What’s the point of student engagement anyway?

So, we’re doing a thing in our Department.

FFS Google, with your heteronormativity…

Despite doing lots of L&T innovation, we’re making a point of going to our university-organised training sessions, to scope and refresh our practice. Just because we think we’re doing good things, doesn’t mean we aren’t potentially missing stuff.

So last week I went with my colleague to a workshop on student engagement.

It was really good to spend time devoted to this, because it’s one of those topics that floats in the background, but often fails to get enough attention in of itself.

Much of the session was ‘how to get and keep students engaged in a classroom’ [spoiler: keep things active and reinforce positive behaviour], but for me the best bit was considering the question of what ‘engagement’ might actually be.

This might seem odd, since it’s almost axiomatically good to have student engagement, so why even bother going there?

But with even a moments’ thought (and we gave noticeably more than that), it’s really difficult to pin down what it might involve.

Sure, part of it is ‘are they paying attention’, but it’s also about their attitude towards learning, their emotions. We want them to be participating, but also to be actually really into it.

Which is odd.

Because once you start to unpack engagement, you have to also start unpacking the paths of that engagement. And those paths don’t have to run through your classroom or your activities.

I’m sure you, like I do, examples of students who really never turned up, or contributed, but totally aced their exams. Or students who were passionate about the subject, but never could formalise that into performances in assessment.

Yes, we offer students a framework for learning to help them make the most of their potential and their motivation, but it’s a framework that has a pretty reductive palate of outcomes, based around formal assessment. You might be able to write them a glowing reference, but it’s not quite the same (nor does it carry the same weight) as an A in their assessment.

Education systems are simultaneously liberating and constraining.

I can easily say that I learnt much more from the non-assessed aspects of my time in education than from the stuff I revised and sat exam for. Things about myself, and about people, and about the work (about teaching even) that just weren’t on the syllabus (and never will be).

And that’s fine.

The most rewarding experiences I have had as an instructor/teacher/facilitator have come from seeing individuals discover themselves and their world, from taking their steps into their futures, almost totally disconnected from how they did in tests.

Perhaps that’s why I love active learning; for its potential to open up new paths for individuals to act, without prejudice about what’s right or wrong.

That’s not an abrogation of responsibility, but rather a reconfiguration of our role relative to our students. We have many ways to become ourselves, so surely we have to respect that diversity and to acknowledge that what works, works.

None of this is to say that I don’t love it when I see an entire class of super-focused students, lasered-in on the task. But it’s also to recognise that this is rare and that the value of education lies as least as much in what students construct as in what we build for them.

So next time you through in the line about the centrality of student engagement, maybe consider what that actually means.

Brain meet meme

So we did the meme thing in class.

As I discussed last week, I wanted to check whether it did really bring anything to the discussion, given my doubts.

And it did. Just not what I thought it would.

I’d asked students in the lecture to drop memes into the collaborative document, on the theme of “the EU as it was, the EU as it is.” (not the most meme-y title, but whatever).

From what we got, I can tell you a number of things.

Firstly, most students clearly just googled “EU meme” to see what they could find, rather than making their own memes. Perhaps that’s a refinement to consider, using something like this.

Secondly, most of my students aren’t that well disposed to the EU.

Thirdly, the EU isn’t the subject of much meme-making.

And fourthly, most of those memes are about the EU banning memes.

[sic]

We talked about this last point the most, mainly because there was a long struggle on their part to consider the most logical reason for why, despite the EU banning memes, we were a) able to find lots of memes, and b) I was allowed to run a session in class about memes.

If you’ve not worked it out, I’ll leave it to you to go and check (hint: look for news sources that talk about what happened, rather than what might happen).

Any way, it became a good opportunity to talk about being a rigorous researcher and sense-checking what you find. That’s not a point just about the EU, but about everything you study.

The jury is still out on using memes like this, but it was good to have this discussion. My concern is whether we might have it again.

Memes or graphics?

My first-year introduction to the EU class continues to test my creativity.

Last week’s lecture didn’t see a pick-up in attendance – but also didn’t drop further – so I’m working through my plans to entice students in by the quality of what happens in the classroom.

As I discussed before, I’m trying to make more of the flipped format by getting students to create collaborative work on the go, as I discussed in my post.

