Florencio Pinela leads a team from Harvard at DCU to present innovative teaching and learning techniques for STEM students at the GIREP-ICPE-EPEC 2017 conference in Dublin City University, Ireland.

Themed “Bridging Research and Practice in Physics Teaching and Learning”, Dr. Pinela’s Mazur team from Harvard (where he is a visiting scholar) place an emphasis on concepts such as “Peer Project Learning” and a flipped, student-oriented classroom.

Q. You have developed a system which can be described as – firstly, class pre-reading, then the introduction or traditional lecture or class itself, which is very brief and involves a little guidance, and then you have peer discussions, collaborations and reviews. Is that accurate? Almost immediately you move from a top-down to a broadly more democratic regime. But how copper-fastened is that? How flexible is that whole regime?

All of our students follow a fixed schedule. Let’s say each chapter of a course is about five hours. But the students are free, for example, in terms of the time that they dedicate to the reading and study of that text. This instruction, the reading material, is for “beyond the classroom”.

In addition, the students have videos. They can watch this multimedia content alone, or together, or with some of their peers. And any time they like, they can view the video content. The only thing that is strict is the work in the class – and most of the work in the class – including the standard or classic test, they work on together, and in cooperation with each other.

And is there more risk of mistakes?

Flor1Our students are not put off by failure. We push our students to achieve success through their learning. For us, the soft skills are more important than the knowledge. We know knowledge is so important. But right now, for the future, we need another kind of engineer, another kind of professional. Not just somebody who likes to work alone; we need somebody who likes to work together with others, in groups.

Much research has shown that bright students achieve success in their lives not due to their knowledge and ability but because of their emotional intelligence. Everyone knows how to work hard, but society means interaction.

The only way you can figure out empathy is if you’re working with other people. How can you find out how empathetic you are if you’re not working with other people? You can’t find out if you’re emotional or angry unless you’re collaborating.

What do you say to the criticism that it’s hands-off, so the lecturer or professor isn’t doing the work any more?

The new philosophy is – for example – “Let the students figure things out”. According to this LogoEspolactive model, we don’t want the students to be happy. If someone wants to be happy, go watch a movie. But they don’t learn anything. We want our students to learn science and learn physics.

It has to be a little difficult. Physics is not fun. It’s not simple. If a Trinity student gets a first class honours degree, and he says “Hey guys, physics is fun!” he’s probably a liar! Physics is a challenge. And teaching and learning from each other is very important to us. The best way to learn is to teach each other.

Is there an element or even a fear of naming and shaming the students who don’t put in the time? You may have four students working on a project and one of them doesn’t put in the work. Are students and teachers colluding against the lazy students and saying “Come on! You’re not doing enough work. You’re not pulling your weight.” And it might put a less assiduous student off studying entirely, rather than light the fire under them through encouragement?

Well, equality in contribution in work is a big problem when a student is working on a collaborative project because – for instance – some students are very interested in certain topics and some are not so interested. Others again are completely lazy and want to take advantage of the other members of the group.

But first, under our techniques, when students develop a project they have to present to the assessors and teachers how they have advanced on each step of the project, every two weeks. So they do not have the opportunity to present a report at the end of the semester that the faculty members have not yet seen. Secondly, when they present the project we the teachers do not grade ESPOLit. The project is reviewed by the faculty of the other department, so when the students see that their work is being independently assessed, they feel more empowered in the project.

And yes, they are going to be criticized as part of the grade of the project.

We have developed an application called Peer Assessment and the students assess the contributions of each member of the team online via both self-assessment and assessment.

So, a lazy student is conscious of the fact that this system is in place. You will know the weighting factor is lower, and it will be multiplied by the grade of the overall project. When it comes to the project work, there is not a grade for all of the students on the project as a whole: An individual grade will be applied.

We have an expression: “Cramming” for an exam. You study overnight for the exam the next day. But the retention of this crammed information isn’t as permanent as the material that you study over, say, a six month period. So talk a little about Continuous Assessment.

Our semester is divided into two parts. Each part is eight weeks. A student has to complete a peer assessment every three weeks, and we figure out and look into the results, and we monitor which groups of students are working well and which groups are working not so well and where we can call the students in and say “What’s happening? What’s going on?” Also, we review the project work every two or three weeks in order to give feedback. Traditionally, most teachers, what they do is offer feedback and grades at the final leg of the project when you can’t do anything further about the knowledge of the student. This feedback at the end of the project won’t serve the student.

We want our students to learn physics so we need to know where they are failing as well as succeeding. For that reason, we have a schedule. Two weeks before our students present their final project, they present an analysis of the course over ten minutes, with the use of no more than five slides. They have to present objectives, the calculus and physics involved, the conclusion, all in front of the students. So they gain social skills as well as the ability to work in the field.

Find out more about this project at the link.

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