Over the past couple of years, lots of different people have asked me about our curriculum change project here at UoN. From teaching staff and students here at the University, to Northampton locals and parents, and even learning and teaching experts at other universities, there is increasing curiosity around the idea of a university without lectures. The lecture theatre has long been an iconic symbol of higher education, heavily featured in popular culture as well as many university recruitment campaigns. So how to explain why we think that we can do better?
Here are some of the reasons why I think that active blended learning (or “you know, just teaching” as I often hear it described), is the way of the future* for student success. What are yours?
- It’s effective for learning. Pedagogic research tells us that it is important for students to be actively involved in their learning – that is, to have opportunities to find, contextualise and test information, and link it to (or explore how it differs from) their prior understanding. Students who construct their own knowledge develop a deeper understanding than students who are just given lots of information, memorise it for the assessment and then promptly forget it. Who was it that said “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”? There is debate about the source of the quote, but there’s a reason it has endured…
- It can be more inclusive. Writers and educators like Annie Murphy Paul and Cathy Davidson are among many who question whether lecturing as a teaching approach benefits some students more than others – or indeed whether the students who succeed most in lecture-intensive programmes are doing so in spite of (rather than because of) the teaching approach. Now, active blended learning is not an easy fix for this challenge, and if not carefully designed it can also create environments that can disadvantage some learners (noisy classrooms can be difficult for students with language or specific learning difficulties, for example, and online environments can be challenging in terms of digital literacy). But with forethought and planning, ABL can help to ensure that all students have a voice and a role in the learning environment, and evidence suggests that it can reduce the attainment gap for less prepared students.
It’s more engaging / interesting / fun! When Eric Mazur used Picard et al.‘s electrodermal study to point out that student brainwaves (which were active during labs and homework) ‘flatlined’ in lectures, he may have been at the extreme end of the argument. But from the student perspective, anyone who has been a student in a long lecture (or who has observed rows of students absorbed in their laptops or phones) knows how easy it is to switch off in a large lecture environment. And from the tutor perspective, anyone who has been tasked with giving the same lecture multiple times knows that interaction and contribution from the students is vital to breaking it up. Smaller, more discursive classrooms allow for variety; for more and different voices and ideas to be shared.
- It scaffolds independence. Our students are only with us for a short time. If we teach them to depend on an expert to tell them the answers, what will they do when they don’t have access to those experts any more? The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications says that graduates should, among other things, be able to “solve problems”, to “manage their own learning”, and to make decisions “in complex and unpredictable contexts”. Our graduate attributes say that our students should be able to communicate, collaborate, network and lead. We don’t learn to do these things just by listening to someone else tell us how.
- It recognises how learning works in the real world. Think about the last time you really tried to learn something new. How did you go about it? You may have been lucky enough to have access to experts in that area, but chances are – even if that’s true – you also looked it up, asked some people, maybe tried a few things out. Probably you synthesised or ‘blended’ information from more than one source before you felt like you’d really ‘got it’. To be a lifelong learner, we need to be able to find and assess information in lots of different ways. This is exactly what our ABL approach is trying to teach.
Our classrooms at Waterside may look different to the iconic imagery commonly used to depict the university experience. But maybe it’s about time…
*Looking back on the development of university teaching, there is some debate around how we got to where we are: around what is ‘traditional‘ and what is ‘innovative’ in teaching; and also on whether the ubiquity of the lecture is a result of the economics of massification rather than the translation of pedagogic research into practice. Although it is always good to keep an eye on how practice has developed, I see no need to replicate these debates here – instead, this post is deliberately intended to be future focused, on how best to move forward from this point.
As a result of the University’s Active Blended Learning strategy, some teaching staff are considering using some contact time to support learners in the online environment as well as in the classroom. There are many reasons why you might choose to do this: perhaps you want to increase the flexibility for your cohort so they don’t have to travel; perhaps you need to help your students develop their digital literacy; perhaps running a teaching session online allows you to do something you couldn’t do in the classroom (like including a guest speaker, or allowing students time to draft and revise before sharing their thoughts). Or perhaps you just want to add some more structure, guidance and feedback to regular independent study activities.
Whatever your motivation, there are some tips that can help you think about how to use that contact time well, and make online learning a rewarding experience for you and your students.
Transparent pedagogy and clear expectations
Recent research with our students highlighted that they don’t always feel prepared for independent study, and often come to university expecting to ‘be taught’ rather than to have to work things out for themselves (the full report can be downloaded here). Scaffolding the development of independent learning skills is a gradual process, with implications for online as well as classroom teaching – particularly as this way of learning may be new to your students too (at least in formal education contexts). So how do you avoid students feeling like they’ve been ‘palmed off’ with online activities, when national level research tells us that many applicants expect to get more class time than they had at school?
It’s worth setting time aside early on to have frank conversations about how learning works at university level, and about how the module will work, but also about why those choices have been made. Students can sometimes be unaware of the level of planning and design work that goes into a module, so it helps to explain why you’re asking them to do the tasks you’ve planned – in the discussion forum, for example, why is it important for them to engage with opinions or ideas shared by other students? You don’t need to be an expert on social constructivism to explain that learning to research, communicate and collaborate online are crucial skills for graduates. And if it’s the first time you’ve tried something, don’t be afraid to say so, and acknowledge that you’re learning together! Keeping the conversation open for feedback on teaching approaches will help improve them in the future.
