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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A Brexit simulation (for when you don’t know what’s going to happen)

Moi non plus… (as I imagine Dubya would have said)

I’m doing some training on negotiation in Belgium this week, building on what the organisers imagine is my expertise in this subject and Brexit.

Of course, when I said ‘yes’ to the offer six months ago, I had to hedge against making too many promises that reality might break all too obviously.

What I’d not banked on was finding myself just a day or two beforehand still not being sure what might happen by the time I found myself in front of the group.

With that in mind, I made a little negotiation exercise that tackles Brexit, but at a distance, to protect against the vagueries of it all. The text of the scenario is below and you’re welcome to comment on, and use, it as you see fit.

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The price of failure

via GIPHY

After last week’s class discussion about participation, I decided to run an exercise that made it really easy to show the marginal benefit of preparation.

I told students to prepare for a meeting about putting together an agenda for another negotiation, and gave them all specific roles, plus some rules of procedure.

(For those who are looking for Brexit sims, this was a Council working group, putting together an agenda for the Commission to take to the UK to discuss the Political Declaration).

Because it was about formulating an agenda, I hoped that students would see they didn’t need to get too deeply into substantive positions, as long as they could frame the general areas to be covered.

Plus, but giving clear roles and rules, I incentivised everyone to push out their own draft agendas prior to the meeting. In so doing, I hoped they’d see that even a small amount of preparation could have big effects.

Um

Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way.

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Ooh, ah, just a little bit

(for those benighted souls unfamiliar with Eurovision, the title’s from a song, so it’s fine. Really)

See?

I ran into a bit of roadblock yesterday in class.

The students had been undertaking a negotiation on drawing up a joint statement by a number of groups and we were talking through some of the debriefing points.

I suggested that they’d taken things much as they came, whereas if they’d come with an agenda, or some text, had pushed to become chair or rapporteur, or generally had been more forceful, then they’d have been much more successful in securing what they wanted to achieve.

Ooh

This produced, well if not quite uproar then at least debate.

Various individuals argued that given the dynamic of the group, anyone who came in with A Plan would risk marginalising themselves for the rest of the module, as others would be resentful to them.

It was pointed out that they’d managed to produce a text, so why do things differently?

And they also highlighted that they had other modules to study for, so there was a limit to how much time they would or could put into preparing, not least because of the way I assess.

That assessment is based on self-reflective writing, so I’m not judging their ‘success’ in negotiating per se,

Ah

The discussion was a useful one, at least for me.

The root of it all largely appeared to come down to students taking my comments as a striving for perfection, rather than as a relativistic statement.

As we continued to talk, I tried to underline that I wasn’t asking that everyone did everything, but rather that doing a bit more than others would produce much of the same effect.

To take the example from the session, one student became the effective chair because they’d happened to say something at the outset of the session. It required no additional preparation, and because that individual also offered to write up the statement, they gained huge influence over the outcome.

Just a little bit

And this is perhaps the point for the rest of us.

There’s a tension in what we teach our students between the notional perfection of How Things Should Be and How To Do Better Than We Are Now.

That’s probably most pronounced in questions of methodology: how systematically and perfectly should one pursue a methodological approach and where can one cut corners (and to what cost)?

But it’s true of all our work. I’ve seen enough theory to know that there are almost endless levels of refinement of theoretical positions to know that perfection is never truly possible in a practical setting.

With that in mind, perhaps we have to ask ourselves how we tackle this tension in our classes. To counsel perfection is one thing, but do we not then set up students for some level of failure? But if we don’t strive to do the best we can, do we risk not helping students to maximise their potential and their practice?

The answers to these questions will vary from place to place, but a starting point has to be an understanding of what we aim to achieve with our students.

In my case, I’m going into the coming sessions with some new ideas to help draw students more into the kind of logic that I discussed with them, to see if that addresses the dilemma. 

And if it does, then we’ll move onto the next line of the song: “A little bit more”.

The Society for the Abolition of Boring Conference Panels

It’s that time of year when I find myself submitting papers and panels to conferences.

But because it’s not the time of year for conferences, I’ve not been thinking too much about what I dislike about how those conferences work.

Often on these pages we write about the shortcomings of conference panel formats: the long presentations, the reading-out of papers, the lack of time for Q&A, the ‘question’ that isn’t.

But this year, I’m resolved to actually try and pull my finger out and try to do something different.

With that in mind, and with the looming announcement of call for papers for my ‘home’ conference at UACES, I’m going to try a couple of things.

The first is a flipped format.

My panellists – as and when I find them – will record 15 minute presentations prior to the conference and upload them to YouTube. We’ll indicate this in the programme, using a hashtag to help find them.

