Thursday, 31 October 2013

Teaching (as an ECR): Top Tips

Following my recent first forays into academic teaching, here are my top tips for researchers new to teaching.

1) Set aside far more time than you think you need to prepare

I was amazed at how long it took me to prepare each session. Each two hour teaching session took at least 6 hours to prepare, sometimes more. Give yourself plenty of time, and practise going through the slides.

2) Be prepared for demanding students

I was surprised at how demanding the students were! They told me they wanted the slides available online two days before the seminar, and I agreed... I wish I hadn't! I really struggled to get the slides prepared two days in advance. I spoke to colleagues who said they start off by telling students when the slides will be online, and don't give students the opportunity to request them earlier. By putting the slides online after the session, you will be able to make last minute changes which may even be done during the lecture (when you notice a mistake on the slide!).

3) Ask for regular feedback

At the end of my sessions I gave each student a post-it note and asked them to write down one positive thing about the session and one negative thing. I found this immensely helpful. It was particularly good after my first session, following blank looks on faces and feeling like I'd done an awful job. I read the post-it notes and was reassured that each student had taken at least one positive thing away from the lesson. It was of course also helpful to see areas for improvement.

Such regular feedback may not be possible for larger groups of students, but mid-module feedback could certainly be done.

4) Figure out what your role is and set boundaries

During my lectures I told the students that they could email me and arrange a meeting if they had any questions. I assumed the students would only contact me with questions relating to the content of my lectures. However, I ended up in a 30 minute meeting with a student asking me about all aspects of their project design. In retrospect, I should have explained to the student that this was not my role and they should speak to their supervisor about these issues. Not to mention the fact that I wasn't paid for this time!

5) Enjoy it!

Despite the comments above, I really enjoyed getting involved with teaching. Compared to the very slow moving world of research (waiting for ethics approval, weeks spent recruiting, sitting in the office reading papers etc) it was really nice to feel like I had definitely achieved something in those two hours. The students I taught were very friendly and genuinely wanted to learn and become good researchers. Nobody will be a perfect teacher first time round, so try to enjoy it and figure out how you can improve for next time.

Good luck!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A lesson for school interventions from the Food Dudes

Last week I was at the BPS CogDev conference, and I was particularly impressed with an intervention aimed to increase children's fruit and vegetable intake.

What is Food Dudes?

Food Dudes is an evidence-based whole-school programme predominantly for Primary Schools in the UK. The programme involves introducing children to fruit and vegetables in the school environment, accompanied by four characters (the food dudes) in a television programme who eat fruit and veg. Children are given rewards for trying fruit and vegetables, and take prizes home. This intervention increases consumption of fruit and vegetables at school (particularly vegetables which are generally less liked by children), and also has the side effect of decreasing intake of unhealthy snacks.

A number of control studies have been run to test the effects of the programme compared to other attempts to increase fruit and veg intake. It was striking to see that educating children about fruit and veg, providing food for them to try, and providing rewards were not enough alone to affect eating habits. What really makes a difference is the TV show about the food dudes. Children seem to get very excited about the programme, and feel a connection with the characters. There is a very catchy theme tune which children sing along to and apparently continue singing at home. (I fully believe this - after watching the video I had the song in my head for days). The Food Dudes programme is being run out over an increasing number of schools, and continues to have positive results. A list of the peer-reviewed publications can be found on the website.

What lessons can we take from this successful intervention?

Without a doubt, the greatest strength is the programme's scientific evidence base. A number of initiatives aimed at creating healthier lifestyles do not come from a rigorous scientific background.

A whole-school approach means that all staff members are aware of the programme and work towards its goals.

The use of rewards alongside education gives the children something to work towards. Children get individual rewards, but also contribute to rewards for the whole class. This means that children encourage each other to follow the programme so that everyone can benefit.

Fruit and vegetables are made cool by the Food Dudes, who are role models for the children.

The programme involves parents, and children take things home, including fruit and vegetable charts to be used with parents.

Age range and type of school are taken into account when implementing the programme - it is tailored to the needs of the school.

The Food Dudes programme undergoes constant review and changes where necessary, based on the most recent research.

Resources are provided for the school to continue the programme into the future; this is not a one-off intervention programme.

The challenge

So now we need to apply these principles to other types of school interventions. My current research focuses on bullying in schools. For a bullying intervention then, we need to look at the scientific research to figure out what has worked in the past (this is the stage we are at now). A whole-school approach looks to be a good idea, to sensitise all members of the school community to the aims of the project. Rewards for good behaviour, both for individuals and groups, may encourage children to follow the rules and persuade others to act kindly. Perhaps a similar TV programme with characters children can relate to will make being kind cool. Involvement of parents may help principles to be followed and discussed at home. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate; each school should be assessed for its own particular needs. Reviews should occur throughout implementation and changes should be made where necessary.

