Talking Teaching

December 19, 2010

Reflection on my first year as a student

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.


  1. Good luck indeed! With that sort of teaching reflection, I’m not sure you need it. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Michael G. — December 19, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    • Cheers Michael.

      Comment by kubke — December 19, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  2. Your reflections are very interesting. I have seen some similar statements by other students about not getting enough feedback and not having the chance to learn from our mistakes. I wish more teachers were more like my wife, who allows students to turn in assignments as many times as they want to revise them. Most don’t take her up on it, but some work diligently to keep improving their work. She had one student recently that started off rewriting each assignment five or six times. As the class went on, she turned in fewer revisions as she learned more about how to do it correctly the first time. The student told her that it was the best course she had ever had because she learned so much more doing that. She said she had always just gotten a grade and then it was on to the next assignment, but she never really understood why she was getting the marks she got. The student went from barely being able to put two sentences together to being able to write clear, “A” level papers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more sincerely grateful student before. The down side to this is of course that my wife grades many more papers than the other instructors (and as a result, she gets paid less than the other instructors on an hourly basis since she puts in more hours per class than her fellow instructors). Since she doesn’t do research and just teaches, she can get away with this, but it may not be feasible for people trying to balance a full teaching load and a research career, along with the bureaucratic committees, etc.

    Your experience has made me think about how I can both design my assignments and the feedback on them to be geared more towards how to approach similar issues outside of the assignment. That seems to me the whole point of assignments anyway, to train them for work outside the class. But it is honestly not at the forefront of my mind when I am designing work and feedback. I am thinking mostly of the knowledge I want to see the students master, not how they will use it later, which it should be.

    The creativity issue is something that I have thought about. The course I am teaching this spring typically has a term paper or similar project required. I am planning on opening it up so that the students can choose how they want to present the information. They will be required to put forth a similar amount of work and present a certain level of information, but the method of delivery will be up to the student. I also plan on letting the students work together if they choose, so long as every student is contributing. I am planning on having my “final” be a presentation and discussion of the students projects. I expect some students projects will be that demonstration, others will likely just supply an abstract of their work. But I am interested in seeing what people come up with. I am hoping that there will be a variety of approaches, be it papers, a series of illustrations, websites, and talks. But I wanted the students to have a chance to research their chosen topics and present it in a way that was interesting to them. During the rest of the course, they will be given opportunities (not that they will see it that way:) ) to write and present in class, so they will have some practice at multiple modes of delivery no matter what they choose for their final project.

    As an added touch, I am thinking of requiring each student to submit a few questions in advance that I will compile into a final exam to be answered by the students during the presentations. In this way, I am trying to both ensure the students will pay attention to the presentations of other students (which are typically tuned out as they know it will not be on the test) and to get the students to concentrate on what they think are the key take home messages. I wrote up a small guideline of the types of questions I am expecting, so they are not geared toward obscure points of the presentations and are aimed at the key concepts.

    Not sure how this will work out, but that is my plan right now at any rate and I am looking forward to seeing how it will turn out. Feel free to rip it apart, offer suggestions or comments on it as this is highly experimental. I have not done anything like this before and I have never seen a teacher do it before, so I am going strictly on my own instincts here. The biggest challenge I think right now is ensuring that students are actually doing roughly similar amounts of work and getting sufficient knowledge content for what they are doing. I am planning on having specific timelines they need to meet to make sure they are progressing and not trying to wait until the end to do it. I am also planning on requiring them to talk to me about the project before they get too far so they will know what I will expect of them for whatever specific type of project.

