Students Staff

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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