Is my class going to work?

Not the target audience

I’m in the unusual position of getting some feedback from students on some teaching that will be happening at the end of this year.

Our distance-learning model means we build our resources a long way in advance, so we have the opportunity to get some road-testing of new elements beforehand, through a scheme run by the university.

In this case, that meant inviting a bunch of undergrads to try out the asynchronous negotiation exercise I’ve been working on for the past couple of years for our new Masters in IR.

Sadly, only a handful of those invites turned into feedback. While all positive, it does still make me wonder whether it’ll work in practice when our students get to it shortly before Christmas.

And it raises the more general question of how we can do this for people in more regular settings: typically, we only find out if our class is going to work when we deliver it.

With that in mind, there are several things we might do to improve the chances of that happening.

Firstly, we can follow good design principles. That means using our generic knowledge about course design to create something new. Having clear learning objectives and ensuring alignment between these, the activity and any assessment is the obvious go-to, but we might also consider what we know about how students behave and about the impact of the various constraints we operate under.

Oddly, this can be harder to remember to do when we have a ‘standard’ session than when we try for something more original or innovative. A lecture might not break any new ground in its delivery, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something that sucks: you have to work on being clear about your purpose and how you’re using your time to achieve that.

If we follow the insights that basic pedagogy teaches us, then we are already much more likely to hit our goals.

Second up, we can talk it through. Teaching isn’t a heroic struggle, where one woman/man does it all on their own, but a collective endeavour: we help each other to help students learn.

In all the major simulation activities I have built, I have also sought the advice and input of colleagues, both within my institution and beyond it. Their ideas and comments have been a major asset and opened up a lot of ideas that I wouldn’t have had on my own, certainly not before trying things out with my students.

There’s really no downside in sharing your teaching practice: you get useful input, they get a warm glow of being helpful (plus someone they can ask for advice in return), you all get a stronger community of practice. So if you don’t do it already, try it.

Finally, we can wargame it. This is really only necessary for major projects, where the costs of failure are relatively high.

Basically, you become the most pessimistic person you can think to be and ask for each step of your activity ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’, and then think about ways to avoid, minimise and address those things.

You used to do this when you started out teaching and asked yourself ‘what if they ask a question?’: like that, but with the confidence in your abilities that has developed through practice. [Which possibly leads you to ask ‘what if they don’t ask any questions?’, but hey].

Sitting down and working through all the worst-case scenarios is helpful for the same reason as the previous idea: it takes things out of you and places you in someone else’s shoes. Here, you’re actively empathising with the student.

If you want a single take home on this, then it’s that the more you think about how things might (not) work, the more likely it is that they will work when needed. Failure to prepare leads to preparing for failure, and all that.