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Some Local Educational Research

These are my notes on research done locally, with which I've been associated in some way, on educational issues. There are several headings, though some pieces of work belong under more than one heading. (A conference abstract giving an overview is here.)

Contents (click to jump to a section)

Interactive lectures, using handsets

We've acquired handsets to allow every student in a lecture theatre to register (privately) their answer to a displayed question; and then for the aggregated responses to be publicly shown. The overall aim is to make lectures more interactive, and so promote activity, and so promote learning. This has been trialled by a wide variety of departments, evaluation data collected, and is dealt with on other pages.

Dropouts (student retention)

New pages on dropout/retention.

My notes on monitoring and intervening with level 1 students.

[Note to be moved] A guru of techniques for retention/dropout: Geoff Petty

I have some notes on basic comparative dropout rates elsewhere.

I have some notes on Tinto's concepts and possible extensions, including a questionnaire meant to represent and measure these, which we have piloted in some studies locally.

Bill Patrick's report based on his survey.
"Students Matter: Student Retention: who stays and who leaves" by Bill Patrick (2001), The University Newsletter.
"Students Matter: Study links part-time work to student ill-health" by Claire Carney and Sharon McNeish (2001), The University Newsletter.
Claire Carney, 2004. Current (2006) university working group document

Here is a critical review by Ian McCubbin of Tinto's theory (Feb 2003): PDF file.

Three different diagrams are: 1,   2,   3.

Lockhart,P. (2004) "An investigation into the causes of student dropout behaviour" (Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow). This study of student dropout at Glasgow University has the special feature of being based on recruiting actual dropouts and comparing them to matched persisters. It is hard to find published studies that use anything other than persisting students. This study tested four separate explanations for student dropout: Tinto's concept of integration, personality, self-efficacy, and homesickness. Overall the results suggest that academic integration is more important than social integration, especially if readiness to get to know staff members is counted as academic rather than social; but that ability to organise oneself to study may be another important factor separating persisters from dropouts.

Neil Duncan (2006) "Predicting Perceived Likelihood of Course Change, Return to University Following Withdrawal, and Degree Completion in Glasgow University Students" (Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow).
Participants studying psychology, law, English literature and biology from all years of study completed an on-line questionnaire. This measured the predictive variables of current and past residence, year of study, alcohol use/attitude, confidence in course choice, student self-esteem, academic and social integration in university, social integration outside university, social support, academic self-confidence, goal and institutional commitment, and the outcome variables of how much they have thought about changing course, their perceived likelihood of degree completion, and the likelihood of returning to university/college if leaving their present course. It was found that thinking about changing subject was significantly predicted by low academic integration, belief that course choice was not well informed, distance from Glasgow before starting university, and low social integration outside university. Perceived likelihood of degree completion was significantly predicted by year of study, goal commitment, low extraversion, belief that course choice was well informed, low conscientiousness, student self-esteem and a lack of understanding of the work-grade link. Finally, perceived likelihood of returning to university/college if leaving present course was significantly predicted by year of study, distance from Glasgow before starting university, openness, low understanding of the work-grade link, goal commitment, low extraversion, and social integration within university. It appears that academic and goal related concerns influence students in making drop out decisions more than do social concerns. The findings are discussed in relation to the life-span theory of control (Heckhausen & Tomasik, 2002) and other recent theories on drop out, and suggestions for future research are proposed. PDF file.

Matt Roddan's project (see below).

Abstract for a poster on assessment and dropout.

See also Rosanna Breen's PhD at Oxford Brookes.

See the Star project at Ulster:

Jocey Quinn, Liz Thomas, Kim Slack, Lorraine Casey, Wayne Thexton & John Noble (2005)
From life crisis to lifelong learning: Rethinking working-class "drop-out" from higher education (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) Download page (free PDf available)

Reading party evidence: value it, and value it more than they expect; make friends. Also, int. scores compare well with other depts.

Based on a sample of 40 out of 120 who filled in a questionnaire both before and after the level 3 Reading Party, while their prior attitudes about whether they expected it to be enjoyable and useful were not negative, their post RP attitudes were significantly more positive. Afterwards they have a lot more friends on the course (as distinct from either close friends or acquaintances) than before; and significantly more than a comparison sample in level 3 EngLit.

