What’s good for me and what’s good for my students?

Evidently, my existential rut continues.

Last week I had three separate occasions teaching on the same subject, plus also getting filmed talking about that subject too.

I’d been a bit anxious about this concatenation of coverage, even if it was on my research specialisation: talk enough about something and eventually you end up saying all you’ve got to say. Or worse, I might forget who’d I’d said what to whom.

In the end, that was not a problem: I’d been good about defining quite clearly what each session was focused on, so the internal consistency was fine, as was relationship between the different bits.

However, each time I was doing something quite different.

There was one conventional lecture, one set of seminars and one Q&A-type session to support a flipped lecture. Plus that filming.

Now I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I gave a good lecture: it flowed, it had coherence, the students were engaged (and occasionally entertained) and I even got a little round of applause at the end.

Lovely.

But it was also the session that I worried gave the least to the audience: they were passive recipients, rather than active learners. In the Q&A and in the seminars, the content was driven by their needs and learning processes: even the filmed lecture is going to become part of a more interactive package.

However, my ability to give lectures seemed to be better than my ability to give the other formats (not that they were bad, to be clear: just not as good as the lecture).

So what to do?

Stick with what I’m best at, or focus on what I understand to be best for my students’ learning?

Of course, I’m setting up a bit of a false choice here: my evaluation of my relative capacities is completely anecdotal, plus I know that the evidence about pedagogic formats isn’t completely nailed down.

However, the point still stands, because our subjective view of such situations shapes how we engage with pedagogy: I think we all know plenty of people who stick with what they know because they’re good at it, or at least better at it than some other approach they’ve not tried before.

The difficulty is separating our anxiety/indifference about new pedagogies from any more objective limitation on our ability to use them. My personal view is that just because I not smashing it in my seminars, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing them: instead, I should be trying to identify and address my weaknesses.

Ways to make a university course more attractive and to improve student 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 Ulrich Hamenstädt

In her chapter, Ludmila Kašpárková discusses several methods to make a relatively unpopular university course more attractive for the students. The chapter presents first the challenge of teaching a course for which the students’ motivation is low. Kašpárková then outlines three changes she made to improve students’ motivation and learning outcomes. Finally, she presents the results of her evaluation on how the new teaching style has helped to improve the course and student learning.

For me, this chapter is a good example on how to deal with a challenge that a university lecturer faces from time to time: taking over a course that is part of the compulsory curriculum, but is unpopular among the students for different reasons. While the content of this course was relatively fixed, the approach to teaching offered many opportunities for improvement. In this sense, this chapter presents three ways to improve learning that can be easily applied to various university courses.

The first approach Kašpárková used was to implement John Bigg’s concept of constructive alignment in the didactic design of the course. To ensure that the students understand the syllabus, the learning objectives and develop ownership of learning she discussed with the students their possible takeaways of the course. This may seem obvious, but since it takes time, it is often neglected or shortened out in practice. The second change of the course was the introduction of new learning activities such as role plays and peer discussions to replace passive learning from lecturing. This was a key element of this innovation, since learning in social sciences is not about imparting knowledge but it implies – above all – enabling the students to develop their skills. Thirdly, the examination at the end of the semester was replaced by continuous assessment to enhance the quality of student learning.

Overall, it is interesting to read how all these changes together influenced students’ learning outcomes. Ludmila Kašpárková’s work presents a valuable approach to transforming and improving a course for students. The series of changes reported in the chapter can also be applied individually to course sessions or teaching situations. 

Getting flipped

So last week was our final teaching week before the Easter break. For reasons we don’t need to go into here, it’s not the end of our teaching block for the semester, so it’s a bit of a breather.

As such, my usual expectation is that class attendance takes a bit of a hit.

However, my lecture of 120 students only saw 15 turn up, which – even by my standards – isn’t good. At all.

Obviously those who came didn’t have the answers for their fellow students’ absence, so I decided to gather some data.

Using a quick SurveyMonkey poll, I offered students a range of options to choose from. As you can see, I got about 40% of the class (including a couple who had come) to respond, so reasonable enough to make some observations.

The first is that timing does matter. My lecture is 1000 on a Thursday, and the night before had been a big sports night, so there was certainly a bunch of students incapacitated by that. Also, a couple of students noted that Thursdays are solid with classes for them, abetted by some deadlines for other modules due at the same time.

