Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy?

As my day-job stumbles from one bizarre episode to the next, it’s been great to have the relative stability of my teaching.

Yesterday was our last class of the semester, so we spent a bunch of time on wrapping things up.

In so doing, it occurred to me that I’ve not been particularly systematic about this, so I tried this time to make sure I went around the houses.

First element was to try and draw out the overarching learning outcomes from the module: the stuff that’s been there most of the time, but which hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of any one session.

When we focus on individual sessions, it’s easy to also focus our attention on the specific outcomes, without making the connections up to the higher-level points.

That fed into the two major part, namely the assessment.

In my case, students have a single piece of work to do for assessment, which requires them to integrate their reflection and learning from the whole module, so talking about those kind of things is doubly-useful.

In both cases, I tried to start from students’ questions and concerns: I’ve been touching on key points throughout the module, but I know from long experience that often that’s not enough. Just because you think you’re clear, doesn’t mean you are.

That’s particularly relevant here, as the assessment is a personal reflection, so I want to emphasise that only each student can determine what is central in that, since they known themselves better than I can.

Finally, I encourage students to give feedback.

No session is perfect – or even close – but the more feedback you can get from students, the better. That can be through the formal channels your institution uses, or more informally in class.

I didn’t use it this time, but the ABC system can also work well for generating ideas.

They don’t know it yet, but as I bump into students in the coming period of time, I’ll be asking for their views on how it all went.

Which just leaves the last task: putting my paperwork in order now, so that I have less to scrabble through next autumn. Much as there’s a temptation to just park your stuff on a shelf somewhere and forget it, it’s hugely more efficient and effective to sort it all out now, while it’s still fresh in your mind.

In short, practise what you preach to your students.

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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Getting into blogging

The magic of blogging

Hilariously, on a day when I find myself suddenly confronting my self-imposing deadline for posting here, I find that both time and inspiration are in short supply.

Fortunately, this weekend saw a meeting of the UACES graduate forum, talking about how to get into, and make use of, social media.

Rather than re-hash the various content, I’ll direct you to the #UACESdta hashtag for inputs from various people who know (and me) on things to think about and deal with.

Reassuringly, the main message was a positive one, stressing the value of connecting to new and diverse audiences, generating ideas and debate, and the personal value of writing more regularly.

At the same time, the costs of ‘doing’ social media have to be recognised: I’ve certainly encountered some of those, but I’m going to be seeing if I can get some guest posts together on this.

And as I sign off, from the floor of the train carriage heading into an event, I’ll note that opportunity costs cut both ways.

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.

Enhancing Student Participation


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 Sarah Holz.

As a teacher who aspires to student-centered learning, increasing student class participation and involvement in seminars is a central concern for me. Reading Michal Tkaczyk’s book chapter offered some insightful and thought provoking ideas for me because the chapter addresses the question in how far enhanced student participation, interest in the subject matter, and the acquisition of key concepts are linked.

In his chapter, which is part of the newly released online book Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe edited by Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon, Michal Tkaczyk offers insights into the findings from a teaching innovation introduced in a seminar on semiotic analysis of media contents. The innovation aimed at (1) improving student knowledge-acquisition, (2) enhancing their skills to apply key concepts of semiotic analysis and (3) promoting student participation.

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A Brexit simulation (for when you don’t know what’s going to happen)

Moi non plus… (as I imagine Dubya would have said)

I’m doing some training on negotiation in Belgium this week, building on what the organisers imagine is my expertise in this subject and Brexit.

Of course, when I said ‘yes’ to the offer six months ago, I had to hedge against making too many promises that reality might break all too obviously.

What I’d not banked on was finding myself just a day or two beforehand still not being sure what might happen by the time I found myself in front of the group.

With that in mind, I made a little negotiation exercise that tackles Brexit, but at a distance, to protect against the vagueries of it all. The text of the scenario is below and you’re welcome to comment on, and use, it as you see fit.

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The price of failure

via GIPHY

After last week’s class discussion about participation, I decided to run an exercise that made it really easy to show the marginal benefit of preparation.

I told students to prepare for a meeting about putting together an agenda for another negotiation, and gave them all specific roles, plus some rules of procedure.

(For those who are looking for Brexit sims, this was a Council working group, putting together an agenda for the Commission to take to the UK to discuss the Political Declaration).

Because it was about formulating an agenda, I hoped that students would see they didn’t need to get too deeply into substantive positions, as long as they could frame the general areas to be covered.