In general there a number of issues psych. students complain about if asked (see below) but in fact they compare well against other departments on the measures systematically measures. For instance, they complain more about finding it hard to make friends on the course and theat they lose them all on entry to honours, yet in fact report having more friends. Issues for complaint include: Feel the staff want them to fail or are indifferent. Discouraging rather than encouraging you to do better. Hard to make friends in psy L1,2 AND lose them all when enter honours. Never been in no.58 Hillhead street AND take that as symbolic. Unpleasant atmosphere of competition between students, which lingers on in honours.
Ball,S. (2004) "Alienation, integration and motivation in psychology undergraduates" (Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow)
Gosnay,E. (2004) "xx" (Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow)

See also intrinsic motivation measures

Student Anxiety

I may start a project specifically on student anxiety.

Self-help for depression

Impressive paper on suicide prevention KL Knox, DA Litts, GW Talcott, JC Feig, ED Caine BMJ, 2003 vol.327 p.1376

Computing science level 1

There have been a number of investigations and projects concerning the teaching and learning on the Computing Science level 1 course. Most have been supervised by Quintin Cutts and a few by me. Early work by Quintin is described in his chapter: "Engaging a large first year class" in Walker,M. (ed.) (2001) Reconstructing professionalism in university teaching: teachers and learners in action ch.6 pp.105-128 (SRHE/Open university press: Buckingham). See also the symposium marking the book launch.

A Psychology final year project by Matt Roddan is available.
This relates to a short summary of Tinto's model of student retention/dropout.

A followup Psychology final year project by Rebecca Black is planned.

Part of this may be trying out aptitude tests for computing students.

An enjoyable paper on why teaching introductory programming is so hard is Tony Jenkins' recent paper "On the difficulty of learning to program" given to the ICS LTSN 2002 conference, and published here, and locally, and more printably, here with my comments.

Lego/Logo for level 1 programming course. This could be an experiment, comparing various alternative supplementary instructional interventions. LSS


Kate Gilmore's project

School-university transition

There is an email list for those concerned with the transition for the subject of Computing Science. Basically, it consists of someone from almost all the Scottish universities with CompSci degrees plus some representatives from the Scottish schools sector. They held one half-day workshop here at Glasgow on 7 June 2002, organised principally by Alison Mitchell, Phil Gray, and David Bethune.

A unit at this university, the Student Network (ext. 2384) is particularly concerned with "widening access" i.e. with improving the transition for students from backgrounds where disproportionately fewer students have hitherto come to University. There are various schemes associated with this, the longest running being the Summer Schools. Lynn Walker's PhD thesis was a study of these in the mid 1990s. (Lynn Walker (1996) An evaluation of the pre-university summer school at the University of Glasgow, 1986-1993, and its effects on student performance PhD thesis [Faculty of Arts, Department of Education], University of Glasgow. [Level 12 Spec Coll Thesis 10493].)

See also a section on my Tinto page for my further opinions.


"Induction" means the briefing new arrivals get. By analogy with common good practice in the private sector, induction should not be a 3 hour lecture once; but be seen as a process over (say) the first 90 days.

[Fill this out from map?]

See here and here for material elsewhere on the fundamental approach of telling (new and prospective) students what it is actually like, and not some Tony Blair style "speak no evil" attempt to conceal the bad things and trick them into coming.

See the next section ("Student generated PDP") for our local initiative on doing this a different way; which is focussed on asking inductees what their worries are, and then addressing them partly by letting them see that others are thinking the same and partly by having older students comment on how they dealt with each issue.

Student generated PDP

Nick Bowskill has a project where sessions are held (at the start of a year) in which student concerns about the course or programme as a whole are elicited, shared, discussed; and possible solutions too are discussed suggested by student mentors who have completed the course. This relates to the issue of transition, but can be seen as addressing the aspects of PDP to do with self-management and the skills of being a student, but doing so not by experts lecturing, but rather by eliciting student concerns, and student experience.

