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.

Left-field lessons

The other week, I sat in on a session run by another part of the university for people to show their teaching practice.

One of the people presenting kick-started their slot by asking everyone to write down their definition of ‘education’ on a post-it, which they then used to elaborate on some key themes.

Of course, one person wrote down something that bore little relation to what everyone else had done.

Oops.

The presenter choose not to get into whether education really is a system of indoctrination, and the person who wrote it down didn’t press them on it, but it did raise an more general question.

How do you cope with stuff coming in from left field?

I’m guessing you’ve had this too: running a session, then someone either saying something so far from the mark that you worry they’ve totally misconstrued things, or offering up a very radical take.

In both cases, you really need to explore what’s happening, either to offer a corrective or to embrace the new breadth that opens up.

This has really been brought home to me this semester by the new course I’ve been teaching, which involves the use of a lot of critical theory to understand European integration.

It’s a course I inherited from a colleague, who was kind enough to let me use her materials, which I largely retained, because I wanted to challenge myself.

That’s been a really positive experience, both because I’ve had to reconsider the ways of talking about the material and because I’ve had to learn about using some new methods, so I can teach about using those new methods.

Fortunately, the use of critical approaches does necessarily invite challenging of ideas and approaches, so the space was very conducive to working with the broad range of ideas present, but it’s something we have to work on, whatever we’re doing.

Personally, I see such moments as opportunities to get students to articulate their thinking and to connect that to what else is happening in the room, which ultimately serves everyone’s learning: if nothing else, if one person is struggling to make sense of a point, then others will most likely be too.

But back to that teaching session.

You’d all recognise that panicked expression as the presenter read out the helpful/unhelpful contribution, and the rapid adjustment of language to note that almost everyone in the room has identified some key themes.

In that case, going off into the outlier wouldn’t have worked in hitting the learning objectives, but often it will, because it is a moment either to bring the confused into the fold, or to bring new ideas to the group.

Both of those are Good Things to do, so do make the most of them.

And think about who you invite to your teaching sessions.

Petty Officer Usherwood?

It’s nearly Christmas, if anyone’s short of ideas

Yesterday I had about a third of my students turn up for class. Possibly that was related to the deadline for an essay due for me later that day – certainly the number who turned up was about the same as the number who’d already submitted the work.

Since I’ve known that this was going to be an awkward timing since the start of semester, back in early October, I’d left some of the session open, so I could be flexible about what to do, including not asking for any specific prep beyond the general reading.

In the event, I spent a block of the class talking about assessment. Unsurprisingly, since they’d already submitted, none of the students who turned up wanted to talk about the essay, but they did want to talk about the exam, which’ll be after the Christmas break.

So we discussed how that would work (we’re doing a seen-paper format, so they get it a week beforehand) and what I was looking for.

So what’s the problem?

Well, the people who turned up yesterday are the ones who most likely didn’t need the discussion, either because they’d have worked out the salient points already, or because they’d have asked. Indeed, the student who asked about the exam some weeks ago was there.

The issue is for those who didn’t turn up, the ones still working on their essay a couple of hours ahead of the deadline, the ones will the poor attendance throughout the semester.

This is a classic of the Matthew Principle: those that have, get more. And it’s not really helped by me being a bit petty-minded.

I could have waited until next week’s final class to discuss the exam – and probably someone who wasn’t there yesterday will ask about it – but I have also spent two months trying to reinforce the message that the rational choice for a student who’s finding it hard going is to come to class, because that’s the best place to get the essentials together, and to get questions answered.

Partly, this is about incentives. For my other class, on negotiation, I have great attendance, mainly because the classwork is very active and because the assessment is about what you’ve done in class. In this case, the work is more mixed and it’s not directly linked.

Maybe I need to be thinking about whether I can change that, in a way that works for the subject matter.

But maybe I also need to think more about how much this is a case of taking horses to water: where do me responsibilities lie and where do they end?

Maybe one for class discussion next week.

Learning in the army

This guest post comes from Lt Chad Barrigan, Learning Development Officer in the Army’s Educational and Training Services.