Then, in the actual session, I’ll limit colleagues to a 3 minute presentation of the core message, so those few who’ve not seen the YouTube presentation know what’s going on, and so that we can have considerably more than an hour to discuss the content.

The second panel will be highly interactive, where each presenter starts off with 3 minutes, then the audience vote on whether to give them subsequent blocks of 3 minutes, up to a maximum of 12 minutes. I think we can do that via an app, so no-one has to feel they’re inhibited to ask the speaker to stop.

The logic of the first panel is to maximise the time for face-to-face discussion, which seems to be particularly useful for colleagues to develop their ideas and their papers. It also encourages them to prepare more before the conference itself.

The logic of the second is to incentivise presenters to foreground core messages and to ensure that audiences are engaged, rather than using their time to regurgitate their paper without thought to the format.

In both cases, I hope it will produce a more engaging environment for colleagues attending the session, not least as I intend to secure a small air-horn to drown out anyone who can’t ask a concise question, phrased as a question.

To be honest, I hope no idea if either format will work, but I want to try, because carrying on as we have isn’t a solution. We all know we can do better, so consider this a first step in trying to do better.

If it works, then I’ll see if I can get others to adopt the format, or to try out other formats. Maybe I can persuade those organising conferences to push the use of these different approaches, perhaps with a conference prize for the best online presentation or the like.

The only thing I need now is a small band of volunteers to help try this out.

Some of you might be getting an email, but others of you might just want to contact me via the comments section below: I’m thinking the second format might be particularly good for an L&T panel.

Horses, carts and captured content

Usefully captured

Oddly, it took being interviewed for a research project to really crystallise my thoughts on this subject, after some months of it niggling away.

Earlier in the year, my institution launched a consultation on a captured content policy.

This was intended – in its words – to ensure improved access to learning materials and to allow for more flexible delivery, and was sold with a large dose of student demand (via our Students Union).

For those of you who’ve not had this conversation at your place of work, captured content covers lecture capture (semi-automatic filming of lectures to be uploaded to the VLE); flipped content and; anything else that’s a recording of teaching.

As an aside, there’s mixed evidence in the literature of its benefit for students: Owston et al suggest it’s particularly of use for low-achieving students, and Shaw et al see most benefits for non-native speakers; but Stroup et al find no evidence of impact on GPAs; while Danielson et al suggest that the kind of lecture has an impact.

However, as presented, the university wanted to have a whole lot more of this kind of thing, across the board, including talk of a largely-compulsory system of lecture capture.

Cue much concern from colleagues.

This ranged from how to deal with mixed lecture-seminar sessions to the impact on willingness to talk about sensitive subjects  to administrators using recordings for management purposes to the principle worry that students just wouldn’t turn up to class if they could just watch it online later on.

In its defence, the final, approved policy didn’t go as far as the draft plans, so there’s a lot more scope for instructor discretion about using captured content; although we’re all required to have discussions about how best to proceed on this front. Some of our teaching rooms now have automatic recording of classes, but defaulting to not making these available to students or anyone else.

So?

So that’s all fine, right? University over-reaches in its plans, colleagues feed into consultation, university responds and adapts. That’s what should happen. Right?

I’m not so sure.

To come back to the original sell, a key part of it all was that push from the Students Union to the effect that lecture capture would improve the quality and student-centredness of lectures.

Here we have to remember that lecture capture (since it was that, rather than captured content in general) is not about content, but about delivery. In a system that automatically records lectures, the expectation should be that lectures continue as they have, but now with the option of being available online.

No imagine you’re sitting in a lecture.

You don’t understand something, so you either raise your hand to ask the lecturer, or you ask the person sat next to you.

In both cases, you’ll get an almost instantaneous clarification for someone immediately and directly focused on the subject matter, with a pretty good change of resolving the issue.

But if you watch a captured lecture, then if you don’t understand the one explanation in that lecture, then you’ve got to email or visit the lecturer, who’s got to fit responding around whatever else it is they’re doing.

Much more time, much more effort, many more points of failure.

So no lecture capture then?

This is why I’ve never gone for lecture capture, but instead have travelled down the road of flipping. In the latter case, you’re using the contact time to give space for student questions and clarification, so it’s a much more engaged model than just recording the stuff that already happening in class.

Importantly, that’s what works for what I’m doing and what I’m trying to achieve.

And this is perhaps the central point.

In all the years of teaching that I’ve done, at all the institutions that I’ve encountered and worked for, I don’t ever recall a policy about optimising student learning.

I’ve seen policies about captured content or using VLEs; regulations about the volume and nature of assessment and size of modules; and more learning and teaching strategies than I care to remember.

But never a document about how to make informed pedagogic choices about designing the best possible learning experience for students.

