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My approach to behaviour management

This week on the PGCHE, the subject under discussion was behaviour management. I have lots of Thoughts about this, so decided it would be a good idea to try to get some of them down in blog form.

Behaviour management is something I’ve always struggled with a little. I’m not a naturally authoritative person, so where disruptive behaviour has cropped up in classes I don’t feel hugely comfortable in dealing with it. My own experience with education has always been as the stereotypical nerdy swot in the front row: it literally would have never occurred to me to disrupt a class, so I’m always at a bit of a loss as to why it is happening when it occurs!

That being said, I’ve never had any major incidents to deal with. The worst experience I’ve ever had in a class involved an online polling tool I was trying out: one of the features was a “back channel” allowing anonymous questions to be posted. As possibly I should have predicted, the students quickly started using this channel to post rude comments about each other, their lecturers, and me. Nothing was said out loud at any point, it was all online, but it was pretty clear from early on that they were not paying attention as they were all nudging each other and grinning at comments on their phones rather than engaging with the lecture.

That wasn’t fun, but it also wasn’t the worst that could have happened! Most of the behaviour problems I’ve ever had to deal with have been that kind of low-level disruption: people talking at the back of the lecture and distracting other students, using social media on their phones, and refusing to engage with learning activities.

In this week’s class, one of the things we discussed was understanding what lies behind “challenging” behaviour. It’s very easy to take an authoritarian view that learners are there to pay attention to the teacher, and anything outside of this dynamic is disruptive and unwelcome. However this view places all the responsibility on the learner and none on the teacher.

My own view, developed over my past few years’ experience teaching, is that it is my job as a teacher to keep my learners engaged. It is impossible to pay attention for a 50 minute lecture if you have nothing to do in that time except listen. Naturally, your attention will wander, and if you have a device in your pocket that can connect you to any form of information or entertainment you want, then it’s only natural to reach for it.

This is why I don’t have any time for the argument that laptops, phones and tablets should be banned from the classroom. Quite apart from this being ableist (some students may depend on these devices to be able to do their work, and it’s not fair to single them out or force them to disclose their status by insisting devices should only be allowed in the case of a disability), I also think this is counterproductive.

Students’ attention has always drifted during lectures or boring work (I particularly like these comments in the margins of manuscripts, from bored monks complaining about the laborious task of copying them out!). The only difference is that where in years gone by, students would have just drifted off, doodled, or passed notes to each other, now they have a far more accessible form of distraction easily to hand.

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The result of a Pixabay search for “bored students“. Do those expressions look familiar?

In some ways, this could be an advantage to the teacher. Part of the skill of teaching (particularly in a lecture theatre) is learning to “read the room”, notice when your students are switching off, and use that as an opportunity for a “reset button”, an activity or change of pace to keep students engaged. If you’ve spotted that half the room is browsing on their phones, that’s a pretty clear indication that you need to shake things up a bit.

Another point I think is important to bear in mind is why students may be switching off. Among adult, post-compulsory learners, you have to assume that they do have some motivation for being there, so if they are disengaged it’s worth asking why. I like this quote from “A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”, Fry et al, 2015:

are students not turning up because they are bored by classes? Or because many of them are working 20 hours a week in supermarkets? Are they failing to prepare because they have not yet been taught that universities expect them to study autonomously? Or because they just don’t understand what to do? Are the classes so teacher-centred that they have nothing active to do? Or because they are, seriously, studying the topic in parallel with what you are doing? (p162)

When I look back at times when it’s been clear the students in my class are not engaging, I think a lot of the time it’s because they don’t understand why they are there, and how what I am talking about relates to the course they are studying. To tackle this, I now always begin my classes by explicitly linking what I am teaching them about information skills to the assignment criteria they are going to be marked on.

For example, the criteria usually includes something like “using a wide range of academic sources”, so I use this wording and continually link what I am teaching them about scholarly information back to this point. I believe this has had a noticeable impact on behaviour in my classes.

The other problem is that, quite frankly, lectures in particular tend to be boring! I’ve always tried to vary the content of my lectures by using things like video clips and live database demos, so I’m not just talking at them for 50 minutes, but what I hadn’t taken into account previously is that even varying the content like this isn’t varying the activity they are doing, which is passively listening.

I now make it a rule that I will not let more than 10 minutes go by without changing what they are doing: whether it’s using an online quiz, discussing a point with their neighbours, or just asking the students to take a minute to write down (on paper or on their phones) some key points.

I also think more carefully about the level I am pitching the content of my lectures, and build in some flexibility if the learners are either more or less advanced than I’d expected, as I think that boredom at content which is too basic, or frustration if it is too complex, is the root of a lot of disruptive behaviour. I certainly think this was the case in the lecture mentioned above where I had lots of rude comments posted online: I had misjudged how much they already knew, and made the lecture too basic for their needs.

