Friday 24 May 2013

Student engagement

We worry about attendance. Actually, though, attendance isn’t the problem. Engagement is. I found it very amusing to listen to a student recently saying that they got just eighteen minutes more contact time for the huge fees they were paying. So, if it’s that big a deal, I thought, why don’t you come to class?  
A class I deliver almost every year and that is normally quite well attended has been less well attended this year. I have two groups. One class was quite well attended but less so than normal. The other class was poorly attended. However, the engagement in class was better in the less well attended class.

Engagement within class

This shows in many ways. Students are engaged if:
  • They are willing to express an opinion.
  •  They argue with the lecturer and other students but back up their arguments convincingly.
  • They have done the preparatory task.
  • They leave class prepared to do the “homework”.
  • They bring work to share at the workshop part of the class.

Engagement with the course

This will include a complete knowledge of how the Blackboard site works. (Blackboard is the virtual learning environment tool at the institution where I work). Here they have access to learning materials, example assignments, exact details of assessments, wikis, forums, calendars and eventually their own marks. We’re required also to upload lecture notes to the Learning Materials area.            
Every staff member dreads looking at their email in-boxes yet we maintain a culture of getting back to students as quickly as possible- even when we’re snowed under with marking.
So, students have a lot of access to the workings of our minds even if we don’t see that much of them fact to face.

The VLE as a substitute for a lecturer?

No, never. Not every university can be the OU. They do what they do superbly. That particular style anyway is for a certain type of student. But maybe class time can be used differently and the material that can be digested through reading, watching or listening can be left for the student to consume in their own time.  Class time becomes an opportunity for more direct interaction amongst students and between students and lecturers. There must be some value-added.
One student did joke “Your stuff’s so good on Blackboard it’s not really worth coming to class.”
Naturally the creative writing workshop comes into its own in the face to face class. You cover more ground more quickly and nuances of meaning are more explicit. We’re seriously thinking of making participation an assessed aspect of the course.

How engagement shows up in assignments

So, attendance was poorer this year.  Engagement, I was delighted to notice as I marked, was better. I had a full range of marks, but with just one possible exception amongst forty-three students, it was clear that students were fully committed to the work. This was evident in the amount and type of drafting they’d done. All had followed the requirements, laid out like publishers’ guidelines. Sure, there were mistakes but it was clear that solid attempts to get it all right had been made.  It was clear also that they had looked at all of the notes I’d put on Blackboard so my hard work had paid off as well. I was also pleased with their annotated bibliographies. They’d clearly read the set books and a heap of others.     

Value for money?

Grants have been cut back and in my area particularly we pretty well rely on student fees to cover costs. We have bigger classes, more contact time in fact, we’re working harder with personal tutees as this improves retention and bigger classes mean more admin and more marking. We’ve all had to populate Blackboard sites afresh: a policy of a certain amount of uniformity has been brought in and we’ve moved over to a later version of it. I’ve enjoyed populating mine but it has been hard work.
We’d always say that we have vocations, not jobs, and I guess if I spend the first forty-five minutes of the day reading, that’s part of my “job”. We never stop, really, except to eat and sleep but we do have the enormous privilege of having for a day job what we like doing best. But note, I’ve been marking every bank holiday this year and often at weekends.
That’s what you get for your fees.

Quality not quantity

There is a pedagogical argument actually that says only top quality contact time is worth the effort for student and lecturer alike. An almost contradictory argument I was offered when I was a high school teacher said you only had to deliver one good lesson a week per class to be a good teacher. Actually, though, I think these two arguments are saying the same thing. You just need to motivate your students and they do the rest.
I think I’ve used their dreams of becoming good and published writers to motivate them. They’re on that road now.
Thank goodness. Phew!                   

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