Conference teaches pertinent lessons on higher education

Image: Shutterstock/Photographee.eu
Image: Shutterstock/Photographee.eu

At the end of August 2016 I was able to attend the Variety in Chemistry Education and Physics Higher Education Conference.

Academics with teaching responsibilities come together once a year to discuss and present innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and their research in this field. The conference is organised by member groups of the Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry, and, during its two days, there are sessions focused on school–university transitions, moving from labs to projects, interactive approaches, collaborative working and student confidence in applying physics concepts.

Teaching-focused HE staff were also joined by school-based teaching fellows that have brought research ideas from higher education into the secondary classroom – and back again. We saw presentations on the use of various technologies in the classroom, reducing the gender gap in attainment, bringing interactivity into lectures and laboratories and approaches for collecting data on these activities that can help inform teaching.

The importance of engaging students and developing new resources and approaches for better teaching and learning is clear, and is a constant, ever-shifting, goal for those with teaching responsibilities. However, what was most obvious to me (a relative outsider – formerly a secondary physics teacher and now part of the Education team at the IOP) was the value in delegates being able to share and discuss teaching and learning.

Blogposts published earlier this month from Alison Voice and from Paul van Kampen have drawn attention to the growing interest in physics education research (PER), the importance of researching teaching and learning to improve teaching, and the difficulties in finding funding to support such research. Many of those who attended the conference in August, including those who have been involved in PER for many years, will have experienced similar challenges in funding the research that is so important to undergraduate education of physics students.

Physics education research within university departments is far more common in the US than in the UK. Many colleges have well-established research groups looking at assessment, problem-solving, understanding and many other areas of pedagogy from pre-college level to postdoctoral studies.

We would like to help establish more PER groups, and to help PER colleagues to continue working collaboratively across the UK. Most importantly, there is a need to support research in this field from universities, learned societies and research councils. One way that the IOP aims to do this is through higher education projects that bring together teaching-focused academics, facilitating collection of data on student learning gain to help inform developments in teaching, and supporting education research within physics departments.

Admissions tutors, directors of teaching and learning and those interested in joining discussions on how to develop student conceptual understanding, or are interested in other ways the IOP supports physics education research in universities can find more information on the HE pages of the main IOP website, or get in touch via email.

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Lauren McLeod

Lauren McLeod

Lauren is the IOP’s higher education officer, focusing on pedagogy projects and degree recognition and accreditation. She has an MA in science education from the Institute of Education and worked as a physics teacher before joining the IOP in 2014 to work on gender projects in secondary schools.
Lauren McLeod
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