The most common problem I experience is people talking in classes or in lectures. In smaller classes I find this is actually fairly easy to manage: I just stop talking and look at the people who are chatting until they notice me and stop, which usually doesn’t take long. I also find that in smaller classes, other students are more likely to tell each other to shut up if they’re finding other people’s conversations distracting.

However in lecture theatres this approach doesn’t work so well, I think because in a large group students assume you don’t really notice a few of them chatting. I think they also probably don’t realise how far their voices carry, even if  they think they’re being quiet!

When this happens (and it always does in a lecture), my approach is to call on the people who are talking. I start from the assumption that they must be talking about the content of the lecture. Because for all I know, they could be – they might be struggling to understand a point and trying to explain it to each other, which I wouldn’t want to interrupt!

So I start by saying something like “Does anyone have any questions so far? How about you three at the back there: you look like you’re discussing this, is there anything you’re unclear on?”. I say this as a completely friendly, genuine question (not in sarcastic teacher voice!). Nine times out of ten, the people in question will look sheepish, shake their heads and stop talking: it’s been effective in letting them know that I can see/hear them, and I’ve called on them directly without telling them off. Occasionally, I have had the chatty students actually ask a question at that point.

Occasionally this acknowledgement doesn’t work, and the students go on talking over me. If that happens, my next approach is to ask again if they have any questions. If they still say no, I’ll then say something like “Ok, well I can tell that you are trying to talk to each other quietly and not distract anyone, but I’m not sure you realise how far your voices carry in here. We can all hear you, and it’s making it difficult for others to hear my lecture. We’re going to have some discussion time shortly, so please could you keep comments to yourself while I am speaking, so that everyone can hear?”. I then just carry on with the lecture.

This approach has almost always worked for me. However I did have a lecture recently where a particular group of lads at the back were talking continuously throughout, and didn’t respond to my usual attempts to remind them to be quiet. I ended up calling on them three separate times, to no avail.

They actually left the lecture early (a few students had told me at the start that they had to leave early due to other commitments: when the students I knew about left, so did the chatty group. I have no idea if they had the same commitments, or if they just saw others leaving and decided to follow!), so removed themselves as a problem. The last 15 minutes of the lecture passed without incident.

Had they stayed any longer, I’m not sure exactly what I would have done. I think I would have had to be firmer with them, as my usual polite approach was clearly having no effect! I discussed this with a colleague who had observed me for this lecture: her suggestion was that after my first couple of attempts had failed, I should have asked them to either stay quiet while I was talking, or take their conversations outside.

I’m nervous at the thought of this: I don’t like the idea of asking people to leave the lecture, partly because I’m actually unsure if I have the authority to do this, and partly because I think that would back me into a corner if they then refused to leave.

Does anyone else have thoughts/experience on how to handle this? I’d particularly like to hear from other librarians or support staff who do one-off guest lectures, as I think the dynamic and the ways of handling this behaviour is totally different with a group you see regularly.

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Using Mentimeter for lecture exit survey

For the past couple of years I have been using a standard feedback form to gather brief feedback after classes and lectures. This was created by a colleague in the library, and consists of three prompts, printed on one side of A5 paper with space for comments:

  1. I learnt something from this session that will help me improve the way I work (yes/no tickbox)
  2. The most useful thing from this session was:
  3. I am still unsure about:

I have found this effective in conducting an “exit survey” from the class, and getting an idea of what has been well received and what I could have explained better. I record the responses after each class and use them in planning future sessions.

However, a paper form is impractical to use in large lectures. It is manageable in smaller classes, where I can distribute the forms along with any other handouts, and collect them in at the end by asking students to fold them into paper aeroplanes and throw them at me (this makes a nice, fun end to a class, and ensures everyone takes part!), but this doesn’t work well in a lecture theatre with a large group of students.

I have tried various methods for distributing and collecting paper forms in the lecture theatre, but it is inevitably time consuming, and doesn’t result in meaningful feedback: usually only a handful of the forms I collect in have anything written on them at all, and the ones that do tend to only have a couple of words.

I decided to create an online version of the feedback form using free polling tool Mentimeter. The free version of Mentimeter allows for two questions, so I dispensed with the first yes/no question, as I would rather focus on the more meaningful free-text questions.

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I use online polling tools (such as Kahoot) throughout my lectures, so asking the students to complete one more at the end of the session doesn’t come as a surprise, and is usually quick to get them into as they already have their phones/smart devices out as they’ve been using them already.

I use the free-text question option on Mentimeter, which allows them to write as much as they want. I show the Mentimeter quiz on screen so they can see the questions and the code to enter to get into the quiz, but I keep the answers hidden, for two reasons. The first reason (and the one I tell the students) is so they can be honest with their answers, as they will not be seen by anyone other than me.

The second, slightly more cynical reason is that I know from past experience that if my students know what they type in will appear on the big screen behind me, I just get a wall full of profanities! So telling them upfront that their answers will not be displayed removes that temptation.

