Teaching innovation improves student performance

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Carolina Curvale.

Petra Srnisova documents in her study the results of the implementation of constructive alignment and active learning methods in an Accounting course at the University of Economics in Bratislava. Her motivation for incorporating teaching innovation to her course emerged from an observation to which, I think, a good number of educators can relate to. She acknowledged that students’ field of study tends to be related to the level of interest in a specific course. In her case, Commerce students appeared to be less worried than other students in minute details that are essential to Accounting.

The author cleverly included strategies to promote student engagement in applying theory to practice in three sessions that took place in between a first and a second assessment. The innovated sessions introduced post-it, group work, and pair work activities aimed at promoting problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaborative work. The skills practiced during the sessions were expected to engage students and help them improve their performance in the assessments. The results of the study reveal that the exercise was more fruitful in achieving the second of these goals.

In regard to performance, the author compared the student scores before (first assessment) and after teaching innovation (second assessment). The student scores indeed improved from an average of 64% to 76%. A course taught the prior year, without innovation, showed that from the first to the second assessment students also improved, but much less (only 2 percent points). These results encourage innovation of teaching in order to improve student performance, although it would be interesting to control groups by their overall grade scores. In my opinion, this is a very important result that may also contribute to achieving better engagement, as students who perform better may be more prone to participate in class.  

The author could not conclude based on collected data that the teaching innovation produced the expected effect, that is, that active learning techniques promote student engagement. While the survey questions measuring student interest before and after the course reveal no change, on average students reported that they did pay attention to classes. The qualitative data gathered from the instructor’s notes and from an external observer provide contrasting information: the instructor perceived more engagement during the innovation sessions while the observer did not register heightened participation, although the observer attended only one session and could not fully compare the group’s performance.

The chapter systematically documents the results of the adoption of teaching innovation aimed at improving both student interest and performance in an Accounting course. While the results are mixed, the experience is flawlessly analyzed and presented, and the author herself offers avenues for improving the experience in the future. In my view, the chapter offers interesting and practical ideas on how to improve the teaching-learning experience when the topic of the course is not directly related to the students major – something we can all learn from!

Bringing culture back in: a comment on Pechersky’s study on student-centred learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Stephan Engelkamp.

Many years ago, I found myself attending a class on intercultural learning, or Etudes culturelles, as the course was called at the time. I was a young Erasmus student, enrolled at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques Strasbourg in France, and part of a large group of international students who would soon be released on Sciences Po’s regular courses. To be fair, I cannot say that I was particularly thrilled by the prospect of attending this seminar. Mostly struggling with my uneasy relationship with the French language, I did not really see the point in discussing cultural stereotypes for weeks and months.

However, this was a mandatory course, and so I attended. For whatever it was worth, it was a good opportunity to get to know my fellow Erasmus students and maybe make some new friends. The seminar turned out to be fun and helpful. What I remember most vividly was what turned out to be the best part of the seminar: discussing different cultural points of view with international students, as competent practitioners of their respective cultures.

This brings me to Alexander Pechersky’s insightful contribution on the potential outcomes of introducing student-centred learning to the curriculum, specifically when teaching fuzzy but enacted concepts such as culture. The chapter reports on the results of a study the author conducted when teaching seminars on intercultural learning, which were offered to local and Erasmus students. The author starts with a contextualisation of his own academic socialisation abroad, reflecting on the different cultures of learning he experienced in different university settings during his academic path. This leads Pechersky to the following assumptions: students with a higher degree of control in student activities should be more satisfied with the learning exercise, better internalise the learning material and gain a deeper understanding of studied concepts.

To test these assumptions, the author developed a quasi-experimental research design for three seminar groups. Each seminar starts with the lecturer’s mini lecture, which is then followed by a quiz as an icebreaker to make students more comfortable to participate in the next step: a student-centred part in which students apply a case study on the session’s subject matter. The design of the three settings varies according to the degree of freedom students have in controlling the student exercise. Student satisfaction and learning outcomes are traced using a survey and participant observation.

As survey results demonstrate, the hypotheses could only be partially corroborated. While the results on learning satisfaction seems to be as expected – the more control students have, the more satisfied they are – results regarding the learning outcomes are somewhat mixed. However, the impressions of the observing colleague seem to suggest that the group with the most control over the learning exercise had the most sophisticated discussions of concepts.

One challenge of the research design may be the limited number of observations, due to the small number of students, which may make it difficult to apply even descriptive statistical methods. To address this methodological issue, the author may have considered assigning reflective essays rather than using surveys.