In conversations about pedagogy, be sure to make space for your students to talk about their expectations and previous experiences. This might help them identify aspirations and areas for development, but it will also inform your planning, and a shared understanding of responsibilities will make the learning process run much more smoothly. Consider co-creating a ‘learning contract’, exploring issues like how often you expect them to check in on social learning activities on NILE, and how (and how quickly) they can expect to get responses to questions they pose there.
A key element of success in any learning environment is trust. This doesn’t just mean students trusting in you as the subject expert, and trusting that the work you’re asking them to do is purposeful and worthwhile (see above). It also means trusting that your classroom (whether physical or online) is a safe space to ask questions, and that feedback from peers as well as from you will be constructive and respectful. Some of this can be explicitly addressed with a shared ‘learning contract’, as above, but it also helps to reinforce this through the learning activities themselves. In the online environment, introducing low-risk ‘socialisation’ activities early on can help to build confidence and a sense of community, which will be invaluable in the co-construction of knowledge later on (see Salmon’s five stage model for more on this). Simple things like adding the first post to kick off a conversation, and explicitly acknowledging anxieties about digital skills, can make all the difference.
Trust also means students trusting that their contributions in the learning space will be acknowledged and valued. Many online tools, such as blogs and discussion forums, are specifically designed with student contribution as the focus, but with live tools, like Collaborate, you may need to plan activities specifically to support this, so that it’s not just you talking. After all, you wouldn’t expect a discussion forum to be composed of one long post from you, so with live sessions, the same principles apply! (see Matt Bower’s Blended Synchronous Learning Handbook for ideas).
On the flip side of this, you also wouldn’t expect a student who was speaking in a live webinar to keep trying if they didn’t get a reply. So using the same principles, if you’re planning asynchronous (not live) learning activities, make sure you schedule teaching time to review your students’ views and ideas, whether online or in the next face to face session. Online, techniques like weaving (drawing connections, asking questions and extending points) and summarising (acknowledging, emphasising and refocusing) are invaluable, both for supporting conversation and for emphasising that you are present in the online space (see Salmon 2011 for more on these skills).
And if some of your students haven’t contributed, don’t panic! There could be lots of reasons for this. It may be a bad week for them, or a topic they don’t feel confident in, in which case chances are they will still learn a lot from reading the discussion. It may be that someone else already made their point – after all, if you were having a discussion in the classroom, you wouldn’t expect every student to raise a hand and tell you the same thing (if you need to check the understanding of every single student, maybe you need a test or a poll instead of a discussion). If participation is very low though, it may be that you need to reframe the question (as a starter on this, this guide from the University of Oregon, although a little outdated in technical instructions, includes some useful points about discussion questions for convergent, divergent and evaluative thinking).
Clarity, guidance, instructions, modelling
Last but by no means least, with online learning it helps to remember that students need to learn the method as well as the matter. A well-organised NILE site, clear instructions and links to further help will go a long way, but nothing beats modelling. Setting aside time in your face to face sessions to walk through online activities and address questions will save you lots of time in the long run.
We’ve written a few posts about learning styles in the past, and an important letter in yesterday’s Guardian added yet more support to the anti-learning styles side of the argument. Thirty academics signed a letter to the Guardian calling for teachers to end the use of learning styles and to make more use of evidence-based practices instead. Regarding the use of learning styles, the letter said that they were “ineffective, a waste of resources and potentially even damaging as … [they] can lead to a fixed approach that could impair pupils’ potential to apply or adapt themselves to different ways of learning.”1
You can read the entire letter here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education
1. Sally Weale (2017) Teachers must ditch ‘neuromyth’ of learning styles, say scientists
“Now is the time of the essay film.” So said the film-maker Mark Cousins to the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins in 2013. This realisation came to Cousins during the making his film, The First Movie, which was filmed in the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2009. One major problem that Cousins faced when making the film was that because the region was so dangerous, there were no cinematographers who were willing to work on the film. This did not stop Cousins though, and he decided to make the film himself using tiny, handheld cameras. What may have been perceived as an insurmountable obstacle was not only overcome, but actually created new ways of working and a new sense of freedom for Cousins. As he says,
“‘What I used to hate about filming is that I’d want to get up before dawn in Calcutta and film the sunrise. But you’d have to go knocking on the door of the director of photography, who’s sleeping, and say, ‘Please can you get up?’ This tiny camera, no bigger than a mobile phone, has become like a pen, he says: he can work alone, with the freedom of a prose essayist. ‘Now is the time of the essay film: that way of taking an idea for a walk.’”
Of course, the idea of the essay film, or cine essay as some film-makers like to call it, is not new, it’s just that it’s taken some time for technology to get to the point where the video camera and editing equipment are truly as portable and lightweight as the pen and the notebook. The idea of the film camera as a pen (or camera stylo as it is sometimes known) was introduced by Alexandre Astruc in his 1948 essay The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo.
Astruc was one of many film theorists who had high expectations about the potential of cinema to go beyond mere entertainment and spectacle, and who believed that cinema was capable of expressing complex, philosophical thought. He believed that cinema could be the intellectual equal of the novel or the philosophical essay, and nearly seventy years ago he said,
“Maurice Nadeau wrote in an article in the newspaper Combat: ‘If Descartes lived today, he would write novels.’ With all due respect to Nadeau, a Descartes of today would already have shut himself up in his bedroom with a 16mm camera and some film, and would be writing his philosophy on film: for his Discours de la Methods would today be of such a kind that only the cinema could express it satisfactorily. […] From today onwards, it will be possible for the cinema to produce works which are equivalent, in their profundity and meaning, to the novels of Faulkner and Malraux, to the essays of Sartre and Camus.”