I’m an Education Officer in the Army. Like every teacher, we are faced with the eternal question about what our role is. Are we there to be a font of and dispenser of knowledge or are we there to exploit the knowledge of the students in the room? I find myself firmly in the latter camp and despair at the idea of teaching classes based off PowerPoint and research tasks. The problem we face is how do we get the same base level of knowledge across the class to actually be able to do a good exploitation activity?

I think I may have found a way to do this and it is a combination of using learning technology, scenario-based learning, motion graphic design, Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch and Star Trek in an exercise called Clarke’s Crisis (solely named so as to wind up a colleague.)

Continue reading

Skinning your (teaching) cat

No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog

The other week I got to be interviewed by our university’s Department of Higher Education, for their new podcast series.

We talked about how my practice has developed and what advice I could pass on to others, which mainly fell into the category of ‘learning to let go’.

Mostly, though, it reminded me that I like teaching and that’s the single most important thing, just as it is for any part of your working life.

I like walking into the classroom and discovering what’s happening with my students, building knowledge and understanding (theirs and mine) together.

I’m guessing you feel something similar too – otherwise you’d not be reading this blog – but you’ll know someone who doesn’t really feel that.

The trite answer would be to say that maybe those people shouldn’t be teaching, but we know that’s not often an option.

So instead, I’d remind them that ‘teaching’ covers a lot of different things: it’s no more meaningful than ‘research’ in terms of specifying what to do.

So experiment: try something else out.

Think about the things you really enjoy doing and try doing those. If that’s research, then make your students into researchers. If it’s engagement with practitioners, get them to develop those skills. If it’s being in the media, interview them.

It’s easy to be lazy about teaching, to reproduce the things you got as a students, to reuse the other guy’s notes.

So give it a whirl and maybe you’ll see why people like me like teaching so much.

Trying to up my game

At the end of last month, I came to the end of my term with UK in a Changing Europe. The programme, which aims to bring the fruits of social science research on UK-EU relations to a public audience, was a great occasion for me to bring insights from my pedagogic work to public and political communication.

Part of that was thinking about different ways to package data and information.

Obviously (since you’re reading this) there’s the blogging, but also Twitter, podcasting, vlogs and graphics. Plus all manner of face-to-face events and formats.

Now that I’ve stopped with quite such a full-on public engagement role, I want to try and bring some more of that experience back into the classroom.

My first port of call has been the graphics, because they remain one of the less-explored avenues to date.

When I started out, shortly after the 2016 referendum, I haven’t really got the hang of it [shock]: I think this is one of my very first efforts:

Click through and you’ll see lots and lots of words and not a huge amount of structure: I’m trying to cover all the detail here, but of only some elements.

However, I also notice that the very next day, I also produced something with lots of empty spaces:

Simple, yes, but not very helpful beyond some groupings.

Since then I’ve produced dozens of the things, with not much more to go on than informal feedback and personal reflection: I’d suggest that this might not be the best way to go about it. Taking a course/workshop would have saved a lot of time all round.

For me, the first big thing was thinking about how to move away from what are essentially lists (like the two above), to a format that makes real use of the visual component to relate elements to each other.

The second was about working more to produce content that met the needs of the people using this: I’ve pitched different graphics to those without any substantial knowledge and to those working closely with the material.

That’s all been well and good and I’ve had a handful of graphics get really big audiences, mainly by virtue of trying to break down somewhat complicated things into simpler summaries (e.g. here and here). Getting retweeted by key influencers also matters, so do think about tagging people in too.

But my changing status has also been an opportunity to revisit what I do, including the template, which was essentially a expedient let’s-use-the-university’s-poster-template choice back in 2016.

What’s new?

The past couple of Mondays, I’ve been posting my new efforts. Here’s the first one:

As you see, it’s not massively different: a simpler title banner, clearer details on dates, versions and sharing rights, plus my Twitter handle and a link to a PDF version (i.e. all the stuff I should always have had in).

The colour was horrible and won’t be used again, but the format does highlight my efforts to try and take the reader through the subject matter.

And as for sticking with PowerPoint? Well, I know how to use it, even if it’s not the most elegant or high-powered.

Next steps

But this new formatting isn’t the core of what I want to do: I’m going to bring this into the classroom.