Methodological issues aside, I suggest an alternative way to account for the unexpected results regarding the students’ learning outcome. As the author rightly states, “[I]in student-centered learning (SCL) the teacher assumes the role of a facilitator and invites students to participate in the learning process by relating information to prior knowledge and discussion with others.” Hence, students’ prior knowledge and experiences may be a key variable in the quasi-experiment. As the seminars focus on intercultural and communication skills, group composition may affect the learning outcome but maybe not in the way the author assumes.

Pechersky theorises that students’ prior experience with student-centred learning may explain the outcome. An alternative explanation may relate to the content of the course, which focuses on inter-cultural learning, and student background, specifically international students. From this angle, students’ experience with intercultural exchange may determine the learning outcomes. International students may be more invested in the subject matter due to their personal situation which probably allows them to bring in their personal experiences more effectively.

In any case, Pechersky’s contribution raises interesting questions about variables of success of student-centred learning. I would love to see a follow-up piece drawing on a larger set of observations! As an Erasmus alumnus, I clearly see the value of taking individual intercultural experiences seriously, both inside and outside the classroom.

To engage youths to study political processes – there are no “one size fits all” methods

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Niina Meriläinen

Many states of Europe are now experiencing growing social and political passivity of some youths, which may lead to their lifelong marginalization and radicalization. To revert this trend, many university teachers feel committed to encourage and empower their students to become active in their communities, and to play a more active role in the democratic development of societies and in supporting the principles of human rights and rule of law.

In his chapter , Martin Karas, from the University of Economics in Bratislava, reports on various aspects of how to engage non-political science undergraduates. Karas introduced three active learning exercises – a debate, a group analysis of a primary sources, and cut-up cards – to help students to distinguish between various political science concepts, to achieve higher levels of student engagement, to improve knowledge retention, and to create understanding of political actors, issues and practices. While researching the effects of these exercises on student learning, he combined qualitative and quantitative methods.

Whereas active learning methods led to higher levels of student engagement in Karas’ class, they did not significantly affect knowledge retention and understanding. Karas’ research results correlate with the literature findings, which reports the connection between active learning and student engagement, but no robust evidence for the existence of a link between active learning and knowledge retention and understanding.

Karas’ findings are similar with those of Meriläinen, Pietilä, & Varsaluoma (2018) and Meriläinen’s forthcoming research (2019). The later research focuses on the engagement of non-subject students in vocational schools to contribute to social change processes, including law drafting. Naturally, we need to understand that there are various forms of youth engagement and participation to social and political change processes, some that gatekeepers such as officials give credibility, and some that are overlooked and viewed as non-credible by the gatekeepers.

Karas’ research illustrates that the engagement of non-subject students can increase the quantitative participation but may not result in long-term qualitative understanding of the issues, actors and events in the political sphere. This implies that more effective learning methods (and more multidisciplinary research) are needed to achieve lasting and profound awareness, engagement and participation of non-subject students to societal and political change processes.

If we wish to achieve desired change towards equal, human rights based, inclusive and sustainable societies, active citizenship and participation of youths is an essential requirement. Karas’ chapter is an exciting example from this research field. While designing learning methods for non-subject students, various actors working together, such as researchers, teachers, youth workers and volunteers, should take into account several key issues.

This includes making the courses “accessible” for various groups of students including individuals with disabilities, language competences, asylum seekers, and migrants in general, paying attention to power-relations among youths and dissimilar interests and skills of various youths. As they are not a homogenous group that engages with one voice, “one size fits all” teaching and learning method cannot effectively reach all of them. Because youths from various backgrounds should become agenda setters in the democratic development of societies, teaching and learning methods must be designed to address their different needs.

Research the Write Way

Credit for the subject of today’s post goes to Lindsay LaChapelle, writing center acting director, and Alicia Vaandering, education and instructional design librarian, at my university. They can be contacted, respectively, at lindsay [dot] lachapelle [at] salve [dot] edu and alicia [dot] vaandering [at] salve [dot] edu.

I attended a presentation by the above-mentioned individuals on leveraging the expertise of academic support staff when using research-driven writing assignments. Undergraduates trying to complete these assignments typically lack proficiency in critical skills like:

  • Identifying peer-reviewed journals for literature reviews.
  • Knowing when and how to cite sources.
  • Decoding the rhetorical techniques of scholarly literature.
  • Applying the authentic writing principles of role, audience, and format.

