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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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 . . .
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.
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
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
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.
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?