University of Essex

Tricks of the Trade

5 November 2015

Teaching first-year students

Teaching first years

Teaching first-year students: a much discussed topic…

There is a mountain of material published — in print and on the web — advising both new and experienced teachers how both they and their students can prepare for and get the most out of their teaching and learning at first-year level. Negotiating one’s way through this abundance of collected wisdom can be as intimidating as facing a class of students whom we do not yet know well and who, individually, bring a wide a range of experiences of education and expectations of it that challenge our assumptions and our expectations.

The value of diversity

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend several hours with some Essex colleagues exploring the opportunities and challenges in our teaching and support of first-year students. Lucky because they were all very engaged but also because they themselves represented some of the incredible diversity which characterizes our university. Colleagues represented all our academic faculties – Science and Health, Humanities and Social Sciences; our academic and professional services staff; our Graduate Teachers; and our UK partner institutions. They all brought different perspectives and priorities to our discussions.

First-year teaching: challenging our assumptions

As usual I’d prepared some activities and resources to facilitate discussions but talking with and hearing the present challenges of my colleagues reminded me more than ever of the importance of remaining alert to — and feeling the value of — what makes us different as well as what unites us as a community.

Everyone there cared deeply about how they might, as individuals and as representatives of a particular discipline, department or section, enhance the educational experiences of our new first-year students. However, I wasn’t long into my presentation before I came face to face with how my own academic background – as a teacher of history at HE level — was influencing the advice I was giving.

The centrality of criticality?

I talked a lot about how we might develop strategies for developing critical thinking (referencing William Perry and his numerous successors); effectively tackle those occasions when students’ progress stalls because they’re not sure how to assimilate or argue against ‘troublesome’ new knowledge (Ray Land and Jan Meyer’s work on ‘Threshold Concepts’) or when their confidence fails because they think they simply ‘can’t’ do something new (Carol Dweck’s ‘growth’ versus ‘fixed’ mindset).

Whilst some colleagues in the room shared my experiences of committing time and energy to helping new practitioners in what we might call ‘writing subjects’: crafting argument, finding appropriate ways to take up and defend an intellectual position, battling with referencing requirements and so forth, others did not associate these things as centrally with their experience of first-year teaching and support work quite so much. On discussing this issue a little more, it became apparent that this difference in practice and in experience had implications for what we understood by feedback and — especially — what we thought high-quality feedback looked and sounded like.

What is high-quality feedback?

What is for me the familiar and oft-repeated task of assessing and commenting on essays has very much shaped my understanding of what constitutes ‘high-quality feedback’. For other colleagues, however, the latter means very different things: it does not often involve lengthy, text-based summative appraisals of things done well and aspects to be improved until postgraduate level! Instead, high-quality feedback might involve deploying one’s observational skills in a lab and making a short but transformational observation to a student struggling to manipulate their apparatus or code to progress through an experiment.

For students too, studies have shown that relevant and well-timed feedback is accorded much greater value than the opposite, however formal or extensive it is (see, for example, Weaver 2006).

Appreciating and valuing the potential of such variety in feedback can keep us alert and flexible in the classroom and in our assessment practice. For whilst we might value widely accepted ‘principles’ of good feedback (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2004, 2006;, Gibbs 1999, for instance), and use these to guide our curriculum review work, for example,  sometimes there is no substitute for reflecting on how others do things differently and whether there is anything missing from our own habitual practices.

Gibbs, G. (1999) ‘Using assessment strategically to change the way students learn’. In: Brown, S. & Glasner, A. (eds) Assessment Matters in Higher Education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Nicol, D.J. & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2004). Rethinking formative assessment in HE: a theoretical model and seven principles of good feedback practice. In, C. Juwah, D. Macfarlane-Dick, B. Matthew, D. Nicol, D. & Smith, B. (2004) Enhancing student learning though effective formative feedback, York, The Higher Education Academy.

Nicol, D, J. & Macfarlane-Dick (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education 31(2), 199-216.

Weaver, M., 2006. Do students value feedback? Student perceptions of tutors’ written responses. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 31 (3), pp. 379-394

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6 October 2015

Flipping the Classroom in Teaching Conflict Resolution

Han Dorussen and Theodora-Ismene Gizelis from the Department of Government at the University of Essex describe their experience of ‘flipping’ classroom lectures in Conflict Resolution and share their conclusions and advice for effective ‘inverted teaching’.

Turning learning on its head

Conflict Resolution Seminar

Conflict resolution students making good use of class time

Flipped classroom is an increasingly used method of on-line assisted teaching. It is also known as ‘inverted teaching’ or ‘blended learning’, or even—and in our opinion somewhat inaccurately—as ‘peer instruction’. It combines the on-line delivery of lectures with in-class seminars and activities. Flipped classroom allows students to become active learners, absorb information at their own pace and then work through the material and its applications in the classroom.

What’s different about flipped classroom?

Whereas traditionally, students are expected to read and prepare for the lectures ‘at home’, flipped classroom allows students to watch actual lectures outside the university.  These are delivered as relatively short - in our case, three 15 – 25 minute each - videos covering key topics, concepts and ideas.

