Teaching innovation improves student performance

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 Carolina Curvale.

Petra Srnisova documents in her study the results of the implementation of constructive alignment and active learning methods in an Accounting course at the University of Economics in Bratislava. Her motivation for incorporating teaching innovation to her course emerged from an observation to which, I think, a good number of educators can relate to. She acknowledged that students’ field of study tends to be related to the level of interest in a specific course. In her case, Commerce students appeared to be less worried than other students in minute details that are essential to Accounting.

The author cleverly included strategies to promote student engagement in applying theory to practice in three sessions that took place in between a first and a second assessment. The innovated sessions introduced post-it, group work, and pair work activities aimed at promoting problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaborative work. The skills practiced during the sessions were expected to engage students and help them improve their performance in the assessments. The results of the study reveal that the exercise was more fruitful in achieving the second of these goals.

In regard to performance, the author compared the student scores before (first assessment) and after teaching innovation (second assessment). The student scores indeed improved from an average of 64% to 76%. A course taught the prior year, without innovation, showed that from the first to the second assessment students also improved, but much less (only 2 percent points). These results encourage innovation of teaching in order to improve student performance, although it would be interesting to control groups by their overall grade scores. In my opinion, this is a very important result that may also contribute to achieving better engagement, as students who perform better may be more prone to participate in class.  

The author could not conclude based on collected data that the teaching innovation produced the expected effect, that is, that active learning techniques promote student engagement. While the survey questions measuring student interest before and after the course reveal no change, on average students reported that they did pay attention to classes. The qualitative data gathered from the instructor’s notes and from an external observer provide contrasting information: the instructor perceived more engagement during the innovation sessions while the observer did not register heightened participation, although the observer attended only one session and could not fully compare the group’s performance.

The chapter systematically documents the results of the adoption of teaching innovation aimed at improving both student interest and performance in an Accounting course. While the results are mixed, the experience is flawlessly analyzed and presented, and the author herself offers avenues for improving the experience in the future. In my view, the chapter offers interesting and practical ideas on how to improve the teaching-learning experience when the topic of the course is not directly related to the students major – something we can all learn from!

Bringing culture back in: a comment on Pechersky’s study on student-centred 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 Stephan Engelkamp.

Many years ago, I found myself attending a class on intercultural learning, or Etudes culturelles, as the course was called at the time. I was a young Erasmus student, enrolled at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques Strasbourg in France, and part of a large group of international students who would soon be released on Sciences Po’s regular courses. To be fair, I cannot say that I was particularly thrilled by the prospect of attending this seminar. Mostly struggling with my uneasy relationship with the French language, I did not really see the point in discussing cultural stereotypes for weeks and months.

However, this was a mandatory course, and so I attended. For whatever it was worth, it was a good opportunity to get to know my fellow Erasmus students and maybe make some new friends. The seminar turned out to be fun and helpful. What I remember most vividly was what turned out to be the best part of the seminar: discussing different cultural points of view with international students, as competent practitioners of their respective cultures.

This brings me to Alexander Pechersky’s insightful contribution on the potential outcomes of introducing student-centred learning to the curriculum, specifically when teaching fuzzy but enacted concepts such as culture. The chapter reports on the results of a study the author conducted when teaching seminars on intercultural learning, which were offered to local and Erasmus students. The author starts with a contextualisation of his own academic socialisation abroad, reflecting on the different cultures of learning he experienced in different university settings during his academic path. This leads Pechersky to the following assumptions: students with a higher degree of control in student activities should be more satisfied with the learning exercise, better internalise the learning material and gain a deeper understanding of studied concepts.

To test these assumptions, the author developed a quasi-experimental research design for three seminar groups. Each seminar starts with the lecturer’s mini lecture, which is then followed by a quiz as an icebreaker to make students more comfortable to participate in the next step: a student-centred part in which students apply a case study on the session’s subject matter. The design of the three settings varies according to the degree of freedom students have in controlling the student exercise. Student satisfaction and learning outcomes are traced using a survey and participant observation.

As survey results demonstrate, the hypotheses could only be partially corroborated. While the results on learning satisfaction seems to be as expected – the more control students have, the more satisfied they are – results regarding the learning outcomes are somewhat mixed. However, the impressions of the observing colleague seem to suggest that the group with the most control over the learning exercise had the most sophisticated discussions of concepts.

One challenge of the research design may be the limited number of observations, due to the small number of students, which may make it difficult to apply even descriptive statistical methods. To address this methodological issue, the author may have considered assigning reflective essays rather than using surveys.

