Terrific & Tested Tips for First Year Seminar Teaching!

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 Nanette S. Levinson

Alica Retiova’s Chapter  focusing on her innovative teaching experiment in a first year writing intensive Seminar provides plenty of great advice and, most importantly, evidence of what works in her classroom.  A particular bonus is that she does not just assess the innovation itself but she also measures and shares student perceptions of it. 

What Retiova successfully implemented is the use of written peer feedback on student papers designed to improve writing skills in the field and foster critical thinking. She also has the goal of catalyzing students’ confidence in their own independent learning.  

Showing us exactly how to foreshadow implementing the innovation of written peer-to-peer feedback, Retiova competently explains her techniques for developing and accurately assessing student ability to ‘feed forward (suggestions to their peers for future writing) as well as backward (specific feedback on their current position papers). Just as importantly, she measures this over time (three different papers in a three week period) and with the same peer evaluators.  

As a long-time faculty member who herself teaches a first year seminar, I look forward to following Retiova’s tips and the techniques she tried. I also encourage future experiments that recognize the role of culture in attempts to catalyze independent learning. Retiova found that the experiment contributed only “partly” to developing students’ confidence as independent learners. Based upon my research in cross-cultural communication I note that some cultures foster a more hierarchical view of the professor and student, with the professor being viewed as the major source of learning and knowledge. Thus, culture itself may play a role in shaping students’ views and, indeed, abilities to develop confidence in their own role in assessing the work of other students in their classes.

In sum, it is inspiring to read about the teaching & assessment excellence focus of Retiova, an early career faculty member. This bodes well for the next generation of faculty leaders and their focus on fostering student-learning excellence including critical thinking and field specific writing skills.

Health Policy in DevelopmentLand: a practical policy simulation

This guest post comes from Cathy Elliott (UCL). A detailed instruction pack for this activity can be downloaded via the link at the end of the post.

One thing that students in my International Development class find intriguing is the fact that, in a previous career, I used to work for the British Government in Pakistan. Relatedly, one of the things I find difficult is students’ received ideas about what a job in international development like that might be like. When students join the class, some fall unreflexively into a discourse of “us” “helping” “them”. Others, meanwhile, bemoan unequal power relations in the world, imagining that a supplicant Pakistan is being pushed around by overbearing British development workers coercing them with huge amounts of conditional aid on offer.

The first position smacks of White Saviour attitudes and is at best patronising to local people and movements pushing for their visions of change. The second, meanwhile, bears little resemblance to my actual experiences of trying to spend relatively small amounts of money in ways that would be acceptable to the governments of both countries. Students also come to my class in search of solutions to global poverty and one recurrent grumble on my student evaluations is that they do not leave the ten week module knowing how it might be “fixed”. Meanwhile, I want them to question these sorts of technocratic attitudes that encourage them to seek the simplistic solutions.

In response, I have developed a 3 hour simulation game that attempts to give a glimpse of what the world of international development is actually like. It is based on my own experience of living and working in Pakistan for three years, and of course other experiences are available. However, I have found it a useful activity for getting students to understand some key ideas from the literature, including the role of power and networks in policy-making, the importance of powerful discourses including international goal-setting agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and the open-ended, processual and contingent nature of political and policy-making practices.

The premise is quite simple: for the duration of the class we will be in the fictional country of DevelopmentLand, which bears a striking resemblance to Bangladesh in every way unless something different has been specified. The students (usually between 40 and 60) are split into small groups and assigned roles with detailed descriptions. The groups are broadly as follows:

  • The Minister of Health and her advisory team
  • The World Bank
  • The UK Department for International Development
  • A group representing the country’s religious leaders
  • A British consultancy firm
  • An international maternal health NGO
  • A local national maternal health NGO
  • A group representing local traditional birth attendants
  • A local NGO that saves lives by teaching children to swim
  • Local NGOs working on neglected tropical diseases

On their cards, students are given information about where they went to university, who they already know and whether or not they speak English. I try to organise the groups so that friendship groups within the class map onto networks that you might expect. Sometimes I also add a group of journalists.