However, while those factors explain part of it, I was also rather curious about whether our experiment in flipping plays a role.

My module is a first-year introduction to European integration, and I’ve been trying out a flipped format. This involves a pre-recorded lecture online, with the conventional lecture time being given over to Q&A on the recording and elaboration of key themes: there’s also a seminar session, which runs on more conventional lines.

So far, that Q&A part has not been running as well as I would like: only a small number of students ask questions and there’s evidently a block who haven’t watched the lecture beforehand, so can’t ask.

Part of my concern in trying out flipping was that students might see it as a way to disengage with the face-to-face element of the module. My efforts to tackle this including highlighting that the recording doesn’t have enough in itself to give all the material and framing students need to do well in the module: the Q&A always includes stuff that relates much more directly to the final exam (and I say as much).

Clearly, the survey highlights that this isn’t resonating with the students.

Even if we allow for a degree of “what might look like the answer least likely to cause offence”, there’s a big block covering the lack of utility of the (Q&A) lecture element.

Certainly, I can see that if you’ve not watched the video, then the lecture isn’t that useful, but I’m more concerned about those who feel that the recording suffices.

All of which leaves me in a quandry.

Part of me wants to rework the remaining sessions after Easter to be much more explicit in leaving material out of the online stuff, with the lecture picking it up instead.

But another part of me wants to stick with my approach to date and then we see how it goes with the exam.

Right now, I don’t have the answers to this one. I need to explore some more to see if attendance was similarly down in other modules, to better triangulate what’s happening here.

Your thoughts are welcome.

Unsure about it all?

A very short one today, as I’m struggling with a pile of stuff that I’m not sure I understand.

While it’s great that I get to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise be able to, Brexit has also meant I get asked to explain things that are either at the edge of my knowledge, or which are so novel that no-one’s considered them before.

You might have this in your classroom sometimes – I know I still do – so a couple of thoughts on how I handle it.

Firstly, work from what you know.

Nothing is so out-there that it doesn’t touch on something that’s much more settled, so build your conceptual bridge out from that. It not only gives you something more solid to work with, but often it’s where those involved are working from too.

Secondly, consider the range of options.

Politics is great to study because of its uncertainty, but that usually works within a bounded set of pathways. The more you can work through what that set might include, the better you can evaluate how actors might choose among them.

And thirdly, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.

No-one knows everything and sometimes it’s a matter of either being too early to tell, or too uncertain to guess. Park it, say what would be a marker of things changing in a way that you could tell, so that your audience is left with some tools, even if they don’t get the answer there and then.

Right, back to the world of UK Parliamentary procedure.

More Pre-Post Post-its

A follow-up about asking students why they do what they do . . . For the second stage of this data-gathering exercise, I had students use Post-its to anonymously answer three questions at the beginning of class:

  • How are you feeling right now? (the one-word check-in)
  • Why are you feeling what you’re feeling?
  • Why did you come to class today?

Nineteen out of twenty-three students, or more than eighty percent, reported feeling badly — the same proportion as last time. Of the nineteen, ten referenced being tired while four wrote “stressed.” Only one wrote “hungry.” The overwhelming majority of people in this group attributed their feelings to too little sleep and too much work.

The other four students felt “happy,” “good,” “relaxed,” and “chill.” Three of these students attributed their feelings to having had time to eat, buy coffee, or otherwise get ready before class. One of them mentioned sleeping comfortably, while another wrote “not super-stressed . . . trying to stay calm for the day ahead.”

I sorted answers to the third question into a few different categories, which are shown below, along with their frequencies. A few students’ comments fell into more than one category.

  • I had to; attendance is mandatory: 7
  • Get a good grade: 5
  • I am paying for the course: 3
  • Learn something: 3
  • Participate in discussion: 1
  • Collaborate with teammates on an upcoming assignment: 3
  • Miscellaneous reasons — “My roommate told me I couldn’t skip,” “I was awake so I figured why not,” “Because I didn’t go to the last one,” “I try to go to all of my classes,” “Didn’t want to miss anything,” “To avoid falling behind”: 6

In sum, only seven students, or thirty percent, indicated that they had been intrinsically motivated to attend class that day; i.e., they came to learn or participate in a learning-oriented activity. More than half of the students indicated that they were extrinsically motivated by the fear that their grades would be harmed if they did not attend. What I think is interesting here: I do not penalize students for being absent from class — I regard them as legal adults, free to suffer the natural consequences of their actions. I do not grade on attendance or class participation. Only students’ written work, submitted before class, gets assessed.

