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Harnessing the intellectual power of our students

22 August 2013

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education), reflects on the common theme of peer-assisted learning at this year's Provost's Teaching Awards.

Professor Anthony Smith, UCL's Vice-Provost (Education)

Last month saw the announcement of the recipients of the 2013 Provost’s Teaching Awards. This is UCL’s annual recognition and celebration of the very best in teaching and learning. Excellence is taken as a given and the Awards Panel is seeking truly outstanding contributions measured against the criteria of impact, innovation and transferability. Over the coming months, the work of all this year’s winners will be showcased on the Teaching and Learning Portal, but in advance of that I wanted to draw out a few themes I saw amongst the nominations. The most striking one was just how many colleagues across UCL are harnessing the intellectual power of our outstanding students to help their learning.

In the Department of Medical Physics and Bioengineering, Dr Adrien Desjardins has developed a new approach to coursework where students develop and critique e-learning videos. In the first phase, the students develop a video addressing a particular question. In the so-called revision phase, student peers review the videos and make changes. Dr Desjardins proposes that this approach can give important insights into how students learn. For example, when one video undergoes multiple iterations by several students, the differences in the resulting videos will reflect differences in the ways that students understand the information presented by the lecturer.

In the Centre for Virology, Dr Richard Milne has asked the question ‘How do students go about writing a coursework essay?’ His eureka moment came when he was finalising a research manuscript for submission and was struck by the number of versions it had been through (mostly for the better) and wondered whether students did anything similar. He asked them and they said they didn’t. His new approach was to require students to submit their essay in draft format, following which he paired them off randomly to review and annotate each other’s work. Early worries about students not wanting to participate, stealing ideas or badly mismatched pairs were unfounded and his evaluation over three years has seen a highly significant improvement in marks awarded.

Dr Marcos Martinon-Torres in the UCL Institute of Archaeology is also adopting a peer-learning approach. He believes we can often find ourselves focusing too much on students’ weaknesses rather than building on their strengths. So, for example, in his MA in Artefact Studies programme he has introduced an online discussion forum in advance of the weekly seminars. The exchange begins with a controversial question that pertains to the recommended reading. Small groups take turns to moderate the online discussion and everyone participates. The weekly seminar is then based on the issues raised in the discussion forum.

These three examples from amongst this year’s Provost’s Teaching Award-winners highlight some of the opportunities for more peer-supported approaches to learning. Don’t overlook the intellectual power of your students!

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education)

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Page last modified on 22 aug 13 11:03

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