Friday 9 January 2015

Making structure meaningful in higher education modules

The underlying structure  

Those of us who teach in the academy judge whether students are engaged by how well they attend when actually the engagement is the key. As long as the student is interacting with the module and as long as they submit their work we actually don’t need to worry.
Students are often concerned that they are paying £9000 grand a year for ten hours contact time in the classroom per week over 22 weeks with some extra contact through tutorial and emails. This may not seem like good value for money. Yet there are very few students who show at every class with the majority attending about 65% of the time. Does this say something about the quality of our teaching?
Per module, the university expects the student to study individually for another 160 hours or so. This is a little unrealistic – most students have to work part time and they must have a bit of a social life. Nevertheless, they do have to do a considerable amount of work on their own.   
We supply much of our material on our virtual learning environment system, Blackboard, so well in some cases that there is almost an argument anyway that it is not worth coming to class. I’m very aware, then, that I must supply some added value for those students who do come along and relying on a bit of stand-up comedy is not enough.

Two more common shapes

Some courses offer individual packages week on week. When it comes to assignment time, the student may refer to just one topic that was covered in a particular week. Why bother attending the other lectures?
At the other end of the scale is the course which builds up week on week to such an extent that it is impossible to start the assignment until after all the teaching has taken place.
I teach one of each sort of course.
On my Intro to Children’s Literature, students have to complete a close reading of a text for their first assignment and they must write an essay or produce a text for their second assignment. These must be texts for readers at different Key Stages. We look at a different Key Stage on five of the weeks, spending two weeks on an overview, one week on graphic novels, one on high-lows, one the history of children’s literature and one on assignment skills and editing. They could get away with attending just two weeks though their work will be enhanced if they attend some of the more general session as well.
Students cannot complete their second assignment competently on my Writing Novels for Young People until they have attended all eleven classes. However, if they do their “homework” conscientiously each week by the time we arrive at week twelve they should have more than enough material for a rough first draft.     

A further problem

Students require formative feedback as we go along yet we can’t take work in each week and mark it. This would require about 60 hours for most of us. It wouldn’t be fair to look at some and not others.
In Creative Writing modules we try to build in a workshop element each week. However, students are not always willing to share work. They should get our input as well as that of their peers.
Looking at draft work just before an assignment is due in is also not acceptable; again, it would not be fair as we wouldn’t have the time to do this for everyone.
The feedback must be part of the lesson.

A possible solution to both problems

I’ve decided to slot assignment skills into weekly sessions. There are seven mark descriptors for English and eight for Creative Writing. The first in both is “Task” and indeed anyway we spend some of the first week in looking at exactly what the assignments require so that from now on the student is aware of what type of information they need to collect in order to complete the assignments well.
We then work through the other skills over the next six to seven weeks.
If students have brought in work for me to look at, I’ll do that whilst they complete a creative writing task in class but feedback general ideas to the whole class afterwards. I make a particular point of mentioning anything that has been done well.
In Introduction to Children’s Literature, we’ll look at both critical and creative assignment skills. I’ll often get them to bullet point an answer to a class or essay question, then give verbal feedback, often based on group work so that if I make any criticism it isn’t about an  individual. For instance, in “argument” week, I’ll point out it they’re not backing their argument, not extending it or not illustrating it.
We then have three weeks on editing. How can they make the overall structure of their piece sound?  Is it tightly written and does it develop well, really showing off what they know about the module? What about a proof read?  
In the final week I present about the task again in the lecture with lots of hints and tips. I allow a long time for Q & A. The seminars then are drop in sessions where students can come along at any time  in the whole two hours- for the whole two hours if they wish – and stay for as little as ten minutes.  They may bring work along at this point but know that I will share it with whoever else is in the room.
Usually there is a correlation between attendance and marks. Those who attend well tend to get better marks though there are some quirky exceptions.
Hopefully, continuing with this more firmly now will enhance that relationship and give those students who attend the added value they deserve.                         


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