Teaching and the day job

Today’s one of the biggest in British politics and UK-EU relations for a long time (and given recent history, that’s a pretty high bar), and I’ve got lots to be doing on that.

But I’m writing this blog.

At the end of the week, I’m putting in my paperwork for promotion, where I know that I’m going to be judged primarily on my ‘proper research’ outputs.

But I’ve spent a week putting together L&T panels for conferences.

I’ve got a draft paper on Brexit that needs me to sit down and do some more work on it, to get it closer to submission.

But I also need to do some reading for the supervision of my doctoral student, working on pedagogy.

Why?

Victor put it nicely here: L&T scholarship matters, whether or not others realise it.

On my (purely anecdotal) evidence, I have given a lot more people direct help and advice on L&T than on anything else I’ve done, and through the wonder of teaching, that has shaped a stack of lives.

So even when there’s a lot of other stuff to be getting on with, don’t not get on with this too.

New year, new me. Not

You’ll be happy to know that I have no recommendations to offer this new year, except to say that January is an absolutely awful time to start changing your life.

That’s true for most people, but it’s very much so for academics.

Our year doesn’t run from January, and the past few weeks have been a brief pause in the gallop from semester to semester.

I have my ‘to-do’ list sat in front of my monitors in the office and it’s not a pretty sight. Plus, I notice, it doesn’t even include all the stuff I need to do.

Plus, everyone else is back at work now, so that email inbox is filling up nicely.

So what can we do?

This shouldn’t be cause for getting down though.

In these days, before it really gets going again, there’s still some space to take stock and to look ahead across the coming months.

It’s like standing on a little hillock, looking across the plain and trying not to get too concerned about the marshalling armies preparing for battle on the land you are about to tread.

Key point to remember here is that you’ve made it through the first semester and through the start of the academic year.

Semester two is more of the same, not whole-new-ballgame territory. Plus you probably also get it broken up by Easter. Plus the days are getting longer again.

So keep your chin up and think about what’s been good so far and about how you’ve avoid/manage the bad stuff.

And for that alone, it’s a happy new year.

Dib, dib, dib

I promise to not panic

I’m on a train, heading into London, where I’ve got a meeting.

I’m not planning to do any teaching today, nor even to give a presentation or a briefing.

And yet, on a quick check through my bag, I’ve got the following on me:

  • My laptop, including the power cord and the adaptor for connecting to output devices;
  • My voice recorder, should I want to record a podcast;
  • My workbook, where I keep notes on what I’m doing;
  • Post-it notes; and,
  • Board marker pens

In short, I’m ready and poised to do a whole bunch of teaching-type activity.

Partly, this is because I hate re-packing my bag each time I leave the house, but much more it’s because I’ve found myself in situations too often when I don’t have the things I would like to have on me.

I do wonder if this is because I’ve had my professional development during a period of rapid technological change, when resilience really mattered.

When I started out, it was all acetates and overhead projectors, unless they were broken, in which case it was the blackboard.

And then data projectors arrived, if you could get the computer booked out and then get it to connect to the projector.

I spent several years working with a dual system: a computer with powerpoints and a bag full of acetate (plus some chalk, just in case, because, well, I’m me).

(and yes, I do still have those acetates filed away, somewhere in my office)

Nowadays, even though I’ve not had a tech problem for several years, I still try to be prepared should one occur. In fact, the last time it did happen, I was giving a keynote at a conference, and I just had to wing my talk without my slides for the first half: unpleasant, but not fatal.

The message here is that your teaching can be delivered in more than one way, but to make that possible, you need to be ready and able to use those different ways when needed.

If you don’t want to learn by bitter practical experience (ahem), then I offer this technique: sit down and consider what you do and what could go wrong. That might include technology problems, or problems with the room you’re in, or too many/few people turning up, or not having the time you thought you did, or any of that.

Now think about what you can do about it.