Arguably the biggest challenge of all is resource provision. Successful interventions involve huge investments of time, effort and money. Not all schools will be privileged enough to have these opportunities presented to them, and even if they do, at the end of the initial implementation, resources may disappear.

Luckily for the Food Dudes, it's positive effects are recognised and more money is being given to the programme. Other interventions need to work towards a similar goal of designing an effective programme based on science, running control studies, and proving the intervention's worth. For bullying interventions, a successful programme will hopefully attract the attention of those with the power to provide the resources.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

KiVa: A successful bullying intervention in Finland

What is KiVa?

KiVa is the name of a nationwide bullying intervention used in Finland which seems to have really positive effects. KiVa is short for Kiusaamista Vastaan, which means “against bullying”. The word kiva in Finnish also means “kind”. The programme was mandated by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, developed by the University of Turku, and began implementation in 2009.

According to the website, 90% of comprehensive schools in Finland are using the programme, which boasts improvement for 98% of victims. It claims to reduce anxiety and depression, and influences many types of bullying, including cyberbullying. I must admit I was dubious at first, but having read the scientific papers behind this intervention I am convinced that the programme is doing a great job.

Why is KiVa so successful?

The intervention is based on the idea that peer bystanders have a great deal of influence over the behaviour of bullies. The programme takes a whole-school approach, and instead of focusing on bullies or victims, it focuses on bystander reactions. Children who watch bullying but do not act to help, often reward the bully socially and make the victim feel isolated. Therefore, by influencing the behaviour of classmates who watch bullying take place, social rewards for bullies can be reduced, and the motivation to bully diminishes.

The programme is very comprehensive, and provides tasks for schools to carry out with their children, rather than simply providing guidelines. It looks like a lot of support is given to schools in implementing the programme. Activities include discussions, group work, short films, and role-play exercises, and are tailored to the age group. A later development was a virtual learning environment which helps to motivate students and enhance their learning process.

In addition to these classroom activities, specific actions are taken to tackle individual cases of bullying. The programme is therefore both preventative and interceptive in nature. There is also an online discussion forum for staff to share their ideas, experiences, and challenges. School staff receive face-to-face training, and can top-up their training with online resources and attending conference days throughout the year.

Overall, I think the main reason that KiVa is so successful is that it is based on thorough scientific research. There is no quick, easy way to reduce bullying. This is clearly a huge programme which requires a lot of training, resources, and time. It has been through randomised control trials, and appears to be regularly assessed and updated where necessary. It is not a one-off intervention, but is intended to be used by schools as an ongoing part of their efforts to improve student wellbeing. I am very impressed with what I have read so far, and look forward to seeing more whole-school approaches like these in other countries. Good work Finland!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Bullying: Can we do anything about it?

Working as a researcher in Psychology meant I often encountered individuals who either thought I could read their mind, or suggested that their friend / family member would be an excellent case study for me (ho ho ho). The research that I was actually carrying out over the last two years concerned children’s language and communication problems. Being met with this public misconception of psychology was one thing I was happy to be leaving behind when I knew I was soon going to be starting a job in Education research. Everybody knows what education is and sees the value in it, and so I was looking forward to a better reaction from the public. However…

General misconceptions and confusion about my field of research have been replaced by strong personal opinions. Telling people that I would be working on a bullying intervention for children in primary schools brought out people’s personal theories on bullying. The three main ones were:

Bullying isn’t nice but it makes people stronger and is character building.
Bullying will always happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
People only get bullied if they let it happen to them – it’s their own fault.

Bullying can have detrimental effects on both the victim and the perpetrator, both short- and long-term. Bullying perpetration in school is a significant predictor of violence six years later. Bullies are also more likely to suffer from depression later in life. To a lesser extent, victims of school bullying are also more likely to offend later in life. Depression is also increased in victims. These are just some of the negative effects – substance abuse and academic achievement are also related to bullying.

I am pleased to say that the research shows YES! We CAN do something about bullying! A systematic review and meta-analysis of bullying prevention studies in 2010 showed bullying to reduce by 20-23% on average. Whole-school approaches that seek to address students, teachers, and the school environment, seem to be the most effective.

I am just two days into my new post, so plan to write in much more detail about bullying. When people confront me in the future with their opinions on bullying, I hope to be able to explain the range of negative effects of bullying, as well as the improvements that interventions can provide.

As for psychology, a new blog called Head Quarters has recently been launched on the Guardian website. Let’s hope this can help to dispel some of the myths surrounding psychology, and help demonstrate what psychology researchers really do.