Methodological issues aside, I suggest an alternative way to account for the unexpected results regarding the students’ learning outcome. As the author rightly states, “[I]in student-centered learning (SCL) the teacher assumes the role of a facilitator and invites students to participate in the learning process by relating information to prior knowledge and discussion with others.” Hence, students’ prior knowledge and experiences may be a key variable in the quasi-experiment. As the seminars focus on intercultural and communication skills, group composition may affect the learning outcome but maybe not in the way the author assumes.

Pechersky theorises that students’ prior experience with student-centred learning may explain the outcome. An alternative explanation may relate to the content of the course, which focuses on inter-cultural learning, and student background, specifically international students. From this angle, students’ experience with intercultural exchange may determine the learning outcomes. International students may be more invested in the subject matter due to their personal situation which probably allows them to bring in their personal experiences more effectively.

In any case, Pechersky’s contribution raises interesting questions about variables of success of student-centred learning. I would love to see a follow-up piece drawing on a larger set of observations! As an Erasmus alumnus, I clearly see the value of taking individual intercultural experiences seriously, both inside and outside the classroom.

Managing discontent

Wonderfully, several parts of my professional life have seen recent instances of people being less than completely satisfied with my work, or that of my colleagues.


I say wonderfully not sarcastically, but genuinely, because it’s a great opportunity to question whether things are working or not.

It’s easy to get stuck into a rut, where you’re comfortable or feel you have the answers. Sometimes you need a bit of a bump to get you re-engaged.

(Of course, some bumps are a bit bigger than others, but hey, what are you going to do?)

Sometimes these things happen because you’ve not keep up your standards; sometimes because things you thought were explicit have become implicit; sometimes because things have changed.

In each case, it’s more useful that your response is open and enquiring, rather than closed and defensive. No-one likes being told that their work isn’t up to scratch, but that’s not a good enough reason to carry on regardless.

Importantly, you have to start by recognising that problems with your work isn’t the same as problems with you. Contain the issue to your actions – which you can control – rather than allow it to be a comment on your being – which you can’t.

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To engage youths to study political processes – there are no “one size fits all” methods

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 Niina Meriläinen

Many states of Europe are now experiencing growing social and political passivity of some youths, which may lead to their lifelong marginalization and radicalization. To revert this trend, many university teachers feel committed to encourage and empower their students to become active in their communities, and to play a more active role in the democratic development of societies and in supporting the principles of human rights and rule of law.

In his chapter , Martin Karas, from the University of Economics in Bratislava, reports on various aspects of how to engage non-political science undergraduates. Karas introduced three active learning exercises – a debate, a group analysis of a primary sources, and cut-up cards – to help students to distinguish between various political science concepts, to achieve higher levels of student engagement, to improve knowledge retention, and to create understanding of political actors, issues and practices. While researching the effects of these exercises on student learning, he combined qualitative and quantitative methods.

Whereas active learning methods led to higher levels of student engagement in Karas’ class, they did not significantly affect knowledge retention and understanding. Karas’ research results correlate with the literature findings, which reports the connection between active learning and student engagement, but no robust evidence for the existence of a link between active learning and knowledge retention and understanding.

Karas’ findings are similar with those of Meriläinen, Pietilä, & Varsaluoma (2018) and Meriläinen’s forthcoming research (2019). The later research focuses on the engagement of non-subject students in vocational schools to contribute to social change processes, including law drafting. Naturally, we need to understand that there are various forms of youth engagement and participation to social and political change processes, some that gatekeepers such as officials give credibility, and some that are overlooked and viewed as non-credible by the gatekeepers.

Karas’ research illustrates that the engagement of non-subject students can increase the quantitative participation but may not result in long-term qualitative understanding of the issues, actors and events in the political sphere. This implies that more effective learning methods (and more multidisciplinary research) are needed to achieve lasting and profound awareness, engagement and participation of non-subject students to societal and political change processes.

If we wish to achieve desired change towards equal, human rights based, inclusive and sustainable societies, active citizenship and participation of youths is an essential requirement. Karas’ chapter is an exciting example from this research field. While designing learning methods for non-subject students, various actors working together, such as researchers, teachers, youth workers and volunteers, should take into account several key issues.