Nick Bowskill's project

Peer assisted learning (PAL)

Peer assisted learning (PAL) can be a help at the school-university transition, or more generally a help at all levels for all students, including the area of study skills. It means, basically, providing in addition to any tutorial groups led by staff, groups for all students in a class that are led by students from a year or two above (mentors of a kind) who act as facilitators rather than tutors i.e. they promote the group members in answering each others' questions rather than being a source of answers themselves.

The Student Network pioneered the introduction of PAL in Computing Science commencing October 2002. I and others were involved in evaluating this trial.

For more see my notes and pointers, leading to other sites, and published papers on the approach. It is now being run in Computing Science again, and in Psychology: see the Psychology PAL home page.

USA lessons about level 1 teaching

Seminars given by Randy Swing as part of SHEFC's 2003-4 Quality Enhancement Engagements suggested some innovations in US first year teaching. Whether these have lessons for the UK is discussed in my notes.

CDIO: pointers to a new schema for engineering education

CDIO (conceive, design, implement, operate) is a new schema for organising engineering education (possibly the next step up from PBL). A few notes and pointers to papers are in these notes.


This project has already run, funded by EPSRC, ...
This could be (extended to being) seen as simultaneously addressing these audiences:

Colour theory, and learning by exploration

We've started a project on teaching colour theory as an example of learning, not from exposition, but from interactive exploration (as in the best museum exhibits). See this page.

iPod: educational applications

Many students already own Apple iPods and other MP3 players. Are there ways to exploit this to give (e-)learning an extra dimension? See this page.

Research-teaching linkages

See here.

Things you really need to learn

Graduate attributes are work-related employability attributes you are supposed to pick up during your degree. Flynn's ideas on critical thinking as a general mental ability are about how to do critical thinking better across disciplines, or anyway on general topics. In between those are, or could be, a set of the key things any person needs to learn (even though education programmes almost never address them). Flynn's are only about critical thinking and arguing i.e. are patterns of thought; these are about basic skills. I've taken them from: this blog by Stephen Downes.

His list is:

  1. How to predict consequences
  2. How to read [effectively] (how to see under the surface to what each piece is doing; and to distinguish the 4 types: description, argument, explanation, definition)
  3. How to distinguish truth from fiction
  4. How to empathize
  5. How to be creative
  6. How to communicate clearly [i.e. how to write effectively; how to use the 4 types]
  7. How to learn
  8. How to stay healthy
  9. How to value yourself
  10. How to live meaningfully

Dweck, positive psychology, and its educational applications

  • Applying Dweck: "Manipulating Mindset to Positively Influence Introductory Programming Performance" doi:10.1145/1734263.1734409

    Student generated content

    This is a collective name for various approaches which get the learners to create the materials for other learners to use. A.k.a. "Contribution-based pedagogies", "collaborative learning"? ....


    Jigsaw classroom technique

    This is an important and strong form of student-generated teaching, invented by Aronson in 1971. The idea is that the teacher does not teach the subject matter content, but divides the class into teams, each of which researches (cf. EBL) a topic, and teaches it to the rest of the class. That is the first distinguishing feature. The second is that it is "groupwork" but where each learner is a member of two different, cross-cutting groups.

    Explaining what a Jigsaw design is

    For more on Jigsaw (and also on how to communicate it) see this page.

    References to Jigsaw implementations

    To find more on the original Aronson design see:

    Honeychurch (2012) describes a very successful application of Jigsaw in first year Philosophy tutorials by Sarah Honeychurch. She got an HEA subject centre grant, and gave a talk on this at the internal L&T conference in April 2011.

    Ann Brown (e.g. 1992, 1994) has applied it successfully for Biology in US high schools, and with a somewhat different theoretical emphasis. (References to some influential papers by her are here.)

    Baxter (2007) "A Case Study of Online Collaborative Work in a Large First Year Psychology Class" Case study Jim Baxter's redesign of a first year psychology course used in part a jigsaw design in a class of 550 mediated by a VLE.

    I have used a version of Jigsaw, mediated by a VLE (moodle), in my Positive Psychology course. You can login as a guest to the course's moodle site and inspect the wiki pages produced as startup learning materials by the class for the class. (My talk on this.)