If it’s appeared anywhere, then it’s in teaching training courses, and then generally indirectly.

I can understand why this is – those other things are much more fungible and measurable – but it does raise a question about the focus of our work.

Importantly, I feel that too often we find ourselves in situations where “student learning” is conflated with “student satisfaction”: if only we can make them happy, then they’ll get more out of it.

Even on its own terms, I don’t see the logic of this, even before we get to whether it’s something that’ll serve our students well in the wider world.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that if I change how I teach in my class, then it’s because I’ve made a considered decision about its pedagogic merits, rather than because of an institutional policy.

Mixing media

On set of my latest lecture capture…

Having given up on the blindfolds, I’ve now moved to some less radical activities in my class this semester.

Part of that includes making more use of media in sessions.

Video

A big part of that took place before we started teaching, when I recorded some more videos to upload to our virtual learning environment.

This is Flipping 101: giving a lecture online, then using class contact time for more interactive activities. Given that I’m teaching negotiation, that seems particularly sensible and I’ve been doing that for some years now, but this time around I’ve embraced it more fully.

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Blindfolds, philosophers, and negotiations

This guest post comes from Alex Leveringhaus, from the Department of Politics, University of Surrey. He played Simon’s blindfold ice-breaker last week and it prompted some thoughts about philosophy. Obviously 

Imagine you are a member of a team that has been assigned a particular task. Nothing unusual about that. Imagine further that your team is competing with a second team that has been instructed to carry out the same task. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, either. But now imagine that all participating team members (your team and your opponents) have to carry out their respective task while blindfolded. That’s probably a bit more unusual.

Naturally, the blindfold generates all sorts of practical challenges. How do you know who your team members are? How do you coordinate the successful completion of the task? The answer to these questions seems quite straightforward. You need to engage in team work! That is, you need to devise a strategy for carrying out your assigned task while blindfolded, and you need to trust your team mates that they pull their weight. The two ingredients of success: strategy and trust.

But not so fast. Strategy and trust have an inward and an outward component. The former relates to your teammates, the latter relates to the competing team. With regard to the latter component, the question is whether you can trust the competing team to play by the rules of the game and wear their blindfolds (and vice versa). More precisely, can you trust them not to peep underneath their blindfolds in order to gain an unfair advantage in the completion of the task? And how would you be able to ascertain this without breaking the rules of the competition yourself?

After all, in order to assess whether members of the other team are peeping underneath their blindfolds, you must peep underneath your blindfold, too. Naturally, whether you trust the other team or not will affect your team’s strategy. Arguably, a strategy that assumes universal compliance with the rules will differ from a strategy that assumes non-compliance.

The conundrum generated by the blindfold game is not new, of course. Nor has it primarily preoccupied the minds of political scientists. For instance, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls, arguably the most important (political) philosopher in the English-speaking world post-World War II, offers a helpful distinction.

Rawls and Plato

According to Rawls, ideal theory, which he is primarily concerned with, assumes that there is universal compliance with principles of justice. Non-ideal theory, by contrast, assumes that not everybody complies with principles of justice.

Non-ideal theory generates two primary moral challenges. First, non-compliant individuals are free-riding. Second, moral obligations can quickly become over-demanding. Put simply, not only do non-compliant individuals benefit unfairly; to add insult to injury, compliant individuals also have to pick up the slack.

However, the problem is older than Rawls’ distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory. In fact, it goes right back to the inception of western political theorising in Ancient Greece. In his work The Republic (circa 380/1 BCE), Plato considers the story of a young shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible. (Sounds familiar anyone?) What should the shepherd do? He could kill the king, marry the queen, and become the new ruler. Untold riches beckon.

But Plato counsels against this. It is better, according to Plato, to play by the rules and not become a usurper, even if this means that the shepherd foregoes worldly riches. Why? Being a just person, Plato contends, is important for the well-being of one’s soul. It is, in other words, better to be a poor but happy shepherd than a powerful but miserable (Lady) Macbeth.

Hobbes and Machiavelli

Several centuries later, Thomas Hobbes devised a different solution to the problem. You can’t rely on justice or a sense of fair play, Hobbes claims. For, as Hobbes argues in Leviathan (1651), justice does simply not exist in the absence of a suitable authority to enforce the necessary rules.

The solution, then, for Hobbes, consists in establishing an authority, the Leviathan, to enforce the rules and punish those who transgress them. That sounds sensible, I hear you say. But is trust in the Leviathan enough? And how does the Leviathan maintain its own grip on power to lay down the law?

