Teaching & Learning


Spotlight on Provost's Teaching Award 2016 winner: Dr Adam Liston

7 July 2016

Dr Adam Liston, Senior Teaching Fellow (UCL Institute of Neurology), received a Provost's Teaching Award at this year's Teaching and Learning Conference.

Dr Adam Liston

What did your win highlight?

When Professor Nikolaus Weiskopf and I used a School of Life and Medical Sciences award to acquire a Terranova Earths-Field Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner for use by groups of students on the MSc in Advanced Neuroimaging, we imagined a piece of desktop apparatus that could be available for mainly student-led practical activity in a seminar room dedicated to their teaching. We were unprepared for how sensitive it would actually be to its precise location. After much testing, it became clear it could not be used anywhere in that room. A combination of weak local field and strong interference from 50Hz mains currents meant we were unable to acquire clean data.

However, we felt this in itself provided a highly relevant, if unexpected, learning opportunities about the fundamental principles of MRI. It also meant we were limited to one possible location, found after multiple attempts, and student activity would have to be largely directed by a workshop convener. We used the experience to develop a manual for students to work their way through as they attempted the practical.

In the first year of running it, two groups of students got a wonderful insight into real-life practical research – it took a long time getting it to work! Their trials and errors led to many consolidating discussions with Professor Nikolaus Weiskopf and his PhD student Daniel Papp, who were providing guidance.

On the day, some of them attempted to film unscripted explanations of what was happening – these first ‘takes’ were crude and often even incorrect. It wasn’t until I watched the students’ Vlogs several months later that I appreciated how much they had refined and improved their understanding through carrying out the practical activities and discussing and scripting their explanations and descriptions. One group’s Vlog was deeply impressive, in terms of the technical production skills on display and the quality and creativity of their explanations. It was also pitched perfectly for the intended audience – the Vlogs were to be assessed by a class of A-level Physics students at a North London school where I previously trained as a secondary science teacher.

Feedback and scores from those A-level students reflected the quality of this Vlog in particular, and our external examiners were also genuinely impressed when they saw the work produced. It was a similar highlight to watch the Vlogs produced the following year and I look forward to it again this year.

Although I provide students with training in general presentation and teaching skills, there are so many different and developing ways to produce video content that I decided to provide very sparse guidance and no training in this respect – in their groups, students have been resourceful and creative and student feedback I have received about the task has been overwhelmingly positive.

What does this award mean to you?

It’s very encouraging to be acknowledged in this way – teaching can be its own reward, when it goes well, but it’s so easy to dwell on and magnify the negatives when it go less well! That’s why it’s important to celebrate and mark successful innovations and I will make sure the award certificate is prominent in my office.

What new ways of teaching are you looking into at the moment?

Because the MSc in Advanced Neuroimaging now has a Distance Learning (DL) mode as well as a Face-to-Face (F2F) mode, I am investigating how to get mixed groups of students collaborating effectively online to develop answers to example questions – we are currently using Moodle Discussion Forums and groups of three and four but this has raised a few questions for me about process:

  • What is the optimum group size to encourage more timid students to contribute?
  • What collaborative platform (e.g. Google Docs? Slack?) would be best so that students can add to / amend / comment each other’s answers?
  • What would be the optimum timing for these activities – in the lead-up to the exam or timetabled throughout the teaching of the module?

What advice would you give to a colleague who would like to be more innovative in their teaching?

Regularly attend UCL Arena training events and be on the lookout for other people’s innovations, keeping your own teaching scenario in mind – make notes, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and try to get others on board to help with your ideas.

Student perspective…       

“The VLOG really helped in making complex concepts accessible which, in the back of your head, also makes you more familiar with those concepts as well… Given that life inevitably involves working together and that in our near future we will be having to work together with other academics, who may have varying academic or cultural backgrounds, this was an interesting and at times challenging exercise.… Making a video is a whole lot of work.”

“Given that the groups were not that small, it really did take quite a bit of patience and cooperation to make everything work… Once we sorted everything out and started filming, though, it actually turned out to be one of my favourite parts of the course.”