  • The widely consulted UTS site on groupwork and how to do it
  • Recommended (by Jo Royle) paper full of hints and tips about running successful learning groupwork in practice:
    Davies,W.M. (2009) "Groupwork as a form of assessment: common problems and recommended solutions" Higher Education vol.58 no.4 pp.563-584

    Designs related to but distinct from Jigsaw

    I'm interested in a number of published designs that seem to me related to Jigsaw. My current list of Jigsaw cousins is:
    1. Jigsaw link
    2. Patchwork text link
    3. Reflexive / reflective learning diaries; e.g. in Mahara, where a small group reads and comments regularly on each individual's diary. link
    4. Sugata Mitra's self-organsing education link
    5. The snowball technique/pyramid. This is ancient: get each individual to write down their own view/answer; then discuss it in pairs; then in fours; then in plenary. Bowskill's application of it
    6. Socratic dialogue (Nelson's sense of this) link
    7. Reciprocal peer critiquing link

    Beyond jigsaw: Sugata Mitra & self-organising education

    Mitra's "hole in the wall" work seems obviously a close relative of Jigsaw conceptually (though not historically) when you see the aspect of the small groups talking to each other to share what each have worked out. It is certainly, just like Jigsaw, about small group peer-collaboration in learning, with no teacher content teaching. His view is one step more radical than Ann Brown's: Brown said the teachers in the room were teaching pupils how to learn (not the subject matter content); but Mitra allows no teaching of how to learn either, apart from one or more starter questions; plus in (only) one method, the "grandmother method", unconditional interest and praise. In fact normally, he makes the teachers leave the room especially for the first question (and observe only through windows if they are nervous). Conversely, when in a demo in Turin he remained in the room, he spoke no Italian and the kids spoke no English: in other words, this really isn't about information content transmission.

    Setting the questions (in turn, when a topic is exhausted eventually) is an important Teacher skill here, he says. So teacher direction of the learning goals / objectives is not only a real input, but a crucial one. BUT he qualifies that by many cases where the questions have been wildly harder than any normal person thinks such kids could possibly tackle; and furthermore, he's grasped how people (including his children) set their own expectations, which in different cases can be limiting or very high. Or both: as in when a group of remote-area Indian primary school children who were directed to discover what DNA replication was, reported back that they had understood nothing (long faces, no smiles) ... except that birth defects resulted from faulty replication.

    His method is like Jigsaw, to divide the class (large group) into small groups of 4-5, each with one computer screen between them. (Assigns them to groups to start, but makes it clear that moving to another group, and persuading friends to swap into your group are both fine.) But instead of the Jigsaw method of organised cross-teaching between groups studying different sub-topics, Mitra has only one topic for everyone, and plenty of informal circulating round the room to pick up stuff other groups have got that your group hasn't.

    Mitra's theoretical statement about this is that "Education is a self-organising system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon"; and that for children, curiosity can work well as the Attractor for the system.

    N.B. 1: He says that assessment in older children suppresses the group dynamic and hence the learning. So in his experience, assessment does not drive learning but the exact opposite: it drives the suppression of learning.

    N.B. 2: Some of his earliest results turned out to be an important synergy between what they learned in school, and his hole in the wall. (The example was: they got good teaching in school of English in syntax and vocabulary, but the internet hugely improved their accents which in turn were crucial to employment (in call centres).)

  • His web pages: Newcastle   personal
  • List of his papers   and   better
  • Mitra, Sugata (2010) "The hole in the wall: self organising systems in education" Keynote at ALT-C 2010 conference Play video of his talk (54 min.s) or direct to YouTube

  • A video of a 2012 conference talk
  • Ethiopian kids hack OLPCs in 5 months with zero instruction by Evan Ackerman (2012) (without Mitra, but with N.Negroponte)

    Patchwork text (PT)

    Patchwork text is a related technique: like Jigsaw, it uses peer discussion of students' work and regular writing by each student; but unlike Jigsaw it doesn't deal with topics where all students are supposed to grasp the same idea, but on the contrary to deal with reflection and the emergence and description of contrasting ideas.

    Key refs. are:

  • Scoggins,J. & Winter,R. (1999) "The Patchwork Text: a coursework format for education as critical understanding" Teaching in HE vol.4 no.4 pp.485-499
  • A special issue of a journal:   Innovations in education and teaching international (2003) vol.40 no.2
  • Maisch (2002) (in the special issue) describes using it to support dissertation writing on a postgraduate course for non-native-English speakers.

