles from the School of Psychology & Neuroscience outlined an approach being used in Level 1 classes to try and make the link between lectures (theory) and labwork (practice) more explicit and relevant. Instead of being given datasets to work with and analyse, which resulted in quite passive learning, a “Citizen Science” method was taken whereby students were asked to design their own study (gaining insight into the challenges this presents); to collect and analyse their own data; and conclude from it. Although the effects of this on performance had been neutral, student grumbles about a disconnect between teaching and research had diminished, and, critically, students had reported enjoying the classes more.

Professor Frances Andrews from the School of History outlined three ways that research was being integrated with teaching within the School. Firstly, within discrete modules, research was integrated either based on research content, or on research methodologies. She gave two examples of this: a module run by a colleague around specific research content had led to the publication of a student textbook; and a module focusing on specific methodologies had led to a research publication. Prof. Andrews then talked about research around modules and how students should be encouraged to attend both internal PG seminars, and workshops with external, perhaps international, speakers. Field trips could also play a role in sparking enthusiasm for research, and gaining an understanding the research process. The third method was through gaining an appreciation of research through actually doing it – UG research projects leading to Masters and potentially PhDs.

Dr Shiona Chillas from the School of Management talked about how students do not understand how the work they do at University and the skills they acquire are relevant to their future careers, either in academia or in the workforce. In the School they are attempting to highlight the employability value of research activity through a core module on research proposals in Junior Honours. Students are asked to critique an existing piece of research – and then to see how easy or difficult it is to design their own research project. Both the process of doing this, and the outputs are of much more explicit value to employers.

Student contributors Sam Mills and Amy Sheader then presented enthusiastically on the work they will be doing over the summer on their Laidlaw Internships. Sam will be curating and creating a digital database of artefacts relating to pre-cinema moving image technology – and hopes to gain insight into the research process, helping to confirm his future direction of travel. Amy will be working on a Physics project on “optical tweezers” (manipulating tiny particles by exerting extremely small forces via a highly focused laser beam). She hopes to be able to make a connection between lecture material on the topic and the research she is undertaking – and to gain valuable transferable skills.

Themes which came out of discussion throughout the event were:

  • We need to move away from teaching research outcomes to teaching research processes.
  • Student choice in the process is key.
  • Students who lack confidence need to have time spent with them, be supported through small group teaching, and be scaffolded through the different stages of the research process.
  • Research is presented through teaching as a narrative of success – involvement in the research process can help students understand the power of failure.
As Amy summed it up, “you learn the most when things are going terribly wrong“.