But was Astruc right? Well, the philosopher John Gray might agree that he was. Indeed, Gray might well go further and say that the film-makers of today are doing a better job than academic philosophers in exploring some of the key philosophical issues of our time. In his review of a collection of Nietzsche’s lectures on education, entitled Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, Gray tells us that,
“Justin Kurzel’s film of Macbeth presents an uncompromisingly truthful vision of the human situation unlike anything in the academic study of the humanities at the present time. The Wire and Breaking Bad explored the contradictions of ethics with a rigour and realism that is lacking in the baroque disquisitions on justice and altruism that occupy philosophers. Amazon’s version of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a more compelling rendition of the slipperiness of consensus reality than you will find in any number of turgid volumes of critical theory.”
Of course, neither Gray nor anyone else is saying that one form of expression is, per se, better than another. And Astruc’s point about Descartes is deliberately designed to be provocative and polemical. To argue that the cine essay is better than the essay is as pointless as trying to argue which account of the Holocaust is the best; Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, Primo Levi’s memoir If This Is A Man, or David Cesarani’s book The Final Solution. The point is that the essay and the cine essay can present different perspectives on the same subject, and will reveal different things about that subject through the specificity of the different media.
But the question we need to ask is what does this have to do with teaching and learning? Well, if we are persuaded that film is capable of expressing complex, philosophical thought, and if we are also persuaded that the equipment with which to make films is small, portable and already in the hands of many students, then it may follow that, on occasion, we might want to ask their students to submit a cine essay instead of an essay. And this is where the work of LSE lecturer Professor William A. Callahan comes in. Professor Callahan leads a course in Visual International Relations at LSE, and his students are regularly assessed via documentary films. The reason for this is, he says, that
“Documentaries encourage students to work collaboratively, reinforce concepts learnt, and generate new knowledge as well as resources that can be used by future students. Allowing students to create knowledge (and materials) together seems an excellent practice, so it’s a surprise it isn’t more widespread.”
Professor Callahan’s decision to introduce documentary making as an assessed component of his course came from his own experiences of making films, after he took a short course in documentary film-making and started making his own films. As he found out from his own experiences as a filmmaker, the camera is capable of recording the
“nonlinguistic and nonrepresentational aspects of knowledge: the laughs, sighs, shrugs, cringes and tears that are provoked in the on-camera interview process, which then can be edited into an engaging set of images that, in turn, can produce laughs, cringes and tears in the film’s audience.”
And it is this ability to convey meaning and to persuade through the use of images that he wants his students to understand when they take his course.
“That’s what the students get by the end of the course. They know how to write an essay but by the end of the course they should know how to, not just convince us with their academic, rational thinking, but move us through their images, move us emotionally.”
While it may not be possible to get access to the kind of equipment used by Callahan and his students, mobile phone manufacturers are continually trying to persuade us of the high quality of the cameras in their phones. Apple’s Shot on an iPhone campaign was a major part of the iPhone 6 release, Samsung have their own Captured on a Samsung S7 gallery, and most of the other big mobile manufacturers make great claims about the quality of the cameras in their phones. And there are now film festivals entirely dedicated to screening films shot on mobile phones, including the Mobile Motion Film Festival and the Mobile Film Festival, which is running for the twelfth time in 2017. Given than many of these devices are already in the pockets of our students, is now a good time to consider the cine essay?
Tips and recommendations
1. Probably the most important recommendation for anyone thinking about asking their students to submit a film or documentary, is firstly to have a go a making a film yourself. If you don’t have your own film-making gear, the LearnTech team can lend you an iPad so that you can have a go at making a film. The LearnTech iPads come with iMovie (a film editing program), so you can film and edit on the iPad. You can also borrow an iPad tripod from the LearnTech team.
2. If you don’t know where to start there are some usful introductory guides about making films on mobile devices. This one from Tom Barrance is worth a look: http://learnaboutfilm.com/making-a-film/filmmaking-iphones-ipads/
3. You can learn how to use iMovie to edit your film by signing up to the course on Lynda.com. All staff at the University can access Lynda courses for free (unfortunately students cannot access Lynda courses for free at the present time). The iMovie on iPad course is here: https://www.lynda.com/iMovie-tutorials/iMovie-iOS-Essential-Training/165441-2.html
4. If you can get a few people together then it may be possible to run a one day workshop for staff who are interested in learning how to film and edit using iPads. If this is something you’d like to do, feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
5. This one is important. While the LearnTech team can lend iPads to members of staff for short periods of time, there is nowhere in the University where students can borrow film-making equipment (unless they are film/media/photography students). Thus, any film or documentary assignment will rely on students having their own equipment. Although most students do have smartphones, not all will have one, so you may want to make any film assessment into group projects.
6. If you do decide to alter an assessment to make it a film submission you will need to have your module re-validated. This is not an especially onerous process, but you may like to ask a Learning Designer to help you with this. Learning Designers can help you to design a suitable moving image assessment and can check through your learning outcomes to ensure that new assessment aligns with the learning outcomes. To change a module for the forthcoming academic year, you will ideally need to be ready to submit the revalidation paperwork in the January of the current academic year.
7. Prior to making any changes to a module and introducing a film/documentary assignment, it may be worthwhile asking your current students what they think of the idea.
