Free-riders or silent participants? Appreciating silence in active learning environments

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans & Afke Groen of Maastricht University’s Department of Political Science

We have been following the ALPS-blog discussion on students’ participation between Amanda and Simon with great interest. The situations they discuss are very familiar.

In Maastricht, learning takes place according to the principles of problem-based learning (PBL); through active participation and discussions in tutorials.

In the programmes that we teach in, we can grade students’ participation with a +0.5 on top of the exam grade for exceptionally good participation or a -0.5 for insufficient participation – a system introduced following discussions about the problem of ‘free-riders’.

We too see students who remain silent. We train students, encourage participation and discuss group dynamics, but students may not feel comfortable or skilled to live up to our expectations – certainly not in their first weeks at university.

Indeed, in the discussion between Simon and Amanda, the “problem” seems to be students who do not talk. Teaching is about “getting students to talk” and about “[getting] them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them”.

But to what extent is not talking a problem? Why doesn’t a student talk? And if it’s a problem, who’s problem is it?

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When you’re unprepared for class

4 hours of seminar discussion? No problem!

Amanda’s post prompts me to do a bit more reflecting on us, the instructor.

It’s really easy to focus on students as the source of problems, but as Amanda rightly underlines, that’s not the most productive of frames.

As a less-experienced lecturer, one of the most useful lessons I got in my training was that we go through different stages in our understanding of what’s happening in a classroom.

You start out by thinking it’s all about yourself, then you move to thinking it’s all about the students, before finally understanding that it’s actually about the situation you and they are in.

So part of that is recognising that you matter, but you’re not the only thing that matters.

And, frankly, sometimes we’re not at the top of our game.

Either that means we’ve not prepared enough, or we’ve not on the ball enough in the classroom.

I’ve done that – not often, but more than once – and I’m going to guess that you have too.

What’s the problem?

Clearly, there are lots of reasons why this happens and I’m not really so interested as to why, precisely because of that diversity. I know it happens to me when I teach straight after landing from an international flight, but that’s scarcely useful.

The more interesting point is to explore what impact this lack of prep has on your class and what you can do about it.

In the broadest of terms, this is a problem because of the signal it sends to your students. Just as you know full-well when they’re not concentrating in class, so too do they know when you’re not.

Just think back to when you were getting taught and you’ll recall the occasions you were on the receiving end.

If we ask students to be ‘in the room’, then we have do the same. That’s why I always laugh at academic conferences when everyone sits at the back of the room, doing other stuff on their laptops, despite what they say to their students back home.

(It’s also why I don’t say those things to my students)

What’s the solution?

Three steps suggest themselves.

First, acknowledge what you’re falling short on. This doesn’t have to be a big mea culpa, but just a simple recognition that you know what’s (not) happening and not trying to bluff your way out.

If not else, it’s better to get out in front of it and own it, before someone else does that for you.

Second, adapt what you’re doing in class to minimise the impact on student learning. If you could only prep 2/3rds of a lecture, focus on that part rather than winging the last part. If you’re supposed to be providing feedback, try using peer evaluation to replace a block of it.

That’s not always possible: if you forgot the key piece of equipment, then you should sort out getting ASAP. But you need to demonstrate your intention to make the session still work, either in a slightly different way or with a bit of delay. What’s critical is that you don’t just notice you’re not firing on all cylinders, but that you also act on it.

Third, after the session is done, you take action to make up any shortfall in the class and to avoid it happening again. That might mean some jiggling of content for next week’s class, or some additional materials on the online environment.

The longer-term redressing needs you to be reflexive and honest about what went wrong (which you should be doing in any case) and finding ways to deal with it.

So now when I fly I either do it so I can rest afterwards, or I move classes.

For you that might mean changing your schedules, or changing what you do in class, or getting a big orange sign to point to the key piece of equipment, so you don’t forget it.

Taken together, I can’t promise you’ll never have this problem again (especially if you’ve not yet had this problem), but I can tell you that it’ll become much more manageable and much less likely to happen again.

Making a difference

because googling “I don’t matter” gets you to a lot of very negative JPGs…

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking of late about whether I matter or not.

Maybe it’s the after-effect of coming back from leave to discover that things have been just fine in my absence, or maybe it’s that the kids are old enough to need no support other than top-ups for their phones.

But certainly it’s also about the start of the academic year.

As someone dedicated to active learning, I know that I have to work from my students, rather than them work from me. Their centrality implies a less central role for me.

That’s particularly true in my autumn module on negotiation, which very explicitly and consciously puts students front and centre, and puts me at the metaphorical and literal side of the classroom, trying to help them to understand what they’re doing.

The corollary of this is that if students don’t bother, or aren’t bothered, then there’s little I can do to force learning upon them. 

At best, I’m like the sun in that favourite fable of IR: my best chance lies in offering positive encouragement and opportunity, not in brow-beating and punishing.

