Thursday, 6 August 2015

Reflections on Teaching Practice - Student-led Learning

Reflections on teaching practice – student-led learning
In a previous post on here I reflected on how different it was going from small(ish) classroom-based teaching at Heriot-Watt to mega-teaching at Stirling. In this post I want to reflect on my experience of something quite the opposite – last semester I dabbled in student-led learning with a module of 14 students who were in their honours years (third and fourth years).

The module was called Governance and Society and it is ordinarily convened by a colleague who was on research leave. I offered to convene it when I started at Stirling to fill a gap and because I felt reasonably comfortable delivering a module on governance. The time spent wrapping up a research project and running my gigantic module in autumn semester meant I’d had very little time to prepare for running the module, but I knew I would do something along the lines of student-led learning as this was a teaching style I was comfortable with and it would meet the learning outcomes.

The teaching style I’d experienced at Heriot-Watt and that I implemented myself there because I realised it worked, used a lot of techniques that are seen as “trendy” and new, such as the flipped classroom, as just good, interesting teaching. Also, on reflection, I realised that the supervision/tutorial system of Oxbridge, that I had such an interesting experience of, is essentially student-led learning to the max.

I ran the module by doing a deal with the students. They chose three topics from a list I had prepared (I said they could chose others if they wanted) and then they would work in groups to deliver teaching materials in the final three weeks of semester for their colleagues. If they produced good quality materials then I would guarantee that they would not fail the exam – I would give them 40% just for writing their name and leaving the room (I did this on the basis that they were likely to get 60%+ on the question for the topic they had researched anyway, so would probably not get under 40% for the whole exam). In the end they accepted the deal and chose: co-production and the governance of public services; the governance challenges of wind farm developments; and Bourdieu, Putnam, social capital and governance.

For the first eight weeks of semester I led the teaching giving students a basic grasp of ideas around governance, such as governance as a descriptive term (i.e. the rise of the network society) and governance as a normative concept (something governments should do instead of governing). I broke this up with a really interesting trip to Stirling Council to hear their Community Planning manager talk about how they do governance and also brought in a colleague who has decades of experience on governing boards and committees, including an NHS board, who spoke about “good governance” and accountability.

I really wanted the students to get a good grasp of theoretical approaches to power within the module. One of the key parts of this was spending an entire two hour class discussing the second edition of Luke’s Power: A Radical View. It was a book I had not read for a long time and wanted to revisit it. Revisiting with the small group of students was a brilliant, enlightening process for all concerned. It is a difficult book, and the second section of the second edition adds a lot of theoretical meat onto the previous discussion and gets into some challenging discussions on the ontology and epistemology of power. Overall, it worked brilliantly – the students stepped up to the mark.

This section of teaching gave the students the basis for their coursework essays. The student-led teaching formed the basis of the exam. I want to focus on the co-production group as they taught me the most about teaching and learning. In the first week all groups took a very formal approach and basically did a 50 minute presentation of their work to date. I gave each group feedback verbally in class and online through the VLE. The following week the co-production group picked up every point I’d made the previous week and answered the comments through their presentation – it was a case of “you say jump, I say how high”. In the feedback to the group I asked them “were they co-producing?” and “how could they co-produce the teaching in the final session”.

In the end they did co-produce the final class by highlighting how student-led teaching was, in effect, co-production and co-producing a discussion about this. Rather wonderfully it started off as a bit of a love-in as to how much they’d enjoyed the module, but it also worked brilliantly in delivering learning. We covered key issues in co-production theory: inequalities, power, professional knowledge and expertise, the opportunities for transformation. It was great stuff.

Ultimately the student attainment was good – not spectacular, but I imagine the small group were more engaged and therefore stretched themselves more than if I had used standard broadcast techniques of teaching. As one of the students said though, they probably put more work into the module than they had in any module in their studies (these were mainly third and fourth years) and they really enjoyed it. They accepted the responsibility for their own teaching and learning. And I got fantastic feedback.

I don’t know if I’d do it again for this sort of module, but I’ll definitely learn lessons from the experience and try and encourage more moments of student-led collaborative learning within my teaching. I’m looking after another module this coming spring semester and am going to start that with a collaborative problem-definition world-café, for example. And it’s interesting, it probably didn’t save me that much academic labour, it just shifted a lot of that to a different time – commenting after a class using the VLE, rather than producing PowerPoints before a class. But, overall I’m glad I carried out this little experiment with my wonderful honours students. 

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