8. Film-making can be quite time-consuming, so it might be best to err on the side of caution and keep the film length short, especially if it is the first time your students have sumitted a film. Five minutes is plenty of time, and could easily equate to 2.5 assessment units in a group project with two or three students per group. Again, a Learning Designer can help you with this process.
9. NILE fully supports student moving image submissions. Students can upload their completed films to http://video.northampton.ac.uk and can submit them to assignment submission points in NILE. Staff can view these film submissions directly in NILE without having to download them. Staff can also use http://video.northampton.ac.uk to upload their own films and embed them into NILE modules.
10. If you find that you really start to enjoy film-making and want to take things to the next level, you can learn all about making films from one of the great modern masters, Werner Herzog: https://www.masterclass.com/classes/werner-herzog-teaches-filmmaking
More information about William Callahan
If you would like to know more about William Callahan’s approach you can read about it here: http://lti.lse.ac.uk/lse-innovators/william-a-callahan-visual-international-politics-student-movies/
You can also watch him talking about it here: https://vimeo.com/140330542
You can view his films and the films of his students here: https://vimeo.com/billcallahan
And you can read his paper, The visual turn in IR: documentary filmmaking as a critical method here: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/64668/
21 tips, tricks and shortcuts for making movies on your mobile: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/12/21-tips-tricks-and-shortcuts-for-making-movies-on-your-mobile
10 tips for editing video: http://blog.ted.com/10-tips-for-editing-video/
7 interviewing tips for video storytellers: http://blog.ed.ted.com/2016/11/23/7-interviewing-tips-for-video-storytellers/
How our mobile-only TV package made the network news: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/academy/entries/c1b5506f-c627-417e-8958-ca36aaf86f01
Instead Of A Book Report, My Students ‘Wrote’ A Video: http://www.teachthought.com/the-future-of-learning/technology/instead-of-a-book-report-my-students-wrote-a-video/
6 Steps to Media Creation in the Classroom: http://dailygenius.com/6-steps-media-creation-classroom/
* Many thanks indeed to Belinda Green for the useful links.
The practice of teaching a class using PowerPoint is common at the University, with seating, video projectors and PCs in every teaching room all arranged to contribute to its adoption as the standard teaching method.
As a way of displaying information to a group, PowerPoint is effective, and whilst there are lots of other pieces of software (such as Prezi) that could lay claim to creating more vibrant and exciting presentations, few match PowerPoint’s effectiveness for its flexibility, ease of use, and the widespread digital literacy that comes with using such a popular Microsoft product.
It may sound like I’m rather fond of it, and yes I think it’s a good piece of software, especially as it’s fit for purpose, and almost certainly that there’s no better software for giving widespread presentations by a large group of staff.
So what’s the point of this blog post you may wonder?
Well, aside from the obvious technological differences, a lecturer standing at the front of a classroom talking over a set of PowerPoint slides is very much a reproduction of traditional teaching (otherwise known as didactic, direct instruction, or teacher centred learning).
That is, it’s a reproduction of how (most) lecturers taught 100-500 years ago when it was (and possibly still is) believed that students learned best by memorising the content that the lecturer taught and then reproduced that knowledge in an essay. Whilst it’s obvious that the educational landscape has changed radically, traditional teaching as a method has seen very little revision.
So before I jump into how active learning is different, let’s take a few moments to consider the benefits of traditional teaching with PowerPoint and the reasons it’s been so widely adopted.
- It is (comparatively) easy to create teaching materials
- It is easy to replicate lessons between groups
- Materials can be easily shared online and between tutors
- Many lecturers will have grown up with traditional teaching methods (and have been successful academically)
- Lecturers are often specialists in their fields rather than trained as teachers and therefore unaware of other teaching methods.
- There is often little communication between staff on teaching methods
- Staff have tended to stay in post for long periods (because we love the job)
- Classrooms with video projectors, smartboards and seating arrangements perpetuate the practice of teacher-centred learning
- Lecturers are busy and do not always have as much time as they would like to think about how they might develop their teaching
- PowerPoints are useful in consolidating your understanding of a subject
Clearly, it’s not all a bed of roses. We all know that creating quality PowerPoint presentations can take time, skill and a great deal of thought to get right.
In order to keep PowerPoint presentations up to date we have to:
- Learn new software / keeping up to date
- Research the subject, write and design slides
- Learn how to upload for students via Blackboard
- Load to PCs in class
- Constantly revise content
With such an investment in time and effort and understanding the problems of teaching at this level, perhaps it’s little surprise that many lecturers are wedded to their traditional teaching materials (who wants to lose their babies?)
But what if I could offer you a better deal … less work with better student results? More motivated and engaged students, a more vibrant and exciting learning environment?
Yes that’s exactly what’s on the table,
An alternative to traditional teaching is active learning (also known as student centred learning) This is learning centred around activities rather than a lecturer presenting content and students listening.
An activity could be any number of things: a presentation; a debate; a picture; video; poster; notes on a discussion board. And students could work in groups or individually.
The main emphasis here is that the student learns by participating in an activity: they may research, discuss, and consolidate their understanding into an output. One key difference in this teaching method is that lecturers act more like a facilitator than a ‘sage on a stage’.
I think it’s important to note at this point that PowerPoint itself is neither a traditional or active teaching tool, it is the means of how we (mostly) deliver traditional teaching, however it is also often adopted by students for active learning.
What does that mean and how will it look?
