Lighten up

Smiling on the inside

We’re nearly half-way through our semester here, so it’s been time to gather some feedback from students on how it’s all going.

For all the concerns I had (and have) about delivering our hybrid model of pre-recorded lectures and parallel in-class and online seminar activities, my students generally seem pretty positive.

Using online forms (Google Forms in this case) for a quick ABC mop-up of ideas, the main issue that came out was that using a ranked lecture theatre is really bad for student discussion (no matter how we’re sitting), which I’m still going to have to work on.

But beyond that, the mix of elements seemed to be alright and no obvious gaps in provision existed.

Which made me focus on the one-off comments.

To note, these are often the gold-dust of ABC reviews: the asides that open up some really big steps forward, by giving a different perspective. It’s also precisely why you should never give any cues about the type of comment you want back.

Two examples have jumped out so far this time.

One was a request that I put all the various deadlines into one place for my course, since they’re scattered across various pages and platforms. That seems reasonable and useful and I’d built the spreadsheet in a couple of minutes (and then written a note to everyone, so they could see I’d acted on the suggestion).

The other is a bit more tricky.

In response to “Give one example of something that you think isn’t working well in this module, that we should stop doing”, someone wrote “being so serious ALL the time.”

Hmmm.

I’ll readily admit that I initially took this as referring just to me, but as you can see from my photo, I’m always smiling and laughing, so that can’t be it.

Can it?

The socially-distanced classroom is a really odd space and I feel like we’re all still working it out. In particular, the face-coverings really hamper both communication and connection: I’m still mildly shocked that I’ve learnt any new names among my students these past weeks, especially since the request for name plates was only very patchily followed.

The suppression of natural debate and discussion among students has pushed me towards more transmission by me, even as I try to fight it off: that’s much easier with my negotiation students, to whom I can give an exercise, than it is for my European integration class, where I’ve gone for more collective discussion.

If nothing else, the scope for the humorous aside or comment (from students, not me, to be clear: I’m not funny and I (usually) know it) is much reduced in this space, so things are a bit more solemn.

Indeed, having remarked to my negotiation class how mild-mannered they all are this year, I do wonder if the rigidity of the seating format does play a role in that: This is not an environment that facilitates any kind of heightened emotion, positive or negative. Maybe some more clues will emerge as I mark they first efforts at reflective writing during the coming week.

As so often, this simultaneously bothers and heartens me.

I’m bothered that we’re missing out on something that can help to lubricate the process of learning: emotional engagement is a real positive in my book and certainly underpins a lot of my reasoning for pursuing active learning. Connecting with the affective level can potentially drive much stronger rational learning, by opening up students to new layers of appreciation of how they are and how they learn.

But the absence/weakening of this is also an opportunity, to consider how that affects what we do and how we do it. Just as I set exercises that are almost impossible to ‘solve’ or ‘win’, because I see a value in learning from frustration, so too can I get students to reflect on how this new environment impinges on their learning.

Indeed, several of the negotiation students have already asked about writing on the impact of Covid on their practice, which is precisely what I’d want from all this.

Of course, it’d be better if we could also have some time when we didn’t have to work in these conditions: that really would put a smile on my (already-happy) face.