Storm in a teacup?

Storm damages scaffolding, in metaphorical whirlwind

Reading Chad’s post yesterday – talking about the structural pressures on student demographics in the classroom – was an excellent touchstone for me, as I received my feedback for my course on negotiation.

In common with other UK institutions, we have a system of centralised evaluations of courses, which we encourage students to complete: I’ve written before about these, but suffice to say that while it’s good to get a more standardised measure across provision, it’s not without issues.

In the case of negotiation, I’m often aware that I benefit from the unusual delivery – hardly any lecturing, but instead practical sessions, together with some flipped learning: students like the freedom it give. However, this year I’ve noticed some new comments creeping in, somewhat akin to Chad’s situation.

We ask students some Likert-scale questions and then the open-ended “what was good/bad” free-text: I find the latter much more useful for developing my provision, for what I hope would be obvious reasons.

This year, students again remarked on the freedom and flexibility of what was done, but also commented negatively on it too.

A typical comment in the ‘bad thing’ box would run on the lines of “I know the module is based on our actions, but I wanted more guidance from the lecturer on what to do.”

On reflection, it’s odd that I’ve not had this before: I’ve always said to students in the decade of running this that I’m dropping them in at the deep end, because I feel it’s the best way to get them to learn to swim: it’s precisely the novelty and uncertainty of it all that drives reflection and self-development.

Either I’ve been a really convincing salesman up until this year, or my students’ expectations have changed. I’m discounting the former, because the variety of situations and content I’ve put into the course over that time suggests I should have encountered this before now.

Indeed, this year represents my most comprehensive effort at scaffolding reflection for students. I introduced a formative piece of writing a couple of years ago, plus made available model examples for the final assessment, as well as discussing how to tackle reflection and self-development in each class. Ironically, my evaluations on assessment and feedback are some of the best I’ve ever had.

As this is where I come back to Chad’s query: how much should we give students?

This is something that comes up repeatedly in discussion with colleagues across institutions: the more we give, the more dependent students become. If our mission is to help individuals become self-reflective, critical learners, then that seems somewhat counter-productive.

To take an example from my own learning, I feel that I got most from learning moments when I was most forced to deal with it myself: sure, I got things wrong, but I got to think about why that was and what I might do differently next time.

The difficulty is that this is rather self-serving. I learnt through being put into such situations, but that doesn’t mean others will do the same. And if I’m being instrumental about it all, then the comments I got this time around might presage a phase of poor course evaluations, which will become a management problem, because I’m required to get good evaluations.

The issues that Chad laid out so well are ones that we are all facing, in our own particular ways. While our intake is becoming more academically proficient over time, we find that there is also a rise in more consumerist, transactional attitudes: “I paid for my degree, so give me what I want.”

The paths to resolving these tensions are not clear and will force us to return to the drawing board many times over. Perhaps all I can offer is the hope that we ourselves are reflective, critical learners, and that will be our best tool in finding answers.