In pretty much every case, there’s plenty you can do, adaptations you can make. I’ve not yet had a class that had one of these problems that I could get something useful out of, from the time only one person turned up to the time when none of the lights worked. Or the time my train got really delayed (like now).

And before you worry too much, just remember that most of the time things work just fine.

And that’ll be in part because you’re ready for anything.

Mastering Research Proposal Writing: Innovation through the Combination of Traditional Lectures and Active Learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Markus Siewert.

Throughout the course of their study, every student has to write a research proposal. In the old days students used to be confronted with this task at the very end when preparing their Bachelor or even Master thesis. The good news is that in the social sciences we have largely moved beyond this state of affairs since the courses that offer guidance on how to craft a research design have become standard in almost every curriculum.

Yet, everyone who teaches introduction to research design or project-based courses – like I do on a frequent basis – knows that helping students to master drafting a coherent research proposal can be a real challenge. In her chapter ‘Design Your Own Flying Carpet’: Helping Students to Master Research Proposal Writing, Ivana Rapošová, based at Masaryk University, presents an innovative design for a course session whose main goal is to meet this end through the fruitful blend of brief lectures and student-led activities.

The core objective of the session is to guide students step-by-step through the process of coming up with a road map for their research. The session starts with a brainstorming of potential research ideas and blind spots followed by a short debriefing and peer-to-peer feedback.

Based on this, key guidelines for drafting a research proposal are introduced focusing on aspects like formulating an appropriate research question, justifying the research, deriving a suitable research strategy, embedding the research question in the context of the state-of-the-art, etc. At each step, students are presented with small tasks allowing them to put the abstract rules into practice straightaway and to revise their research design along this way.

The chapter moreover offers empirically-grounded reflection on the achieved learning outcomes, both from the perspective of the students and the course instructors. Although the evaluation lacks robustness due to the small number of observations, Rapošová convincingly discusses the added value and potential benefit of her innovative design. Here, a valuable avenue for future research would be to test the effects of an active learning design against traditional frontal teaching in a quasi-experimental setting.

In sum, Rapošová’s chapter is a stimulating read on a topic of utmost importance for us as researchers and teachers as well as for our students. I, for my part,will definitely implement this approach in one of my next classes.

Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy?

As my day-job stumbles from one bizarre episode to the next, it’s been great to have the relative stability of my teaching.

Yesterday was our last class of the semester, so we spent a bunch of time on wrapping things up.

In so doing, it occurred to me that I’ve not been particularly systematic about this, so I tried this time to make sure I went around the houses.

First element was to try and draw out the overarching learning outcomes from the module: the stuff that’s been there most of the time, but which hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of any one session.

When we focus on individual sessions, it’s easy to also focus our attention on the specific outcomes, without making the connections up to the higher-level points.

That fed into the two major part, namely the assessment.

In my case, students have a single piece of work to do for assessment, which requires them to integrate their reflection and learning from the whole module, so talking about those kind of things is doubly-useful.

In both cases, I tried to start from students’ questions and concerns: I’ve been touching on key points throughout the module, but I know from long experience that often that’s not enough. Just because you think you’re clear, doesn’t mean you are.

That’s particularly relevant here, as the assessment is a personal reflection, so I want to emphasise that only each student can determine what is central in that, since they known themselves better than I can.

Finally, I encourage students to give feedback.

No session is perfect – or even close – but the more feedback you can get from students, the better. That can be through the formal channels your institution uses, or more informally in class.

I didn’t use it this time, but the ABC system can also work well for generating ideas.

They don’t know it yet, but as I bump into students in the coming period of time, I’ll be asking for their views on how it all went.

Which just leaves the last task: putting my paperwork in order now, so that I have less to scrabble through next autumn. Much as there’s a temptation to just park your stuff on a shelf somewhere and forget it, it’s hugely more efficient and effective to sort it all out now, while it’s still fresh in your mind.

In short, practise what you preach to your students.

