Putting your cards on the table

Since it’s the final week of the teaching semester, I’ve been getting feedback on my modules, both through the standard module evaluations (run by the university) and in-class discussion. As always, it makes for a fascinating interaction.

Instead of discussing mechanisms for feedback, this time I’d like to focus on the lessons I have taken from the process, since that is obviously also a key part of it all. In particular, it really shows a light on how students construct their own learning spaces.

To give just one example, a student noted that the course textbook was excellent and should continue to be used. This sounds fine, until I tell you that we don’t have a course textbook on that module (I suggest a number of texts instead, because there is a good choice in the subject).

Similarly, in one class opinion was split on my use of randomised presentations, with several disliking the uncertainty, and several liking the incentive to prepare every week. And it is this that has made me reflect more on the need for clarity in the lecturer’s part.

As a general rule, I like to be very transparent about what I’m doing with any given class: even when using a simulation, I usually explain the point, because I’m confident that this won’t actually affect what happens (and in simulations, the students typically get so sucked into what they are doing that they forget what I’ve told them). If I can be clear about what I aim to achieve with a class, then it’s much more likely that the class will be able to achieve it, rather than roaming around the general area.

In the case of the randomised presentations, I spent a good block of time at the start of the module explaining how the system would work, its implications and consequences, and its connections to the rest of the learning process in the module. During the module, I tried to stress this, by discussing it in class from time to time, and – as the students will find out in a couple of weeks – those presentations and their summaries will feed directly into the final exam.

However, it is also apparent from the feedback that not everyone gets this. We might usefully separate that ‘getting’ into ‘understanding’ and ‘liking’: I have the impression that the very large majority could explain my logic in using it, but fewer would say that they think it is their prefered way of doing things.

I can see that this is due, in part, to our different approaches. For a student, they often want to be able to plan their time across their different modules, with blocks focused on single topics. For me, I would like them to be engaged on a semi-permanent basis, where they are also pulling in their learning from all the other things they do. My advantage is that my research falls in the same area, so I enjoy reinforcing benefits, while the students are working across a much broader range of topics.

If I am to take anything from this, then it is that clarity needs to be coupled to communication and debate. I need to appreciate the different dynamics under which students operate, just as I need to communicate my approach and my anticipations to students. As I frequently say to them, university isn’t about putting obstacles in their way, but about helping them to achieve their potential and make the most of their time. If we don’t communicate, then that it not going to happen.