I have now used this technique twice. The first time I tried it, in a lecture to my final year Informatics students, I showed the quiz right at the end, while I was telling them how to get further help. I got some feedback, but not a huge amount: about 30 out of the 150 students in the room filled out the Mentimeter quiz. However this is a greater proportion than usually fill out the paper forms after a lecture, and many of the comments I received were far longer and more detailed than I’d ever seen from a paper form, so I considered this a success!

The second time I used it was in a lecture to the final year Engineering students. This was a smaller group: I initially had about 70 in the room, although quite a few had to leave early (it was a last-minute, rescheduled lecture so I think they had a timetable clash), so by the end of the lecture there were only about 50 in the room.

This time, rather than introduce the Mentimeter right at the end, I did so about 5 minutes before the end. I very deliberately introduced it by saying “We’re coming to the end, and I have two things left to discuss with you. The first is another online quiz…” (we had already done a Kahoot quiz earlier in the session).

I showed the Mentimeter on screen and asked them to complete the two questions, then went back to my slides to go over the last point I had planned to cover (about note taking and referencing). I included the Mentimeter URL and access code on each one of my last few slides, so even after going away from the live Mentimeter screen, they could still see the access details.

This worked well: of the 50ish students I had left at the end of the session, 28 of them left feedback on the Mentimeter. I had also mentioned that if they wanted a response to their “I am still unsure about…” answer, to put their student number on it and I would get back to them, and two students did this so I was able to follow up with them via email after the lecture.

I think introducing it early, and making the point that I had more to tell them after this, worked well. Usually the “Any questions/feedback” line is taken as a cue for everyone to start packing up to go, so if there are any questions they are drowned out by the noise of everyone leaving! But in this case, because I had been clear that this was not the end of the lecture (and possibly also because I’d told them exactly how much ground there was left to cover, so they knew what to expect?), no one made a move to leave until I explicitly told them that the lecture was over!

I still think using paper forms works well in a smaller class, so I will continue to do this where feasible. However in a lecture theatre, this has gained the best response I’ve ever had to requests for feedback, so I’m definitely going to continue using this technique. My next step is going to be thinking about how the questions themselves are worded, and if there’s anything different/better I could try here.

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Using a blind Kahoot quiz in info lit teaching

This week I gave a lecture for the final year Informatics students (all computing undergraduates within the School of Computing and Engineering – courses range from Computer Science and Computing in Business to Web Design and Games Programming), on using library resources for their final year project (the equivalent of a dissertation).

I had been quite nervous about it, as historically this has been my most challenging group. I had a particularly bad experience in my lecture with last year’s final year project students, so was anxious not to have a repeat of the same.

It’s also just a difficult format to teach in: up to 200 students, in a lecture theatre, with a wide range of background experiences and topic proposals. This cohort is also among the least likely to actually use library resources: most of their work up to this point will have been primarily practical work, so the majority of them will not have used library resources for research (or indeed, done any literature-based research) before this point.

One of the techniques I wanted to try out was a blind quiz, using Kahoot. Kahoot, for those unfamiliar, is an online quizzing tool. You devise a multiple-choice quiz, which you then put on screen during the session. Students vote on the answers using their mobile devices. It’s easy to set up, and really engaging – it includes a competitive element, as a leaderboard appears after each question ranking the top quizzers. Points are scored for correct answers, as well as for how quickly they responded.

Students I’ve used it with have always really got into the competitive aspect, and I usually offer a small prize for the winner – in this case it was a “goody bag” of stationery from our freebies cupboard. It doesn’t seem to matter what the prize is really, in fact I didn’t even tell them what the prize was beforehand in this case, they just like to compete!

Usually, you’d use a Kahoot to test knowledge/understanding of something you’d already told them about. However, I decided in this case to run a “blind Kahoot”: testing them on topics we had not discussed, to gauge their prior knowledge and get a starting point for discussion.

The topic for the quiz was types of information sources. I usually include some slides going over this in my lectures: I’ve found previously that final year project students on these courses often haven’t made much use of things like journal or conference papers before, and don’t really understand what they are or why to use them. They also don’t tend to distinguish between different types of online sources: often referring to anything they’ve found online as a “website” even when it’s actually, say, a PDF company report. I’ve also found in one to one appointments that they don’t give much thought as to where the information they’ve found online has actually come from, i.e. who wrote it and why.

So it’s all important stuff to cover, but just talking through slides about it is DEATHLY dull. I bore myself doing it, so I’m certain the students must be bored! If I have smaller classes (which is rare, most of my teaching is lecture-based) I try to have a conversation with them about these points, but I hadn’t yet found a successful way of doing this in a lecture theatre. I hoped the blind Kahoot might be that opportunity.