Well let’s replace that hour long PowerPoint presentation (that takes three hours to produce) with something like the following:
1. a few introduction slides that introduce the topic
2. an activity for the students to engage in, (perhaps some online research, and a discussion)
3. verbal feedback
4. a few slides at the end to wrap-up the activity
5. an ongoing task, for students to consolidate their learning on their personal blogs
It needs fleshing out a bit but I hope you’re getting the idea. It’s placing the focus on the participant rather than on you and allowing the students to do all the hard work.
The funny thing is that active learning is precisely the process that you go through when preparing a new PowerPoint (the process of research, writing, and reflection are all in there). We know it works as we do it all the time ourselves. The irony is that as lecturers we are getting a better learning experience than the students are.
You may be wondering what to do with all the PowerPoint files you’ve already made, and the answer is to keep them as your reference material. Not only can you dip in and out of them from time to time, stripping out slides as needs be, and share parts of them with students both in class and online, but they’re also a consolidation and document of your own ‘active learning’ journey, you can be confident that your time hasn’t been wasted.
Before I sign off, here are a few FAQs
How do you know my teaching methods aren’t effective?
I don’t, only you, the students, maybe an observer in your room, and feedback can tell you (honestly) if your teaching is effective. But generally speaking lecturers using ‘traditional teaching’ methods complain of ‘looking out on blank faces’, ‘students that are unengaged’, and a lack of understanding within assessments. This is an widespread observation and certainly not a criticism of your ability to teach.
Some of my students do very well at ‘traditional teaching’ why should we cater for unmotivated students?
It would be wrong to say that traditional teaching is not effective, for motivated students (especially those with a good memory) it can be very effective. But research shows that active learning provides better results for all students, especially those who are not traditionally academic. Rather than cater for the minority of motivated students, active learning offers a solution that’s more inclusive.
Is this new method of teaching tried and tested?
Yes, many teachers already adopt this style of teaching, especially those who have taught in language schools and HE, it just happens that it is yet to be widely adopted as the preferred method of teaching at this level.
Why should I learn a new way to teach?
It’s almost certain that your teaching is constantly evolving, every new piece of content, module you teach and method of delivery involves new skills learned, whilst changing to active learning may seem a giant leap in teaching style, the reality is that the process will involve lots of small steps, much in the same way as any other changes you have made. As educators we don’t stop learning, it’s just that by ‘doing it’ we don’t often notice.
What happens if I don’t have the time to do this?
We all know that time is precious, especially mid term when you are in the thick of teaching. However Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if you’ve read it this far then I’d strongly advise you to reach out for a helping hand from the Institute of Teaching and Learning (ILT) and from our friendly team of Learning Designers. ILT are very keen to promote improved learning techniques through their PGCAP programme and their C@N-DO workshops and they have the pedagogic knowledge to set you off on the right course. Another good source of help is to arrange a face to face, 1:1 session with one of the Learning Designers and see what happens – you will almost certainly find they’re full of good ideas and are there to help (email: LD@northampton.ac.uk).
If I already to this do I need to do anything?
There’s a good chance I’m preaching to the converted, but it’s still worth discussing this with a Learning Designer to promote good practice. If you’re doing this already then great, they’ll help you identify best practice and may want to use your teaching methods as a case study so you can help others discover the benefits of active learning.
Hopefully I’ve whet your appetite and you want to know more.
I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting, if so you may like to read the following posts:
Designing e-tivities – some lessons learnt by trial and error.
What is the flipped classroom?
Will flipping my class improve student learning?
In the next post I’ll be reviewing a number of digital learning tools you can use in the classroom for active learning, the pros and cons of each and looking at a few examples of how lecturers are currently using these in the classroom.
I recently read an insightful piece from Charles D. Morrison, which argues, among other things, for a clear distinction between ‘information’ and knowledge’ in educational discourse. Morrison, like many others, holds that while information may be transferred (e.g. through telling or lecturing), knowledge cannot – that is, information must be contextualised, applied, experienced in order to become knowledge. This will be a familiar point to anyone interested in effective pedagogy, but the article is worth a read, not least because it communicates clearly the responsibilities of this for the student as well as the tutor. It’s also a point that bears repeating at this time of year, as we consider the new cohorts of students who have already begun to walk in to our classrooms.
Everyone, students and tutors alike, will bring something slightly different to the classroom. There will be differences in the prior knowledge and skills students have developed, but there may also be differences in the ways these are integrated into their experience – the preconceptions (and misconceptions) they have created in order to make new information make sense to them. This collection of intellectual baggage is what Phil Race refers to as ‘learning incomes’ – and it can really make a difference to how each student engages with new learning, even in the most carefully designed and structured learning activities. How then to ensure that each of these individuals can progress towards common intended outcomes?
Race argues that the best way to do this is to ask them what they already know, using one of our favourite tools here in Learning Design, the humble post-it. In the piece linked above, he describes a simple exercise designed to collate students’ thoughts on the most important thing they already know about a topic, and the biggest question they have. This kind of exercise is useful for helping teaching staff to identify knowledge gaps and misconceptions, but Race also points out another important gain: that “Learners are very relaxed about doing this, as ‘not knowing’ is being legitimised”. This can be particularly important for new students, who may lack confidence in their abilities, because it frames the classroom as a safe space for exploration, experimentation and failure (often a necessary precursor to success!).
If you’re thinking about using a similar diagnostic activity with your new learners this term, you might also find this post from Janet G. Hudson useful, as it includes a few more suggestions on how to gather data on common misunderstandings in your subject. Or, if you’re already using this type of activity, why not share your thoughts below on what has worked well for you?