Group work as a tool to improve participation among non-native speakers

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Marcus Walsh-Führing.

Encouraging active learning and increasing engagement can be a big challenge for teachers, especially when it comes to improving participation in the classroom where students are learning in a secondary language. As demographics are changing in classrooms, I find myself re-evaluating my teaching methods to maximize learning outcomes and came across Godwin Awuah’s chapter, Using group work to improve participation and overcome fear of foreign languages among non-native English speakers, in the book, Early career academics’ reflections on learning to teach in Central Europe, Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon (eds.). This chapter will help educators with teaching concepts or theory by introducing a new teaching tool to the classroom setting.

In his chapter, Awuah describes an experiment whereby he compares activity-based to lecture-style learning in a classroom setting comprised of non-native English speakers. In his study, the author distinguishes between types of group activities by focusing on the impact of learning outcomes for students. He conducted his study of classroom participation with topic maps which allow for direct observation of student learning and the utilization of quasi-experimental techniques to evaluate findings.

In his findings, learning outcomes were accomplished with topic maps, but there was strong evidence that a combination between topic maps and group work strengthen students‘ conceptualization of subject matters. In addition, topic maps created a working environment that was non-threatening by encouraging peer-to-peer engagement in working on ideas in a systematic way. Topic maps created a framework for students to work through the problems presented in the assignment to gain the necessary knowledge for understanding learning outcomes.

The author observed that group learning with the help of topic maps improved participants’ engagement by 70% and positively impacted students’ assessment scores with a mean net difference of 25%. He also noticed that participants with a stronger command of the English language engaged more actively in classes and assisted their fellow students with signs of difficulties in the language component of the assessment.

I believe that the hands-on approach with topic maps offers a valuable supplement in combination with a lecture-style lesson plan. As an instructor, this teaching strategy will allow me to observe the impact of my learning outcomes while, at the same time, reinforcing key terms and lowering barriers for non-native English speakers in the classroom.

As the world becomes more globalized, the challenges laid out in Awuah’s chapter will become more frequent. To address these problems, we as teachers need to find innovative and tested tools that will enhance our teaching performance.

Awuah proves through direct observation that topic maps result in a higher number of students producing more comprehensive class engagement. The article helped me understand how how to better present complex concepts to students who are non-native English speakers. Awuah’s chapter is a perfect read for all educators who are looking for a teaching strategy that is backed up by relevant data.

Next semester, I plan to incorporate topic maps in my ‘ Introduction to Comparative Politics‘ class to explain the complexity between the state and the nation state. The incorporation of group work with topic maps will help non-native English speaking students better conceptualize the idea of the state through interaction and hands-on engagement.   

Path dependency in class

A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.

He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.

During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.

We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).

I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.

As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.

And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?

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Getting into blogging

The magic of blogging

Hilariously, on a day when I find myself suddenly confronting my self-imposing deadline for posting here, I find that both time and inspiration are in short supply.

Fortunately, this weekend saw a meeting of the UACES graduate forum, talking about how to get into, and make use of, social media.

Rather than re-hash the various content, I’ll direct you to the #UACESdta hashtag for inputs from various people who know (and me) on things to think about and deal with.

Reassuringly, the main message was a positive one, stressing the value of connecting to new and diverse audiences, generating ideas and debate, and the personal value of writing more regularly.

At the same time, the costs of ‘doing’ social media have to be recognised: I’ve certainly encountered some of those, but I’m going to be seeing if I can get some guest posts together on this.

And as I sign off, from the floor of the train carriage heading into an event, I’ll note that opportunity costs cut both ways.

Let’s play… T&L Bingo!

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans, University of Maastricht.

During last September’s annual conference of the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) in Bath, Simon kicked off the teaching and learning afternoon gathering with a teaching and learning bingo.

I enjoyed this a lot. It was nice, active, fun. I got to meet new people and learned new thing about teaching and learning. Based on this (perhaps somewhat subjective) experience, I decided to hijack Simon’s idea and use it in two similar, but different settings. This is what happened.