You can see a screenshot of the questions and answers I used below (give me a shout if you use Kahoot and would like to use/adapt this, I can share it with you so you can create your own copy). Because Kahoot only allows short questions, I created the definitions by writing them in PowerPoint and then saving each one as an image. Link to download the PowerPoint is below, in case anyone can’t read the definitions in the screenshots.

pageshot of 'Kahoot! - Kahoot details' @ 2017-10-00-1640'36

Source descriptions for Kahoot (ppt)

Each question gave a definition of a particular source type, followed by two options to choose from for what the definition was referring to. The only exception was the question about peer review, which I simplified by asking what it was and giving two definitions to choose from. I did this because I know from past experience that the majority are not familiar with peer review as a concept: they do some peer-mentoring on most of the courses, so many confuse peer review with this.

After each question, once the timer was up and the correct answer was revealed, I talked a bit about each source and related it back to how they might use it in their final year project. I then asked an open question related to each one, usually “Can you think of any downsides to using this type of resource?” and used that as an opening for discussion.

I was genuinely blown away by how well this worked. It was a little disruptive to set up at the start: Kahoot requires players to enter a nickname when they join the game, which appears on the big screen, so of course they all put in silly names which caused a lot of laughter and chat within the room, so it took me a minute to regain control of this so we could actually start the quiz! I had expected this, so had built in time for it.

I had also thought about what I would do if there were offensive nicknames: Kahoot has a profanity filter, but it doesn’t always pick up everything (e.g. more modern or regional slang, or variant spellings/substituting numbers for letters). It does allow you to kick off individual players by just clicking on their names, so I’d decided I would quietly do this if there were any particularly objectionable names, without commenting or (hopefully!) drawing attention to it.

In the end, there were only one or two borderline offensive nicknames, so I didn’t bother kicking anybody off. I’m actually not sure I would have been able to, to be honest: with about 150 students joining the game, the names were appearing so quickly I don’t think I’d have been able to click on one as I saw it. I think I made the right call here. Mostly they were just the usual messing about names, e.g. the inevitable Bantersaurous Rex and Archbishop of Banterbury made an appearance, as did Donald Trump, Jimmy Savile and Kim Jong Un. (Honestly, I do long sometimes for some original jokes from my students…)

Once I actually started the quiz, they settled down pretty quickly. There was an explosion of conversation after each question, as the correct answer appeared. I struggled at first to get their attention back after the first question, to start a discussion – I had to tap the mic a couple of times to get them to quiet down enough so I could speak. However, once they got the idea that we were going to talk about each one, they started paying attention again pretty quickly.

The quality of the discussion was fantastic. It took a bit of uncomfortable silence from me to get a response to my first open question, but once that first one was out of the way, they were all really forthcoming. I even got some people calling out answers from towards the back of the room, which almost never happens!

Having these open discussions, rather than me just talking them through what was on my slides, allowed for a much more nuanced view of information types than I am usually able to give. The quiz meant I didn’t have to spend time going over things they already knew, e.g. the percentage of correct answers pretty clearly showed they understood what a journal article was, but were unfamiliar with conference papers and the concept of peer review.

The discussion after each questions allowed me to focus on what they were actually interested in. E.g. we talked about things like publication bias in journal articles, and the nature of research as a scholarly conversation. These are things I might have tried to bring in during a classroom discussion, but have never talked about in a lecture before, as it’s a bit pointless to try to explain publication bias if you’re not sure they are clear on what a journal article actually is!

I would definitely do this again with my final years, and I’ve been thinking about how I could do something similar with my first years. The one thing I do need to bear in mind is that this took waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay longer than I expected it to: I’d allowed 15 minutes for the quiz, but it took more than 30 minutes! This meant I had to drop a couple of things from later on in my lesson plan, but actually I think I’d tried to cram too much in anyway, so I don’t think that was a loss.

The feedback I got seems to support my approach to this session. Comments included “the quiz was informative and good” and “interactive sessions made it more engaging”. I also got this comment, which made me want to cheer as this was exactly what I was going for:

Comment reads "The quiz - really made you think, challenging questions and then went in depth with the answers"

I also got this comment, which despite being a tad double-edged, made me smile too. I would have been in my first year of teaching when I saw these students in their first year, so I certainly hope my teaching has improved since then!

"I came to one of your lectures a couple of years ago. This one was much more engaging. It's good that we can come see you in the library"

When I do this again in future (and I will), there are a couple of things I would do differently. I will probably re-word some of the definitions slightly, and maybe drop the number of questions in the quiz. I will allow more time for it, and won’t try to cram so much other material into the lecture!

I would also think about how I could evaluate what the students have learned from the quiz. I think it was a great tool for introducing concepts, checking prior knowledge and stimulating discussion, but I don’t really have a way of knowing how much they learned. I think it would be good to have a second, shorter activity, aimed at getting them to apply some of the concepts we discussed. I’m not sure how to do that in already limited time though, so would have to give that some thought!