    It is the only technique I've seen that explicitly aims to support (scaffold) induction and creativity: that is, to help a student come up with a theme or idea around which to organise their work by collecting the "patches" of that work and reviewing it for unplanned themes.

    However Sharon Flynn has another, quite different, approach to this; "Using Turnitin to support student writing". passport photo

    Reflexive / reflective learning diaries

    Rebecca Kay has some good handouts for her students on this: However they are in Mahara, so you need a GU account to get in, and then get her to take you as a "friend"


    Socratic dialogue (SD)

    In the sense used here, this is not about a teacher transmitting an idea by dialogue not monologue, as Plato seems to depict Socrates as doing; but about using such dialogues as a personal philosophical research tool for developing new ideas oneself. It is taught, as a technique. It is powerful educationally (if the teacher keeps nearly quiet, and the emerging ideas are the learners') as another technique for student generated content.

    This is related in that (structured) peer interaction is at the heart of it. The focus is intermediate between Jigsaw and Patchwork Text in that there is no requirement to reach consensus, but nevertheless that peer discussion helps everyone develop their own ideas at the same time.

  • The Socratic Method, by Leonard Nelson

    Study skills

  • PAL (see above) is one related initiative.
  • Another is reciprocal critiquing (below).
  • Another is developing "experiential" exercises for students, where they experience a technique (study skill) and whether it is useful for them. (A series of maxi projects should be referred to here; and a paper or para on what I mean; .... and the exam.prep workshop I put on .)

    Student-written MCQs

    PeerWise is software to manage getting students in a class to design and make available MCQs (multiple choice questions) for the whole class. See PeerWise website

    For a general rationale about why students writing MCQs can be a powerful lever for their learning, see this paper on "catalytic assessment".

    Reciprocal peer critiquing (RPC): an exercise for students on applying assessment criteria

    Getting students to read and comment on each others' work is beneficial, especially if they have to comment and indeed assign a mark using the course's explicit marking criteria. We have done versions of this for several years.

    I now have a page on critical thinking as a general mental ability.

    Stats for psychology

    (See also my page on other stats issues.)
  • SUMS

  • Renee Bleau (writing a book on stats for psychologists).
  • her facebook site about it

    Towards an online maths self-help project

    (N.B. my page on an entertaining video math lesson. )

    There are two aspects addressed here:

    Also note:
  • Dyscalculia

    Some online maths help resources

    Existing, openly available online maths help

  • mathtutor e.g. for fractions see fractions etc.
  • mathcentre
  • SUMS SUMS: basic stats online exercises.

  • A self-help document recommended by Lorna Love.

    GU Online maths skills test

  • (Use your Novell login. The maths displays OK in the Firefox browser (provided on public student computers) but not in Internet Explorer.)
    Looked after by Gordon Ritchie.
    Currently modified by Stuart White.

    The skills test uses MathML:   MathML test example   What the test example should look like: GIF

    Maths dept. self help materials: here (use Find command to search for "Advice").

    General online aptitude tests (as used by some employers)

    Methods for getting maths notation to display on the web

    The underlying technical problem is that the web was developed to leave screen appearance in the hands of the local user: so when you resize a window, or increase the font size to suit your eyes, then the text is dynamically re-wrapped to suit. This was done from the start by treating web pages as 1 dimensional text strings, just as written language is. However maths notation is fundamentally 2 dimensional: HTML just doesn't do it.

    The surface problem for online maths resources is to get a workaround for maths to work on all the browsers students may use. If they only use it in timetabled labs with university-configured machines, then no problem. But especially for self-help resources, they may use it on old cast-off machines at home. Even worse: if they are just having a look to see if the resource could be helpful, then having to spend time downloading a different browser before they even get a glimpse is unlikely to work (we know for example, that commercial websites that fail to get their customers to a page showing what they want within 2.5 mouse clicks, will often not see that customer visit again for many months).

    Another important problem aspect is: if we would like our students to be using online forums to discuss maths, how can they "write" maths notation into these forums?

