Well, not really my first year. I started school at the age of 2 and got my PhD at the age of 32, but I hadn’t been a student since (except for a course I took as a post-doc). But this year I started my Post Graduate degree in Academic Practice, and it was, well. quite educational.
What did I learn?
Heaps. Mostly, I think I now understand my students better.
My conversations with my students have always been frustrating. I too often hear about their frustration and disappointment about their relationship with their degrees and coursework. And it seems that no matter what we do as teachers, this doesn’t seem to go away. And we as teachers, become frustrated as well.
So what was my experience as a student? Well, I would have to say, not too different from that of my students’. And this realisation was shocking to me. Because after all I consider myself a highly motivated and independent student.
What happened between signing up to the degree and the process of taking a course I was totally excited about? I became unmotivated: not about the content, but yes about the process of being a student.
It wasn’t the teachers. They were good teachers. The class setting was adequate: we were a group of 12 students having moderated discussions. It wasn’t that the assignments were not ‘appropriate’. Then what?
I think that I can pin it down to the lack of formative assessment. While the teachers went to a lot of trouble giving me feedback on my work, the feedback was so specific to the assignment at hand that I did not find it useful to apply to other work. And what happened as a result of that really surprised me: I started thinking ‘what does the teacher want’.
Once I handed in an assignment, that was it. I got my mark and I ‘felt’ any interest in my learning on that topic ended at that point. So that prevented me from exploring unusual approaches to my assignments, prevented me from trying to be innovative, prevented me from raising what might be considered controversial points of view. Because after all, my progress was defined by that one mark: I was not given an opportunity to learn from my mistakes.
But wait, isn’t that how we learn?
I started exploring teaching in my own way, but none of that went into my assignments much. I didn’t feel there was much room for that.
For my last assignment I decided to do ‘what I thought was right’. And here is where I ran into trouble. We were asked to ‘redesign’ a course module – 3,000 words essay. I designed the lecture notes that I would give the students, I built a wiki environment for the class and then I realised: I still have to write a 3,000 word essay. Because the assignment wasn’t ‘a 3,000 word essay or equivalent’. It was a ‘3,000 word essay’.
Well, there goes creativity down the drain.
So what could we not do? We could not do a video on the assignment showing how the class would be done (that would have been interesting). We could not do a Prezi or conceptual map (that could have been cool). We could not do what I did. I still had to write that wretched essay. And my question then is:
Did I sign up for the course to learn how to write essays or to learn how to teach?
And that is where it clicked: I am not being assessed on what I learned about teaching. I am not being offered a space to have a dialog about my teaching. Those 3,000 words are not about my teaching: they are about my thoughts about teaching. And that does not necessarily translate to the classroom setting.
So back to my students: I now see where we are failing. We are not being flexible enough to allow them to relate to the content in ways that will ‘engage’ them with the content. We tell them what is the ‘right’ way to engage with the content. We do not, for the most part, create spaces for learning. We create systems of delivery and assessment.
So that is what I learned. I am a student: I have become disengaged.
So I now have a whole summer to think about what I need to do to create learning spaces where my students (or at least the ones who are interested enough) can explore different ways of relating to the content and thinking about their learning.
Wish me luck.