Encouraging student feedback

Durdle_Door_OverviewAs my American colleagues know, the UK is a socialist paradise and it’s one of the reasons they’re all coming over later this month (the other is our workshop, which you can book a space at here).

One of the many great consequences of our enlightened political choices is the notion of ‘bank holidays’, days especially chosen to have poor weather, so that us Brits can really indulge in moaning about rain. We love it.

This weekend past was, unfortunately, a very poor example, as the sun shone for a full three days, but I braved it all, to go on a short family break on the South Coast. This included a Sunday lunch in a small pub, where (it turned out) a recent graduate of my fine university was one of the people serving us. Continue reading “Encouraging student feedback”

Policy failure as an opportunity?

Reading Peter Scott’s piece in the Guardian today, I was struck once again by the continuing failure of policy-makers in the UK to define a clear and consistent approach to British Higher Education. While I don’t think that’s just a UK problem, as Chad’s numerous posts here can attest, it’s one that impacts more directly on my professional experience.

In essence, Scott argues that the nominal drive towards ‘improving standards’ is fatally undermined by the lack of clarity about what ‘standards’ consists of, and about who sets and checks them. Financial implications and the pressures of a globalising market make it hard to gain university-level buy-in.

But while it’s easy to be all doom-and-gloom about this, it’s also worth reflecting on the possible opportunities it brings. Continue reading “Policy failure as an opportunity?”

In it to win it?

Totally what cycling in Surrey looks like

Last night, I noticed my small notebook where I keep a note of all my ‘proper’ cycles (i.e. not the commuting stuff): it’s been three months since I last rode out in anger. At the same time, I also note it’s been pretty much the same length of time since I stopped being an Associate Dean.

No, these two things aren’t really connected, except inasmuch as how I conceptualise both of them. Continue reading “In it to win it?”

Engaging Students, Part Four: The Minute Paper

The techniques in this series generally serve three purposes.  Activities like lecture summaries and the muddiest point are generally classified as assessment techniques–methods that help an instructor check and see whether students are understanding the lesson.  This is useful, but secondary to the purpose that I see them fill: when students know that they are going to be assessed at a certain point in the lesson, they have a greater incentive to

One set of questions you can use in a Minute Paper.

pay attention.  And the process of writing down or orally reporting on what they understand or their greatest points of interest requires them to check in on their own learning. In this sense, the fact that students turn in work that instructors can quickly check to get data on understanding and comprehension is just gravy.

Today’s technique, the Minute Paper, is a great example of a tool that hits all three of these benefits.

Continue reading “Engaging Students, Part Four: The Minute Paper”

Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point

Transforming students from passive listeners into actively engaged learners need not be a grand task that requires extensive planning. It can start with a simple decision to reserve a short period of class to review and clarify the lessons of the day.  Taking us beyond the relative uselessness of just asking whether anyone has any questions, and seeing none, moving on, the ‘Muddiest Point’ technique requires students to actually think through what they do and do not understand, and forces us as instructors to ensure that comprehension is universal.

Continue reading “Engaging Students, Part 3: The Muddiest Point”

Get over yourself, get over your students

Making a good impression or the Monet shot (I'll stop now)
Making a good impression
the Monet shot
(I’ll stop now)

Talking with a colleague at another institution this week, he mentioned that many of his colleagues felt there was a ‘student problem’: the teaching was good, but the students were simply unable to make much of it. Their poor grades and weak academic practice was, essentially, their fault.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that such views are not uncommon. You see echoes of it in those listicles on Facebook come marking time: “look what my dumbass students wrote”, “15 photos that make you ask why we bother to even try to teach them.” I’ve done it myself, like when I talk to people about the class presentation I had to sit through on Claud Monet’s contribution to European integration. I’m smart, they’re dumb, and you’re smart, because you understand what the mistake is and why they’ve made it. Basically, XKCD for political science, but much less generous in its humour.

This, of course, is all wrong.

Continue reading “Get over yourself, get over your students”

Peer Reviewed Teaching

A couple of years ago, I was part of a pilot project/committee on documenting teaching efforts. The goal was to create a process that mirrored disciplinary research for faculty to use to demonstrate “a peer-reviewed contribution to teaching with real impact in the classroom.” After much deliberation, we called the process a Peer-Reviewed Exploration in Teaching or PRET for short. As the gold standard in research is peer-review, a PRET built on this idea. In this case, the peer group was other faculty, across different disciplines at the university.

As a participant, the process of doing a PRET encouraged quite a bit of reflection. The first part of the process was a proposal that linked specific learning objectives to an activity “that is grounded in pedagogical literature and designed to meet those learning objectives”. Although I’ve always felt that active learning is beneficial, thinking deeply (and putting into a proposal) why this particular activity (I was evaluating my use of the Statecraft simulation) should meet those particular learning objectives was more difficult than I thought. The peer feedback on this step was very useful in solidifying my thinking.

The process included peer observations of my class over a number of sessions – before, during, and after the activity. The observers also conducted a focus group with the students. The report that my peer observers produced from the observations and focus group was eye-opening. It also brought a new level to the debriefing process that we always say is so important with simulations.