The aim of the game is straightforward. The groups have to persuade the Minister to work with them to develop health policy in the country. Each group has to prepare a 5 minute presentation to persuade the Minister. However – and this is the really important bit – the Minister can work with more than one group if they are able to work together in a consortium. For groups that decide to work together, they can also pool their time. This means that if two groups work together, for example, they jointly get ten minutes to present. A class-wide “win win” situation is therefore possible: there is no reason in principle that all the teams could not get together and put a proposal to the Minister that she and her team would find acceptable.

This has never actually happened, though, because – in classrooms as in life – the game is rigged. The Minister and international donors are preoccupied by meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. The Minister is also keen to be re-elected and the group of religious leaders may have a role to play in enabling or, crucially, wrecking her chances. Some of the groups find that their very good cause doesn’t fit in well with her aims and it is more challenging for them to find partners to work with. Some groups don’t speak English or have dinner with the right people. And not all the groups know everything about what is going on in the other groups. They can usually find out by asking, gossiping and listening in but it often doesn’t occur to them. Intriguingly, no-one yet has produced a crumpled fiver from their wallet to grease the wheels, although I sometimes spread the mischievous rumour that previous classes have tried this!

The groups spend about 90 minutes making what they will of the situation and then they do their group presentations. Afterwards, they talk among themselves about what they think will happen, while the Minister and team make a decision, which they then present back to the group. The debrief session afterwards helps students make sense of the experience and understand, with guidance from me, how their experience fits into the broader theories we have been studying, as well as my own experiences.

One thing I like about this exercise is that it gives students an insight into ordinary everyday politics, as they are most likely to encounter them. There is no dramatic threat about to overwhelm DevelopmentLand and the always unrealised possibility of a win-win ending means that there are no bitter enmities, only ordinary political rivalries and invisibilities. The international donors are powerful, but so are the government and other local players, and all of them are operating in a landscape of power relations that they did not create and cannot reshape on their own. This gives students an understanding of the crucial point explained by Maureen Mackintosh: “Deciding what should be done is relatively easy. But achieving it requires alliances with others”.[1]  The infuriating nature of having to work with other people in conditions of unequal power is a great learning experience, above all for students of politics. As one student put it: “It helped me understand the process of politics, particularly the necessity of working with people with different agendas”. Another made me happy by remarking: “It was a challenge to cynicism – maybe things can change, but there aren’t easy answers.”

Michael Buroway once wrote that “[o]ne cannot both play the game and at the same time question the rules”.[2] This doesn’t seem right to me; surely it is only through playing the game that we can understand the rules, their consequences and possibilities for effecting change either working within them or by transforming them. Policy simulations like this give us some tools to help students begin to play the game and to ask critical questions about the rules that they probably could not access otherwise.


[1] Mackintosh, M. 1992 ““Creating a Developmental State: Reflections on Policy as Process” in Gregory Albo, David Langille and Leo Panitch (eds) A Different Kind of State? Popular Power and Democratic Administration Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada: p. 44)

[2] Buroway, M. 1979. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism Chicago: University of Chicago Press : p.79

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.

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.

Learning your lines

So I have this colleague, who does a lot of public speaking. And when I say a lot, I mean really a very large pile of it indeed.

I guess this works too

They have to give a TED talk this week and they’re anxious, because they aren’t sure they will remember what it is they have to say.

I found this surprising, given their extensive experience, but also a bit reassuring: it’s easy to assume that just because someone can make it all look rather effortless, that doesn’t mean it is.

At some level, we’re all like a swan: gracefully gliding across the water, while furiously paddling underneath. The only question is the ratio between the two, but it’s always there.

In any case, it got me thinking about how I’d handle the ‘memorise your speech’ thing, not least because I will have given six of the things by the end of next week.

Continue reading

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.