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.

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