We came across this great resource recently, from the Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation Center at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s designed to help academics solve teaching problems through a three-step process:
- Step 1: Identify a PROBLEM you encounter in your teaching.
- Step 2: Identify possible REASONS for the problem
- Step 3: Explore STRATEGIES to address the problem.
To access the site, click on the image, or use this hyperlink: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/index.html
I want to change my programme structure…
I want to include a placement / work-based learning / a Changemaker challenge…
I want to use a particular assessment or technology…
I want to ensure an equivalent experience for students at other sites…
What do I need to do?
The Learning Design team have collated a document listing the most frequently asked questions from CAIeROs and consultations over the past two years, along with answers provided by the appropriate support teams. Hopefully the guidance here can help you identify the processes and teams that are in place to support you with a range of course design issues including quality assurance, assessment, distance learning and technology issues.
The list has been added to the Sharing Higher Education Design (S.H.E.D.) site on NILE. You can access the site at http://bit.ly/SHED-NILE, but you will need to be enrolled to view the document.
We’ll keep this document updated as new questions and answers come up. Want to submit a question that we haven’t covered? Just email it to the Learning Design team at LD@northampton.ac.uk.
Written by Sylvie Lomer and Elizabeth Palmer.
“Why should I even be doing this no one else can be bothered…”
“If I think it is going to benefit me then I will do it, if I don’t I won’t”
“It’s all so boring and hard, I can’t be bothered”
These are the kinds of phrases every teacher dreads overhearing in whispers in class, or in the corridors or even straight to our faces! Instead, we hope against hope for the student that at least trusts us enough to go with the flow….
“For me, I just do it anyway even if it’s not compulsory I’m probably going to do it because there’s a good reason someone has set it up”
…and even more so for that keen student, bright eyed at the front, hand raised, prepared and ready to go!
This blog post deals specifically with what might constitute ‘student engagement’ and the fact that it is often hard to tell what ‘non-engagement’ looks like. In addition, it hopefully goes some way towards establishing that there are different ways to support engagement and that both staff and students need to develop the right skills to foster high levels of engagement under active learning pedagogical models.
What is ‘Engagement’?
Active learning gives preference to group work, co-production, discussion and debate because its pedagogical underpinnings are based on relational and social learning theories. Engagement in these activities is, supposedly, easily observable. Students are either talking, writing, creating etc. or not. One of the difficulties faced by lecturers when moving to such models of learning is the discovery that engagement is not, in fact, as easy to measure as one might assume and that the characteristics of engagement that are easily observed in active learning favour more vocal and confident students. This may leave teachers with a group of students who are not observably participating in these activities. This gives rise to concerns about engagement and participation levels. Are those students that are not vocal, not participating, not creating or ‘doing’ the learning task not engaging and by proxy not learning?
If we begin by assuming that engagement is not necessarily:
What teachers expect.
Then what is it and how do we support it?
Fredericks, Blumenfield and Paris (2004) talk about 3 dimensions to engagement: behavioural, emotional, and cognitive. This suggests that a student could exhibit what we might constitute as observable behaviourally positive engagement through regular attendance and completion of all tasks and assignments, but still be emotionally alienated by the material and therefore, not necessarily have learnt anything (cognitive engagement). In this example has the student ‘engaged’ and does that represent quality learning?
An online environment makes visible things which are present in traditional classrooms, but may remain implicit. In online contexts, for example, we might presume that to be engaged, students must be contributing to discussion boards, raising hands in virtual classrooms, writing blog posts, commenting on classmates’ contributions, and so on. But a small proportion of students are watching the discussions unfold. They may still be learning by watching. Indeed this is part of established learning models, such as Kolb’s learning cycle.
Undoubtedly, there are always some in a given group whose silence reflects confusion, uncertainty, sleepiness, or alienation. But arguably, it is possible to listen actively, to take effective notes and learn by doing so. Sometimes silence is an indicator of thought, of processing, of reflection, of listening.
Not all forms of engagement look the same. So how do you as a teacher determine whether silence is problematic or a different form of engagement?
If it’s online, set the tracker on each of your learning activities. You will be able to see who has accessed each learning activity, even if they have not made a written contribution. Contact them and ask what’s going on, non-confrontationally. Look for changes in patterns. A decline or shift in regularity of tracking patterns might indicate that the student is struggling. This requires regular involvement from the tutor, checking the statistics on the VLE and responding to individual students where appropriate.
If it’s face-to-face, ask questions as you circulate through the groups. Check in with students who seem quiet – have they understood the task? are the group dynamics excluding them? Think about whether they can participate in an alternative mode (e.g. make notes and pass them on). Make this check in personal – ask how they are, whether something is going on, this helps students to feel heard as an individual not just a collective.
Once you’ve determined that there is an engagement problem, the next step is to understand why.
What creates barriers to engagement?
Firstly, and fairly obviously, it’s worth considering prior assumptions about why students are not engaging. They may not be engaging for a number of reasons, some of which are outside their control. There is no meaningful category of ‘disengaged students’ and even students exhibiting “inertia, apathy, disillusionment, or engagement in other pursuits” (Krause, 2005, p.4) may have significant and understandable reasons. Indeed students experience different modes of engagement at different times as a continuum rather than as innate characteristics or traits. Whilst some modes of engagement may be desirable and some may not be, categorising students in relation to modes of engagement is unhelpful.