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PGCHE Week 3: Teaching large groups

This week on my PGCHE, we covered teaching large groups. This is one of the sessions I was most looking forward to, as pretty much all of my library teaching is to large groups, mostly in lecture theatres. In fact the usual definition of “large groups” for teaching is anything over 30, so given that most of my library lectures are to anything from 100-250 students at a time, that does mean a significant shift in teaching strategy!

I’ll be honest: I do not like lectures. I didn’t enjoy them as a student, and I don’t enjoy delivering them as a teacher. Particularly as a teacher-librarian, I find having to come in to do one guest lecture, in which I am expected to impart high-level skills in information literacy and critical thinking, a nearly impossible task. So I was hoping to get some strategies from this class that could help me cope with this.

We started off by discussing what the advantages and disadvantages of lectures were, from the point of view of the teacher, student, and the university. I found this a useful place to start as I’m very used to considering the negatives of the lecture format, so it was good to have a nudge to think about what the actual benefits would be! After all, lectures wouldn’t have endured as the dominant form of teaching in HE for so long if there were literally no benefits…

The main benefit, of course, is from the University’s point of view: they are cheaper. Economies of scale are at work: it is cheaper and easier to have a teacher deliver one lecture to 200 students, than to have them teach ten classes of 20 students. For that reason alone, lectures will never go away, so we do need to find ways to do them well.

Other advantages for teachers included less prep work (planning one lecture rather than lots of classes), and consistency of delivery (you can assume all students have been given the same information, allowing you to build on this). Advantages for learners included that same consistency, plus an opportunity for less confident students to “hide” – not everyone likes being made to participate in an active class! Although of course this is as much a disadvantage as an advantage.

I feel like I hardly need to list the disadvantages, but for the sake of completeness: lack of opportunity for engagement and active learning, lack of application of knowledge to develop higher order skills, challenging and disruptive behaviour from bored students. Plus of course, potentially lower pass rates and NSS scores from underachieving and disengaged students – leading to all kinds of negative impacts on the university as a whole!

Essentially, the traditional lecture is a passive way of learning. My problem with this is neatly illustrated by this well-known quote (usually mis-attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but apparently derived from the writings of the Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi):

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand” – from Zaneology on Flickr, shared under CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/uSTGXC

Our instructor, Wayne, was keen to stress throughout that he is not anti-lecture per se. He is, rather, anti-didactic lectures, where the teacher simply stands at the front and talks at the students, flinging knowledge towards them which it is their responsibility to catch. So, we spent the rest of the session discussing ways to incorporate active learning into large group lectures.

A lot of the techniques we discussed were things I already do in my own practice: which was reassuring in some ways, but also a little frustrating. I think that, although I know there isn’t a simple answer to this, deep down I’m still hoping there’s just a trick I haven’t learned yet that will unlock it all for me!

Some of the techniques were things that wouldn’t work for me at all, as they were about developing a relationship with the group over time. For example, the first time Wayne sees a new group, he spends the first 15-20 minutes of the lecture getting them to come up with a list of their rights as learners, and then getting them to come up with a corresponding responsibility. He then makes a laminated copy of this list, and refers to it throughout the year wherever there is disruptive or disrespectful behaviour from the group.

I love that idea, but I only see each group once a year (and sometimes not even that!) so I don’t have that opportunity. I talked to Wayne about this, and asked if he thought there was a way to do this in a one-off session. He suggested I might be able to do a really short version of this, to set expectations at the start. For example, when he does guest lectures, he states at the start what his expectations are of the group, and what he will deliver in return. I would like to try doing this, so I’m going to have a look for examples of the kinds of wording I could use to set learner rights and responsibilities in a one-off session.

My conversation with Wayne was probably one of the most useful things from this session actually, if only for acknowledging that I’ve got a really hard job to do and there are no easy answers to it! He actually said straight off that doing only one-off lectures, where you’re “parachuted in” to an established cohort, is the hardest way to lecture. He also said that in his experience, Engineers and Computer Scientists (the School I support…) are the hardest groups to engage in this way, which was again both reassuring and disheartening! Reassuring because at least it’s an acknowledgement that it isn’t my fault, it is just that difficult… Disheartening because it suggests that however hard I work, it’s not going to get much easier!

A couple of bits of advice he gave me were to make use of the course lecturers when it came to managing behaviour in my lectures. He said that if he’d invited in a guest speaker to a lecture and the class weren’t engaging with it, he would be addressing that with them, so I should be able to expect that of any class I am going in to. I pointed out that the lecturers almost never stay in the classes I’m teaching, so he said that I really should be insisting that they do, or asking why not.

I guess I’ve never really had the confidence to do that before, but it does make a massive difference to my lectures when their usual lecturer is in the room. When it’s just me alone, the students will act out in ways I’m certain they wouldn’t if their usual lecturer was there. So, I guess I’m going to have to bite the bullet and start asking a bit more of the lecturers I work with!