Although the PRET formalized this process, I think the basic idea is generalizable and worth the effort. I could see an informal peer-to-peer exchange of proposals and observations work. It encouraged me to think about the goals of the activity in a more systematic way and it provided an outside perspective on whether the activity was meeting these learning goals. As a peer reviewer of other faculty, I learned quite a bit about what active learning looked like in other disciplines and adopted some new ideas.

It’s not what you say…

2934775218_4edd6d67a5There’s a lot to be said for banality. It’s probably the most under-rated of teaching practices, mainly because it’s so little remarked upon. We always talk about pushing our students to the edge of their knowledge and understanding, so that this edge is pushed further back, and we also keep flagging the core ideas as lodestones, but we only rarely come back to the stuff in-between: the logical corollaries of the core concepts.

Yesterday’s class with my negotiation students was a case in point.

The session was centred on the theme of preparation, and asked them to agree a governmental coalition in the wake of the Spanish elections. This threw up lots of great thoughts and discussions about many points: Spanish politics, coalition-building in general, verisimilitude in simulations (they ended up with a grand coalition), and even stuff about preparation (I’d possibly been less than helpful about what prep they needed to do).

But for me, the big lesson was one that I end up discussing at length every year, but never quite manage to embed explicitly in the module’s work. And it’s a banal point: simply put, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear that matters.

“Sure”, you’re thinking, “that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”


Even if you never studied negotiation, then you know enough about constructivism to appreciate the objective weight of subjective interpretations, enough about the importance of clear communication in any sphere of life, and enough about life to know that misunderstandings and talking-at-cross-purposes happens pretty often.

But you also might well have never put those things together to consider the banal point that people will tend to understand things as they understand them, rather than as someone else understands them. So it doesn’t matter if I think I’m being clear, if you don’t think I’m being clear.

Likewise, my students seemed to have a bit of block in understanding why there had been some tension in the negotiations. A couple of groups had left the room to work out some options, and didn’t want to be disturbed by emissaries from the other parties. Unfortunately, since they were the PP and PSOE and ended up with that grand coalition proposal, when they did present it to the others, they didn’t get much joy. Both sides were still quite sore about it, even during the debrief, and we had to work through how this had come to pass before we could get to all that other stuff I mentioned.

I’ve written about this before in a different context and that’s maybe the point: at some stage it becomes so obvious that it’s hard to remember that we need to remember it.

In my case, I’m fortunate that it’s such a pervasive issue that it does always come up at some point in class, but you might not have that. All of us might do well to remember that to leap from central theoretical tenet straight to the boundary can be exciting and engaging, but it can also come with costs.

Horses, carts and my teaching

Bad example
Bad example

It’s really only fitting that the presence of the QAA at work that should drive this week’s reflection and activity. As their audit team spend the week meeting with staff and students, and working through the huge pile of documentation that we’ve given them, we’ve necessarily had to make some adjustments to our usual order of things. In my case, that meant bringing my class to an end a bit early yesterday, so that I could get to my meeting on time.

I’ll admit that when I first got the schedule, I did um and ah about whether I should simply move the class altogether: that would mean less rushing about for me, and more class time for the students. But since I’ve been prepping for this visit for about a year and half, I doubted that the extra time would do anything much to help. This is part of my classic model of exam-stress management: it’s usually too early to stress, until it’s too late to stress. As long as I don’t think about it in the transitional (‘it’s the right time to stress’) period, I’m fine.

Any way, more importantly, I was also thinking about what this particular session with the students was trying to achieve. It’s about negotiation in practice, following on from two sessions on negotiation theory, and is basically there to manage the transition into the much more active phase of the module, by highlighting the difficulties of using theory in practice.

In previous years, I did the following: recapped the key messages from the theory, then showed them a video that I made of a haggle, discussed how I was good and bad in using theory (bad mainly), then sharing my key practical tips on negotiation, then getting them to play a small crisis game (like this one). In short, build linearly from theory through my failings (to make them comfortable with reflective practice), then discussing their practice in the crisis game.

That structure made a degree of sense, but it also is rather gentle in immersing students into what will come, and probably unnecessarily so, on the evidence of all of the cohorts I’ve taught, who seem to grasp the need to look in on their practice and then articulate that externally.

So I chopped it all around. I got them to watch the video before class (also saving me the hassle of IT/speakers/etc.), then launched straight into the crisis game as they arrived in the classroom, debriefed them using the theory, before moving on to discussion of the video, and finally my tips.

This refocusing on their practice meant the session was a much more constructive opportunity for them to consider what they did and do, still with the knowledge that (via the video) I’m also capable of self-critique (not least of my acting/directing skills). Giving them the practical experience at the top of the class really helped to give them something to hang their thoughts on.

The bonus of all this was that it also shortened the session, because the video was moved out, so next year I can work on adding more content/activity to the session.

If there’s a general point behind this, then it’s to think about how and why we scaffold our students’ learning. Often, there’s sound reasoning in building up to more advanced activity, but it’s also worth reflecting on whether that later activity is really any more advanced, or just different from the norm. As I’ve discussed in other contexts, sometimes we need to credit our students with more resilience and capability than we do: isn’t self-reflection something we want to be developing in our students from day one?

You probably don’t have the impetus of a QAA visit to help you try moving things around, but it’s still worth a try.