The challenge – for me, at least – is how to keep that sun beating down.

The round of academic events at the end of summer is always a good moment to gather thoughts and find new ideas to help in this. This year, it’s been good to hear again about the value of building a high level of communication with students, giving them some ownership of the process and acknowledging where the limits of my capacity lie.

This last point is a bit of paradox: by being clear about what I can’t do, I can also strengthen the value of what I can. This is not so much modesty as realism and reflection: if I seek to inculcate such values in students, then can do no better than practise them myself.

Of course, the difficulty comes in also having to acknowledge that you aren’t in complete control of things. I’m fine with saying that, but I know many colleagues aren’t, not least for fears that it undermines their authority.

The answer to this is that rather than thinking you have to know the answer to all possible questions, you really only need to know how to answer all possible questions.

That might seem semantic, but actually it’s about feeling confident about your more abstracted skills – of reflection, of research, of analysis – and applying them to the novel case your student has just presented to you.

Sometimes that means turning the question back to the student, or to the class, to answer (or work out what they’d need to do to answer). Sometimes it’s a matter of returning to underlining principles to answer. Sometimes it’s just saying that you’d need to go off and do some work to answer it next time.

All of these options rely on us being honest with students.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of “we know everything, you know nothing”, which underpins much of the didactic model: I’m the reservoir of knowledge, you should just sit downstream and drink your fill.

Instead, we have to recognise our limits and students’ abilities. I’m certainly not ashamed to admit that I’ve learnt as much from students as I have from colleagues: very different things, certainly, but still valuable things.

And in all this I do matter.

I might not be at the centre of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t shape, contribute, encourage and support. In short, I’m part of a group that learns.

And that’s what keeps me so eager to get back to the classroom.

Making the most of it

Upload a video, or seek out a pastel de nata?

I’m back at UACES this week, including our regular L&T workshop, which got a really good turnout for a range of practically-directed panels and workshops. 

As always, one of our concerns in running this event is finding a format and a content that will draw people in, above and beyond the regulars who form the backbone of our work.

This time, that meant inviting applications for active workshops and a roundtable drawing in some different perspectives on engaging learners.

While this was all positively received, my mind already turns to next year’s event, in Lisbon (I know, it is a great venue) and how we can engage people.

Indeed, as we’ve moved into the general conference, I also want to make the most of the time we get to spend together.

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This year’s novelty

Come on, live a little

One of the things I like most about having an interest in learning and teaching is that it never stands still; there’s always another angle to explore.

Moreover, those angles aren’t always ones I know much about, so it’s an opportunity for me to broaden my knowledge and experience in ways that I might not even have thought possible.

For that reason, I often sign up for pilots and trials at work, because maybe it’ll prove useful.

(not always though: I once had an unhappy few weeks with an interactive whiteboard, about which I’ll say no more)

With all this in mind, this year I’m going to be trying out a tool for writing exams on laptops in exams.

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“…were being given silly things to do…”

Plan B

So that was the summer pause, apparently, and now it’s back to the grindstone.

Luckily, one of my very first tasks is to get ready for the annual UACES Teaching & Learning workshop, which we run ahead of the main conference, this year in the fine city of Bath, England.

The event has developed over recent years into a very useful mix of activities and reflection, each time taking a different approach, to keep it fresh for participants and to attract the curious.

However, one element that seems to be a recurrent one is an opening ice-breaker activity. Last year, I found myself scurrying around Krakow to find post-it notes (and then writing a very similar opening to the current post, it seems).

As you’ll note, this year, I’m writing ahead of the activity, mainly because I wanted to reflect a bit on what the function of an ice-breaker is/might be, rather than an actual example.*

Thinking about it abstractly, we’re definitely trying to do one thing, and usually trying to do another too.

Loosening-up

The definite element of an ice-breaker is to reduce inhibitions among participants. Like the eponymous ship, the activity is intended to get us out of ourselves, feel less self-conscious and start to develop a sense of a group, within which exchange is easier.

We do that by distraction, broadly speaking. Give people a task, especially if it’s light-hearted, and they’ll be likely to get into it. I think here it’s partly about diverting attention from “here’s a bunch of people I don’t know” to “here’s a fun thing to do”, which in turn opens up a reason to talk/interact with those people we don’t know.

To flip that around, you can’t just stand at the front of a group and tell them to become less inhibited and more willing to participate. Or rather, you can, but your chances of success are slim.

And we do this dishibiting because we think it aids subsequent debate and work. Individuals are more likely to speak up, connections are more likely to be made and generally more will be got from the session, because there’s more focus. At a mundane level, that might just be because the enjoyment of it all means people are less likely to be distracted by their mobile phones.

Learning stuff

But there’s also a second element in a ice-breaker that is usually found, namely increasing knowledge.

That might be something simple, like learning the names of other people, or something about their work (as in the Krakow exercise).

