NB: This post is published both here and (in due course) on Keele University’s Learning and Professional Development Centre “Solutions” blog: http://lpdcsolutions.blogspot.co.uk/
It seems appropriate that my first blog entry for Solutions, which I intended to submit for the start of the academic year and which was supposed to be about teaching time management to newly arrived students, should have been delayed by two months because I have been overwhelmed by – amongst other things – teaching time management to newly arrived students.
Most academics think about the start of October in the way that other people think about the start of January: a new year, big hopes, good resolutions, a fresh start. The new academic year brings with it a fresh crop of the bright young intellects that, changing every year, help to keep our own ideas fresh and constantly renewed. It is an exciting, promising time. I have had nearly forty new years now as a university lecturer or student: enough academic fresh starts to fill two of the lifetimes of my average undergraduate. I’ve done this before, and for me it is not scary. But for you, dear student, this is the first time. We see this academic induction, this welcome week, this fresh start, from very different perspectives. And I need to remember that.
We can try to serve as good examples to our students, but we don’t always have to be models of perfection. The fact that I have time-management problems of my own does not undermine my position in teaching time-management skills to students. It strengthens it. I am teaching from the front line of right now, not from long-remembered experiences of “when I was in your position”. I can face a problem on Monday, figure out a workaround on Tuesday, and teach it to my tutorial group on Wednesday. In my mid fifties I can’t pretend to put myself in my new students’ teenage shoes or claim to be facing the same struggles that they are facing as they settle into University. But I can share with them my equivalent struggles, and show them that fighting battles, finding coping strategies, and dealing with everyday academic problems are normal things that we are all learning to do. If a student sees that I am still learning, and still struggling, perhaps the student will feel less inadequate about their own struggles and their own early setbacks. It’s OK to find University difficult. These challenges are supposed to be here.
And here, for me, is the challenge of induction week. We want to be positive, supportive, and encouraging, but we also have to be honest, realistic and pragmatic. We want to say well done for scoring those A-level grades, but we also have to point out that much of what was covered at A-level was fundamentally flawed. Many of my students begin their degrees hoping for clear answers and reliable certainties. I have to tell them that there are no clear answers and that study at University will introduce them to a whole new set of uncertainties. Welcome on board, but hold on tight.
One of my Welcome-week activities that seems to help students feel at home is the start-of-course diagnostic assessment. Students seem accustomed to having lots of tests and quizzes at school, so having a 15-minute short-answer test included alongside the many unfamiliar experiences of induction week seems to steady the ship for some of them. I tell them that the idea of the test is to help me work out the correct level to pitch material in the early sections of the course, and that it will also give them a broad indication of how far their pre-University work has prepared them for this new stage in their academic journey. They do the test, I let them mark their own or their neighbour’s paper straight away while I talk them through the answers, and as I take in their marked papers I give them a handout with all the questions and all the correct answers on it for them to take away. A couple of days later I see the students again, and tell them that in fact the first test was just a rehearsal, and the real diagnostic assessment is today. I tell them to put away any notes or devices, and I hand out the new, real diagnostic assessment. It is, to their surprise, identical to the one they did before. And here I deliver the first big lesson of the week. I was never interested in whether they knew the answers to the questions on the test. It doesn’t matter: they are only at the start of their learning journey. What I am interested in, and what I want to bring into the students’ line of sight, is what they did when they were presented with a body of information – answers – to take away. Usually, none of the students, or certainly very few, have done anything with the handout from the first test or followed up topics that they were unsure about. The marks for the second test are usually no better than the marks for the first. And here is the teachable moment: the students can see that they totally blew their opportunity to do well on the second test by not following up the feedback on the first test; and they see that what I care about is not their factual knowledge but their approach to learning and their engagement with course materials. If there is a “mark” for the diagnostic assessment, it is the difference in scores between test one and test two. Most important of all is what you chose to do after test one. Or perhaps it is what you will do after test two. Welcome to the programme. Welcome to university.
Generally, this two-stage diagnostic assessment works well, but one potential downside is that I am in a small way tricking or misleading the students, and I don’t like to mess with their trust too much early on. It is important that the students see the key lesson from that exercise (why I had to trick them with that first test), and it is important to (re)establish trust quickly through other activities. One small way that I try to do that is by joining in with the students on further in-class exercises that they do. If I ask a tutorial group to take 60 seconds out and try to write a one-sentence answer to a sample question, I take that same 60 seconds and try to come up with a sentence of my own. Not one that I prepared earlier, but one made in the same time that the students are making theirs. I can then be much more believable if I agree (or disagree) with their argument that 60 seconds was not long enough, and they can even sympathise with me a little if, when I read out my own attempt, there is some comical error in it. If the students can then suggest improvements to my attempt, just as I suggest improvements to theirs, then we are (as a happy by product) well on the way towards addressing issues that surround the new NSS question about whether students feel part of a learning community. Of course they do – they are teaching me at the same time that I am trying to teach them. We are all in this together, even if we are looking at it from different perspectives of experience. And that is one of the most important lessons to incorporate into induction week. Even if it means that the time management exercise has to wait until next time!