For example, students often locate a pile of sources that they believe are pertinent, and only then begin writing. Or they do the writing first and then seek out what they think are a sufficient number of not-really-that-relevant sources to cite in the text.

Incorporating instruction from your university’s writing and research specialists can help solve these problems. The first step in the process is to consult with writing center and library staff, to share assignment information, identify your goals and expectations for the assignment, plan classroom workshop content, and schedule the workshops in relation to assignment due dates.

Workshop topics should reflect the four phases of the research writing process: exploration, reflection, revision, and becoming a creator of information. Each workshop can target one or more of the specific objectives for each phase, as shown in this table. “L” indicates a practice that normally falls within a librarian’s area of expertise, while “W” indicates a focus on writing. Think of the table as a menu from which to choose the skills in which your students most need training.

The classroom workshops allow both academic support staff and the course instructor to interact with students about their work as they proceed through the research and writing process. They can include probes of students’ pre-existing knowledge of college-level research and writing principles and the review of students’ work as they complete different components of the assignment.

Collaborating with librarians and writing specialists benefits both me and my students because it:

  • Reduces redundancy in instruction.
  • Shares the workload for lesson planning, delivering instruction, and assessment.
  • Reduces the instructor-to-student ratio in the classroom.
  • Models the collaborative nature of academic research.
  • Allows writing center staff to identify research-related problems that require librarian support, and vice versa — instead of leaving students in the dark about the kind of specialized help they might need and who can provide that help.

Holiday coping

A short one, because I’ve got too much to be doing.

Too long, but right idea…

And it’s precisely because of that I want to share this piece from Oliver Burkeman.

Burkeman writes about being overwhelmed by Stuff To Be Done, and how we might manage that, in this case by having a list of (at most) three things we are thinking about at any one time.

Do one, and only then can you add something else to the list.

For me – and I’m guessing for you – summer can be difficult like this, as the graveyard of All The Things We Didn’t Have Time To Do During Semester. Unfortunately, that means summer often feels even more busy than semester, even as we want to get out of the office altogether.

Just as I’ve stopped planning to work while travelling, so too might this technique help in making less turn into more: if I’m not crippled by anxiety about not doing something, then maybe I’ll get the something else done done more quickly, so I can get back to the something.

Of course, if you’re one of the people waiting on something from me, you might feel different.

Have a good summer, and don’t overdo it.

The difficulties of reflecting on “being not very good”

This is a guest post by Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University).

Last week Simon discussed the need to reflect on our teaching and learning, in particular also on what’s not working. This made me wonder, are we actually able to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses?

We all know how difficult self-reflection can be. I personally remember a management training during which I was asked to evaluate my own actions in a difficult situation of my own choice – and struggling to openly critique myself and reflect upon my behaviour.

I recently witnessed how some of my colleagues find it easy to talk about teaching and learning, whereas others seemed to be struggling.

Active learning is in Maastricht University’s DNA, with problem-based learning (PBL) being used across its programmes. But often PBL does not come natural to teaching staff; we are expected to take a backseat role and focus on process rather than on content.

Hence, good teaching staff training is essential. New staff are introduced to PBL and need to follow a more detailed teaching training trajectory after a year of teaching. Events such as my faculty’s annual Education Day also play a role in this, through the exchange of experience and best practices.

In the run up to this year’s Education Day I was asked to talk about a new teacher staff development programme, called Continuing Professional Development. This programme is aimed at stimulating further development of teaching staff and at further enhancing the university teaching community.

Since it is not yet fully clear what kind of activities staff can do in this context, I planned two exercises that should give me an insight into colleagues’ needs: a bingo and a generative interview.

The first exercise I have already discussed in more detail in a post published in November: a bingo. The bingo I used this time is pictured here.

I explained to my colleagues that the aim of this exercise was a) to experience how easy it is to discuss and share teaching and learning ideas and best practices and b) to come up with some first ideas concerning their own training needs. This is also why I asked everyone to make sure to at least complete the box on the bottom left. The exercise worked well – and this time I timed it well too. People found it easy to talk, also because of the variety of topics to be discussed.

The second exercise was one that I picked up during the recent Joint International Teaching and Learning Conference in Brighton. During the conference, Colin Brown (Northeastern University) hosted a workshop on teaching peer review in which he made use of generative interviews.