Plus, but giving clear roles and rules, I incentivised everyone to push out their own draft agendas prior to the meeting. In so doing, I hoped they’d see that even a small amount of preparation could have big effects.

Um

Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way.

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Ooh, ah, just a little bit

(for those benighted souls unfamiliar with Eurovision, the title’s from a song, so it’s fine. Really)

See?

I ran into a bit of roadblock yesterday in class.

The students had been undertaking a negotiation on drawing up a joint statement by a number of groups and we were talking through some of the debriefing points.

I suggested that they’d taken things much as they came, whereas if they’d come with an agenda, or some text, had pushed to become chair or rapporteur, or generally had been more forceful, then they’d have been much more successful in securing what they wanted to achieve.

Ooh

This produced, well if not quite uproar then at least debate.

Various individuals argued that given the dynamic of the group, anyone who came in with A Plan would risk marginalising themselves for the rest of the module, as others would be resentful to them.

It was pointed out that they’d managed to produce a text, so why do things differently?

And they also highlighted that they had other modules to study for, so there was a limit to how much time they would or could put into preparing, not least because of the way I assess.

That assessment is based on self-reflective writing, so I’m not judging their ‘success’ in negotiating per se,

Ah

The discussion was a useful one, at least for me.

The root of it all largely appeared to come down to students taking my comments as a striving for perfection, rather than as a relativistic statement.

As we continued to talk, I tried to underline that I wasn’t asking that everyone did everything, but rather that doing a bit more than others would produce much of the same effect.

To take the example from the session, one student became the effective chair because they’d happened to say something at the outset of the session. It required no additional preparation, and because that individual also offered to write up the statement, they gained huge influence over the outcome.

Just a little bit

And this is perhaps the point for the rest of us.

There’s a tension in what we teach our students between the notional perfection of How Things Should Be and How To Do Better Than We Are Now.

That’s probably most pronounced in questions of methodology: how systematically and perfectly should one pursue a methodological approach and where can one cut corners (and to what cost)?

But it’s true of all our work. I’ve seen enough theory to know that there are almost endless levels of refinement of theoretical positions to know that perfection is never truly possible in a practical setting.

With that in mind, perhaps we have to ask ourselves how we tackle this tension in our classes. To counsel perfection is one thing, but do we not then set up students for some level of failure? But if we don’t strive to do the best we can, do we risk not helping students to maximise their potential and their practice?

The answers to these questions will vary from place to place, but a starting point has to be an understanding of what we aim to achieve with our students.

In my case, I’m going into the coming sessions with some new ideas to help draw students more into the kind of logic that I discussed with them, to see if that addresses the dilemma. 

And if it does, then we’ll move onto the next line of the song: “A little bit more”.

The Society for the Abolition of Boring Conference Panels

It’s that time of year when I find myself submitting papers and panels to conferences.

But because it’s not the time of year for conferences, I’ve not been thinking too much about what I dislike about how those conferences work.

Often on these pages we write about the shortcomings of conference panel formats: the long presentations, the reading-out of papers, the lack of time for Q&A, the ‘question’ that isn’t.

But this year, I’m resolved to actually try and pull my finger out and try to do something different.

With that in mind, and with the looming announcement of call for papers for my ‘home’ conference at UACES, I’m going to try a couple of things.

The first is a flipped format.

My panellists – as and when I find them – will record 15 minute presentations prior to the conference and upload them to YouTube. We’ll indicate this in the programme, using a hashtag to help find them.

Then, in the actual session, I’ll limit colleagues to a 3 minute presentation of the core message, so those few who’ve not seen the YouTube presentation know what’s going on, and so that we can have considerably more than an hour to discuss the content.

The second panel will be highly interactive, where each presenter starts off with 3 minutes, then the audience vote on whether to give them subsequent blocks of 3 minutes, up to a maximum of 12 minutes. I think we can do that via an app, so no-one has to feel they’re inhibited to ask the speaker to stop.

The logic of the first panel is to maximise the time for face-to-face discussion, which seems to be particularly useful for colleagues to develop their ideas and their papers. It also encourages them to prepare more before the conference itself.

The logic of the second is to incentivise presenters to foreground core messages and to ensure that audiences are engaged, rather than using their time to regurgitate their paper without thought to the format.

In both cases, I hope it will produce a more engaging environment for colleagues attending the session, not least as I intend to secure a small air-horn to drown out anyone who can’t ask a concise question, phrased as a question.