The first attempt went alright, but pointed up some issues:

Firstly, it’s important to be very clear about what you want students to do. I under-specified a bit with my first title, and got more of a range of responses than I’d thought I would, but also a fair few that missed what I was looking for. So that’s on me, to think more carefully about how a title might be read by students.

Secondly, Google Docs might be simple to set up, but they’re not great for graphic content: Students ended up uploading photos and JPGs into the document which is OK, but not super easy. My hunt for a better option continues.

Thirdly, I’d asked for a graphic representation of the factors important in explaining European integration. I got some of those, but I also got a bunch of memes (all very negatively EU, but that’s another post) too.

I did ask at the end whether they’d rather meme than create graphics: they said yes.

I’m torn on this one, since memes might well be more engaging (see my former colleague Jack’s work on this), but I’m not sure I can see how it’ll allow them to pull together the various elements that I would like them to cover.

But let’s see. Maybe I try it one week and see if it produces useful outputs. If you’ve experience of this, I’d love to hear it.

Red flag

The first week of any course/module matters. It’s your first and best chance to make a good impression on your students, to engage them with what is to come.

So you might imagine that I was a bit concerned to find that less than half my students turned up for the lecture last week.

And you’d be right.

Yes, 0900 on a Friday is a shitty timeslot, especially if you’re the kind of student whose weekend starts on Thursday evening (as I seem to recall mine did), but that’s hardly enough to explain it.

Looking at the VLE, a lot of students still haven’t visited the module pages, so it also can’t be that they saw we were flipping and decided lectures were dispensable (see last week’s post on this).

Oddly, my seminar tutor tells me turnout was not bad through the rest of the day for the seminars.

My concern is that having started off on a not-turning-up foot, that will only continue and get worse, even with all the great stuff that’s going on in those sessions.

This isn’t so much narcissism as it is anxiety that if most students miss the sessions where we explain how the online assessment tool works, then we’ll have a bit of a car crash in a month’s time when they have to use, um, the online assessment tool.

Nil desperandum.

Usually, my hope is that this is where one of you comes up with a good idea, but in the meantime, I’ve got a couple of strategies to try out.

Firstly, I’n going to be making more of the lectures to demonstrate to those present their value, in the hope of them spreading the word. Part of that will be thinking about how only those that attend can get easy access to the graphics we’re building together (see last week’s post again).

Secondly, I’ll be upping my work in messaging to everyone on the module why the lecture is useful to them, via emails and the VLE. I’ll also be talking with my seminar tutor about how we can make a stronger link of substantive content between lecture and seminar.

I travel hopefully, but also realistically: to have missed out on being able to hook people in week 1 is a big challenge, but let’s see what we can do with it all.

Curriculum design in European Studies, International Relations and Political Science

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans & Afke Groen, Maastricht University.

We are going to be honest with you from the outset: this blog is not concerned with our teaching experience, but rather with an ongoing research project that we are working on with our colleague Johan Adriaensen and our student assistant Caterina Pozzi (both also Maastricht University). And it gets worse: this is a blog that ends with a cry for help.

We are working on a research project studying undergraduate curriculum design in European Studies, International Relations and Political Science. Surprisingly, there is relatively little research on actual curriculum design within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, in particular when it comes to such broad fields.

Sure, there has been a debate about what curriculums in these fields should look like. Some of our colleagues have, for instance, asked whether there is, or should be, such a thing as a core curriculum in European Studies, while others have looked at interdisciplinarity in the field of Politics. Similarly, at the policy level there have been some attempts to flesh out benchmarks and standards in European Studies, and International Relations and Politics.

But what is missing is a thorough attempt to build a database of programmes in European Studies, International Relations and Politics, and to compare the characteristics of these programmes.

This is where our ongoing research project comes in. The project builds on previous work by Johan and us, published in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies and European Political Science (in production). Both articles concern the training and monitoring of generic skills in active learning environments. Our new project takes a broader perspective on skills and methods in curriculum design. We conduct a meta-study of undergraduate programmes offered by the member institutions of APSA, ECPR and UACES. We particularly explore three key themes: (1) the teaching of skills, practical experience and employability; (2) the degree of interdisciplinarity; and (3) the flexibility and coherence of the programme.