Other than the general validation of knowing that others agree that the one-off lecture format is bloody difficult, I also picked up some useful tips and techniques from this class that I am going to try in my lectures. One was about structuring a lecture: I’ve always tried to break up my lectures, either with activities or videos, so I’m not just talking solidly for 50 minutes, but I hadn’t really thought about how to structure the lecture around that. I just try to introduce an activity whenever there’s a natural break in the topics I am talking about.

Wayne’s suggestion was to have an activity, a pause, or a change in teaching style (he calls these “reset buttons”) at set points throughout the lecture. In a standard 50 minute lecture, he suggests a reset button after 20 minutes, then after another 15 minutes, then at the end as a sum-up. I’ve had a look back at some of my previous lesson plans with this in mind, and that seems to be the rough format I’ve been instinctively following most of the time, but I will try to formalise this more!

We talked about various strategies for “reset buttons” that we could try out, some of which I’d used before, and some which were new to me. One I particularly liked, that I can definitely think of a few upcoming classes it would help with, is a mini reporting back activity. To get students to engage with the notes they’ve been taking, 20 minutes into the lecture, ask them to turn their notes over and spend two minutes noting down two key points from what you’ve told them so far. Then pick 3-6 people (depending on how much time you have) to report back. It’s a very quick activity to do, but effective in making sure people are paying attention, and checking what they’ve understood so far.

All in all, this was a valuable session for me. Although I think it’s raised more questions than answers, it has given me a few ideas of strategies I could try, as well as a bit of reassurance that it isn’t just me being rubbish – it actually is that hard!

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PGCHE Week 2: Learning Theories

The second session in my PGCHE (see my first post on this for context) took place this Friday, and covered an introduction to learning theories. I knew a little about some learning theories going in (e.g. behaviourism, social constructivism and cognitive constructivism), but it was useful to have a refresher on this and discuss some of their practical applications.

We did a group exercise that gave us some practice in applying learning theories. Each person was given a card of a different colour. Red cards had a learning problem on them (e.g. you are dealing with low-level disruption in your classes), yellow had a group of learners (e.g. 18-20 year old Business students), green cards had a particular learning theory, and blue cards had an intervention (e.g. a pop quiz, or other learning activity).

People with the red “problem” cards had to gather a team of “friends” around them, consisting of one yellow card, one green, and at least one blue. As a group, the “friends” then had to come up with a solution for the problem, using the learning theory on the green card, suitable for the learners on the yellow card, and using as many blue intervention cards as they deemed appropriate.  We then had to pitch our solution to the rest of the group, and vote on who came up with the most cohesive and effective pitch.

It was a really fun activity, and worked well for getting us all to consider what learning theories might be suitable for solving particular problems, and how this would actually inform practice. The cards we used are available online if anyone wants to look – we were promised the link would be emailed around to us, so I’ll add a link in here when I get them!

One of the learning theories we touched on, although didn’t go into much detail with, was humanism. This is the approach that looks at the learner in a holistic way, and takes into account the experiences and knowledge they bring with them, and any barriers to their learning. I hadn’t heard of this theory by that name before, but it immediately made me think about critical information literacy. In particular, it brought to mind Char Booth’s keynote at LILAC in 2016.

Char talked about information privilege, the cost of educational materials such as textbooks, and the effect this has on who is able to access education. At one point in her keynote, which has always stuck with me, she talked about asking her students what they would be able to afford if they didn’t have to pay for their course textbooks.

Some of the answers were funny (e.g. “a cat that doesn’t hate me”), some were practical (e.g. rent, parking), and some were just heartbreaking (one surprisingly common answer was “new teeth”. NEW TEETH!!). The screenshot below is a word cloud showing their answers, from Char’s presentation which is available on Slideshare:

Word cloud showing responses such as

Answers to the question “What would you be able to afford if you didn’t have to buy textbooks?”, from “Why Reflect? The Holistic Practice of Stepping Back“, keynote by Char Booth at LILAC 2017, Dublin

I think there is a clear link to the humanist approach to learning. If your students are distracted by dental pain because they can’t afford new teeth, how much attention are they able to pay in class? If they are having to work several part-time jobs to make ends meet, and/or have caring responsibilities, will they have time to do the critical appraisal of information that we insist is essential?

At the close of the session, we did five minutes of “generative writing”. This is an activity that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a go at NaNoWriMo: to avoid the trap of trying to endlessly polish the same sentence rather than getting on with your writing, you set a timer and just write non-stop without going back to edit. You then go back and tidy it up later, but by then you’ve done the hard work of just getting your thoughts down, even if in a messy way!

Here’s what I wrote, unedited:

I think my teaching is really constrained by the environment in which I teach. My inclination is to take a humanist and socially constructivist approach, but having to teach only large lecture groups, and seeing them only once a year, forces me into a behaviourist approach. I don’t find this a natural fit, so this could be the route of a lot of my current discomfort with teaching.