This includes making the courses “accessible” for various groups of students including individuals with disabilities, language competences, asylum seekers, and migrants in general, paying attention to power-relations among youths and dissimilar interests and skills of various youths. As they are not a homogenous group that engages with one voice, “one size fits all” teaching and learning method cannot effectively reach all of them. Because youths from various backgrounds should become agenda setters in the democratic development of societies, teaching and learning methods must be designed to address their different needs.

“You know, it’s like…”

I spent the weekend cycling through Northern England, with an old school friend.

It didn’t rain all the time…

If I were so-minded, I could write you a whole blog post about how this was an analogy to the learning process, or to our professional careers, or something else.

But I won’t.

I won’t, not because I can’t, or because it’s not useful, but rather because during one of the quieter stretches of our ride, when we’d exhausted the catching-up chat and the comments on the beauty of it all, I got to thinking about the place of metaphor in teaching.

As you do. Or, at least, as I do.

It’s a truism to note that all teaching proceeds by metaphor and analogy: we explain the things people don’t understand by drawing connections across to things they do understand. Everything is like everything else, in some way.

However, it’s easy to forget this, to think that we are building radically new structures of understanding for our students with what we do.

But even that notion of ‘structures’ is an analogy: it gives us a visual metaphor for how we can understand this very thing.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I found I rather good example of this on Twitter, using almost-Lego:

As often happens with my Thoughts While Cycling, I’m not sure it comes to a whole lot, but if we recognise that this happens, then we can use it to good, or better, effect.

Importantly, it also helps us to be weary of mis-using metaphors, as happens a lot in my other work: metaphors can blind us to things as much as they can enlighten.

Holiday coping

A short one, because I’ve got too much to be doing.

Too long, but right idea…

And it’s precisely because of that I want to share this piece from Oliver Burkeman.

Burkeman writes about being overwhelmed by Stuff To Be Done, and how we might manage that, in this case by having a list of (at most) three things we are thinking about at any one time.

Do one, and only then can you add something else to the list.

For me – and I’m guessing for you – summer can be difficult like this, as the graveyard of All The Things We Didn’t Have Time To Do During Semester. Unfortunately, that means summer often feels even more busy than semester, even as we want to get out of the office altogether.

Just as I’ve stopped planning to work while travelling, so too might this technique help in making less turn into more: if I’m not crippled by anxiety about not doing something, then maybe I’ll get the something else done done more quickly, so I can get back to the something.

Of course, if you’re one of the people waiting on something from me, you might feel different.

Have a good summer, and don’t overdo it.

The difficulties of reflecting on “being not very good”

This is a guest post by Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University).

Last week Simon discussed the need to reflect on our teaching and learning, in particular also on what’s not working. This made me wonder, are we actually able to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses?

We all know how difficult self-reflection can be. I personally remember a management training during which I was asked to evaluate my own actions in a difficult situation of my own choice – and struggling to openly critique myself and reflect upon my behaviour.

I recently witnessed how some of my colleagues find it easy to talk about teaching and learning, whereas others seemed to be struggling.

Active learning is in Maastricht University’s DNA, with problem-based learning (PBL) being used across its programmes. But often PBL does not come natural to teaching staff; we are expected to take a backseat role and focus on process rather than on content.

Hence, good teaching staff training is essential. New staff are introduced to PBL and need to follow a more detailed teaching training trajectory after a year of teaching. Events such as my faculty’s annual Education Day also play a role in this, through the exchange of experience and best practices.

In the run up to this year’s Education Day I was asked to talk about a new teacher staff development programme, called Continuing Professional Development. This programme is aimed at stimulating further development of teaching staff and at further enhancing the university teaching community.

Since it is not yet fully clear what kind of activities staff can do in this context, I planned two exercises that should give me an insight into colleagues’ needs: a bingo and a generative interview.

The first exercise I have already discussed in more detail in a post published in November: a bingo. The bingo I used this time is pictured here.

I explained to my colleagues that the aim of this exercise was a) to experience how easy it is to discuss and share teaching and learning ideas and best practices and b) to come up with some first ideas concerning their own training needs. This is also why I asked everyone to make sure to at least complete the box on the bottom left. The exercise worked well – and this time I timed it well too. People found it easy to talk, also because of the variety of topics to be discussed.

The second exercise was one that I picked up during the recent Joint International Teaching and Learning Conference in Brighton. During the conference, Colin Brown (Northeastern University) hosted a workshop on teaching peer review in which he made use of generative interviews.