But it can also be a more abstract point, such as the nature of human interactions (as in the Hobbes game), or scholastic skills (as here). Clearly, that insight can be both mixed with the more prosaic stuff, and also connected to the wider objectives of the session.

In this, we’re doing something very close to a simulation game: getting participants to have a visceral experience that feeds into their emergent understanding of a situation.

Together

Thinking about ice-breakers in such a fashion can be helpful, not least in identifying what you what to achieve from it.

In practical terms, you’re always going for the dishibition, so you need to be asking what else you want/need to achieve while you’re doing it.

In my case, given the rest of the programme for the workshop (a variety of active sessions), and the 15 minute slot I’ve got, I need to keep things simple and focused on ‘getting to know you’-type things.

Which means my big pile of blindfolds probably has to wait for another occasion.

* No, I still to sort out what’s happening in Bath. Obviously.

Step outside of yourself

Life’s a… re-posted picture of a beach

In one of the crueller ironies of life, I’ve been working through a half-dozen doctoral theses – either as supervisor or examiner – in recent weeks, just as the weather has been so lovely as to make any work a distraction.

But, professional that I am, I have managed it, just in time for my summer leave, during which I intend – successfully, I warrant – to do absolutely nothing that doesn’t involve relaxing and/or eating.

Consuming such a volume of words, and commenting thereon, has been instructive for me, as well as for the authors (I hope).

In particular, it’s underlined a couple of key messages that apply as much to teaching as they do to research. Continue reading

Nobody knows anything

Yesterday was a tricky one on both sides of the Atlantic for political scientists. Between Trump’s press conference and the British government’s ever more erratic behaviour on Brexit, it felt at points like a film about politics, rather than a real-life one.

It’s not to say that these things are intrinsically wrong or bad*, but that they are exceptionally hard to understand. My own cri de coeur about not knowing any more got more traffic than anything I’ve posted for a very long time, suggesting I’m not alone.

And I’m not, which is rather the point.

One of the more prominent challenges for those who teach is that you’re expected to know everything, either by your students or by yourself.

Think to when you began teaching and how you worried about needing to cover all the bases and know all the answers. “What if they ask me a question I don’t know?” is the cry we’ve all made (except those of us with delusions of adequacy).

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Keeping it fresh V: summertime madness

It’s that period in the year where we’re all doing all those things we said we’d do now, because we didn’t have time then.

Supposedly.

Personally, thanks to the continued pyschodrama of British politics, I’m still knee-deep in commitments to lots of people, with only scant sight of any end. Indeed, I’m increasingly of the opinion that ‘summers’ (in the sense of a break) don’t really exist.

Fortunately, my habit and commitment to write a weekly post here reminds me that this project has fallen off the wagon somewhat. By the end of February I had a good sense of what I was going to do with my revised module on negotiation, so I parked it.

And now it’s July and I need to get the handbrake off once more.

Those with better memories will recall that I plan to create a series of interlocking activities that shape subsequent work and allow for a mix of exploring different issues, while also deepening their understanding of the interlinkages.

The main issue has been to find a topic that can link these all together.

While the shores of IR promise the potential of conflict and peril, I am concerned that it doesn’t let me drop down to more mundane and domestic issues.

Likewise, modelling an environment in politics risks having to make use of structural divisions on ideological lines that might be difficult to sustain over a semester.

If the framework is to work, then it needs to give enough space to allow for a range of activities, while also generating meaningful consequences to handle down the line.

With this in mind, I’m inclining to make the group into some fictional advisory committee to a government, which can then pronounce on assorted issues, sometimes representing different interests, sometimes acting on personal conscience.

An interesting opener to this – and the idea that came to mind this morning – is that this structure lends itself to a nice ice-breaker, where students can get to know each other and begin to assess their capacities.

Historically, I’ve used Victor’s Hobbes card game for this, mainly to highlight that people are shits (not Victor, obvs) and that since negotiation requires you to deal with people, you need to work on how you handle them.

However, what I have in my mind’s eye is something that speaks more to building some trust and confidence in each other, given that they will be having to have a functional relationship over 11 weeks.

Of course, knowing what you’re aiming for isn’t the same as actually having it mapped out, but it’s an important start: as and when I find myself trying to escape the turmoil of Brexit, I can at least have a clear point to work from.

Unless the football thing intervenes.

What’s the point?

Hirschman is for life, not just organisational theory day

It’s been open day season here: putting on talks and activities to entice students to join our fine institution (helped by the excellent weather).

One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the extent to which we sell the study of Politics as intrinsically valuable, as against as a pathway to other things.

It’s long been a tension that has interested me, as my teaching on negotiation clearly sits across the divide. As I tell our potential applicants, I get lots of feedback from alumni telling me how useful it was to develop their negotiation skills for when they bought a house, set up a business or – in one memorable exchange – had to sack someone.

All important life events, but not Politics in the narrow sense. Continue reading