Today’s lucky winner is…

It’s teaching time again here in the UK, so I’m rolling out some new (for me) techniques to build student participation and engagement.  This semester’s lucky group are our first year undergraduates (freshmen), with whom I’m trying out a whole range of innovations.

The one that’s most consequential for them is my randomising of seminar contributions.  For each seminar, the group has to produce a one-page summary of the topic under discussion.  To do this, the seminar leader picks out a name at random (using labelled sizzle-sticks): that person is then the rapporteur for the session, with responsibility for the write-up.  A second name is picked to lead the discussion, starting off with a 5 minute presentation.

This requires everyone to have prepared a presentation: those that haven’t, get asked to leave the seminar and spend the time so doing (to be emailed to the seminar leader at the end of the hour).  It also requires students to take responsibility to manage themselves: the seminar leader is there only to get students out of holes of their own making, rather than telling them what to think or do.  The fact that everyone in the room has got presentation notes means that they all have something to fall back on to.

It’s only the first week of using this approach, but some points are already evident.  Firstly, the quality of the discussion does depend on those leading it: the presenter and the rapporteur both need to be relatively active in getting thoughts out of colleagues.  Secondly, it’s very easy for the group to drift about, rather than focusing on the task of producing a summary and they need to directed towards this clearly and often.  Thirdly, there is a potential effect that some students might stop attending, either they haven’t prepared, or because they are worried about being selected.  This hasn’t happened yet, but I will be keeping a close eye on it, as well as stressing to students the collective nature of the work.

The summaries I’ve seen so far suggest that this does work in helping students to reflect and organise their thoughts, as well as integrating them with others’.  Whether it is enough to get them through the exam in four weeks’ time is another matter.