Keeping it fresh II: The wheat and the chaff

Yesterday, in the staff common room

As I wrote last week, I’m redesigning my negotiation module for the autumn, since I’ve got more time on my hands, and I’m doing to be doing that in as open a way as possible.

I’m happy to report that, having decided this, I’ve been really excited over the past seven days, trying to work out what I might do and how I might share it with you. (It’s January: I’ll take my pleasures where I find them).

The most useful starting point is, of course, to think about where I am now. In particular, are my learning objectives still appropriate and how have I been doing in meeting them?

This matters because no matter what path I take in this process, I need to making sure that everything points in the same direction, i.e. to giving students the best opportunity possible to achieve the learning objectives. A quick trawl through our fine search function will show just how often we talk about LOs and alignment and why that matters: short version is that without this, it’s just messing about.

So what have we got right now?

Our Department produces module handbooks for each module, as a repository of information: here’s mine for the last iteration, back in the autumn (POL3070 Negotiating Politics 2017-8).

You’ll note several things. First, there’s not much in there. That’s because of a two-fold choice I made some years. On the content side, I wanted to keep things as open as possible, so I could swap about exercises with ease (also, that would reduce the problem of students copying across cohorts). at the same time, the reading list is minimal, precisely because I wanted students to find what was useful for them, rather than what is useful for me.

This last point deserves some explanation. As you’ll see from the assessment, I want students to focus on their self-reflection and self-development. I am very clear to them that I set no threshold or scope on what they reflect upon and learn from: everyone has a different situation and each individual knows best what that might be. Therefore, it’s senseless to prescribe readings (beyond the very basic), because they have to find their own way.

It also reinforces my desire to promote student-centred learning and to get them to connect ‘research’ with real world practice. As long as they can can make that linkage, they can talk about pretty much what they like. As I tell them, I once read an excellent final piece talking about the importance of looking at people when talking to them: mundane perhaps, but central to that student’s experience.

Those LOs

Apart from the formatting errors and the typo, I’m still happy with these LOs: They mark out an important part in embedding and contextualising practical skills within our overall curriculum, without being too prescriptive about the limits. Importantly, critical thinking and self-reflection are strongly grounded in each point.

Moreover, me redesigning the module isn’t the same as redesigning the programme, so I’m going to avoid biting off more than I can chew and will be working within the boundaries already established.

At the same time, I also want to make sure that the LOs sit firmly in my sights in this, especially I get back into the weeds with the detail of what happens when: Too often, it’s easy to just take this level as given, rather than trying to use it as a way into new ideas and practice.

A running assessment

Which brings us to a critical review of what works and what doesn’t at the moment.

On the plus side, things work pretty well. I get very positive student feedback, both at the time of delivery and from alumini. The external examiners think it’s a good example of innovative practice, and the performance in the final assessment is strong (especially when the increased scaffolding I’ve introduced of late).

The ability to flex on content is something I like: I’ve been able to drop in trial activities and new topics over the years, without difficulty; allowing students to connect to contemporary debates and information.

Finally, the module seems to be able to cope with variable student numbers: I’ve run it with groups varying between 14 and 40 (admittedly with some adjustments at either end), which is pretty good for something so hands-on.

When I write it out like this, I wonder why would I want to change it at all? Most people (and I include me in that) should be more than happy with that. If it ain’t broke… and all that.

The issues are two-fold.

The first is that I can see gaps in what I offer right now. The framing of the practical sessions as thematic is misleading, in that the themes also appear in all the other weeks and students sometimes don’t see the importance of the interlinkage between, say, preparation, communication, trust and power.

To take the most frequent problem, we talk about preparation early on and everyone agrees that it’s really important. But then hardly anyone continues to give prep that importance as they move onto thinking about other things.

Potentially, that’s also a problem if I want them to write up their self-development: if they only think about a theme at one point, then they might struggle to improve that over time. Of course, they do know this is their assessment from the start, but let’s say that knowledge does not always turn into action.

There’s also a gap in what I provide. I’m semi-embraced flipped learning, and I’m not sure why I haven’t fully embraced it. The early sessions could usefully be turned over to more practical work. And I know that some of my flipped content needs re-recording, if only on technical weaknesses.

Actually, this last point is interesting. For a couple of years, students complained about the volume on a video, which I never quite got around to re-doing. This year? Nothing. Traffic data suggests it’s still being watched, but no one has commented. Maybe it’s a software advance situation, maybe I’ve not come across as very accessible, maybe they all have really good hearing: who knows? Not me, for sure.

But there’s also another big issue and motivation for change. I’m a bit bored with what I’ve got.

The module is essentially the same as it’s been for at least six years, with the odd change here and there. It’s nice to tell alumini on Twitter that it’s time for the Twitter game each October, but the initial frisson has gone.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve noticed that in the past couple of years I’ve given much more comparative feedback: how this group did compared to other groups over the years. I’m also much more alive to the scope of what they might think about in their own debriefing (although still students surprise and delight with their thoughts even now).

But the energy that comes from the uncertainty of trying out a new activity is not so present: my mind drifts on occasion to ‘that time when…’, rather than being fully grounded in what’s happening in front of me. And if I’m drifting, then I can’t very well expect students not to drift too.

So for me, as much as for them, I want to shake up what I do, bring in new content and ideas and press once more on the boundaries of what we can do together as a class.

Now I just need to come up with some ideas. Something for next time.