    There seem to be 3 approaches to this:

    1. Using a remote server, or possibly local software you downloaded, you get a Latex expression rendered into a bitmap (GIF) image, which is sent back to you and displayed as part of the web page. This does not scale well if you resize your web page; or in fact even if your web page is not set to the general font size it assumes. So it violates the requirement to support people with imperfect vision; and will not be legible if you are projecting the web page to a lecture theatre.
    2. jsMath: relies on javascript in your browser. It deals with page resizing, but does rely on java being turned on and working. (For fanatics, it does it even better if you download their fonts, as they prompt).
    3. MathML: relies on a wannabe "standard" which however at the time of writing only one version of one browser supports. If you use this extension of HTML and the one browser (Firefox v.3.n.n) then it works great.

    jsMath author-side approach to displaying maths

    jsMath   jsMath test example   What the test example should look like:

    It lets you author very simple math exprs in your HTML (e.g. y = {x^2} ),
    and the Latex for that was "y = {x^2}",
    the complete in-line HTML for that was "(e.g. <span CLASS="math"> y = {x^2} </span>),"
    and the additional once-per-document setup was only:
    <STYLE TYPE="text/css">.math {visibility: hidden}</STYLE>
    <SCRIPT SRC="../jsmath/easy/load.js"></SCRIPT>

    This will display on essentially all browsers, but the author has to install something in their web file space: i.e. install jsMath on your server i.e. near your web page, in your file space. This is tens of MBytes and large numbers of files; but only takes a few minutes, and doesn't require admin. permissions to the server, only write permission for your own web-served file space.

    MathML approach to displaying maths

    This currently relies on all your readers using the one enabled browser (Firefox). This is the browser used in the GU Common Student Environment (i.e. student computer clusters); and it could be downloaded free by any student at home. Probably OK for maths students, but less viable than techies believe for all students e.g. remedial maths work for Education or psychology students. Few people would download something they weren't going to use for their major course; and many students have old personal machines that aren't necessarily high-spec enough for new browsers.

    Given that, then the author can write maths directly into their HTML without special downloads or include files. This is probably a good solution for Maths lecturers creating materials for their students.

    Moodle approach to displaying maths

    You can write Latex expressions in Moodle pages (e.g. forums) and have them display as maths: see here.
    It displays correctly on almost any browser (because it produces a GIF image); and authors (e.g. students contributing to Moodle blogs) can author maths expressions without installing anything themselves, relying on the Moodle installation. (But note however that Moodle blog editors don't in fact work properly even for text on some current browsers.)

    The students have to know simple Latex to write such expressions. Normal web users like me don't; but it is now a standard skill requirement in maths and related disciplines, and students there are more or less taught it and required to use it anyway.

    Other Latex->server->GIF methods

  • 'textogif' = TeX-to-GIF = TeX -> GIF is a program for producing GIF image files from latex expressions (for use on web pages).
    But it uses TeX, ghostscript, netpbm: so have to get all those installed on unix too.
    Or use

    Or use dreamhost: code: < img src="\sqrt{a^2+b^2}" />   Image:

    Translator into Latex for authoring equations

    Try Will Thimbleby's stuff?   applet to let you hand write equations etc. and have them turned into ...   movie1   movie2   head page

    Online writing help (Advancing Academic Writing project)

  • The materials of the Advancing Academic Writing (AAW) project (funded by two successive LTDF grants titled "Writing for results") are available. They consist of substantial online (moodle) materials for helping students improve their writing skills, based on actual student work. There are extensive exercises for this. The person who did the project is Katie Grant.
    Everyone with a GU login (but not outsiders) can access the moodle pages, and the "courses" (areas for self-help exercises) for several disciplines. If necessary, press the button "Login as guest".
    Outer page   Short cut into psych-specific exercises

  • Arts writing project test
  • My brief pointer to the project
  • Look over (or print) all the expository advice for one course in one place: here

  • Example proforma for teacher->student notification of areas where self-help remediation is required. The idea is that while marking a piece of work, the tutor both writes "13" in the margin of the student script and ticks "13" on the proforma when they see a problem indicating that self-help work on topic 13 would be useful.
  • Malcolm Gladwell: "Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone's head."

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