All in all, we hope to provide (1) a unique and comprehensive database of how curricula are organised in practice. On this basis, (2) we will distinguish various types of curriculums and evaluate their advantages and disadvantages. Our final objective is to (3) formulate best practices for university teachers and programme developers. As such, the database also promises to be a useful resource for university policies, in particular in light of challenges such as the constantly changing objects of study in European Studies, International Relations and Politics and an increasingly diverse and international student body.

Although we are still in the phase of gathering data, we can already share a couple of interesting observations with you. For one, while some universities seem to think that programmes in European Studies, Politics and International Relations are no longer really necessary, it is good to see that this has certainly not meant that future students cannot choose from a wide array of such programmes.

Indeed, the curriculums that we have coded so far look quite different. For instance, our own BA in European Studies seems to pay much more specific attention to methods and skills development through separate courses (and many of them). Another striking difference between programmes, is the extent of choice offered to students; while some programmes consist of large, compulsory courses mostly, others include a wide array of electives or ‘tracks’ from diverse fields of studies (sometimes with over 100 or even 200 optional courses!).

The latter is also one of our main challenges: it is not always clear what exactly constitutes a programme’s curriculum. Often, the respective websites are not very clear – generally university websites are rather dense – and it is impossible to find core programme documents that might help us here. This is particularly the case for Eastern European and US programmes, which often revolve around a major/minor set-up.

Hence, we need your help! If you are based at a university and/or are teaching in a programme that is a member of APSA, ECPR and UACES, your input would be very welcome. If there is any documentation that you think might help us code Eastern European and US programmes, we would be very grateful if you could send it to patrick.bijsmans@maastrichtuniversity.nl.

We do offer something in return. First, we will keep you posted through Twitter and blogs. Second, we hope to organise panels and workshops on curriculum design at conferences, such as during this year’s European Teaching & Learning Conference in Amsterdam. If you would like to contribute to such get-togethers, do let us know. Finally, our aim is to eventually provide colleagues with access to our database, starting with those of you who help us move the project forward!

Trying to make more of our time together

For reasons now lost in the minutes of a senior suite meeting, it’s the first week of our second semester here. On the plus side, the weekend’s storm didn’t do any damage; on the minus, it’s been nearly two months since our students last sat in class.

Bold

Second semester means it’s also time for my first-year UG module on European integration. You might recall that last year I flipped it all around.

One of the big issues with that format was that very few students ended up coming to class. A large part of that seemed to be that they felt they were getting enough information from the video lecture, not least as I was using the lecture slot to deal with Q&A [not much Q, a lot of ex-temporising A].

With that in mind, I’m going to try a slightly different approach this time round.

I’ll still be leaving space for Q&A in the lecture, but most of the session will be filled with getting the students to draw assorted visual representations of elements of the European Union.

Thus, one week I might ask them to produce a diagram of the EU, or the factors that need to be considered when analysing it.

Since I’ve got 120 bodies in the class, my idea is to have a Google Doc they can access and then upload their picture (either by drawing directly on it, or by adding a photo of something they’ve done by hand). That way, I’ll get their work real-time and can display it back to them for discussion and further refinement.

At the end of the lecture, I plan to go away and produce something to summarise their contributions: maybe with a little commentary too.

Doing this will, I hope, generate more interest than simply waiting for someone to ask a question, and produce material that cuts across the rest of the provision, so they see value in contributing.

The danger is, of course, that if I’m summarising afterwards, then students might not see so much point in attending the lecture session itself, since they’ll still get access to it all. But I’ll cross that bridge as and when we get to it.

In the meantime, it’s off to the QR code generator…

Habit-forming

At least it’s not filthy

As APSA TLC heaves into sight once more, I’m reminded that it was the last time it rolled into Albuquerque that the idea for this blog was formed. Possibly over the consumption of various items of local cuisine.

I can’t attend in person this year, due to the weight of obligations back here, but it’s still a good moment to reflect on the nine years (!) that have followed.

In particular, I’m struck by the way in which I’ve formed a habit around posting over the years. And it’s something that I’ve been asked about several times recently.

As I’ve possibly related beforehand, we started off with a weekly rota, since we recognised that content is king. I got Tuesdays, and I did it for a couple of months, very assiduously, as did we all.