We worked together in groups of three: one interviewee, one interviewer and one observer. Interviewer and observer together try to find out the interviewee’s views on a certain topic and formulate these views for them, which helps to actually more clearly formulate those views. Roles rotated. This was an interesting exercise and I decided to try it during the Education Day. I explained to my colleagues that this exercise was meant to get a more detailed understanding of their teacher training needs.

While I participated in the Bingo, I decided to only observe my colleagues during this second exercise. Interestingly, where some immediately started talking (as I experienced myself during the conference workshop), others started to focus on details of procedure.

I noticed that those colleagues who I know to be very involved in teaching and learning, seemed to find it much easier to do this exercise. They sometimes ignored the procedure, but they did eventually end up filling in the main part of the form pictured here:

Colleagues less eagerly involved in teaching and learning were the ones who seemingly found it difficult to talk about themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses. Instead, they spend lots of time talking about the form and the procedures.

This shows that Simon’s call to speak out about our mistakes and our weaknesses may come quite natural to those of us who think about these issues on a daily basis (the readers of  the ALPS blog or my faculty’s own teaching and learning blog). But this seems quite different for those colleagues for whom teaching does not come naturally or is rather viewed as a thing they have to do (instead of something they like to do).

Staff training will hopefully get more teaching staff to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, but, as Simon writes, academia unfortunately encourage us instead “to big ourselves up, to represent a bold vision of progressive and successful practice.”

PS During both exercises I played music to create a good atmosphere on a day that temperature went well above 35 degrees. You can find the playlist here.

Virtual conferencing

This morning finds me in Antwerpen, where yesterday I was very pleased to sit on the jury of Dorothy Duchatelet’s thesis. Dorothy – occasionally of this parish – did as excellent a job in her defence as her thesis, plus she even managed to get most of the jury on the dance floor afterwards, so that’s got to count for something.

Literally missing the point

When we weren’t viva-ing, or dancing, we were all having various conversations about learning and teaching. And one of those was with fellow juror Heidi Maurer about conferencing.

As Heidi rightly noted, the cost of attending conferences can be prohibitive for more junior colleagues, especially if it’s in L&T, which they might see as less of a priority area.

Quite aside from any registration fees, there’s the travel, accommodation and subsistence to factor in, and that’s even before the carbon footprint of it all. Sure, it’s lovely to travel the globe to exotic locales, but it’s certainly not cost-free, even if we are lucky enough to have someone to pick up the tab.

Hence a discussion about a virtual conference format.

Heidi noted that while online might solve one problem, it created another: format. Losing the physical co-location means losing a lot of the freedom you have when you’ve got people in a room.

Or does it?

Part of addressing this is trying to work with the advantages that virtual spaces have. Central to that seems to be the capacity to time-shift.

Imagine a conference format that lasts a week. From an initially-rather-basic website, you establish a programme for that week with some very different activities.

You could certainly have a keynote and or conventional panels – both as live-streams and as replayable content – with space for Q&A. Such communal events might be good bookends for the conference, helping to generate a sense of ‘who we all are’, but without necessarily having to commit everyone to being online at the same time the whole time.

Alongside that, you could also run some asynchronous workshops, where people could dip in and out through the week to experience different activities and cross paths with others. The obvious examples here would be online simulation exercises, where delegates could get their hands dirty, or design workshops, where you could get communal feedback on addressing your L&T challenges.

Throw in some spaces for more informal discussion and you’ve got something that’s not a normal conference, but which does something else.

And the cost? Some for a website and the event organisation, but very much less than usual. Maybe you ask people to chip in via PayPal, or just tell them to set aside $20 to buy themselves nice coffee, instead of that stuff you normally find in the breaks.

Of course, there are issues. First, you still need people to organise and facilitate. Second, the loss of co-location means you risk people signing up and then never showing up, or drifting away. Third, there’s all the concern about encouraging and policing appropriate behaviour. Fourth, could the format work on a recurring format: you’d do it once, but would you do any more often?

But similar problems exist for ‘normal’ conferences.

So, something for someone to think about. I’d really welcome your thoughts on it all in the comments below.

Learning your lines

So I have this colleague, who does a lot of public speaking. And when I say a lot, I mean really a very large pile of it indeed.

I guess this works too

They have to give a TED talk this week and they’re anxious, because they aren’t sure they will remember what it is they have to say.

I found this surprising, given their extensive experience, but also a bit reassuring: it’s easy to assume that just because someone can make it all look rather effortless, that doesn’t mean it is.

