Teachers as Norm-setters

This week I have a couple of classroom observations in my diary, as part of Surrey’s developmental work in L&T: I sit in on colleagues in different parts of the university and then feedback on practice.  As part of the pre-observation discussion with both observees, I noticed that the question of norms came up, which got me to thinking about what our role as educators should be in this regard, not least given the wide context.

In the first case, the observee told me she would be starting at ten past the hour, “because the students don’t arrive until then.”  Admittedly, it’s a 0900 slot – the first of the day – but the thought did occur that one of the reasons students don’t turn up on time is because they know the lecturer will not start until a bit later.  Speaking as someone with a 0900 lecture, on a Monday, with freshmen, I can only note that because I have made a point of starting exactly on time, I have very few late arrivals.

In the second case, the observee is planning to run a simulation exercise in the class.  We discussed what preparation the students had been asked to do, and when I asked what would happen if the students (Masters level) hadn’t done that preparation, the answer was that “I expect Masters students to have done it.”  This is the opposite situation to the first, in that the lecturer knows what they want, although as we talked further it wasn’t clear what would happen if it transpired that the students hadn’t done what was expected.

This is all potentially very tricky.  My own inclination of late has been to set out my expectations very clearly at the start and then apply sanctions when those expectations are not met.  This means asking students who’ve not prepared presentation notes for my stick exercises to leave the class and do the work during that time, and making clear that a ‘5 minute break’ is actually 5 minutes (instead of its usual academic version, i.e. the time it takes to leisurely consume a coffee).

Much effort these days is put into ‘improving the student experience’, and much of that agenda is somewhat with which I can wholeheartedly agree: Learning & teaching has too long been marginal to universities’ activities.  However, in some cases there is a confusion between giving students what they want and giving them what they need.  This doesn’t justify a culture of “do as I say” in the medieval sense of university as an apprenticeship, but rather that educators need to set out the logic and reasoning behind their pedagogy, so that students can at least understand the interests and values underpinning it, even if they don’t buy into it.

If we want to move away from students wanting to be spoon-fed (and spoon-feeding students), then we need to take control of the learning environment by setting out the basic framework, within which we give students the opportunity to learn for themselves.  Maybe that way, students will come to want what we give them.