In Renaissance Florence, a disgraced former civil servant by the name of Niccolo Machiavelli had his own thoughts on this issue. In his work The Prince (1532), a guidebook on how to be a successful ruler (primarily by not getting killed by one’s subjects), Machiavelli advises that you should not trust anyone, at least if you want to remain in power. Nor should you try to act ethically. That won’t do you any good because everyone around you won’t act ethically, either. It is necessary, therefore, to be ruthless and act unethically. Nice guys, as the saying goes, always come last (or get their head chopped off).

However, the trick, according to Machiavelli, is not to brag that you are the toughest Pitbull in the yard. People will eventually hate you for doing so. And if they hate you, they will get rid of you sooner or later. Rather, what you should do is to appear to be an ethical person while acting unethically. Be a smiling assassin but ensure you sink the dagger in. Go to church and pretend to be a good Christian king but be prepared to mercilessly crush your enemies (or any other saboteurs, for that matter).

What does all this mean for the blindfold scenario? To peep or not to peep, that is here the question. Well. If you are a Platonist, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold. You and your teammates will do the right thing. You will play by the rules, even though you cannot be a hundred percent sure that the other team is doing the same. If you lose, you can console yourself that you played by the rules. But will that make you happy? Or will you be a sore loser?

By contrast, if you are a Hobbesian, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold because you trust that the person who supervises the game will enforce the rules. More importantly, you fear that the umpire/Leviathan/Simon will disqualify you if he catches you. (And let’s not even talk about getting a reference for that job application from Simon. ‘I blindfold my students on a regular basis. Student X, however, consistently peeped underneath his/her blindfold. X is untrustworthy and finds it hard to play by the rules. Hence X is completely unsuited to your organisation. Don’t give X a job. Sincerely, Dr U’.)

Finally, if you are a Machiavellian, you will mostly definitely peep underneath the blindfold. Heck, everyone else will be doing it, too. However, what you won’t do is rip the blindfold off at the earliest opportunity to check what the other team is up to. Rather, you will pretend that you are complying with the rules. So, all Machiavelli will allow for are a couple of discrete glances underneath your blindfold. Discrete glances! And of course, if you win, don’t tell anyone you cheated. Remember you stuck to the rules. It was your group’s ingenuity that pulled it off. But what if you get caught? Don’t be a chicken, Machiavelli would say. You were unlucky – fortune abandoned you. But at least you tried to win.

Blindfolds and philosopher asides, are there any repercussions for actual negotiations between governments? Sure, you need to have a strategy and you need to have trust in your teammates and vice versa (which kind of explains Theresa May’s current Brexit predicament: she seems to have neither). But what about the other side? Are they really negotiating in good faith? Do they have a Plan B? Do they have ulterior motives? Do they possess insider information that gives them an advantage? Perhaps it is time to give the intelligence services a call … after all, the other side might do, too.

More ice-breaking

It’s good to be back in the classroom. So good, in fact, that within the hour I’d got back out of it.

Of course, this was all in the service of setting up the class for the semester’s work on negotiation, which I finally began at 9AM on Monday morning.

(personally, I like that slot and I do promise to students that I will make it worth their while to be there too)

As well as the usual what’s-the-module-all-about-ery, I use this opener to underline that it’s student-led and that they have to take very active responsibility for their learning.

In past years, Victor’s Hobbes game (which we’ve discussed endlessly here) has served really well, as it has a bit of getting-to-know-each-other as well as its big dollop of people-are-a-pain-to-be-with.

But as I noted last year, it’s not necessarily the freshest take and I knew that I had at least a handful of students who’d taken this module in previous years.

So what to do?

Reaching back into my metaphorical bag of activities, I recalled an activity that was rather good for exploring preparation and communication, both key themes in negotiation.

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Back once again

A short one today, as it’s induction week and we’re handling everything that comes with the arrival of several thousand students on-campus.

After only one day, it’s been really useful to be reminded about what seems obvious to you and what doesn’t seem obvious to students.

Just because no-one asked you about a thing before, doesn’t mean it’s obvious and the issue lies with them.

We’ve all got stuff that we’ve rolled over from year to year and no-one has queried. Until they do.

I got a query like that this morning, on something that has been unchanged for several years. Maybe it was just this one student, but maybe it was never very clear and no-one felt they could ask me about it.

Given that my working assumption is that there are always more questions and queries than those volunteered without prompting, I incline to the latter explanation.

Checking and re-checking our assumptions is hard, because often they are deeply implicit, or conditioned by external factors that we’re only marginally aware of.

That might be because of changing technologies, changing personal experiences of students, changing university regulations, changing activities by our colleagues, to list just the most obvious.

So when we meet our new students, we need to make sure that we’re not just treating them like our old students.

That means working through points as much as we can, being open to questions and queries and generally being alive to the potential danger of talking past each other.

And on that cheery note, it’s back to find out what else I’ve missed.

Old skool, ironically