To be honest, I hope no idea if either format will work, but I want to try, because carrying on as we have isn’t a solution. We all know we can do better, so consider this a first step in trying to do better.

If it works, then I’ll see if I can get others to adopt the format, or to try out other formats. Maybe I can persuade those organising conferences to push the use of these different approaches, perhaps with a conference prize for the best online presentation or the like.

The only thing I need now is a small band of volunteers to help try this out.

Some of you might be getting an email, but others of you might just want to contact me via the comments section below: I’m thinking the second format might be particularly good for an L&T panel.

Horses, carts and captured content

Usefully captured

Oddly, it took being interviewed for a research project to really crystallise my thoughts on this subject, after some months of it niggling away.

Earlier in the year, my institution launched a consultation on a captured content policy.

This was intended – in its words – to ensure improved access to learning materials and to allow for more flexible delivery, and was sold with a large dose of student demand (via our Students Union).

For those of you who’ve not had this conversation at your place of work, captured content covers lecture capture (semi-automatic filming of lectures to be uploaded to the VLE); flipped content and; anything else that’s a recording of teaching.

As an aside, there’s mixed evidence in the literature of its benefit for students: Owston et al suggest it’s particularly of use for low-achieving students, and Shaw et al see most benefits for non-native speakers; but Stroup et al find no evidence of impact on GPAs; while Danielson et al suggest that the kind of lecture has an impact.

However, as presented, the university wanted to have a whole lot more of this kind of thing, across the board, including talk of a largely-compulsory system of lecture capture.

Cue much concern from colleagues.

This ranged from how to deal with mixed lecture-seminar sessions to the impact on willingness to talk about sensitive subjects  to administrators using recordings for management purposes to the principle worry that students just wouldn’t turn up to class if they could just watch it online later on.

In its defence, the final, approved policy didn’t go as far as the draft plans, so there’s a lot more scope for instructor discretion about using captured content; although we’re all required to have discussions about how best to proceed on this front. Some of our teaching rooms now have automatic recording of classes, but defaulting to not making these available to students or anyone else.

So?

So that’s all fine, right? University over-reaches in its plans, colleagues feed into consultation, university responds and adapts. That’s what should happen. Right?

I’m not so sure.

To come back to the original sell, a key part of it all was that push from the Students Union to the effect that lecture capture would improve the quality and student-centredness of lectures.

Here we have to remember that lecture capture (since it was that, rather than captured content in general) is not about content, but about delivery. In a system that automatically records lectures, the expectation should be that lectures continue as they have, but now with the option of being available online.

No imagine you’re sitting in a lecture.

You don’t understand something, so you either raise your hand to ask the lecturer, or you ask the person sat next to you.

In both cases, you’ll get an almost instantaneous clarification for someone immediately and directly focused on the subject matter, with a pretty good change of resolving the issue.

But if you watch a captured lecture, then if you don’t understand the one explanation in that lecture, then you’ve got to email or visit the lecturer, who’s got to fit responding around whatever else it is they’re doing.

Much more time, much more effort, many more points of failure.

So no lecture capture then?

This is why I’ve never gone for lecture capture, but instead have travelled down the road of flipping. In the latter case, you’re using the contact time to give space for student questions and clarification, so it’s a much more engaged model than just recording the stuff that already happening in class.

Importantly, that’s what works for what I’m doing and what I’m trying to achieve.

And this is perhaps the central point.

In all the years of teaching that I’ve done, at all the institutions that I’ve encountered and worked for, I don’t ever recall a policy about optimising student learning.

I’ve seen policies about captured content or using VLEs; regulations about the volume and nature of assessment and size of modules; and more learning and teaching strategies than I care to remember.

But never a document about how to make informed pedagogic choices about designing the best possible learning experience for students.

If it’s appeared anywhere, then it’s in teaching training courses, and then generally indirectly.

I can understand why this is – those other things are much more fungible and measurable – but it does raise a question about the focus of our work.

Importantly, I feel that too often we find ourselves in situations where “student learning” is conflated with “student satisfaction”: if only we can make them happy, then they’ll get more out of it.

Even on its own terms, I don’t see the logic of this, even before we get to whether it’s something that’ll serve our students well in the wider world.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that if I change how I teach in my class, then it’s because I’ve made a considered decision about its pedagogic merits, rather than because of an institutional policy.