Apart from watching the videos, students are still expected to study assigned readings. Seminars are reserved for further explanations, answering questions and discussions, and applying analytical tools. During the seminars, students have time to prepare (or finish) presentations and assignments and engage in other activities such as simulations.

Using flipped classroom in humanities and social sciences

In 2014 we were awarded a Teaching and Learning Innovative Fund (TALIF) grant for developing flipped classroom in one of the core post-graduate modules – in Conflict Resolution – in the Department of Government.

In this module we combine academic content—covering standard topics such as causes of conflict, theories of negotiations and mediation, peacekeeping and state-building—with more practical elements such as group exercises, presentations and different types of simulations.

Our initial goal was to build on the existing strengths of the module and use flipped classroom to provide content and material for self-study in advance of lectures via a combination of 30-45 minutes lecture videos, articles and web material, thus maximizing the time available for practical work in seminars.

Implementing flipped classroom

Making the videos was very time consuming. It was necessary to rewrite existing lectures to ‘fit’ the video format. Most importantly, the videos needed to be quite short. As is generally known, the maximum time span for attention in regular lectures is about 20 minutes. If anything, it seemed to be shorter for the on-line videos. This may have been because of the format—students generally watch the videos from a small screen—or because there are more distractions at home compared to the classroom situation. Devices used to watch the videos are, of course, also a source of distraction with frequent incoming messages.

We posted the videos (alongside other supportive materials) on a dedicated Moodle page. The videos were assigned to particular weeks and only became available about five days before the relevant seminar. Access was restricted to students who were actually enrolled on the module. Moodle provided us with statistics about the students who had (or had not) opened the videos. (Of course, this did not necessarily mean that they had actually watched them!)

Since it was crucial that students engaged with the videos (and readings), we added small quizzes to follow each film. These included multiple-choice questions about the material covered in the videos and relevant readings. Students could only open the next video, if they ‘passed’ the quiz – they were allowed two attempts – and received a small contribution mark for doing so. Following the seminar, videos were opened to all registered students.

Did you mind being flipped? Student feedback…

Somewhat to our surprise, students really appreciated the on-line quizzes. They quickly became an important part of our lecturing because they allow us to identify the problems students have early on. They function similarly to asking questions during the lectures. Whereas students are often reluctant to respond to questions in public (and weaker students tend to be even more reluctant), the on-line quizzes don’t present this barrier. The feedback that we received via the quizzes guided us in the seminars. It also helped us to identify students who were struggling with the material, and to invite them for additional tutoring.

The benefits of flipped classroom

Apart from some inevitable teething problems, our experience of teaching in a flipped classroom format has been positive. It allows for more teacher-student interaction and students appear to be better prepared when they come to the seminars. There are also some unanticipated benefits, in particular the ability of identifying ‘weak’ students by means of on-line quizzes.

When asked about the main benefits for them, students emphasized the additional time for activities in the seminars. They also expected seminar activities, such as the simulations, to be relevant for ‘real life situations’. Most of them looked forward to the addition interaction with fellow students. There was also a generally positive attitude towards using new technologies: ‘new experience, more fun’. Of course, most students could also identify some potential problems. A few people were worried about technical aspects or being easily distracted when watching the videos at home. The most common concern was, however, ‘can’t ask questions when we watch videos at home’.

Top tips for effective flipped classroom

We found videos should have a clear ‘take-home message’ and it works best if you explain a concept or a specific argument. It is much more difficult to communicate effectively in a short video contrasting approaches (such ‘realist’ and ‘liberal’ approaches to mediation) or highly technical models (such as a bargaining game). As all teaching, videos benefit from focusing on topical and engaging examples, but events (and our understanding of these events) may change quickly. Of course, it also takes time for lecturers to get used to being taped.

Videos need to be edited carefully to make sure that they are presented clearly, requiring the involvement of professional staff. However, the format allows for a lot of creativity if you have the budget. It’s possible to include moving images or to present from more imaginative locations than the lecture room. It is possible to include short interviews, turning the videos into mini-documentaries.

Conflict resolution students conducting a simulation

Our students conducting a simulation

And then there is the question of what to do with the additional seminar time freed up by the flipped lectures. All we would say is that it is vital to use this time effectively and to tailor the content of these group sessions to reflect the experience the students have had with the videos.

In summary…

The format does require a significant investment from the lecturers (and support from their HEI). Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear to us that continuing to use flipped classroom will require us to keep investing. In short, from a teacher/university perspective, the flipped classroom would appear to be an effective but not necessarily cost efficient way of teaching.

To read more about Han and Ismene’s flipped classroom project, click here.

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16 June 2014

Big Questions: Essex University staff offer their favourite questions to ask students

Filed under: Tricks of the Trade — inpractice @ 12.03 pm

As part of the Essex101 study resource project, Learning and Development asked Essex University staff for the question they most like to ask their students.   Although aimed at incoming students, In Practice thought they were too good not to share amongst colleagues.   We showcase some of our favourites here.  To find out more about Essex101, see the ideas piece on the project in this issue of In Practice  Essex 101 is an open resource hosted on Moodle X.  To browse it, sign in using your usual Essex log in.


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