We worked together in groups of three: one interviewee, one interviewer and one observer. Interviewer and observer together try to find out the interviewee’s views on a certain topic and formulate these views for them, which helps to actually more clearly formulate those views. Roles rotated. This was an interesting exercise and I decided to try it during the Education Day. I explained to my colleagues that this exercise was meant to get a more detailed understanding of their teacher training needs.

While I participated in the Bingo, I decided to only observe my colleagues during this second exercise. Interestingly, where some immediately started talking (as I experienced myself during the conference workshop), others started to focus on details of procedure.

I noticed that those colleagues who I know to be very involved in teaching and learning, seemed to find it much easier to do this exercise. They sometimes ignored the procedure, but they did eventually end up filling in the main part of the form pictured here:

Colleagues less eagerly involved in teaching and learning were the ones who seemingly found it difficult to talk about themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses. Instead, they spend lots of time talking about the form and the procedures.

This shows that Simon’s call to speak out about our mistakes and our weaknesses may come quite natural to those of us who think about these issues on a daily basis (the readers of  the ALPS blog or my faculty’s own teaching and learning blog). But this seems quite different for those colleagues for whom teaching does not come naturally or is rather viewed as a thing they have to do (instead of something they like to do).

Staff training will hopefully get more teaching staff to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, but, as Simon writes, academia unfortunately encourage us instead “to big ourselves up, to represent a bold vision of progressive and successful practice.”

PS During both exercises I played music to create a good atmosphere on a day that temperature went well above 35 degrees. You can find the playlist here.

Why I’m never writing this blog again: Twitter as a hostile environment

This guest post comes from Katherine Wright (Newcastle University).

A recent blog post from Simon Usherwood highlighted some very salient benefits and costs of using twitter as a PhD/ECR. A noticeable absence was the lack of consideration of just what it means to be a woman or other marginalised group on twitter.

Simon, to his credit, engaged and has revised the original blog to include a reflection on how twitter is a hostile space for the many. As he pointed out in the resulting twitter thread, for someone who doesn’t experience twitter this way, it can be a difficult issue to write about. I would argue this is exactly why you should.

This is therefore a blog post to link to or preferably quote from if you are unsure of how to engage with the backlash which makes twitter a hostile environment for those around you. This is your ‘toolkit’.

This is not just an issue relevant for ‘how to’ blogs, gender blindness can and does characterise advice from PhD supervisors, informal conversations on twitter over coffee and institutional training. As Ben Bowman tweeted:

Given the severity of the gendered and racialised pushback many experience in the public eye, and twitter specifically, all training on social media or engagement should start with this. It is a responsibility of our employers and us as individuals who care about whose voice is heard.

Our Universities are increasingly encouraging us to tweet in order to ‘engage’. Less frequently does this advice come with any sort of recognition of the risk those of us who identify as women or other marginalised groups will be putting ourselves at (or corresponding support). Twitter can seem like the obvious tool to engage beyond the academy. But obvious for whom?

And just who can you engage with anyway? As Simon and I have argued previously: “Online spaces offer echo chambers that potentially reinforce divisive political agendas and undermine democratic logics of interaction, compromise and consensus”.

Yet to understand how twitter is gendered we need to go further than this and ask just who can you engage with as a woman on twitter? Twitter functions as a ‘gendered echo chamber’. Men and women use twitter in equal numbers and yet the key influencers (those shaping debate, who show up more in your feed) are men. A 2017 report by Lissted found that even when women engage with twitter equally, their voices are not heard to the same extent. So if you are a woman who tweets, your tweets are at a disadvantage from the outset as you are less likely to be an influencer. There is a good chance you will not be heard.

So even before we get to trolling, we find women marginalised from a space often presented to us as one we can engage with on fair terms.

Twitter is not a utopian ideal, misogyny is built into the infrastructure of twitter. Trolls (understood here as both bots and people) disproportionately target women and other marginalised groups (along racalised, ableist lines and targeting LGBTQI). Trolls also target content on gender, so those of us researching gender face an additional challenge to getting our work heard.

What does trolling feel like? Often the takeover of your mentions can make twitter unusable in terms of volume and the type of tweet you are receiving. Whether it is one death or rape threat, or hundreds you are made to feel insecure and unsafe. At the most extreme, this can translate to a user going offline to escape the trolls and the police being involved.

We only have to look at how women MPs in the UK have been treated on twitter to see how this is also deeply racialised. Diane Abbot MP, for example, receives almost half of all abusive tweets sent to women MPs, something she has described as ‘debilitating, corrosive and so upsetting’.