Then I went on holiday – it’s a European thing – and didn’t have posts lined up. This was commented on, and I was sufficiently peeved to be called out on it that I made sure I posted every single week for the next couple of years (including other periods of leave (having discovered the ‘delay posting’ option)).

In retrospect, that was possibly the best nudge I could have got to stick with this.

I’m a bit more sensible about it all now, taking breaks when I’m away, but this is now one of the bedrocks of my diary, along with my Thursday morning slot for my other blog. And my Monday morning reminder to do a vlog, and my Friday morning note about adding stuff to ResearchFish (if you don’t know, don’t ask).

As my resident psychologist tells me, it takes a long time for habits to form and stick and that’s certainly been true here.

With time, it’s gotten easier to write a blog post, in terms of just getting going and pulling it together quickly, even as it’s gotten hard to find a new thing to say. Indeed, I have a vague sense that I’ve written something like this before at some point.

Practically speaking, there is a pattern that seems to emerge. At first, it’s new and fun and you have things you know you want to do or say, so it’s not a problem. But then there’s the sticky patch, where you’ve satisfied your initial curiousity and where the harder issues creep in: the most obvious is that the new thing takes time away from other things.

It’s only by working through that patch that one gets to the habit stage: where you find a new balance and the more structural benefit of what you do.

And this isn’t just about blogging, but the sum of your practice. I’ve been the same with trying new teaching methods or with new elements in my research.

So as much I always encourage people to try new things, I’d also encourage you to stick with them beyond that first rush.

If I’d have given up on this blog, then I’d probably not have gotten into half the other stuff I’ve done since and I’d have missed out on a bunch of great experiences.

You’ve gotta start somewhere and you’ve gotta start sometime, so why not now?

Seen Exams

Everyone’s working with seen papers…

This past semester I got to try out using a seen exam for the first time.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, you publish the exam paper some time ahead of the sitting date (a week, in this case), so students can prepare their responses, which they then write under controlled exam controls (without notes or materials to hand).

The logic of this is that it provides a more meaningful test of students’ abilities, since they since have to revise, plan and produce, but without the added peril of “I can’t find a question I can do” or “I answered the question wrong”.

Having inherited the format from a colleague, I was keen to try it out, especially since last year’s use of an open-book, online exam had worked very well. Indeed, this year’s module was with the same students.

The practicalities are very simple indeed: an email to the class and a posting on the VLE at the appropriate time, plus being available through the week to answer any queries or clarifications.

The day before the exam I emailed everyone again, just to run through any points that had come up and to remind them again that the format meant some things were different from a ‘normal’ exam.

Firstly, my expectations on factual accuracy would be higher, since they’d have had time to prepare.

Secondly, I’d like to see more references to the literature: not direct quotes, but certainly mention of relevant authors.

And most importantly, I’d expect clear organisation and argument in each of their answers.

So?

Having now finished my marking, I’m able to say a bit about how this all played out.

As with the other format, this approach seems to be good for pulling up the tail of students who might otherwise have found things difficult: even the worse-performing student still produced relevant answers with some detail.

Likewise, the almost total absence of factual errors and of very short answers was a pleasant development, suggesting everyone had actually done work for the exam.

So the knowledge front seems to be positive.

Having seen a few students straight after the exam, I’m not sure that they found it any less stressful though: yes, they knew what the questions would be, but they also noted that they were also conscious I would be marked in line with that, so maybe their extra work wouldn’t count for anything.

While we’ve yet to complete all the feedback cycle, I think that anxiety is understandable, but hasn’t played out. Instead, the performance of the class has been strengthened and their capacity in the subject will be that bit more for future modules they take.

In sum, this exam has further convinced me that closed-book, unseen exams aren’t that useful, either in measuring knowledge or managing student stress: unless I have to use them in future, I’m not going to be.

Stress and active learning

One for the EU specialists…

This weekend I caught up with an old friend. He works for a software company, overseeing the sales team.

Recently, he’s been doing some work with occupational psychologists, to get a better handle on the team’s stress levels. He told me about all this over a cuppa, including the SCARF model, which I’d not heard of.

SCARF is a diagnostic framework for identifying sources of stress, where individuals encounter challenges to their Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (being part of the group) and Fairness.

