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Experiential Learning: I played the violin!

I recently attended the HEA Annual Conference in Birmigham. A great event overall, and I will begin my account of it talking about a great session I attended there on “Experiential Learning” delivered by the mighty Laura Ritchie.

When we entered the session venue, the room was already set with violins, cellos, violas and scores: intimidating to say the least. Very few of us had ever touched an instrument. (It took me 40 years to ever go near a violin!) So off we went, the session started with Laura asking us to lift our violin and hold it like the torch of the Statue of Liberty. This allowed us to turn it onto our shoulders and have it just in the correct position, without even knowing it. (Pedagogy Principle 1: when you lay out your teaching material you have to set it so that students will not even need to think about what is the “right” way of approaching it; it will be all orchestrated (pardon the pun) for them so that they can slide into the right practice seamlessly!) We started to get familiar with our instruments, plinging it, finding notes between giggles and hesitations. (Pedagogy Principle 2: learning should be fun and thrilling after all). After this first induction, we were ready to pick up our bows; here we went with another easy demonstration on how to hold the bow right as we were supposed to. After a little of practice, Laura asked us to take turns and observe each other to correct our techniques, helping each other out to fix problems. (Pedagogy Principle 3: peer-instruction anyone?) More was added to our set of skills (jumping across weeks of what constitutes  the syllabus for professional players). We were playing our first concerto, we had conductors, and we were asking the conductors what we needed out of them: tempo, prompting …or ‘breathe’ as they call it! (Pedagogy Principle 4: student feedback to their instructors, what do student need out of us? Are they able to articulate it?) We were asked to invent a short tune, and then look at somebody else in the room. The person we picked was supposed to replicate exactly what we did, and play it on her instrument. (Pedagogy Principle 5: peer-instruction and collaboration. Observe each other, replicate each other’s practice). Lots of emotions were going through my mind while I was struggling to catch the tune, mastering the technique, finding notes, holding the bow…and trying to make my violin producing a sound (for how atrocious it was). Laura remarked that we were struggling, but that we did not give up. By the end of the session we were able to play “Old MacDonald’s Farm”…all by ourselves! (Pedagogy Principle 6: It does not matter how small, you need to give your students an objective to achieve. You need to make sure that they constantly see a purpose to the effort they are putting in their learning. You need to allow them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, a little reward for the investment they make, a sense of reward that brings satisfaction ‘right here and right now’, not just at the end of the module, and not just at the end of their degree).

Laura’s session was a truly inspirational and humbling experience: I think I am a good teacher, and I used to think that I knew exactly how it feels being a student learning new material, drawing on my experience and my memories as a student. Yes, there is some truth in all this, and relying on our emotional intelligence is important (quite ironic that Alan Mortyboys, pivotal figure in the emotional intelligence literature, was sitting just next to me with his violin). The truth is that many moons have passed since I was a student, and I had to acknowledge that my emotional intelligence alone does not make up for the fact that I am no longer a spring-chicken in my teaching profession. I needed to be reminded how it feels to be a student struggling to grasp new material, something never learnt before, with peers all around me, who could judge me and make fun of me, but who could also help me and support my own learning. Thank you Laura for bringing me back to a more humble-self, you certainly left a mark.


Is it assessment or anatomic dissection?

Despite being a ‘false beginner’ in teaching practice I had to re-train to gain my PGCert credits to obtain my HEA Fellow status over the past two years. (Not yet required in Scotland, where I worked prior to joining UEA). I attended several modules of our MA in Higher Education Practice here at UEA, and shared the journey with a number of colleagues from different schools and discipline. One of the most verbal and enthusiastic contributors teaches anatomy in the School of Medicine and spends a lot of time dissecting bodies to teach our future doctors how the human body system works. He is really a fun guy; I guess it takes a little sense of humour if you embrace such a challenging profession. (I did not use to be squeamish when younger, but I am now. I could not do it, I think).
Well, we have been talking a lot about assessment in our sessions, and we are just out from an intense examination marking period, so the association comes spontaneous: is assessment (summative assessment especially) an anatomic dissection exercise?
Many colleagues believe that good practice consists in indicating explicitly the number of marks awarded for each part of the questions asked to our students in every paper we give out to them. Marking guidelines become even more complex: “give three points if students write this…drop two points if students do not say that”. There are great advantages in doing so: (1) if you have a large number of colleagues involved in marking the same set of scripts you can guarantee fairness and uniformity, (2) you can help less experienced markers with very firm criteria, (3) you can point students to important passages of their examination papers.
Nice heart here, it works fine and pumps the blood beautifully. But lungs are not working so well and oxygen does not transfer to the blood. The gallbladder is inflamed, it should better be removed, we can do without it! So the heart is worth 5 points, lungs 4 points, gallbladder just 1 point. Ok…the patient would live, even with a few respiratory problems. Dissection session terminated, put down your knives clean up and move on to the next.
But the heart is not just a muscle, and the brain not just a set of synapses. Can we really ascertain what is more important? And what happens when we look at a human person all together, at her thoughts, emotions, interactions with other human beings? Along with anatomy our medical students learn about compassion, communication with the patient, personalised treatment and information. Are we giving all this to our students when we are marking?
Anonymous marking places a nice clean sheet over the body to dissect, covers modesty and contributes to guarantee that all bodies are seen as the same. But –my colleague confirms- not all human beings are the same. True anatomy wisdom can teach us about similarities as well as differences, and good doctors will have to deal with both: choosing treatments and interventions that are tailored to each individual case. On top of that, patients hate being anonymous to their doctors; they want to be recognised, and they want to be informed about their health status clearly, honestly, and personally.
I will stop now with the Medicine metaphor (my knowledge in the field really ends here). But I am wondering whether marking procedures could do better than being imprinted to anatomic dissection exercises. Assessing our students’ performance and abilities, as showcased by their scripts, should consist of much more than adding up scores gained across answers and sub-answers. How does the script look like in its entirety? How is the writing style? Is there internal coherence? What is our gut feeling as experienced markers? (And how can we help our junior colleagues to develop their own gut feeling?) When teaching Macroeconomics I tell students that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. (Microeconomists will excuse me here, I hope). I wish I could do the same when I mark scripts, and in fact, I do…whenever I can!

Pimp my Barrow…Pimp my Teaching

Last Saturday I came to campus (as usual) to catch up with some work and I found myself immersed in our students’ “Pimp my Barrow” end-of-exam-period celebration. As new comer, I was yet to get acquainted with this event, but I discovered it even has a Wikipedia entry! Groups of students decide on a theme, design and create their fancy dresses as well as make additions to their barrow around their theme. They race from Norwich city centre to UEA, where a big party explodes. After a few hours of banter, they storm back in town to collect money for charity and to continue on with the celebrations.

While standing on the balcony overlooking the campus square going insane, I was amazed by the ingenuity of our students, the originality of their costumes, and the wit of some of their ideas. At some point I caught myself shaking my head and thinking (perhaps with a little envy for the fun they were having) that if ever our students applied the same craft, originality, independence and thinking in their studies our job would be so much easier and fun. I must admit, I felt immediately ashamed of that thought…because what came to my mind next is that very often we are the ones to blame. If our students can do extraordinary things with a carton box, a little face paint, and some old charity-shop old clothes, can you imagine what they could do with the right learning tools, academic knowledge, and thinking freedom? if they are so great at pimping their barrows, we should be equally great at pimping our teaching. Image