Problem-Based Learning workshop Bolzano

Maastricht University is known for its application of Problem-BasedLearning (PBL). New staff have to attend a PBL introduction training session upon starting at our university. All teaching staff also need to complete the so-called University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) trajectory (this, in fact, applies to all higher education institutions in the Netherlands). One of my duties is to coordinate UTQ at my home faculty. And it was this – plus my teaching experience – that lead me to being invited to convene a workshop entitled ‘Tutors in problem-based learning from distant facilitator to approachable coach’ at the University of Bolzano early October.

Since I did not know any of the people there, I thought this would be a great opportunity to use the T&L bingo.

I adapted Simon’s bingo to my own needs. The instructions are relatively straightforward and the items of a diverse nature, including more light-hearted ones.

It worked surprisingly well. I got to know the participants, plus they got to know each other a bit better too. It also provided me with some input for the workshop (‘The one thing they’re hoping to learn more about today’). Considering it was a day-long workshop, this helped me to focus on specific points and also, towards the end, to check if everyone thought that we sufficiently covered their needs.

University Teaching Qualification workshop Maastricht

I already wrote that I coordinate UTQ at my home faculty. This year 13 colleagues have to complete the trajectory. The group of participants is very diverse in terms of disciplinary backgrounds and teaching experience, and included teaching assistants, PhD students and a professor. Not everyone knew each other, so once again the bingo seemed like a good idea. And once again, I thought I could use the input for the workshop.

This time too, I adapted the bingo to the setting,with specific questions about the topics that we were going to focus on during the day.

Even though there was some hilarity as to whether this was really a serious exercise (see this tweet),participants actively engaged in it. As they will be working together throughout this academic year, it was important that they got to know each other – the usual round of introduction is a bit boring, especially because it usually does not result in new information. Once more I included a question that gave me specific input as to the expectations for the day (‘Your colleague’s personal learning goal for today’).

What I learned

The good: after a bit of hesitation everyone got really involved. Some colleagues did their utmost best to talk to everyone; others decided for a longer talk when the issue at hand was interesting. Reason enough to do it again, though I’d probably want to explain the exercise better in order to avoid awkward moments at the start.

The bad: timing is an issue. In both cases, we took much more time than I had anticipated, as everyone really got into it and because I had encouraged them to try and talk to everyone. Next time I might consider using a timer or buzzer. Or perhaps offer a prize to the person who gets most boxes filled within a set time.

The ugly: I enjoyed it so much that I also got completely carried away. And subsequently lost track of time… As such, a timer is definitely needed! Someone needs to keep track of me too. I might ask one of the other participants to be in charge of time instead.

What’s next

I’d love to try this exercise with students. I think it would make a great course opening. I mostly teach in a programme with +300 students, so they do not always know each other despite changing tutor groups every 8 weeks and every course. Plus it would be a great way to have them discuss a course topic in a more informal setting and get to know more about the course’s intended learning outcomes. Obviously, I would have to adapt the bingo to the course itself. I would include a debriefing so that we all get to know more about students’ pre-knowledge about the topic and our expectations of the course, the group and the tutor (i.e. me).

And, you know; I already have a course in mind.

Enhancing Student Participation


This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Sarah Holz.

As a teacher who aspires to student-centered learning, increasing student class participation and involvement in seminars is a central concern for me. Reading Michal Tkaczyk’s book chapter offered some insightful and thought provoking ideas for me because the chapter addresses the question in how far enhanced student participation, interest in the subject matter, and the acquisition of key concepts are linked.

In his chapter, which is part of the newly released online book Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe edited by Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon, Michal Tkaczyk offers insights into the findings from a teaching innovation introduced in a seminar on semiotic analysis of media contents. The innovation aimed at (1) improving student knowledge-acquisition, (2) enhancing their skills to apply key concepts of semiotic analysis and (3) promoting student participation.

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