Students may be temporarily disengaged due to personal stress or concerns. They may be more permanently disengaged due to a fundamental breakdown in one or more of the three dimensions of engagement. If a student is in this situation, telling them to engage is probably not going to work. Asking them whether they are OK or why their engagement patterns have changed may be enough to show them that they are heard and seen as a whole person and they may consequently re-engage. Other times it may be necessary to implement a longer term strategy.
Often, it is necessary to address implicit requirements and skills for effective participation in learning activities. For example, many students in their first year are expected to engage in seminar debate and discussion. For many, this is a first. They may not have the requisite transferable skills of listening, building on contributions, negotiating, synthesising, and courteously disagreeing. These are sophisticated, high order thinking skills which are not innate to any of us. Scaffolding activities and modelling good practice, starting with easier tasks and concrete learning activities is vital.
Assumptions about requisite implicit skills extend to teachers as well. Facilitation of discussion and group work is an extremely challenging task and most of us have never been formally taught either how to formulate questions for discussion or how to stimulate and continue the discussion (or other learning activities). Anyone who has been to a conference will know that discussions do not emerge automatically and can be very difficult to manage. It is worth asking, therefore, whether it is our own uncertainties and fears, subconsciously perceived by students, that underlie disengagement. Beginning to address issues of engagement amongst a student cohort invariably starts with necessary self-reflection and personal development. Finding problems with engagement in our classes and recognising we need help is a particularly hard thing to admit to as it can feel like a loss of face. Often we try to identify a solution or solutions on our own, feeling unable to admit to the problem or indeed not knowing where, or from whom, to get support. Engaging in collaborative peer observation that is not in any way linked to performance management processes can be a start to this. Sometimes having a second pair of eyes and ears in the room can help spot things that it is difficult to do alone.
How do I improve engagement?
Our role as teachers, then, is to establish the conditions in which all students can and do engage in different ways at different times. Learning design, in all its facets, is the key means to tackling this effectively.
As a starting point this may mean reflecting on the content. Get engaged/ re-engaged yourself! Are you excited about this session/ module? Do you think this is a really interesting topic? Are you looking forward to spending time with your students? Are you keen to see what they learn and how they respond to the learning activities you have so carefully created? This must seem incredibly obvious, but often over the course of many years of teaching a subject, it is easy to underestimate the power of a teacher’s authentic emotions on the outcome of a class. The demands on a lecturer’s time and emotional energy have increased exponentially over the last few years and it is easy to become alienated ourselves from our discipline and our desire to educate. Our own well-being as practitioners has a significant impact on our students. A sense of excitement about learning and growth within our field is as important for us as it is for our students. Teachers can be gatekeepers for students into their profession, and modelling continuous learning and development offers opportunities to make learning relevant to future practice. If you can communicate your enthusiasm, students will pick up on your engagement. In an active learning model, having projects in your professional field that you are working on and enjoying can be a useful basis for case studies, work experience opportunities for your students, collaborative student research etc.
Secondly, be transparent, open and honest with respect to your pedagogy. If you’re not sure about something, or if you are trying something new and you don’t know how it’s going to work, tell your students. Ask them for their feedback and cooperation. Ask for their help. Most students will be delighted to be treated as equals in this scenario, and very few will take advantage of it. Student agency in the design and implementation of their learning is highly important and often a successful way of raising engagement in a cohort. Equally, give students some control and agency within the learning activities and tasks. For a given task, give choices about how to complete it. This can be individual or a group discussion about how best to complete the task – this is often a brilliant opportunity for meta-cognition or explicit reflection on learning. In relation to technology-enhanced learning this can also be a means of extending digital literacy within a class. Whilst you may not be aware of the range of technology available for a given task, the collective has a wider reach. Provide opportunities for students to share practice to extend learning and tech usage beyond themselves.
Thirdly, engage in staff development to increase your facilitation skills for both face-to-face and online environments, so that in group work you can effectively manage the dominant members of the group in order that there is space for more reticent students to develop their ideas. It can be helpful to alert students in advance so that they can prepare for the activities (e.g. tell them what the discussion topic will be). This gives students more time to process, collect their thoughts, develop arguments etc. before they are required to discuss the content with classmates. In a blended learning scenario, this can be a significant strength. Online preparation activities can be developed to allow students the time to reflect on issues, in advance of face-to-face sessions. Virtual classrooms allow students to raise their hands, ask questions and participate without being seen by the rest of the class. Therefore, use of virtual classrooms in addition to face to face sessions can offer alternative means of participation. Students that might never raise their hand in class normally, often do in an environment that offers greater anonymity and reduces the risk of embarrassment.
Coming back to the 3 dimensions to engagement – behavioural, emotional and cognitive – we can, and must, examine our learning activities and environments to foster all 3 dimensions.
What does that mean for how we understand ‘engagement’?
All of this suggests a need to re-conceptualise the notion of engagement. The key thing is the recognition that student engagement is the responsibility of both students and their institutions (including the teaching staff) (Witkowski, 2015; Morrison, 2014). Dealing with a ‘lack’ of student engagement should, therefore, not constitute a blame game. Instead it is about genuine, open and honest conversations about how learning should take place and what our mutual roles are between those involved in the learning. At Higher Education level the agency of the students is key but must be understood in the context of the structures within institutions. Here’s one possible, working definition:
Student engagement is concerned with the interaction between the time, effort, and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and development of students and performance and reputation of the institution (Trowler, 2010).
