Thursday, 29 January 2015

learning-by-doing : some feedback

D. Sharon Pruitt - FlickrHappy Girl Hopscotch in Strawberry Free CC BY 2.0

I ran a small focus group discussion yesterday with my final year students to get their views about the student led learning activities.

They all agreed they had suffered from nerves before standing up to speak in front of the whole class (the first time many of them had presented to an audience of this size) but they were even more anxious about the interactive elements of the activities - what if their fellow students refused to participate?

For this particular group of students (none of whom had worked together on the task) issues of group cohesion were not highlighted, although I am aware (through other discussions) of three somewhat dysfunctional teams (out of 15).

In two cases the problems revolved around a single member who had never shown up to meetings and who contributed little and late. Other group members were angry that this "loafer" was able to get the same marks as the rest of them with minimal contribution. In situations like this a process of peer evaluation is sometimes used but this cohort voted against such a process at the outset, preferring to deal with things informally. I have mixed views about peer evaluation as I have seen groups where individuals are deliberately marginalised or excluded from a team and I dislike the competitiveness and devisiveness it can encourage. In the real world, teams don't get to vote on the performance related pay of their colleagues ("more's the pity" did I hear you say?) - difficulties have to be dealt with or tolerated in the interests of completing the task - and in some ways I think it is right that these student teams (on a module dedicated to teamwork and leadership) learn how to deal with differences.

The third "dysfunctional" group did just that. The group effectively split into two at one point and discussions became heated - one student left the session and another was in tears. When I inquired if I could help, the unofficial leader said they were planning a final group meeting to sort things out. The following week, they seemed to be back on track and this week they have just emailed me their session plan (the only group to have done so) which looks remarkably well organised and thought through.

I also asked my small focus group about the value of the feedback they had received. They were all immensely glad I had given them a provisional grade and regarded this as useful formative feedback indicating where they could improve. They also valued the feedback they had had from their peers, most of which was generally positive and in some cases very constructive. One or two students had complained to me in class about particularly rude, negative and unconstructive comments they had received, but that was a useful opportunity to talk about how best to receive - and use - feedback (in short - ignore what isn't useful to you!) In a fortnight I'll be facilitating a session about feedback and reflection, so I may just need to go over best practice in GIVING feedback too.

The $64,000 question is: did they think the activity gave them a good understanding of their chosen topics?  All said they thought they had had to work harder and get a deeper understanding of their topics than was normally the case (in writing an essay for example) because they didn't want to be caught out by a question from other students that they couldn't answer.

They also said that they had found other students' sessions very interesting and informative and that they had learned a lot through those too.

OK- so this is just one informal discussion and other students may have different views - something I hope will emerge through their self evaluations and final reflections on the module - but I did find their views very encouraging.

For myself, I also really enjoyed week 3 of the sessions and again found much to admire in the creative learning activities students had devised for their peers - as well as noting the confidence displayed by some in the way they facilitated group discussions. One or two had decided on a formal presentation plus quiz (I am wondering here if this is a delivery model they have become familiar with during their studies?) but one had developed really interesting, health and social care based scenarios and asked groups to decide on an approach to the problem based on one of two specific managerial philosophies. I admit I picked up a couple of tips myself on how to facilitate learning around some quite dry subjects!

So, overall I do feel this has been a  positive learning experience for us all and the students' enthusiasm is still palpable, which is quite something in these cold winter days. It's the final set of sessions next Monday and I will definitely feel some regret to be returning to the more "normal" teaching mode after that. Or maybe, things will never be quite "normal" again.....

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Student-led learning

Krissy Venosdale on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I decided this year to encourage my final year students to do something a little different for their team work assessment. Instead of me teaching the usual curriculum for the module I asked them to research whatever theories or practices (related to leadership and teamwork) interested them and then design a learning activity which would involve the whole class.

The teams were self selecting and they chose the topics - although I asked teams to negotiate these with me so that we didn't end up with 15 presentations about Tuckman....

I also emphasised that these were very much NOT mean to be presentations at all, but rather active learning experiences that would engage their audience. Some found it hard to break out of old patterns and largely read from notes in front of a Powerpoint, the interactive element of their session generally being a quiz or word search.

The more engaging sessions attempted a different approach: the first one for example divided students into three tables and gave each a relatively simple task to do (completing a jigsaw) but, unbeknown to the participants, facilitators were each using a different management style. Student reflections and feedback were encouraged to try to illustrate the differences and relate these to the theory.

Others incorporated videos of role plays that they had acted and filmed themselves to illustrate different motivational factors and a third asked the audience to role play different professional partners in a multi agency team, reviewing the communication failings in a (real) murder case.

Designing and running a teaching session has many benefits as an inquiry-based learning task. Students are having to learn on a number of levels - how to function as a collaborative team; how to divide up tasks; how to get to grips with technology; thinking about what constitutes an engaging and active learning session; how to control classroom behaviour and get the cooperation of your peers.....oh, and yes, the actual theoretical concepts they are trying to put across.

Some outcomes were unexpected: one or two students commented to me that the exercise had given them a greater insight into the challenges facing their lecturers - such as managing behavour, preparing resources and dealing with stage fright! Others have had to negotiate some very difficult team dynamics and manage differing levels of contribution. One group told me this had been a brilliant experience and they wished they'd done projects like this from the first year.

The next step is about evaluation. I asked each group to design an evaluation questionnaire and seek the feedback of their peers. Based on this - and my provisional assessment - they will now go on to produce a short self-evaluation of their sessions. I am rather wishing that I had held off giving them my feedback until they had done this next task, but hopefully the motivation for them to do a thorough job is that my grade is only provisional and may be improved if they provide more evidence in the form of references, notes and group reflections.