Where I have seen smaller groups, e.g. the foundation engineers or Alex’s computing groups, I have taken a more socially constructivist approach. I encourage and facilitate collaborative learning, enabling learners to reach their own conclusions rather than prescribing a “right” way to be information literate. I hadn’t come across the humanist theory before, but it instinctively feels right to me. How can you possibly teach information literacy without considering the whole person?

I would like to find out more about humanism, and see if anything has been written about it from an IL perspective. It seems to be a natural fit with critical IL to me, so I’d be surprised if there was no literature on it from this perspective.

Reading list

My plan is to finish each of these weekly blog posts with a round-up of what I am currently reading, or planning to read to follow up the ideas from each work.

I have started using Mendeley to save my reading: partly because it comes highly recommended by a colleague, self-described “Mendeley fangirl” Alison McNab! I also wanted to learn a new referencing tool as another way to better support my students: I know my way reasonably well around EndNote and RefWorks, which are the two subscription products we use at Huddersfield, but I do occasionally get questions about Mendeley which I’ve never felt confident enough to answer. So far I really like Mendeley: it’s more intuitive than EndNote, and seems more consistent than RefWorks!

Currently reading

Alder, R. (2011). 6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students | Edutopia. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/scaffolding-lessons-six-strategies-rebecca-alber

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2015). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice (4th ed.). Oxford: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315763088

Smith, M. K. (2016). What is teaching? Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/

Smith, M. K. (2016). Key teaching activities. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/key-teaching-activities/

Planning to read

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. London; Routledge.

Rogers, C. R., Kirschenbaum, H., & Henderson, V. L. (1990). The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable.

Smith, M. K. (2004). Carl Rogers, core conditions and education. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/carl-rogers-core-conditions-and-education/

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PGCHE: First impressions

I have just started a new qualification: the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) at the University of Huddersfield. I’m very fortunate that my employers are paying for this, so I want to make sure I get the most out of it!

🤗 #backtoschool

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I wanted to do this course as teaching is a significant part of my role as a librarian, and its one I want to improve. I don’t feel like teaching comes naturally to me. I have completed some training in this area already (notably the week-long intensive Level 3 City & Guilds certificate in Teaching & Learning at Northern College I completed in 2016), but most of the teaching I do at Huddersfield is based on things I’ve cobbled together from observing my colleagues, and trial-and-error in my own sessions. I would really like to get a more comprehensive, theoretical underpinning for my teaching practice.

There is also an aspect of reputation building. Working with academics, it’s sometimes difficult to get across that I can actually teach their students useful skills, rather than just standing at the front and demonstrating how to search a database (which is deathly dull for me so I can’t imagine it’s any more interesting for the students watching!). Becoming a qualified teacher, and Fellow of the Higher Education Authority (which comes along with this qualification), will be a way I can put myself on a more equal footing with the lecturers in the departments I work with.

Finally, I’ve also watched with envy as a few of my colleagues have completed this same course over recent years (most recently the awesome Jess Haigh, whose blog on the topic has been a source of inspiration for me over the past year), so now I’ve finally completed my Chartership it seemed like a good time to take my turn at this!

Side note: it’s just occurred to me that I haven’t actually written about achieving Chartership on the blog at all – I do have the start of a blog post about what I learned from the process, and will endeavour to get this finished off, in between my PGCHE work…

The course started a couple of weeks ago. We have a workshop every Friday afternoon, so I have now attended two of these. I’m going to blog my thoughts from the first two sessions – my plan is to do this after each week’s workshop, so I can get down some initial reflections on what I am learning.

The first session started with a morning’s induction, where we were introduced to others on the course and went over the course content and assessment. It was really interesting to see the cohort: there were more of us than I expected, about 20ish. Most were new members of academic staff, mostly from the Business School, School of Applied Sciences and School of Art, Design and Architecture. I had hoped there might be some academics from the School of Computing and Engineering there, as this is the School I support as subject librarian, and I thought this might be a way of doing a bit of stealth library advocacy! There weren’t any academic staff, but there are two new Graduate Teaching Assistants from my School on the course, so I’m looking forward to working with both of them and learning more about their roles and how we can work together.

In the afternoon we had our first “proper” workshop session, where we went over teaching in HE and course planning. It was a useful overview of how and why to plan teaching, and gave us an opportunity to share with each other some of the techniques we had used.

We had a discussion about what makes a successful session (the consensus seemed to be some kind of combination of motivated learners, an inspired/inspiring teacher, and opportunities for active learning), and how we planned and structured sessions. We came up with some ideas for getting a session off to a good start, including starting with a discussion point (e.g. an image, quote or story to provoke thoughts and set the scene), outlining the objectives for the session, and setting expectations.

One of my main takeaways from the session, that I’m still thinking about more than a week later, was about how we as educators model good behaviour. One point was about keeping our subject knowledge current: how does an engineering lecturer, for example, keep up with developments in the field they are teaching? If they’re teaching current engineering industry practice, how do they engage with industry to ensure they are up to date?

