Posts Tagged ‘students’

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!

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I’ve heard a lot of colleagues lately complaining that they can’t teach some particular lesson in exactly the way they used to or exactly the way they want to because this year the room is wrong, or the number of students is wrong, or the weather is wrong. These people seem to depend on the happy conjunction of a precise set of circumstances for their teaching to work, and their teaching plan crumbles into dust if things turn out to be different.

Me, I have a different approach. If the room turns out to be a sloping lecture theatre instead of a bench lab, or if it turns out that there are loads more students than I anticipated, or if lightning storms mean I can’t use the surveying kit, well, we’ll just make the most of it, find a workaround, and do the best we can. Teaching a Geography class is not the same as building a nuclear power station or launching a rocket ship to Mars: it’s ok sometimes to use your professional imagination and make it up as you go along. Is the class too big for you to run your planned seminar session? Break it into buzz groups for a bit. Can’t use the big metal poles for surveying in a storm? Dig out the old-fashioned tape and compass kit and let the students learn a new approach. Projector malfunction? Excellent, you’ll have to improvise with the whiteboard and a piece of cheese!

For example, I decided this year to up-scale my “looking out of the window” exercise from a small-group tutorial activity to a large-group lab exercise. The exercise essentially involves students looking out of the window and making a series of observations about the world outside. Well, I got to the room and found that the windows were all blocked off with security screens, so there was no chance of looking through the window. A disaster? Not at all. If you can’t look through the window, just look around the room instead. Improvising with the unexpected constraint made the exercise more engaging for me as a teacher, and since the students didn’t know what was “supposed” to have happened there was no negative impact on them. They thought they were doing the old “let’s look around the room” exercise!

As a University lecturer, and no doubt in many, many other lines of work, you have to assume that your best laid plan will be laid low by some unexpected circumstance, and you need to be adaptable at zero notice to change what you are doing, invent workarounds, and make the best of whatever you find yourself working with. It’s much like everything else in life: if you spend the available time regretting all the things you don’t have (windows, smaller groups, more equipment…) then you won’t spend it making the most of what you do have.

When you walk into the lecture room, come prepared with a few back-up plans, an open mind, and a willingness to improvise, experiment or explore. After all, that’s what you would expect the students to do, isn’t it?

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I tell my students that Geography is all around them, even in the small everyday places that we take for granted. “The truths,” I say “are not out there, they are in here with us; quietly behind that upturned box or in between our tea time and our evening walk.”

Some of the time I believe what I say. I believe that we can find Geography even in the small places. But sometimes I think: no, that’s just not right.  Geography is in the mountains and the oceans, in the desert and the sky. Geography is in the hearts of explorers and in our stories of far-flung islands. Geography is the giant constellation in which we are the tiny points of light.

But just as when our fathers taught us that there are three ways to melt ice, although we know now that they were wrong, when our time comes to teach our sons and daughters we teach them the same three ways.

We tell them what we must. There is no point in teaching them our truths. They have to learn their own.

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I’ve been interested for a long time in the way everything is connected. Douglas Adams’ “Total Perspective Vortex” extrapolated from a small piece of fairy cake to reconstruct the entire universe, complete in every molecule. You could start with anything (I always cite Mahler’s 6th Symphony) and, beginning with one small question about one small part of that thing, from connection to connection work your way outwards and eventually reach the total sum of human knowledge and experience. Sometimes, as we look around us and see all the pieces reaching out to each other, the world looks like a maelstrom of whirling connections. Yesterday one flashed past that I thought I’d write down as a little example.

When I turn on the engine in the van the radio comes on automatically and I, automatically, reach to turn it off since it is usually playing some dreadful CD that Debbie has left in. Yesterday I reached to turn it off but stopped because it was playing radio, and a song I liked. “Mahler?” You ask? No. Cyndi Lauper. Girls just want to have fun. I can like that as well as Mahler, can’t I? Well anyway, that was what happened, and I drove off happily listening to Cyndi Lauper. Hadn’t heard it for years. Later that day a student submitted their Inspirational Landscapes project online for me to mark. (By coincidence, I had mentioned my “extrapolating from Mahler” project and read to them the bit about the fairy cake. I even read them some Proust, who had a fairy cake all of his own, extrapolating from a dunked madeleine to a lifetime’s memories.  I didn’t play them Cyndi Lauper. The student submitting the work was the only person in the class who could count the beat to Solsbury Hill (don’t you love that 7-time beat?). But that isn’t the connection). Part of the student’s submission was a YouTube video that they had created, and when the video ended, YouTube automatically (no, things happening automatically isn’t the connection) YouTube automatically offered to play me another video uploaded by the same student (here it comes), and the video – nothing to do with the Geography project – was that student playing keyboard and singing… “Girls Just Want to have Fun”.

Writing this post, and thinking of the student who unwittingly inspired it I am reminded how much of what I’ve written here and elsewhere has been inspired by my students, usually without them knowing it. Pasted to the wall of my downstairs toilet as wallpaper amongst the mouldering front pages of many of my papers is the front page of an article I wrote for the journal Progress in Physical Geography in 1997. The article was about how much progress was being made in the science of glaciers and how much new information was being published every year. I started the article with an anecdote about a student. That student, in response to a start-of-course questionnaire in which I asked the group what they wanted to learn – what they wanted to know – had written “I want to know it all”, and I took that as a starting point from which I expanded to, and expounded upon, a broad sweep of information and the unlikelihood than anybody would ever “know it all”. The student who wanted to know it all was called Cara. I had never heard that name before I encountered that student. At the end of the section of the paper where I told her story I mentioned some obscure data set and said “perhaps I should send that data to the girl who wanted to know it all”. Reading that again now I realise she almost certainly never saw that paper or realised that her quick comment on a small questionnaire in a big class of students would lead to something being published in an article, let alone that it would still be fresh and relevant in my personal maelstrom of connections 15 years later. And that’s the starting point for another project: we can never know what will stick. We never know what impacts the smallest things we do might have. We never know who notices what. This year’s student will probably never guess that I saw her singing Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Perhaps I should send her a link to this blog.

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