At some level, we’re all like a swan: gracefully gliding across the water, while furiously paddling underneath. The only question is the ratio between the two, but it’s always there.

In any case, it got me thinking about how I’d handle the ‘memorise your speech’ thing, not least because I will have given six of the things by the end of next week.

Continue reading

Opening the book on exams

We’re just about getting to the end of semester’s block of teaching weeks, so my attention is turning to final assessment once again.

Let’s take it back, let’s take it back, let’s take it back to the Law School…

With my first-years I’ve inherited a module on the EU that used to be mine some time ago and for which I’ve stuck to the assessment regime through curiosity as much as anything else.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere here, we’re piloting our new computer-based assessment system on the module, so I was keen to see how that changed things. Much of my attention in that regard has been to do with the coursework, but we’re also doing the final exam on it too.

It turns out that this is an excellent opportunity for me to get into open-book exams.

My student memory of these are watching law students carting in a dozen or more lever-arch files (ask your parents) into an exam hall, usually with at least one person have the entire thing spill out across the corridor outside or (on one tremendous occasion) across a busy street and towards a near-by canal.

Happy days. But not very enticing.

But because so much of the work has moved online, not least the exam itself, this seems like a good moment to visit the format.

For those who’ve not encountered it before, an open-book exam is simply one where you can bring and use any materials you like during the exam period. The idea is that it’s much more like a situation you might encounter in real-life than sitting in a bare room, answering questions you’ve hopefully prepared for, but using only what you can haul from the back of your mind.

The reason it’s not been so popular has been a mix of the aforementioned mess, the fear that students will just copy out other peoples’ work and the vague air that it’s not ‘right’.

Of course, I’m a big believer in changing what you when situations change, so why not try an open-book format?

It’s helped by the system being able still to detect plagiarism (final submissions are run through the usual software), plus it can note when a student suddenly dumps several hundred words at once.

Moreover, giving an open-book exam removes any feeling of accommodation to students about factual errors: my lovely mnemonics will be left at one side should I meet anyone who tries to tell me about the Council of Europe in leading the EU.

Of course, an open-book exam – while superficially attractive to students – is a big bear-trap. The temptation to ‘go check something’ will be very high, taking time away from actually writing an answer to the question asked. As those law students used to discover (when we talked to them on our way to the bar), it’s one thing to have access to lots of information, but quite another if you don’t know how to find the right information.

So, we’ll see. My impression so far has been that a lot of my students haven’t really clocked the different issues involved. If nothing else, if they’re relying on my flipped lectures as much as I think they are, then they’ll discover rather quickly that those are in possibly the least-helpful format for an exam.

Let’s hope those lecture notes are in good order.

What’s good for me and what’s good for my students?

Evidently, my existential rut continues.

Last week I had three separate occasions teaching on the same subject, plus also getting filmed talking about that subject too.

I’d been a bit anxious about this concatenation of coverage, even if it was on my research specialisation: talk enough about something and eventually you end up saying all you’ve got to say. Or worse, I might forget who’d I’d said what to whom.

In the end, that was not a problem: I’d been good about defining quite clearly what each session was focused on, so the internal consistency was fine, as was relationship between the different bits.

However, each time I was doing something quite different.

There was one conventional lecture, one set of seminars and one Q&A-type session to support a flipped lecture. Plus that filming.

Now I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I gave a good lecture: it flowed, it had coherence, the students were engaged (and occasionally entertained) and I even got a little round of applause at the end.

Lovely.

But it was also the session that I worried gave the least to the audience: they were passive recipients, rather than active learners. In the Q&A and in the seminars, the content was driven by their needs and learning processes: even the filmed lecture is going to become part of a more interactive package.

However, my ability to give lectures seemed to be better than my ability to give the other formats (not that they were bad, to be clear: just not as good as the lecture).

So what to do?

Stick with what I’m best at, or focus on what I understand to be best for my students’ learning?

Of course, I’m setting up a bit of a false choice here: my evaluation of my relative capacities is completely anecdotal, plus I know that the evidence about pedagogic formats isn’t completely nailed down.

However, the point still stands, because our subjective view of such situations shapes how we engage with pedagogy: I think we all know plenty of people who stick with what they know because they’re good at it, or at least better at it than some other approach they’ve not tried before.

The difficulty is separating our anxiety/indifference about new pedagogies from any more objective limitation on our ability to use them. My personal view is that just because I not smashing it in my seminars, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing them: instead, I should be trying to identify and address my weaknesses.