    Comment by jdmimic — December 21, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, jdmimic.
      I once did what your wife did: allow students to improve on work until they ‘got it right’. But I didn’t do it open ended. The students knew when the assignment was due and they could show me as many versions as they wanted prior to handing it in. This worked better for me because it allowed me to budget my time in a more efficient manner. The discussions/feedback happened over set office hours, and they were oral (not written) which also saved me a lot of time and gave the students the opportunity to ask about something I may say they didn’t understand. This was a small class (about 24 students) and only a handful (no more than 5) took advantage of this. Which was fine with me: Those committed to the learning learned, those who waited until the last minute had to do without formative assessment. In larger classes I do office hours over chat. Again, a small proportion of students show up to the chat, and a small proportion of them participate in turn. Again, I am fine with it. I feel that I offer them the chance to get formative assessment (rather than making it obligatory) and those who choose to take advantage of it do, and those who don’t, well it is up to them.
      But what I find is that it is usually the best students that take advantage of it. And that is also fine. What I worry the most is not about the student that is not motivated to start with but those who are motivated and get their lives sucked out of them.
      The idea of submitting questions that could end up in the exam has been successful for some, but I never got it to work for me. I think that part of the problem is the platform that the student management system offers is not too user friendly (I hated using it as a student, but that would be another post). When I did get good interaction was on platforms like Ning – more similar to the spaces where students feel comfortable like Facebook.
      Regarding the ‘letting’ the creativity flow: Well, I would consider two things: If the objectives/expectations are well defined, then the format should be irrelevant. Regarding the ‘time investment’, I also find that a bit irrelevant. Does it matter whether it takes a student 3 days or 3 hours to achieve the objectives? And what are you evaluating, time spent writing, filming, recording or acquisition of knowledge? Having said that there is nothing wrong with building into the assessment a clear marking rubric: eg, you could put 10-20% of the mark specifically to ‘presentation quality and clarity’. For groups, I put a large (usually over 20%) to group participation. So, if you have well laid objectives and provide the students with how the assignment will be marked, then I don’t thing format etc will matter. If a student wants to work in a group because they want someone else to do their job, as soon as they see that their participation is the difference between an A and a C they will quickly run away from that (or participate!). What I would suggest, is if you are allowing group work to have them use things like google docs and chat forums where you can track what each student does and when, and tell them that anything that is not recorded there will not count towards their mark. offers ‘closed’ chat channels that work very much like twitter. Also FriendFeed is a nice place to follow discussions (you can create private groups there) which is a bit more like Facebook (without the fancy graphics). It also allows for discussions/questions/answers to be seen by all students and it is easy enough to track the contributions of each student. They also both have the advantage (over Facebook) that it is ok to have multiple accounts – so as a teacher I would have an id that is different from my ‘social’ id so things dont get mixed up.
      Not sure this is of any help – F

      Comment by kubke — December 21, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

      • Thanks for your comments! I had been thinking about how to handle the group work, but hadn’t come to a clear method of dealing with it. I am not familiar with some of the sites you mentioned and will take a look at them.
        Your comments have really made me think more about the rubrics to grade the work and just what exactly I want from them. I am going to have to spend some time between now and the class to clearly lay out my objectives and rubric in such a way that the students will have a good understanding of what sort of project I am looking for.

        Comment by jdmimic — December 21, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

      • I think that the rubrics are the forgotten members of the family. I find it a lot easier when the rubrics are well established for specific assignments, because students get to see what you value about the work. I like to think about how I will assess different elements as I write my learnign objectives: I have a set that are basic knowledge that will get students a C then others that will take the students to a B or an A. Now thinking about it it might not be a bad idea to make this more explicit to the students. Next year I am also planning as part of the study questions to provide sample answers for what type of answer gets a C, a B or an A with a justification. Many times I hear the students (and felt that as a student myself this year) after the feedback the phrase ‘I didn’t realise that is what you wanted’. Especially as students move on from first to third year, the A, B and C have progressively higher expectations, and that must be confusing to students. What got them an A in first year will probably not get them more than a B in second. So of course the poor souls must feel confused! As much as what an A, B or C means as described in the student ‘manuals’ those definitions are not too helpful. What does it really mean to ‘show that they engaged with the subject in a thoughtful way’ or phrases like that. Perhaps more guidance might help students achieve their full potential.

        I have been doing some ‘volunteer’ work in a school and saw how teachers talked to the students: First they sat them down and explained exactly what was about to happen. ‘we will first do this, then you are expected to do this, …’ etc. No surprises. Students can focus on each task because each has been specified and each step falls within a coherent sequence. Perhaps doing a bit more of that on tertiary (especially lower years until they find their own footing) might be useful.

        By the way, let me know if you would like me to help you navigate some of those sites.

        Comment by kubke — December 21, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

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