It made me think about my own context: as a librarian I am not teaching a particular subject, but rather am teaching behaviours and a way of engaging with information and academic work. How do I keep my own skills in this area current? I actually wondered if doing this course and becoming a student again might be seen as an example of this. I am immersing myself in the student experience – although, of course, my own experience as a mature student doing a course based in my own workplace will be very different to the experience of a new undergraduate coming to academic study for the first time. But will this experience of being a student, doing self-directed study and producing academic assignments enhance the support I am able to provide to the students I teach?

I would like to think so: I have been conscious over the past couple of years at Huddersfield that my last experience of formal education was a long time ago. I finished my Masters in 2009, so I’m a bit disconnected with the experience of being a student. I hope this course gives me a chance to reconnect to that process, and perhaps develop more empathy with the students I teach.

My final takeaway from this session was our closing activity. We were talking about how we finish a session and consolidate learning, and were introduced to a technique that requires zero preparation, and can be done with most sizes/types of group.

It’s called an instant questionnaire, and involves going round the room, inviting each learner to share something they learned from the session, something they will take forward, or something that made them think. They each only have to say one thing, and it can be anything, but they must say something. I really liked this idea: I could definitely use it with some of my smaller groups, and I’ve been thinking about how I could adapt it for a larger group in a lecture theatre setting.

This is getting long, so I’m going to write about week two of the course in a separate post. Coming up shortly…

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Teaching – trying something new: USTLG meeting May 2017

This week I attended the most recent meeting of USTLG, the University Science and Technology Librarians Group. This networking group holds their meetings twice a year, and members are invited to give presentations sharing best practice on a theme. I’ve been going to these meetings ever since I took on Engineering and Computing as my subject areas, and I’d highly recommend them!

The theme this time was on “Teaching: trying something new”. There were some great presentations showing a variety of creative teaching techniques. A Storify of live tweets from the day is available if you want to see what was discussed, and all presentations are available on the USTLG website.

Here’s a few techniques that caught my imagination, and that I’d like to try out myself…

Using Top Trumps to evaluate sources

Emily Stock from Sheffield University demonstrated some Top Trumps cards (Wikipedia link there for anyone not familiar with the game – apparently some people didn’t spend their childhood fighting with their siblings over this game!) that she’d designed to introduce students to different sources of information. I LOVE this idea: I struggle sometimes to get across the difference between things like journal articles and conference papers to students who aren’t used to differentiating between different types of physical sources, and tend to treat anything online as equivalent.

The idea was to have the students play Top Trumps in small groups for about 10 minutes, and then introduce some scenarios of different information needs and get them to call out which types of sources they would use. I’ve done similar things to this but never with a game to introduce the concepts, so I’m definitely going to give this a go with my students.

Visual learning strategies

Liz Martin and Carol Keddie from De Montfort University gave an interactive workshop showcasing the visual learning techniques they use with their students. There were some great activities demonstrated, including the “dress-up doll of formality” (using an outline of a person and “dressing them up” in the vocabulary of your chosen topic), and visual mapping of the research process. I particularly liked the final exercise: we all got to pick a pretty postcard from a set provided, and had to write ourselves a message about our research. These were then collected and will be posted to us in a month. That seemed a good way to keep momentum going after a training session – plus you get something nice in the post!

Lego for referencing

The final talk of the day was Michelle Bond’s much anticipated presentation on using Lego to teach referencing. As one of my colleagues is a Lego Serious Play facilitator I have had a go at using Lego this way before, but hadn’t thought of using it to teach referencing, so was interested to see what Michelle had come up with.

We started by making models that illustrated how we felt about referencing, or what it meant to us. We had three piles of Lego on each table, and were instructed to make a model using at least one piece from all three piles. Quite a few people made models indicating how nightmarish they found it, which would be a good conversation starter with students!

Michelle explained some of the concepts of using Lego for conceptual thinking in this way, and outlined what she would do for the rest of the session. The bit I really liked, and am definitely going to steal, came at the end. After going through the information about referencing, Michelle went around the class asking people to say which pile they’d taken a specific piece in their model from. If they couldn’t (being librarians, we all could, but Michelle noted that with students this is generally not the case!), the piece gets taken out of the model – usually breaking the model in the process, as Michelle always picks an integral piece to quiz people on!

This was used as a way to emphasise the importance of recording and being able to trace your sources. I loved this idea, and could see it being really effective at grabbing students’ attention.

The above are just my highlights of the day – there were some great ideas outlined in all presentations! I loved Sarah George’s opening talk about enquiry-based learning for forensics students: she had a lively and entertaining presentation style which was perfect for kicking off the day, and I’m very jealous of the amount of teaching and assessment she gets to do!

I also thought Oliver Bridle’s presentation on using video tutorials to teach library databases was great: I’ve been doing some similar things myself, and am a big fan of replacing “now click here” demonstrations with videos. I really liked the way he used videos combined with quizzes and activities to keep a session going, and will have to think about how I could do something similar in my own lecture-based teaching.