Building continuity of learning

It’s the middle of the semester (more or less) here and we’re settling into a more regular rhythm of classes. The group has formed and is now performing: yesterday’s big triumph was that I finally managed to run my disarmament/demobilisation game without anyone stealing the weapons caches. On such small things do I live.

It’s also made me think once again about the continuity of the learning experience that my students receive. Like most places, the students get a couple of hours’ contact time in class with me each week, over a semester, plus some online and email exchanges, plus any individual support that they need in my office hours.

However – and again like most places – I know these students have the same for a couple of other modules/courses, plus their work towards their final dissertation (which for us runs through the whole final year). In short, while I might have their attention in the class, I cannot have it the rest of the time.

This matters for me because my module is focused very much on self-reflection, rather than knowledge acquisition per se. The assessment is an extended piece, discussing their negotiating practice (good and bad) and its relationship to the literature. It’s rather unusual, which is why I’ve been offering them the chance to submit a shorter, formative piece for feedback last week.

That process of formative work has been very helpful in crystallizing students’ understanding of what is being looked for, and in pointing me towards general patterns that emerge and can be shared with the whole group. But it has also shown up some of the difficulties of connecting learning moments across a semester that runs from October to January.

In particular, the process of internalising lessons learnt is a hard one: the module is very much based on student activity, so one would hope that this is a relatively simple matter, as compared to a more conventional lecture-n-seminar delivery. But it is still a struggle.

To take one example, one first big active session was all about preparation and its fundamental importance in negotiation: with both theory and (extended) practice, we went over this. But since then, no one has asked me about the coming week’s activities (which would be a simple way to prepare).

I mentioned this in class yesterday, in what I thought were clear terms. An hour later, I got an email from a student who had ‘picked up my hint’ and asked about next week’s class. This morning, I had another enquiry. Not the effect I’d hoped for and – moreover – not one I’d expect to last for the rest of the semester.

Similarly, I have been trying in my classroom feedback to make connections across sessions, to help the students see how things join up, either to reinforce messages or to problematise them. Indeed, the final assessment requires students to integrate their experiences across the module, something that I say is much easier to do if that reflection is built up as the student progresses, rather than being done at the end.

However, even in such a benign environment, I’m not convinced I have cracked this particular question, which in turn makes me wonder what things are like the rest of the time. Short of moving to a model of short, fat modules (i.e. one at a time, each lasting a couple of weeks, with semi-continuous contact time), I don’t see an easy solution.

At the very least, we need to be alive to the situation and reflect upon how we bring students into the specific learning environment and create opportunities for them to not lose the insights they gain there.

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