If I did this exercise again next year (and I am tempted to, as generally it has been very successful so far) I think I would place more emphasis on the peer and self evaluation.

What I chiefly hope from all of this is that the sessions do provide genine learning, not just for the teams who have carried out the research, but for those students in the audience. I confess I am a bit anxious about this aspect however.

I came across this interesting quote as I was researching into the idea of student-led teaching

“Becoming a teacher who helps students to search rather than follow is challenging and, in many ways, frightening” (Brooks & Brooks, 1999, p. 102) - cited here: (Kim Bouman, 2012) 

I guess my biggest fear is that, in the end, the students' learning proves to have been fairly superficial and that the module (and by association, me as a teacher) has therefore "failed". Because the quality of the presentations has been variable and some of the "reinforcing" activities a little simplistic, I suspect that understanding of the actual concepts or theories is not particularly deep.

Previous iterations of this module have required students to develop a digital resource focusing on leadership  - usually by analysing the characteristics of various leaders in history, or in popular culture. Again, I couldn't claim that learning about the theoretical concepts in those instances was particularly deep then either, as evidenced in their final reflective essays. Students though necessarily had to develop leadership and team working skills in order to successfully complete the project and they also learned a lot of useful technical skills in creating a web site or blog. This year's task has added the dimension of live presentation and facilitating learning in others - which I would say are also pretty useful skills!

For me it has been an interetsing learning experience too. I have had to let go of controlling the "content delivery" side of the module (I think this is where the "fear" creeps in) but a welcome spin off has been fewer actual "teaching" sessions. I have been able to spend more time in discussion with groups as a result -  facilitating their understanding of some concepts, challenging them to also let go of didactic approaches and be more creative in the design of their learning experiences. I have also done quite a bit of counselling when relationships have threatened to break down, with some cajoling of anxious performers along the way.

At the end of the year students will be reflecting on the module through a digital storytelling exercise. It will be interesting to see and hear what they have made of the experience and in particular of having the curriculum taught by their peers - and I guess that is the point at which I will be able to gather any evidence about the depth and breadth of their learning.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Professional values and attitudes

I have now begun a bit of work comparing the first year and final year responses to the professional values exercise  (I have so far analysed 10 presentations in each year, representing the work of around 70 students. I am about 1/3 of the way through) and there are some interesting differences emerging.

It appears for instance that the mentions of Social Justice are considerably more frequent in the final year students' work than in that of the first years' - 61 mentions in this category as opposed to 26. The other categories are noticeably more evenly balanced, although the "attitudes" section gets around 50% more mentions overall amongst the final year students.

For the final year students, the order in which categories feature is: social justice, attitudes of the care giver, skills of the care giver, outcomes for the service user, management and teamwork. The first years' focus, in order, is on skills then attitudes of the care giver, followed by the outcomes for the service user, social justice and finally management and teamwork.

The most frequently mentioned values out of all the categories in the first year are (in order of number of times referred to) Equality and Diversity, Respect, Supportiveness, Teamwork and Relationships. For the final year students these are: Equality and Diversity, Respect, Person Centredness, respecting the service user's  individuality and Empowerment. Although Equality and Diversity are top in each year, this aspect is mentioned twice as many times by the final year students as it is by the first years.

In terms of the care giver's personal attitudes, the top five in each year are remarkably similar :
Respectful, Compassionate, Enthusiastic and Committed and Approachable, are in the top five for each year. The final year students then have Genuineness and Honesty whilst the first years have Supportiveness.

There were however some interesting issues raised by the first year students which did not appear on the final year students' agenda at all. An awareness of isolation and loneliness, particularly amongst the elderly, and of the need for service users (again mainly the elderly) to be cared for within their own communities, stood out for me. The other main difference is that the first year students seem to emphasise the building of a trusting and supportive relationship where the care giver is enriching lives whilst final year students celebrate the individuality of the service user, aim to empower them and encourage independence whist identifying the care giver's most important qualities as empathy, committment and genuineness.

So how do these emerging attitudes and values compare with what health and social care organisations require of their staff? The link below explains the NHS' Values Based Recruitment programme: with its emphasis on compassion, respect and dignity and improving lives.

Here also is BASWs values and ethics code focusing on human rights and social justice.

There is a greater overlap between the BASW values and the final year students' whilst the NHS values are wholly embraced by both years. Those BASW values which appear very little in either groups' work are the more political goals of redistribution of resources and working in solidarity.

One way of looking at the students' values statements is to assume they reflect their growing knowledge and experience and in particular their developing understanding of professional practice and the evidence base for effective interventions.

They may, for example, represent the difference between an understandable naivety (in a good sense) on the part of the first year students who, lacking both work experience and knowledge base, enter the course with an as yet undefined urge to help, care for and support others. This was noticeable in an unembarrassed use of the words love and passion in some groups' work as well as the expression of a desire to serve others and to make a change in the world. 

After three years of study, having had opportunities to work in the health and social care field, and with a more nuanced understanding of the needs of service users, values around empowerment, personal responsibility, advocacy and removing stigma are foregrounded by final year students.

Another interpretation is that the values expressed echo the social and psychological stage of the students themselves - from a more dependent, relationship-based perspective which perhaps reflects the first year student's need for belonging, to a more self-confident, independent and individual identity, which mirrors the final year undergraduate's readiness to "fly the nest" and embark on their career. Obvioulsy that is a bit of a generalisation especially as we have a number of mature students with existing health and social care careers behind them - but it's certainly worth considering.

Clearly there is more to be done - firstly to finish the analysis to see if the differences really are as marked as they currently appear and then perhaps to follow up on this through further dialogue with the students themselves and a review of their final reflective assessments.