If any of the content of this blog post has caused you to want help in identifying or problem solving for engagement in your module please contact: LD@northampton.ac.uk
Fredricks, J.A., Blumenfeld, P.C. and Paris, A.H. (2004) School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence. Review of Educational Research. 74 (1), pp. 59–109. In: Trowler, V. (2010) Student engagement literature review. Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. The Higher Education Academy. Available at: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/trowler/StudentEngagementLiteratureReview.pdf (Accessed on 2nd September 2016)
Krause, K. (2005) Understanding and Promoting Student Engagement in University Learning Communities. Paper presented as keynote address: Engaged, Inert or Otherwise Occupied?: Deconstructing the 21st Century Undergraduate Student at the James Cook University Symposium ‘Sharing Scholarship in Learning and Teaching: Engaging Students’. James Cook University, Townsville/Cairns, Queensland, Australia, 21–22 September. In: Trowler, V. (2010) Student engagement literature review. Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. The Higher Education Academy. Available at:http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/trowler/StudentEngagementLiteratureReview.pdf (Accessed on 2nd September 2016)
Morrison, Charles D. (2014) “From ‘Sage on the Stage’ to ‘Guide on the Side’: A Good Start,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 8 (1) Article 4. Available at:http://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol8/iss1/4 (Accessed on 2nd September 2016)
Witkowski, Paula, & Cornell, Thomas. (2015). An Investigation into Student Engagement in Higher Education Classrooms. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 10, pp.56-67.
What is “blended learning”?
“Blended learning” is an umbrella term, referring to learning activity that happens across contexts. The ‘blend’ is usually between learning activity happening inside and outside the classroom, or between learning that happens in real-world and online environments (or both!). Many of us learn in this way every day, informally – we might look up information in books and online, discuss it with peers over coffee and via email, draft new ideas on paper and on the laptop. As technology becomes ubiquitous, we need to be able to take advantage of both physical and virtual learning opportunities, to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of each, and to synthesise learning from different contexts. The challenge for educators is to design the right ‘blend’ of activity – both to support specific learning, and to help students to develop their independent learning skills for the future.
There are two key principles to remember if you’re new to blended learning. The first is to start with the right task for the learning, and then find the right tool (don’t choose a tool and then try to find a use for it!).
The second principle is the ‘blending’ part. The idea of this is that one type of learning activity supports and feeds into the other, and connections and transferability are clear.
Getting started with blended learning
You can ‘blend’ almost any kind of teaching, by starting to add in activities that help students bridge the learning they are doing inside and outside taught sessions. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, because each learning activity will depend on what you want to achieve. Starting small, with one type of activity or tool, can help you and your students build confidence and skills, and figure out what works well and what doesn’t. Here are some tips for designing learning activities online:
- Identify learning that can be done outside class time. Sometimes the best way to do this is to think about what you would really like to be able to do with your students in the classroom, and work backwards. Storyboarding can help with this.
- Design the right activity to support the learning. What should the student be doing in order to learn this? Who else should be involved? What resources will they need? Prompts like the Hybrid Learning Model cards can help you to frame different kinds of learning activities.
- Once you have a clear idea of what you want to happen, then choose the right tool to support this type of activity. The University provides a core set of tools that we have vetted for you. Beyond this there are hundreds of possibilities! All of these have strengths and weaknesses, but don’t worry, you don’t need to be a tech guru. The Learning Technology team can help with this.
Many people begin by transferring a learning activity that they already know works well into the online environment. For example, if you would usually ask your students to discuss a contentious idea, or defend a position in a debate, you could do this in an online forum, or if you would usually demonstrate something for the students, you could do this using video. If you’re a little more confident, you might want to think of some ways that technology can extend your teaching and allow you to do things that you couldn’t do in a traditional face to face setting. You might use it to connect students to resources, peers or external experts. You might use it to provide visualisations of text-based materials, or to build knowledge checks that provide students with instant feedback, or to create spaces where they can pool their own resources and ideas to inform their work.
Tips for success
Be clear about the why and the how. Sometimes staff who try blended learning for the first time find that students don’t engage as they had hoped with the online activity. Student feedback tells us this is usually because either they don’t understand it, or they don’t see the value. When introducing online tasks, it helps to make it clear why they are being used, and how they will help students to achieve the learning outcomes. It’s also a good idea to explain any unfamiliar tools or processes in advance, just as you would when introducing a new task in the classroom. If you can, get a student perspective on your design before you launch it – and maybe try some online courses yourself, to see what it’s like on the other side!
Be realistic. Be aware that creating online resources and supporting online activity might require slightly different skills to the ones you use in the classroom, so allow yourself time to develop these. Think too about the ratio of effort to impact for your module – creating complex professional-looking resources requires a big investment of time in advance, although this may be worth it if there is one sticky concept that students really struggle with early in their studies. On the other hand, you may be able to get the same effect by using existing resources on that topic and asking students to critique them, or even by asking students to research the topic and share their own key resources. You don’t need to be a computer genius (or spend months learning complex software) to create that lightbulb moment!
Learn from others. Working in a team can really help here – not just in terms of sharing the workload and learning new skills, but also in setting consistent expectations for students across different modules on the same programme. If you’re stuck for ideas, have a look of some of our case studies, or ask around to see what colleagues are trying.
Do one thing
Ready to give it a try? If you want help figuring out what to blend, at a session, module or even programme level, the Learning Design team can help. If you already have an idea for an online activity, but you’re not sure about the technology, the Learning Technology team can help. Get in touch and we’ll help you get started!
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