More thoughts on this subject in a future post . . .

Pre-Post Post-its

Sometimes the best way to find out why students do what they do is to ask them.

During a recent lunchtime conversation with a colleague, I learned about the “one-word check-in” — asking students to each describe, with a single adjective, how they felt at that moment. I decided to incorporate this into a data collection exercise that I hoped would demonstrate one benefit of taking notes in class — a problem for which I still haven’t figured out a solution.

My hypothesis: students who took notes — a more cognitively-engaging activity than just listening — would be more likely to feel better by the end of class.

I collected data in my course on globalization, which meets twice a week in seventy-five minute sessions from 9:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. The class, when everyone attends, has only twenty-five students, so my results are not statistically significant.

As students were entering the classroom and settling into their chairs, I gave each person three Post-it notes, along with a playing card dealt from a stacked deck (more on this further down). I told everyone to marked their Post-it notes with the suit and number of the playing card each had received. This allowed me to sort the Post-its by individual student afterward. Students should also number each Post-its with a 1, 2, or 3, to simplify keeping them in the correct sequence after class. I didn’t think of this at the time, but luckily I kept each pile of Post-it notes separate after they were collected.

The data:

  • At the beginning of class, students wrote a one-word check-in on Post-it #1.
  • After the discussion of that day’s reading response, students wrote on Post-it #2 answers to “Have I written any notes during today’s class?” and “Why?”
  • Students then clustered into teams to discuss plans for an upcoming project assignment. Note that this introduces a methodological flaw in my research design, but it turned out to be irrelevant.
  • At the end of class, students wrote a one-word check-out on Post-it #3.

A different randomly-selected student collected each set of Post-it notes after students had finished writing on them, which he or she placed face down on a table. The goal here was to make it obvious that I was trying to preserve the anonymity of students’ responses. However, I had dealt cards from a stacked deck (low value cards on the bottom) so that I could identify which responses were from men and which were from women — because I expected that women would be more likely to take notes.

Now for the results. Out of 23 students who were in class that day . . .

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Pinning you down

There’s not much that separates PoliSci academics from others in most aspects of pedagogy, but one that is quite notable is the question of “what’s your politics?”

The reasons for this should be pretty clear, so I’ll not get into that, but instead will offer some thoughts, because we get this kind of thing on our side of the Atlantic too.

As the various respondents to Carolyn’s tweet suggest, the very question speaks to a set of assumptions, which can be usefully exposed and explored.

However, that can be a deflection, rather than an answer, so it still behoves us to consider what answers we can give.

It’s something I’ve had to chew on a lot in recent years, given my work on Brexit: “how did you vote?” is now getting overtaken by “what do you think we should do?”

The fact that I genuinely don’t know what we should do is neither here nor there, because the rest of what I’m offering people is what I claim to be impartial and fair insight into assorted issues, so if I’m seen as speaking for any one party then my whole work is compromised.

This is, of course, the problem we all face: politics gets seen as a clash of interests with no objective truth to be defended, thus meaning we must all be on one side or another.

Without wishing to get lost down an ontological or epistemological hole on this one, I think it’s possible to mark out a more segmented view of politics: we have our own views, but the consequence of those is limited, especially if we are reflective about these.

Thus I can acknowledge how I voted in the referendum, while also stressing that my interest now is in helping others to reach an informed and considered set of decisions about what comes next. It helps that this is my heartfelt belief – process matters much more than outcome to me right now.

But we can also communicate such messages in different ways in our classroom.

Promoting and defending a range of perspectives on contentious issues; fostering a space in which different views can be discussed with respect and tolerance; acknowledging the limits of what evidence (and anecdote, for that matter) can tell us.

These elements often prove to be much more meaningful in conveying the values of academic inquiry and debate and the interplay between facts and opinions than any “what’s your politics?” discussion.

Still doesn’t make it that much easier when you get asked, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Path dependency in class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s play… T&L Bingo!

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

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

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

Problem-Based Learning workshop Bolzano

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

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

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

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

University Teaching Qualification workshop Maastricht

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

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

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

What I learned

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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