There’s a useful summary (and diagram) here.

Listening to my friend, telling me how this works for his team (status is the big thing, apparently), I was struck by how this works in the educational context.

For example, one of the reasons why assessment is so stressful is that it hits most of these areas: students might feel success brings status with teaching staff, it’s relatively uncertain, it’s out of their control, and it’s not necessarily a fair way to judge achievement. The gain of a shared experience with other students pales next to all this.

Clearly, there are general lessons about student welfare to be picked up from this model, but it’s also useful to consider how it relates to active learning.

In traditional, transmission-centred approaches, life might appear to be relatively stress-free: most of the time you sit then, soaking up material, with the occasional bouts of panic at assessment time.

By contrast, active learning might be more challenging.

The biggest issue is likely to be the increased requirement for autonomy: active learning requires participation and the production of contributions on a rolling basis. This front-loads requirements on students, at a point where they might feel they know relatively little (raising issues of status (you want to look good in front of friends) and relatedness (you don’t want to get marginalised in the group if you fail)).

Similarly, the relative absence of the instructor means students have to self-regulate more than usual, so fairness might become more of a factor than in a situation where fairness gets imposed from above.

And it’s also worth highlighting that the model points to active learning being more stressful for teaching staff too, with lower status, higher uncertainty and a big hit to autonomy: no longer is everyone doing just what you want of them.

Despite this, I think that active learning’s benefits outweigh these costs.

Firstly, precisely because students are brought actively into the process from the start, they have much more time to prepare themselves for any summative assessment, both in terms of having to consider materials and of practising producing ideas. The stress is spread out, rather than concentrated at the back end.

But equally, if stress is managed properly, it also comes with raised engagement. If we are making our active learning spaces safe (as we always should be), then we are offering students both the opportunity and the tools to manage stress better, which not only points them to thinking more about the matter in hand, but also how to deal with other sources of stress in their life.

We’re helping our students to learn about the world and how to engage with it. That means skills matter at least as much as substantive knowledge. And handling stress is one of those skills. Yes, active learning is more stressful for all involved, but the benefits that flow from that are ones that might serve us all well.

…like riding a bike

It is the most basic of tropes about learning. It’s tricky to start with, but once you’ve learnt to ride a bike, you never forget.

Writing as someone who’s just started their fifth calendar decade of bicycle riding for pleasure, as someone who’s ridden up (and down) mountains, commuted by bike for years in various urban areas, and who’s taught his kids to ride, I’d just like to challenge this.

The reason?

This.

That’s right: I’ve bought a tandem for a very reasonable sum on EBay.

It’s a bike – it’s got only the two wheels – and it works in just the same way as all of the other bikes I’ve ever owned or ridden.

But it’s also very different. I now have to think about the other person on the machine and what they’re doing and how I will need to communicate what I’m doing.

And even getting past that, how I ride will have to change very markedly too: the brakes – like the bike – are relics of a past age, so assumptions of stopping distances will have to alter radically. As will my memory of indexed gear-shifting at my fingertips.

None of this is going to be helped by the fact that I’m going to keep on riding my other (‘normal’) bikes, so the potential for immersing myself into this is constrained, even if I can rustle up a family member to share this experience with me.

In short, I appear to have acquired a large metaphor for the learning process.

Right now, I’ve had this metaphor for a grand total of two days and I’ve got as far as the end of the road with it, so I’m still at the stage of not even being particular sure what it is that I will need to learn.

I’m especially worried about doing that learning with a loved one right there, learning too: the various scars on my body are testament to my periodic efforts to understand the limits of what I can do on a bike.

Much as could go back to that other great saying about bikes – when you fall off, you’ve just got to jump back on – the sense of responsibility is somewhat constraining. Indeed, much more so than I feel in a classroom when trying something new: at least there the failures don’t result in road rash or broken bones (unless something’s gone extremely wrong).

But I can also tell you that our short trip down the road also reduced us both to tears of laughter, so I already know that this can be an enjoyable process: indeed, that’s why I got the thing in the first place.

So if you find I’ve stopped posting here, then maybe it’s because I’m off having an adventure on a tandem with a loved one. Rather than because we’ve had a crash.