As you’ll recall, I flipped my Intro to the EU class last year, with somewhat mixed results. A big part of the issues was students not seeing what the point of the contact time previously used for lecturing was.

Enter graphics.

I’m planning to use that lecture time briefly for any Q&A on the flipped lecture (as before), but much more for getting the group to generate graphics on a key question.

Given there’s about 120 of them, that’ll need some snow-balling of groups and for me to investigate some software for sharing graphical content, but I think it’ll be good for getting more active and reflective skills developed by students.

We’re still at early days on this, but I’ll report as it evolves.

Triggering debate

One of the persistent problems of teaching politics is that it’s not a steady target: things keep happening.

Niche (and better than a photo of a bus)

There has been much discussion of this, both generally and on this blog, but it’s something that come back into my consideration of late as I think about how I’m teaching.

In the past weeks, I have several classes that have started from a specific trigger. That’s either been a news event, or some material that I’ve come across that prompts a question (and a discussion).

Last week, my students sourcing some campaigning materials from the 2016 referendum and then used them in class to consider what that told them about framing and rhetoric more generally.

Tomorrow, I’m running a public event where people can ask any question about Brexit of me and my colleagues: there we’ll find ourselves very much wherever the audience want.

This connection to events (and to symbols) is important. Firstly, it helps those we’re helping to learn to see how academic study fits with the world in practice. And secondly, it provides a hook on to which we tie ourselves as we explore the issues surrounding it.

In many ways this is analogous to the use of theory to anchor our debate: in that case, we seek out master-ideas that pull together disparate phenomena and – hopefully – make them cohere. In the event-led model, we’re focusing on a phenomenon as a site of interaction for multiple concepts and ideas.

Putting it like that makes me think about why it’s important to have a balance between the two approaches. It’s good to have a rounded set of perspectives on any one event, but equally it’s important to see the structural processes that transcend it.

It might be that in the appreciation of the mixture of specificity and sameness of the world around us that we can gain the fullest understanding.

Something to talk about with class, perhaps.

You don’t wanna do it like that

A quick check through the vellum parchments indicates that I’m now teaching second-year undergraduates for the first time in nearly a decade.

It turns out they are like any other group of students, albeit with the relatively fresh memory of taking my flipped module last semester.

More interestingly, I’m also teaching my first new module in a similarly long time: on European integration and disintegration.

This has posed two immediate challenges.

Firstly, that first year module was an introduction to the European Union, so how do I differentiate the two for my students?

Secondly, deliver the module at all?

My answer has been to work with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got are many of the raw materials that the previous instructor on the module very kindly left me (thank you, Roberta).

Rather than try to build up a module from scratch, I’m going to follow the existing model relatively closely this time around.

Partly that’s expediency but much more it’s because it’s not the way I would have tackled the subject.

If that sounds odd, then consider that much of the module deals with critical perspectives on the subject matter and I want students to see that I am tackling what might be nominally the same material in a fundamentally different way.

Yes, I could have wheeled out a bunch of classes that were essentially ‘more of the same’ as last semester, but I very much don’t want to do that.

Moreover, because it’s not my structure or activities, it forces me to engage more fully with the material, because I have to be confident enough to be able to help students learn it.

Again, the irony is that it’s exactly because I wouldn’t teach this way normally that I want to teach this way: I will learn something from the experience, both substantively and pedagogically.

As I seem to be saying to a lot of people recently, I have no monopoly on good practice, and there is always something new to be learnt.

Quite how that plays out remains to be seen.

Assume absolutely nothing

Perhaps my most reliable observation to date on negotiations and teaching negotiations is that time matters.

Furniture on castors, so it must be active learning…

You give students (or negotiators) a deadline and it has huge impacts on their activity: most obviously, it creates an ever-increasing social pressure to ‘reach an agreement’.*

That’s why it was really good to have spent this past weekend being shown that this is simply an arbitrary way of behaving.

I was running a workshop for faculty at the American University in Cairo, as a guest of their Department of Political Science (and supporting by funding AUC recieved from APSA), talking about active learning and simulations.

A big part of what I tried to do was to let colleagues try out activities first-hand, so they could really see the potential that each of them contained for their own teaching.