Gender and race then shape the digital environment and this can and does lead to silencing of those who do not conform to a particular ideal of a white cis gendered man. It is beyond time that this was acknowledged by us all in the advice we give, whether informal or formal. And that we begin to push back against the discourse that twitter offers an opportunity (for all) to engage beyond the academy. It doesn’t.

Is it worth tweeting if you’re starting out in academia? UPDATED

Today I’m in Manchester, for the UACES Graduate Forum annual conference, speaking about what the future might hold for Europe: I may not be very cheery.

Money? There’s money? I’m not sure that’s right, Mr Clip-Art-Creator…

The conference has been a great opportunity to get to know the work of grad students and early career researchers, a group that the association has always been very keen to support and encourage.

Perhaps inevitably, it’s a point to discuss How To Get On.

One really interesting conversation I had during the drinks reception last night concerned all the social media work I do and how I find time to do it.

[In this specific case, because it’s 6 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Not a good model.]

The question that came up was whether it was worth a new academic pursuing a similar building-up of a social media profile.

I was a bit ambivalent, because the incentives are still rather mixed, and bear much thought before you get stuck in.

Let’s start with the upsides.

Blogging especially – but also tweeting – has been really helpful for me in getting me unblocked with the act of writing: I’m very much happier now about sitting down and just getting going than I was beforehand. That’s great for my general productivity and getting things moving off my desk (usually).

Social media work has also been excellent for letting me work through thoughts and ideas on my research areas, getting them in order and getting instant feedback. On that latter point, I have always been struck by the generosity of people in offering constructive ideas, even if you do sometimes have to dig that out from the bots’ blather.

And social media has been great for raising my profile, with all sorts of people: yesterday was a case in point, where various delegates introduced themselves and said they read my work. Beyond that, I know this work has led directly to invites to brief or present to practitioner audiences and academics, so it’s a great calling card.

More specifically, my research area has a lot of activists on social media, so the move made even more sense for me, in terms of awareness and access: I even managed to get a journal article out it.

But that brings us to the costs.

Social media might not need much time for each individual element, but overall an active profile represents an opportunity cost.

In the hardest of terms, time tweeting isn’t time producing conventional academic outputs. And the latter are still what people look for when making hiring decisions.

It’s great to be active on social media, but it’s certainly not yet an expected – let alone, demanded – part of an academic’s work. Outputs are.

And that’s not just an issue for new colleagues: I know from personal experience that promotions have come more slower than if I’d not spent so much time online and churned out articles. I’m comfortable with that, but you may not be.

One more thing to think very seriously about is the scope for getting attacked online. I’ve not suffered this, possibly because of the accident of nature that gives me an X and Y chromosome, but plenty of my female colleagues have had to endure some really awful hazing. There’s a good piece here (and you should read the twitter exchange that led me to add this section in), but my main message would be that even if you’re reasonable and measured online, you might well encounter others who are not, so you need to be a) clear you’re willing to face that, and b) prepared to resist.

Ultimately it comes down to what your priority is. I’m old enough that social media didn’t really exist when I was starting out, so the dilemma didn’t present itself: I was nicely ensconced in a permanent post when I started.

That aside, I do it because I like doing it and I find it useful. It’s opened some doors, even as if made some others open more slowly.

Your journey and your choices will differ, but you need to think actively about it, rather than just letting circumstance happen to you.

And if you’d like to write a blog about your choices, then we’d be very happy to offer it a home here.

On being not very good

Woo hoo!

The last few weeks have been a bit of a L&T whirl for me, speaking at various events on simulations and on my practice.

One theme that came up, especially on the latter topic, was me talking about my shortcomings.

At one level, I’m in a very strong position to make a case for being a ‘good’ teacher: I have lots of experience, I’ve held senior roles in L&T, I do this blog, I’ve got prizes.

But at other levels, I’m less good. My student evaluations are usually alright, but nothing to write home about (and this last year have been not so hot); there’s no clear additional learning gain from taking my modules over colleagues’; and some of the things I try out don’t really work (see, well, the past seven years of this blog).

In short, I’m like you: good at some things, less good at others. The main difference is that I’m writing about it.

And I’m writing about it because I was struck of late that talking about what’s not working is rare. We’re all encouraged to big ourselves up, to represent a bold vision of progressive and successful practice.

(You can add your own ironic thoughts about how we’re teaching students to become critical and self-reflective learners, yet we don’t do it ourselves.)

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