One of my activities was a crisis game: it gives not enough time to try and reach a conclusion, with (what I would consider) inevitable effects of the kind outlined above.

This time? Nothing. Zip. Diddly. Squat. Nada.

Every other time, there has been at least one person keeping an eye on the time, either from the off or mid-way through as they recall I’ll not letting them go on forever.

In the AUC case, not only was there was there precisely no acknowledgement of the passing of time, but even when I let them run on for an extra 5 minutes, there was still nothing.

We talked about this.

Largely, we talked about cultural norms. The group was almost entirely Egyptian, but with plenty of experience of living and working in Europe and the US. They suggested that time is treated much more flexibly (certainly, I was not really following my timeline for the rest of the workshop), so its constraining power is that much weaker.

For my part, I noted that failing to decide by a deadline is also a decision, in the sense of creating choices with consequences, so they and their students might reflect on how that plays out.

But still the main takeaway for me was that you really, really can’t assume anything when you teach, because it might turn out your assumption isn’t held by everyone.

To pick another example, what might seem fun or unremarkable to you might feel uncomfortable to others: consider the times you’ve encountered someone with a different of personal space to your own.

Of course, all of this is a valuable learning moment: it invites us to consider what else we might be simply assuming about the world and about others. For political science, that’s a crucial insight because of the profound differences in the fundaments of individuals’ worldviews, which generates political interaction and events.

Something for me to take some time to think about.

* – Yes, I know that’s not what good practice suggests you should do (you should instead by working out whether what you can achieve within a negotiation is better than what you can outside it). But it’s what people very, very often do anyway.

Attend to this…

Like the devoted parent that I am, I went to a parents’ evening at my kids’ school last week, to make sure I was up-to-speed with things.

Among the other messages, there was one that got a lot of air-time. We were told several times that even a short absence could have a detrimental effect on academic performance, so parents and children alike needed to do everything they could to get in.

Apples don’t work either…

Now, it might be helpful to note that one of my children missed about a third of last school year, due to illness, so I have skin in this game.

Plus, during those absences, the school didn’t make a big thing about that detrimental effect, so I went to do some checking.

This goes back to research done for the government in 2015, which was press-released as:

Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter, research reveals today (22 February 2015).

The research, based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, highlights the importance of clamping down on pupil absence to ensure more pupils regularly attend school, and ultimately leave with the qualifications needed to succeed in modern Britain.

It shows 44% of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the 2 years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around 1 week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.

Let’s leave aside the dubious stat in the opening paragraph and consider why a school head reading this might feel that this proved attendance was essential.

Then read this from an education studies Professor, who points out attendance and performance are correlated, but likely not causally, with other factors such as more generic life-chances.

Now, I’m clearly going to want to hear what the academic says, because it gives me more hope that my child’s education won’t suffer too much, but it does raise a bigger issue for us in higher education: do students need to come to class?

My usual response to this has been a utilitarian one: classes are the easiest way to access the material and reflective space needed to do well in assessment, so if you’re lacking motivation, this is the least-cost option.

That’s not really a rally cry though, is it?

Instead we need to think about how we can make contact time a positive and enthusiastic option. If we can get students to want to attend, rather than simply feel they have to, then we’re likely to get better engagement, and thus learning.

At the same time, we need to be making sure that we help with incentives.

So for my course on negotiation, the assessment is reflective writing about the experiences the student has had in class, as contextualised by wider reading: hard (i.e. impossible) to do if you’ve not been in class (although I have had a couple of students try (and fail)).

The challenge comes in having to acknowledge that students have individual ways of learning, which may or may not fit with others’: I’ve seen several excellent pieces of assessment over the years from students who have been very largely absent from class.

That’s fine, although it does raise a question of whether other students suffer from not having that person in the class to stretch or challenge them. But if that’s not a learning objective, then it’s not a learning objective.

At the end of the day, this comes down to making sure we are clear about what we, as educators, want to achieve with our students. Once we have that, then we can think more about structuring incentives to engage, which then in turn might produce environments conducive to attendance.

But to start at the other end of that chain isn’t going to solve things by itself.